Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Religion and Faith

I don't have a religious bone in my body. The dogmatic aspects of Christianity--or any other religion, for that matter--strike me as so much twaddle. I'm not quite and atheist, if only because I think the narrative for the root causes of the creation of the universe is, uh, a bit hazy. But even if there is a Creator, it's more likely that he/she/it is observing his/her/its handiwork and saying, "Oooooo, pretty!" rather than busily monitoring and judging the lives of his/her/its emergent biological processes.

And yet I consider myself to be a person of faith. I believe in right action and I believe that aspiring to right action is not only its own reward, it results in things getting better, not only for the actor but for his society as a whole. In short, I believe that if you try to do the right thing, things have a way of working out.

I have faith in the essential goodness of humanity. I have even more faith in the essential goodness of Americans. I'm under no illusions about the general intelligence of humans, nor am I particularly sanguine about their educational state. But I have faith in the law of large numbers: The wisdom of crowds is our friend and causes right action in the long run, which in turn tends to make things work out.

I don't care about the theological blips and rumbles of either John McCain or Barack Obama, other than that they not impact their Presidential job performance. (And I don't think it will, in either of their cases.) But I care very much that they have faith, that they believe in the essential goodness of America, and that they understand the power that that goodness confers upon the American people.

Which brings me to Jonah Goldberg's musings on patriotism. I think Goldberg is twisting the definition of "patriotism" way too far. But, if you substitute "faith" for "patriotism," he's on to something:
Definitions of patriotismfaith proliferate, but in the American context patriotismfaith must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotismfaith from European nationalismfaith) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patrioticfaithful American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is.

It's the "good as it is" part that has vexed many on the left since at least the Progressive era. Marxists and other revolutionaries obviously don't believe entrepreneurial and religiousfaithful America is good as it is. But even more mainstream figures have a problem distinguishing patrioticfaithful reform from reformation. Many progressives in the 1920s considered the American hinterlands a vast sea of yokels and boobs, incapable of grasping how much they needed what the activists were selling.

The Nation ran a famous series then called "These United States," in which smug emissaries from East Coast cities chronicled the "backward" attitudes of what today would be called fly-over country. One correspondent proclaimed that in "backwoods" New York (i.e. outside the Big Apple): "Resistance to change is their most sacred principle." If that was their attitude to New York, it shouldn't surprise that they felt even worse about the South. One author explained that Dixie needed nothing less than an invasion of liberal "missionaries" so that the "light of civilization" might finally be glimpsed down there. These authors simply assumed, writes intellectual historian Christopher Lasch, that " 'breaking with the past' was the precondition of cultural and political advance." Even today, writes Time's Joe Klein, "This is a chronic disease among Democrats, who tend to talk more about what's wrong with America than what's right."
Notice how incestuous the concepts are when viewed through the lens of faith that things will work out. I'm often reminded of the following dialogue from Shakespeare in Love:
This time we take your boots off!

What have I done, Mr. Fennyman ?

The theatres are all closed by the plaque !

Oh, that.

-by order of the Master of the Revels !

Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the
theatre business

(they stop)

The natural condition is one of unsurmountable
obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Believe me, to be closed by the plague is a
bagatelle in the ups and downs of owning a

So what do we do ?

Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

How ?

I don't know. It's a mystery.
I have faith in the mystery.

No comments: