As the Christmas season draws to a close and the return of regular blogging looms, I’m looking back over my short life as a writer on religious matters and thinking about how writing on religion is and is not like writing on other controversial topics.
There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s important to write about religion. Many people, both religious and non-religious, are affected by the religious beliefs and cultures around them; few of us know enough about how religion works and how different religious faiths and traditions shape the world views of the people and nations with whom we interact.
But it’s also true that writing about religion has its perils. One, which should be evident to anyone who has followed the comments to my Christmas posts, is that religious writing stirs up powerful and sometimes angry feelings. There’s a reason why our grandmothers told us never to discuss politics and religion at the dinner table.
And perhaps more dangerous still, there’s the hypocrisy charge. There is nothing our society likes better than to mock the pretentiously self-righteous when the lies come unglued and the feet of clay are laid bare. The famous televangelist caught in a No-Tell Motel with a lady not his wife, the family values spokesman caught in a pay to play tryst with a person of an inappropriate gender: our whole society dissolves into gales of laughter and malicious glee as yet another saint gets revealed as just another sinner.
Your jittery blogger, no freer from the Seven Deadly Sins than your average aging American Baby Boomer, can’t help but feel a bit nervous stepping into this dangerous space. What gives me the right to tell others what is true, or beautiful, or good? Is my own conduct so exemplary, my spiritual development so advanced that I should be telling everyone else how it’s done?
There’s an instinct to answer all of these questions in the negative, and to just shut up about religion and morals. And that instinct has some backing. Take for example the words of Jesus as reported in the King James Version of the gospel of Luke (6:42), “How canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.”
Clean up your own yard first, then join the neighborhood improvement committee.
Fair enough, and a casual glance around my moral front yard reveals a couple of dumpsters worth of rubbish that needs to be cleared away, but there’s a problem here. If only perfect people were allowed to write about faith and morals, nobody will ever say anything on the subject. Parents wouldn’t try to teach their kids right from wrong, teachers wouldn’t try to help students build moral character, sponsors in 12 step programs wouldn’t give advice to their sponsees about how to avoid that next drink or pill. No minister, rabbi, imam or priest would stand before a congregation to preach a sermon. No Buddhist monk would give advice to the faithful; no Sufi master would counsel disciples on how to approach God.
For some, like the group of atheists renting billboards this holiday season to denounce all religions as scams, this would sound like excellent news. But before too much time, even the most violent atheists would begin to notice that something was wrong.
Society really does depend on the virtue of its members. Self restraint and moral behavior really are the foundations of liberty. If people don’t behave right, nothing can protect us from the consequences.
The weaker the hold of virtue on a people, the stronger the state needs to be. If people don’t voluntarily comply with, for example, the tax codes, the enforcement mechanisms of the government need to be that much stronger. If more people lose their moral inhibitions against theft, and against using violence against the weak, then society has to provide a stronger, tougher police force — and give them more authority under less restraint.
Yet at the same time the state becomes stronger, it loses control of itself. When the moral tone of a people declines, bureaucrats and the police are not exempt from the decay of morals. They steal; they abuse their authority; they manipulate the processes of the state to serve themselves and their favored clients. The courts become corrupt; the security services link up with the crime syndicates. Night falls.
This is not some abstract fear; history and the world today are full of places where the collapse of moral values blights daily life and undermines the prospects for development. I’ve been to many countries where nobody trusts the courts, the police, the politicians or the journalists. None of them are nice places to be.
Sadly, people do not spontaneously choose to behave like angels. Virtue has to be cultivated and developed. Young people have to be persuaded, cajoled, admonished and above all inspired to seek wisdom, self control, a life of service and all the other virtues that are necessary for our civil lives as well as for the fullest development of our true selves. Older people have to be reminded of their ideals, encouraged to live up to them and to continue fighting the good fight through the long years of adulthood and middle life.
For some people, reason, commonsense and a strong innate moral constitution makes it possible to live a decent and useful life without the comforts and restraints of religion. But for many more, only the feelings of awe, gratitude and fear occasioned by the awareness of a Creator can give them the strength and will to set out on the earnest and difficult road of struggle on the path to a moral life. More, that inner sense needs to be refreshed: people need to hear the message expressed in compelling terms, and they need to hear it again and again through a lifetime.
All this can only happen if a lot of people who are still fighting their own private moral battles stand up on their hind legs in public and praise those virtues that they have not fully attained. The recovering alcoholic has to tell the newcomer that there is hope for a better future — even if nobody knows better than a recovering alcoholic how easy it is to take that beckoning drink. The pastor has to encourage the couples in the congregation to strive to fulfill the ideal of a faithful marriage even if his or her own marriage hasn’t been spotless. The intellectual, struggling with questions and doubts about the meaning of faith, must share the best case for faith with a wider audience — or no one will benefit from a lifetime of study and reflection.
Does this mean that I’m arguing for a world of morality based on systematic hypocrisy? GK Chesterton’s father, I once read, never went to church himself but always carried a Prayer Book on Sundays to set a good example for the lower orders. Would we be any better off if we added hypocrisy to the lengthening list of our social sins?
It’s not that bad. There is a line, I think, that separates the posturing hypocrite from the honest (but flawed) advocate for morals and faith. There is a difference between the honest advocacy of hope and the self-glorification of a moral poseur.
In any case, developing a sensible, honest and penetrating discourse about corrosive human failings and their social consequence is a job that simply has to be done, particularly in a society like ours where the cultures of desire and indulgence run so rampant. I’m not thinking just or even primarily of sex, though this riveting Atlantic Monthly essay on the effects of internet pornography on our society provides much food for thought. It is a culture of restraint and virtue that prevents (at least some) bankers from ripping off their clients and the government, that holds politicians back from the worst kinds of demagoguery and dirty tricks — and that punishes those who break these unwritten rules.
Let’s not over dramatize or fall into moral panic. Our national culture is not going entirely downhill. The wide and deep hatred of racism that exists in our culture, for example, is a real improvement over the past. There are some other ways in which we seem to be a less brutal, more caring society than we once were. But the signs overall are not good. The social tolerance for greed and self-indulgence that we’ve developed, the prevalence of materialism, the debasement of popular culture, the unscrupulous exploitation of human sexuality for commercial purposes: these are not making us happier, more free, or, as a society, more just.
A twelve day stint as a faith blogger has left me morally challenged by the complexities and the ambiguities this work involves. But it’s also left me feeling that this kind of work, somehow, has got to be done. If we leave religion out of our national conversation about values, politics and culture we end up with a vapid conversation that doesn’t address the deepest realities that move most of the people in this country. And the problems we face today can’t be addressed constructively without getting into the deep stuff and asking the hardest questions about the things that matter most.