Wisdom From an Atheist


David Foster Wallace, a writer, professor and committed atheist, died on Sept 12, 2008. He was perhaps best known for his book about John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. Wallace was a thoroughgoing postmodernist — and thereby solidly possessed of the notion that there is no capital-T Truth.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal published an essay, adapted from a commencement speech he delivered in 2005, upon which I stumbled by the usual spidery web of disconnected URL links (HT: Touchstone Magazine and Signs of the Times). It is in many ways a stunning piece in its insight and wit.

Consider:

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

And this:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Not bad for a postmodern atheist. And also tragically prophetic:

It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

He committed suicide, by hanging, at age 46.

In My Dreams…


 
The vice presidential debate:

Gwen Ifill: The first question tonight is directed to Governor Palin: Governor, many people have raised the issue of your experience and qualifications to be vice president, or in the event of an untoward tragedy, to act as president. How would you address these concerns?

Sarah Palin: Thank you Gwen, I’m so glad you asked that. And before we start, I just wanted to congratulate you on your upcoming book to be released on January 20, “Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Smiling sweetly) That’s so exciting! You know, Senator Obama wrote a book also — in fact, he’s written two of them. And of course, I have many disagreements with Senator Obama’s positions on a wide range of issues. But I read his books, and I was so impressed, especially by his humility.

You know, Gwen, right now we have a major housing crisis. And Senator Obama has handled one of these crises while he was in Chicago. He arranged a “land for favors” swap with Mr. Rezko, which resolved a small housing crisis in that city. And he did it for a little over $1 million — that’s sure a heck of a lot less money than Congress is talking about spending! Absolutely brilliant! Yet he never once mentioned it in either of his books — now that’s humility, and I admire it.

And you know, we have an education crisis in this country as well. Senator Obama spent several years on an education reform committee, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, with a true revolutionary in the world of education, William Ayres. Education hasn’t seen that kind of reform since the days of Karl Marx — his ideas were nothing less than explosive. Yet Senator Obama didn’t even mention this experience in either of his books. That’s humility we can work for.

You know, I’ve been working on a book myself. I don’t think it will be out before the election, but that’s the kind of experience I will bring to the White House.

I’m sorry, what was your question again, Gwen?

Straw Men & Holy Wars

Charles Gibson’s interview of Sarah Palin is the buzz of the blogs the past few days. In particular, was Charlie’s challenge on her prayer for the troops, taken out of context and misquoted, yet asserted by Gibson to be her “exact words.” He then followed up with the question “Are we fighting a holy war?”

Gibson, who has worked hard to maintain his media image as a fatherly, soft-spoken news anchor, was revealed, unsurprisingly, to be quite a partisan. No news there — his questions seemed tailored to echo the Obama campaign message, that she is inexperienced, out of her league in foreign policy, a Bush clone, and a religious extremist.

But the real essence of his question about her prayer for the troops was not his mangling of its context, nor his selective quoting. Behind the thin veil of concerned seriousness lies an unspoken presupposition which marks a significant departure from our national history and tradition. What Gibson was in effect saying, is that any war fought by America — or to be more precise, any war fought by a non-Democrat administration — cannot be considered a moral good, and therefore worthy of blessing by God.

The key tipoff is his follow-up question about a “holy war.” One wishes, in some rational world, that Gibson might be asked a question or two in response to his question — to wit: Are US troops now being sent overseas to fight in the Middle East fighting for a mission — seeking and destroying terrorists — which is indeed morally good? No waffling now –a yes or no answer will suffice.

We live, of course, in a world of no small moral ambivalence. Even a war such as World War II, perhaps the best example of a “good” war, is nevertheless filled with many morally troubling subchapters. While few would argue that the fight against Nazi aggression and Japanese imperialism was not a necessary, noble, and morally justified struggle, nevertheless that same struggle entailed many scenes which trouble the soul. The firebombing of German and Japanese cities, the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, and other such events of WWII seem to contradict its noble and moral aims in light of the horrible means needed to achieve such aims in modern technological warfare.

Ambivalence about U.S. wars has grown much greater in the half-century since World War II ended, with conflicts of more disputable moral clarity such as Korea, Vietnam, and the two Gulf wars. Gone is the moral certitude and high purpose we held in fighting Hitler and Tojo; the clarity of opposing a brutal, imperialistic nation-state led by a maniacal dictator has faded to shades of gray with wars battling a worldview such as communism, or the even more nebulous non-state entity of Islamic terrorism.

Our enemies now are no longer goose-stepping armies crushing Europe or naval armadas flying the Rising Sun, but rather shadowy groups and individuals wrapping themselves in the cloak of religion and moving in and through civilian populations and across national borders, seemingly woven into the very fabric of the societies which foster and support them. They are both seemingly invisible and masters of deception, turning murder to glorious holy martyrdom, enabled by instant communication and the media, while undermining the moral premises of those who resist their nihilistic and brutal amorality.

