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James Billington’s Theotropic Scholarship

George Weigel, writing for National Review, pays tribute to James H. Billington, the 13th Librarian of Congress, as a scholar and Christian gentleman:

In 1984–1985, when I had the privilege of being a Wilson Center Fellow, the nation’s official memorial to its 28th president was housed in the upper floors of the old Smithsonian Castle, right on the national mall. Designed by that great architectural copycat, James Renwick, the Castle was modeled on a medieval Norman monastery. Its common refectory for Fellows and staff, the cell-like offices we used, and the cramped library all contributed to giving the place a monastic atmosphere — not in the sense of an escape from the world, but as a quiet place where the world could be brought into focus by careful thinking and vibrant conversation, often based on great texts. In that distinctive environment, Jim Billington presided over a scholarly community much as one imagines an abbot like Suger of St.-Denis or Bernard of Clairvaux might have done: by making sure that everyone appreciated the opportunities the venue presented for serious reflection, and by insisting that everyone keep asking the right questions, which were often the unexpected or hard questions.

Which was entirely appropriate, because James Hadley Billington was, above all, a Christian gentleman. There aren’t many of them around anymore and the country is the poorer for it. But he was certainly one. Whether focused on Russia or the history of revolutionary thought, his scholarship was permeated by the conviction that human beings were theotropic, ordered to God by some sort of hard-wiring, and that if the true God were not known and worshipped, false gods surely would be. Jim Billington cast his spiritual lot with the God of the Bible, whom he knew through Christian faith and the Episcopal Church, and that shaped everything else about him: his family life, his thought, and his public service. His was an old-school sort of Anglicanism and much the better for it. For like his fellow-historian Jaroslav Pelikan, Billington understood that, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, tradition is the living faith of the dead — and the 21st-century Christian’s point of contact over millennia with some of the greatest of human spirits.

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