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.