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.

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3 responses to “The Tone.

  1. This is interesting. I had an unexpected discussion about religion with my classes today. I was just going over logical fallacies, and this girl raises her hand and goes, “If you think about it, religions use logical fallacies a lot.” I was nervous about where the discussion would go, but basically she and several other students argued that if religions were honest about how little surety they had that they were right, no one would ever convert. Fallacies are necessary to suck people in, and then hopefully you grow within the religion and develop a more mature spirituality that doesn’t just parrot sound bites. Problem is of course, some people never mature. So, to my shock, I asked the class how many people thought it was okay to use fallacies to convert someone and 3/4 of the class raised their hands. I wonder what has brought them to that viewpoint. I hope I never lose the conviction that if you hold an opinion that is true or compelling, you don’t need fallacies to present it covincingly. But what do you think of their pragmatic viewpoint? Is The Tone necessary for the religions to survive and galvanize fresh members? (btw I know the tone and logical fallacies aren’t quite the same thing, but they somehow seem related here)

  2. Nice post, bro! I agree with you about the Tone: I think it often happens when you run into an argument that you haven’t thought of before, and stems from wanting to make sure you don’t “accidentally” get unconverted. It’s something I don’t usually hear from people like Plantinga and Kreeft.

    But here’s something to throw out there. It may be possible that at least some of the people who adopt this offensive tone are responding to a culture and environment in which many people (at least many vocal intellectuals) scoff at the supernatural and only hold to what can be ‘proven’ scientifically. This has certainly had the effect of making people of many religions feels threatened, and when people feel threatened they can easily become hysterical and lash out to defend their insecurity. It’s a human thing, really–like you said, everyone does it–because nobody wants to be unsure of what is true.

  3. I haven’t made it all the way through because the 3 year olds beat me down at school today, and I simply must sleep regardless of my desire to read blogs all night. I have to comment, though, that I love the Giada dL reference. I’m glad to know that you have a blog, Robert!

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