Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Tone.

I had a sort of miniature revelation today.  Something that has been bothering me about religious discourse of late is how people often sound perfectly rational until they are called upon to defend a controversial or difficult belief of theirs, at which point they suddenly sound like blathering apparatchiks or overly-enthusiastic telemarketers.  

Let me give a simple, neutral example: I picked up a book on Buddhism recently which was written very broadly, aimed at a non-Buddhist audience.  It took pains to emphasize the universal nature of Buddhist practice and insisted that it was very much available to those of other faith traditions.  Okay, fine.  I flipped a few pages in, though, and got to the bit about reincarnation.  It acknowledged the doctrine as being a difficult one, but then proceeded to give some vaguely “scientific” sounding “proofs” along the lines of “well, we can’t prove it doesn’t happen.”  Disappointed, I returned the book to the shelf.  The “tone” of the book had shifted.  It was no longer an intellectually honest exploration of religious issues, but a polemic for a rather silly idea.

I’m well aware that Christianity, and pretty much any other meta-narrative, is full of bits that look just that ridiculous.  Fine.  What I wonder is why people keep trying to gloss over these things with a Giada di Laurentiis-sized rictus of optimism, when deep down they must realize they are not wholly convinced?  Instead of admitting genuine difficulty, they suddenly switch “tone” from an honest, self-consistent discourse to what I simply call The Tone — a teflon-coated, twee, excessively confident discourse that functions as a “sales pitch” for the least swallowable bits of your favorite doctrine.

I’m finding it everywhere: it’s on Facebook, it’s there in Buddhist defenses of reincarnation and Catholic defenses of the artificial contraception ban; it’s omnipresent in Marxist art and almost synonymous with Contemporary Christian Music; it gets preached from thousands of pulpits, it thrives in the bogs of theodicy; it shows through the voice of any Heidiggerian who gets challenged on Martin’s Nazi sympathies; its ugly ghost occasionally haunts even the best of the Christian writers; it made the ending of Perelandra boring; its distinctive strain pops up in the voices of Christians when they have to explain “happy shall he be, who taketh and dasheth thy little ones against a stone” and in the prose of Christopher Hitchens whenever he diverts his wit to attack religion.  It’s all around you, and you use it yourself.  I use it.

I used to hear people say that C.S. Lewis was a coward/heretic/something bad for writing that some of the Psalms “embarrassed” him and that he wished they simply weren’t there.  Now, I think he’s just a respectable, honest Christian for saying so.  That doesn’t mean that the Psalms are embarrassing, note.  It does mean, though, that C.S. Lewis was being genuine.  He looks, cannot understand, and says “I cannot understand.”  The practitioner of The Tone looks at you, tosses his blow-dried hair, and says through a grin “Why can’t you understand?  These verses are actually the most merciful of the whole Bible!  If you don’t see the beauty, you’re just blind, or evil.”  The Tone sees a place for humility and replaces it with immense braggadocio.  The Tone crops up whenever someone feels defensive and decides to take the offensive against reasonable questioners.

Here’s another bit of my thought process: The Tone cannot bear to be contradicted or questioned.  The abortion debate is a great place for this to happen like crazy.  I have been pro-life for as long as I can remember, and I still am, but I have many questions and doubts about both sides of the question, and have always had a tough time with absolute claims about when “life begins.”  When I have expressed any of these doubts in public, though, to my surprise, The Tone started gushing out of people.  “If you can’t understand this, then your conscience is darkened, and God have mercy on you.”  “You’re on the side of the baby-killers.”  “Science tells us that life begins at conception.  If you don’t understand that, you are unscientific and damned!”  Etc. etc.  Again, this wasn’t the response to my avowal of pro-abortion views.  Just to some honest questions.  

It makes me wonder if people aren’t truly insecure about some of their own beliefs that otherwise seem quite certain.  Who was it (Thomas Merton?) who said that people never rave and argue over what they know is true (that they are alive, that the sun rises in the East) but only about what they in fact doubt?  

