Between Pure Ignorance and Pure Malevolence

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Don’t miss this insightful conversation about why many militant secularists seem to be unable even to understand what the fuss is all about when they demand that businesses, schools, etc. operate on purely secular terms. Among much else, Jonathan Haidt’s social psychology of morality is invoked – correctly, I think – to explain how secularists lack the necessary mental apparatus to make sense of our claims to religious liberty because the ideas are simply absent from their social context.

Also important is the point that the institutional environment that forms these militant secularists doesn’t fully practice what the secularists preach. Often they welcome open discussion of ideas. And I would add that the higher up you go on the ladder of prestige and social importance, the more this is the case. This is relevant because, however many horror stories we may hear about totalitarianism at third-rate colleges, the people who actually run the institutions at the top of American civilization are not formed in such places. At Yale I never encountered any attempt to prevent me from fully speaking my mind on account of my belief in God and my insistence that he was relevant to political science, and I can only remember one occasion on which there was such an attempt to silence me because I was conservative. That’s actually a pretty good track record of openness and real pluralism!

This point is important, I think, for reasons we canvassed early in the history of Hang Together, in the form of a spirited debate between Dan and myself. (See here for my view; I let Dan have the last word – for the time being - here.) The question at hand boiled down to, are they always malevolent, or could they sometimes be ignorant?

I think Haidt’s work on the social psychology of morality, and other factors, would lead me now to say that this dichotomy is too simple. There are large spaces in between the merely ignorant and the purely malevolent. And the militant secularists are probably mostly living in those spaces.

“We Change Lives in Every Direction”

I just watched a special online “backers screening” of Wish I Was Here, the new Zack Braff movie that I dropped $40 on through Kickstarter. Wow, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I helped make this movie happen without any interference from the morons who run Hollywood. Admittedly, it’s a little rough around the edges in places. But I’m actually glad it is. Part of the point of the movie is that we have to learn to love people who are more than a little rough around the edges.

This is not just another movie about death, love and responsibility. Religion looms large in this movie, in a way that the morons who run Hollywood never would have permitted. Technically the religion is Judaism, but what they’re dealing with in WIWH isn’t really Judaism in any important sense, either as a specific religion or as a specific cultural phenomenon. With one exception, which I’ll get to later, Judaism is only on the screen to represent religion in general.

This is a movie about people asking big questions. Why do people matter? Why does it matter what we do? Religion is one of the things at the center of the movie because religion claims to have answers. In the long run it’s the only thing that can plausibly claim to have answers. People like Zack Braff – excuse me, “Aidan Bloom” – have reached the point, in a way far too few of their parents’ generation have, where they see that if they seriously ask these questions, they’re going to have to confront religion.

What I love so much about this movie is that it’s brutally honest. Let’s face it, people can really be awful to each other. Sometimes it’s the people closest to us who are the worst. And it’s not giant, horrifying betrayals. It’s the little cuts, the little pinpricks in our skin, day after day, year after year, never relenting.

You know what this movie made me think of? Just two days ago I re-read an old passage from C.S. Lewis where he’s talking about the challenges of defending the gospel in the modern world. One of the points he makes is that the original preachers of the gospel could take it for granted in all their audiences, whether Jews, “God-fearers” (Judaizing Gentiles) or Pagans, a sense of sin and personal unworthiness. Modern man, Lewis comments – especially the “proletariat” – has been so thoroughly petted and flattered and catered to that he is more self-satisfied than perhaps any class of people in history. They are sure, Lewis writes, that whatever is wrong with the universe it cannot be themselves.

Then he makes a striking statement: “I have sometimes thought that it might be necessary to re-convert men to serious Paganism before it will be possible to convert them to Christianity.” Of course he doesn’t mean this literally, but there is a depth to this statement that sticks with you.

That’s what this movie made me think of. Not that “convert to serious Paganism” is the lesson of the movie. There is, in fact, no lesson to the movie as such. It’s not the kind of movie for lessons. It’s a brutally honest story about people who are suffering and choose to do the hard thing and love an unlovable man, and that’s it.

