Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Too tired to know if this coheres. I think it doesn't. Posting anyway. So sue me.


What I share with evangelical Christians is very deep. It goes right to the bone. It's a sense that my spirit is sick -- that I am, as my own Buddhist tradition expresses it, in a state of confusion; or, as their tradition expresses it, in a state of sin.

I share with them two convictions about this sickness.

First, that it is of overriding importance. If it can't be cured or mitigated, then life is not worth living.

Second, that nothing I can achieve or get or accomplish in this world can mitigate it. It has persisted through everything this world has offered, in the course of an absurdly fortunate life. Through a rewarding, committed love-relationship, through professional success, through the creation of beautiful things, through the raising of children, through the respect of those I admire. I have attained all those things at various times in my life, in various measures. They have not touched the sickness. The yearning and suffering don't go away, as I attain things. They simply attach to new objects. And at this stage of my life, it is clear to me that I could play this game for the rest of my life, chasing one thing after another.

I grew up immersed in an ideology that I'll call, a little inaccurately, materialist. According to this ideology there is nothing but such worldly attainments. All other hopes are illusory and childish. When I say, "what can be done about this sickness of the spirit?" This ideology answers simply, "ignore it. It's just the human condition. In the meantime, we've developed a spectacular array of distractions. With any luck, you can stay distracted right up until your death!"

To which I, and the evangelical Christians, say -- no thanks.


So, to back up again. Moral values. Of course nonreligious and tepidly religious people have moral values, and they care passionately about them. But they tend to locate their origins in the World. So my father, for instance (my whole life in this regard, I should confess at once, is one long affectionate argument with my father), being a scientist, likes to believe that his values are rational, and derived from objective facts, in sharp contradistinction to religious people, whose values are irrational, and derived from authority.

In saying this, my father and his ilk play right into the hands of those people who like to say they have no moral values. They deny it themselves, often. They say they're "reality-based," deriving their "shoulds" exclusively from reason and from the facts of this world.

In fact they're doing nothing of the kind. They, exactly like the religious people they consider themselves superior to, derive their moral values from precisely the same sources -- from empathy, and from a direct experience of the sacred. My father cares passionately about the wilderness. And if you ask him why, he can speak eloquently about the necessity of biological diversity for the future of the human race, about the stresses of development upon ecosystems, about the dangers of global warming and pollution. To hear him talk, you'd think his motivations came from enlightened self-interest -- a mere selfish concern for the survival of his kind.

If you go on a hike with him, however, the truth will reveal itself very soon. All that stuff is true, and he believes it. But that's not the source of the value he places on the wilderness -- it's just an excuse for it. When my father is in the wilderness, he is in the presence of God. It's sacred ground, to him. Would he really be happy to have the wilderness destroyed if we could guarantee that the human race would do just fine without it? Of course not. But he himself would energetically deny that this value comes from anything so subjective and irrational as a direct experience of the holy.

Similar smokescreens go up when he speaks of economic and social justice. Thickets of statistics sprout up, demonstrations of the economic value of jobs programs and cost-benefit analyses of food-stamp programs. If you'd never seen him confronted by a beggar on the street, you'd have no clue to the source of all this. The fact is, he just can't stand to see people go hungry. Under all this justification is simple raw unadorned compassion. Every bit as irrational as any Baptist's. It's just the heartfelt conviction that we can't let people suffer if we can do something about it.

The kind of arguments my father will make in public deliberately conceal precisely those roots of his conviction that an evangelical Christian could understand and connect with. Much has been made of the fact that 70% of evangelical Christians voted for George Bush. For many of us in this corner of the rhetorical world, it's more important to bear in mind that 30% of them voted for John Kerry. This happened in spite of our materialist rhetoric, I think, rather than because of it. We didn't go to them. They came to us, in spite of our rhetoric.


The single biggest rhetorical mistake we make -- it's a spiritual mistake too -- is to impute stupidity, malice and greed to our opponents. Yes, I'm sure they share in the stupidity, malice and greed of our species. But if we habitually talk about Republicans as stupid, greedy and malicious, how many Republicans or friends of Republicans can we hope to persuade? It's not just a matter of hurting their feelings. They know very well that their Republican friends and relations are not singularly stupid or malicious or greedy. Many of them are outstandingly intelligent, compassionate, and generous. It doesn't help, in trying to persuade someone, to begin by making assertions they know to be false.

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