Let me be clear about what this isn’t: this isn’t an attack on dogma or belief, and certainly not an attack on “everyone else.”  I know that I use The Tone when I feel insecure about things too.  You’ve used it, whoever you are.  I suppose what I would like to see, in my perfect little model world, is a willingness to just admit “yes, this is difficult, damn it!”  There is nothing heretical or heterodox or damning about that.  It certainly doesn’t mean you’ve given up your belief.  It’s just that if you fail to process something, and instead just begin to advocate it because you are “supposed to,” people will eventually hear right through that ersatz Tone to the tender, quivering mass of insecurity beneath it.  This can be the case even if you’re totally unaware (I’ve found horrid cases of The Tone in my younger writing, when I certainly didn’t think I had doubts).  If we don’t all think about why we advocate what we advocate, then we are slaves, not noble and reasonable followers.

I will have my query.

I once heard an anecdote of the de-christianization of society that went thus.  At the time of its religious founding, Harvard University’s seal depicted two open books and one closed – signifying the branches of human knowledge (Humanities and Sciences, I presume) and the concealed Divine knowledge.  At some point, a little-noted milestone in the inexorable march of secularity, the third book yawned open and, full of hubris, we palpated the gods.  The commentator (anyone have a better memory than I?) saw this as a negative, and I was inclined to agree with him at the time.

Now, in the face of some recent clusters of stimuli – an article in The New Republic asserting the incompatibility of science and revelation, Charles Darwin’s birthday, and some silly Facebook arguments on unrelated topics that went round and round in maddening circles – I want to reëvaluate that position.  

For just about everybody, reflective or not, the Universe is either a closed or an open question (true also in theoretical physics, where we cannot yet make the call as to how violent the galaxies’ redshift will become, whether the space we call home will collapse on itself or rip apart).  Either everything is subject to a scrutiny that will presumably reveal all, but must be revised in the face of any convincing evidence to the contrary (call this “scientific”) or it is to be filtered through an authoritative consciousness whose word we must trust above our senses (call this “revelatory” – I do not say “religious”).  

The folks at Harvard seemed to want it both ways with the closed-book seal, and I believe that some other “bridge” groups still want it both ways – take the Intelligent Design community, which accepts all the more certain scientific theories but, when it begins to get “weird” (complex evolutionary reasoning, exotic particles, quantum entanglement, the anthropic principle) immediately surrender to a Higher Intelligence.  The problem with this is not that they have a concept of the supernatural (and they do, deny it as they might in the courts of Kansas) but that they want to use it as a prop for a house of cards that is unlikely to be as delicate as they think it is.  Because science has a way of figuring things out that seemed impossible at first; this tendency opens people up to embarrassment when they simply attribute difficult questions to “God.”

The same goes, I’m afraid, for some a priori accounts of religions themselves.  Faced with the idea of a possible interpolation in the sacred text, or an uncomfortable pronouncement by a religious leader, they throw up their hands and end up with a whole host of angels swooping down to give Moses the knowledge of Hellenistic words coined thousands of years after his death, or whispering into the Pope’s ear that homosexuality is a disease (something geneticists might awkwardly disprove pretty soon too).  

I don’t mean this as an attack on traditional religion at all.  I consider myself to be part of that tradition, in fact, and always have, despite my morphing thoughts on the triangulation among fact, reason, and revelation.  Here’s my query: doesn’t this “god of the gaps” business, where a deus ex machina gets written into nature where (and only where) an evident contradiction has been spotted, actually shortchange God, religion, the church, and us?  Reason is humanity’s greatest gift, and to abdicate it – even abdicate it to the church – is surely a genuine self-abuse.  Certainly, the world is scary when all the books are open.  But this is the frightening freedom to which our faculty of reason entitles us, and I begin to suspect that not using it is to bury our talent under the ground.  

To answer the usual criticism, I also do not think that this is to make “man the measure of all things” or an act of hubris.  The real hubris would be to declare that reason can certainly solve every problem.  That is every bit as untestable an assertion as the wildest claim of divine intervention.  But to dismiss what is plain to the eyes with absurd arguments about the “apparent age of the universe” or what-have-you cannot really satisfy our innate inquisitiveness.  I would like to submit to your comments and questions this idea: that in subjecting everything to real, honest, and humble inquiry, we are most closely fulfilling what it means to be human, and therefore, to inhabit the imago dei.  Thoughts?