But there’s a lesson in that, too. It’s not a formally religious lesson, and yet the movie does, in a sense, take its shoes off on the holy ground.

And that one exception I mentioned earlier? Alone among all the generations of her family, the preteen daughter really believes. She chants a prayer before doing something scary, tells her bewildered and uncomprehending mother that “I think God is testing my faith.” She, like everyone else on the screen, has growing up she needs to do. But she becomes more, not less, religious as she does so.

Her name is Grace. But I’m sure there’s nothing to that.

Two generations ago, it would have been the grandfather who had real faith. One generation ago, no one on the screen would have had real faith. Today it’s the daughter. Who will it be a generation from now? Don’t think they’re going to stop asking why people and what they do matter. The questions get bigger, not smaller. That’s another lesson of this movie.

Which opens in the big cities this Friday, then expands. Go see it if it’s playing where you are. It’s a beautiful movie, in more ways than one; worth seeing on a big screen.

A More Realistic July Fourth

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We were home for the July 4 holiday this year, and the parade and fireworks show in my town offered less immediate and obvious material for a renewal of hope than did the hotel fireworks where we stayed the last two years. True, the American Legion band played Stars & Stripes Forever. But there was no Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful and nothing analogous to it – there was nothing that gave meaning to the holiday. The most memorable “music” of the parade, if you could call it that, was a local rock band, dressed in what could be interpreted with equal plausibility as flimsy surfer-style shorts or underwear, blasting out a song whose most memorable line was – I kid you not – “let’s do whatever we want!”

The traditional theme of my July 4 columns here on HT has been the renewal of hope. But hope must be tempered with realism – “hopeful realism” being a very useful phrase coined by Tom Nelson. I’m still holding up the lamp of hope this Independence Day. But after two successive years of pushing for more hope, this year it looks like I’m going to make concessions to the realists.

And yet, the opportunity for hope is there for those who have the spiritual eyes to see it. The second most memorable music from the parade was a ragtag group of about eight guys from a local Baptist church playing what I can only describe as awesome funky jazz music. Neighbors of mine who articulate no Christian faith commitments stood up and danced enthusiastically to it. The same people turned up their noses at the rock band.

I’ve never seen the Baptists in a parade in my town before. Apparently the parade is more or less open to anyone who can entertain the crowd. So suppose the Christians – that church or some other one – decided that the Independence Day parade was an opportunity to do more than pass out leaflets advertising VBS (which is what the Baptists were doing as their band played). Suppose they decided they would be the ones whose parade entry would exegete the meaning of the holiday. They would pretty much win the “battle” for cultural influence in that sphere by default. What if they had a culture war and nobody showed up?

It would be easy to do this full time. In the July 4 parade you do a float about religious liberty. In the Memorial Day parade, by contrast, a lack of meaning is not the problem; but there is still an absence of the transcendent. So the Christians show up and hand out leaflets that say “greater love has no man than this.” In the Thanksgiving parade you prompt people to be grateful – and maybe think about whom it is they’re grateful to. In the Christmas parade, Jesus is already present, but it’s all rote and ritualized. So you add the joy element by leading the crowd in singing boisterous carols.

And it would be worth it to do this. In a small city like ours, everyone shows up to the parade. And it’s really the only authoritative platform of cultural formation. It’s the only thing our whole city does together to define shared meaning in our lives.

True, things are not going well in America right now. Apparently there are only four votes on the Supreme Court for even the most rudimentary protection of religious liberty. But earlier today I had a conversation about this that brought me back to this point from last year – even when law and government go wrong, they can take a long, long time to break down the deeper structures of culture. When I wrote that post last year, I was somewhat skeptical about it – as I said at the time, the reach of the law is much longer today than it was in earlier ages. But at the same time, the love of country and neighbor is deep in this country, and it doesn’t take that much to bring it out of people.

You just have to know which chords to play.