Sunday, January 15, 2012

reading the classics

I started reading William F. Buckley's God and Man At Yale. It's good, in its way: an articulate, seminal, whining bitchfest about how Yale doesn't do enough to promote Christianity among its students. That was 1951, and it's impossible to imagine they do any more of it now: the trends Buckley moans about have long since taken over the entire Western world.

Those trends are easily grouped into the word "liberalism," although since conservatives have managed to redefine liberalism to mean "health care for poor people" while simultaneously turning it into a slur, we should maybe find some other words. "Secularism" is okay, although I would go with "secularization"; "postmodernism," "relativism," and "postcolonialism" all start to point us in the right direction. Maybe we could go with "peaceful globalization," because what Buckley complains about is the dilution of absolute truths in the interests of every living together peaceably. We can look at a couple of quotes to start.
In point of fact, the argument I shall advance does not even require that free enterprise and Christianity be "good," but merely that the educational overseers of a private university should consider them to be good. [Foreword]
That just pushes the argument off a level: why is it so important that the overseers should think so? He is a devout, uncompromising Christian, so he takes the promotion of Christianity to be an inherent good. Who could possibly argue with that? Well, even in 1951, it turns out, the faculty of Yale could, and did. He makes an airtight case that many of them were inappropriate assholes about it, but mostly he documents how the faculty's religious faith ranges from lukewarm down to antipathetic.
There is surely not a department at Yale that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths. The acceptance of these notions, which emerge in courses in history and economics, in sociology and political science, in pyschology and literature, makes impossible any intelligible conception of an omnipotent, purposeful, and benign Supreme Being who has laid down immutable laws, endowed his creatures with inalienable rights, and posited unchangeable rules of human conduct. [p. 26]
This sort of relativism is in part the on-the-ground outcome of the postmodernists' incomprehensible masturbatory babbling, but it's also the result of thinking for a few days and realizing that there's no logical reason to consider your own cultural and religious viewpoint privileged over anyone else's. If you grew up in the West, there are billions of people in Africa and Asia who see things way, way, way differently. It's good and appropriate to make value judgements--I make lots--but you need a better reason than "it's always been this way."

(Interesting side note: what had Buckley learned about "inalienable rights" by 1986, at age 61? He advocated tattooing AIDS carriers. It seems he did eventually stop being a white supremacist, sort of, but I'm very excited to read more of his stuff.)

Now we come to the "peaceful globalization" part. Buckley is railing against Yale's default extracurricular Christian organization, Dwight Hall. The rantiest paragraph is a good one, so permit me an extended passage.
Dwight Hall's magazine, Et Veritas, has no clear-cut editorial brief for Christianity. In fact, membership on its staff requires no profession of faith in even the most attenuated dogmas of Christianity. The November 1949 issue of Et Veritas, did, it is true, contain some sort of a statement of faith by the editors, who "choose the Christian" philosophy, but as a "personal conviction rather than an editorial policy." Later they reminded their readers that they do not forsake their "conviction that the Christian philosophy is the most adequate, the most pervasive, the most conducive to understanding" (italics in the original). Such a utilitarian conception of Christianity, coupled with this brand of self-effacement and steadfast refusal to proclaim Christianity as the true religion (which is what all genuine Christian leaders proclaim it to be, thus committing themselves logically to the proposition that other religions are untrue) is a sample of the adulteration of religion to the point that it becomes nothing more than the basis for "my most favorite way of living." The instincts are fine, and a good life is inevitable for such persons, but so long as what they profess can be subscribed to wholeheartedly by an atheist, we have not, really, got religion at all.
There we have it: "thus committing themselves logically to the proposition that other religions are untrue." It's a great idea! Yes! Live with integrity! Screw all those milquetoast pansies acknowledging the validity of other viewpoints!

It turns out that telling your neighbors their entire worldview is wrong and they're going to burn in eternal hellfire when they die makes for a rocky relationship here, now, in this world, together. This was already making coexistence difficult hundreds of years ago, and if you want to avoid war, it's completely untenable in an age of jet travel and email. We can't pretend that the world's 1.5 billion Muslims are all deluded sinners who have rejected Christ. It turns out the vast majority of them are quite nice, and their world has its own wisdom, bound up in and growing out of its usually problematic texts.

The problem is that every religion insists it's The One True Way, and most of them follow this line of reasoning:
  1. We're the One True Way.
  2. We've given Those People a chance to accept the One True Way.
  3. Because it's the One True Way, they must be deciding to reject it.
  4. Because they're rejecting the Ultimate Good, they must be evil.
  5. Because they're evil, we can oppress and/or kill them and it's totally okay.
I mean, everyone fights evil, right? Fighting evil is always the right thing. Unfortunately the world is a complicated place, and there are actually tight limits on we can label absolutely "good" and "evil" without destroying ourselves. Unless we want to just fight everybody, which is basically what Bush II tried. It plays well into Christianity's in-built sense of persecution, undimmed by millennia of dominance: the world is a broken, corrupt thing, and you must fight it, with faith.

We water down our absolutes so we can live together in peace, maybe at a cost to our sense of identity. I practice Buddhism, which is essentially the practice of learning to see that our identity was never really solid to begin with, so there's nothing we need to hold onto. I don't have a good general solution, except to note that I fall very much on the side of "whatever it takes to keep us from killing each other." Not everyone shares that choice.

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