Americans are now sated with extraordinary wealth and materialism, and equally drunk with the delusion that moral absolutes, right and wrong, good and evil, can no longer be determined with any certainty — and are perhaps irrelevant in our postmodern age. The Grand Inquisitor on his media throne demands to know if a vice presidential candidate is calling for a holy war; should we not ask him in response whether he judges our current battle against those who would murder us to be, at least in principle, a morally good and noble pursuit? Is it a moral good that our troops have liberated some 50 million people from two of the most oppressive regimes in history? Is it a moral good that our soldiers seek to protect innocent Iraqi citizens, at great risk to their own lives, while seeking out and destroying those who would wantonly murder them? We may argue — and have argued to the point of exhaustion — whether this particular war in Iraq was ill-conceived, ill-executed, bad strategy, or even the wrong use of costly resources and precious lives which might have been better used in other ways. But is the goal righteous, Charlie? Is the ideal noble? Or are you simply too sophisticated and jaded to embrace such judgmental, absolutist, undiplomatic and intolerant terms, in a nuanced world awash with gray?

So let us set aside the question of holy war, Mr. Gibson — do you believe that liberating the Iraqi people, and destroying Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is, if not a “holy war”, then at least a noble and honorable and morally desirable pursuit? Or might this same war, in a parallel universe, pursued by an administration which was run by Democrats, be praised as a heroic assault on our enemies? Why do so many of us suspect that it is not the war, but rather those in political power who prosecute the war, which must be morally condemned by you?

No sane person should believe, in my opinion, that Sarah Palin intended to send off these soldiers on a holy war, to smite the infidel — but sanity is an increasingly rare commodity today, it seems. Is it not an appropriate thing, for those who believe in a God who represents, in virtually all religious belief systems, a being of pure moral goodness, to pray that soldiers being sent to battle might be called to do that which is good, and noble, and honorable, and to fulfill their mission to defend the nation which they love and wish to serve with the highest moral character and courage?

In a world of moral purity, there would be no war; there would be no murderers, no torture, no oppression, no poverty, no dictators, no greed. War is, in the truest sense, hell — it embodies the murderous anger and hatred men have for one another. And in this world, evil as it is, men are sometimes called to be violent, even murderous — not for malevolent motives, but rather to overcome malevolence. In our current secular postmodern world, though, goodness is no longer defined by such an absolute standard, a moral code established by a good God. Goodness has become, de facto, the empowerment of those who believe exactly as we do. Our politics now dictate our principles, rather than the opposite. A war prosecuted, for whatever reasons, by a president who prays, must therefore be a “holy war”; it is by the standards (if they may be called that) of postmodern secularism no different then jihad, no less evil than a suicide bomber on a school bus or an airplane hijacked as a missile.

In a few short minutes, it was this very struggle which played out in Gibson’s interview: if you are a conservative, or God forbid a Christian, and pray for those who defend us, you are an extremist, a religious nutcase whom God is calling to slay the infidel. It is the war between those for whom right and wrong are neither absolute nor easily discerned, and a worldview which believes that man may both discern and act upon that which is good in an absolute sense — and especially in a redemptive sense, where we may turn something evil, such as the horrors of war, into that which is an instrument — albeit an imperfect one — in bringing about good.

The secular mindset cannot grasp that in a morally corrupt world filled with evil, that some might be called to seek the wisdom and power of God to resist evil and defend the good, and through such prayers seek the hope and character to transform the world in some small way to a place where good overcomes evil.

Absolute Fools

A recent post on the worldview of contemporary postmodern liberalism was kindly linked by Gerard Vanderleun over at American Digest. In his link post, a commenter left the following missive:

The essay would have value if there were absolutes. Never have been, never shall be. Our standards of behavior are devised by us, and used or misused by us. We decide which is good and which is evil, and in every case we are right and wrong at one and the same time.

Each of our rules and regulations is enforced through agreement, and through coercion. The wise among us agree to follow the laws because it makes for a calmer, safer life. The fools among us must be made to follow those same laws because they haven’t the wisdom to see the necessity. And this speaks of those ordinances that do make sense.

Those that do not have to be enforced through coercion more often than not because they really don’t make any sense. And there are times when our rules make more or less sense than other times because circumstances differ.

We are responsible for our laws, and for our adherence to them. Our legislation being wise is to our credit. Our legislation being cruel is to our shame. Nobody else can remove that charge from our shoulders.

Now, I take no issue with this gentleman personally; he is doubtless a bright fellow, well-educated in our institutions of higher learning, where professors emeritus emote their postmodern erudition in the lofty ephemeral ethers, far removed from the dross of desperately-ignorant humanity. He is more to be pitied than censured; he has, after all, been taught not to think. But he serves herein a useful purpose, insofar as his comment exemplifies the mindset of those who eschew the idea of absolutes — which assertion is the very metaphysical mortar of secular postmodernism.

I find it interesting that most every argument rejecting absolutes contains within its very language and structure, not to mention its premises, a framework of absolute assertions. And our subject does not disappoint: tossing around terms like “wise” and “fools” and “shame” and “credit”, qualitative words without meaning when there is no transcendent standard against which to measure them. What is shame if not the humiliation of rejecting an absolute good? Who is wise, and who a fool, if there is no standard of enduring and unchangeable wisdom by which to categorize one thusly? The lines of their straightedge are random and irregularly spaced — if there are measuring lines at all — yet they carefully measure and mark off “progress”, confident they have measured accurately. There is, of course, the inevitable rejoinder to all such foolishness which asks, “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?” But beyond this childish rebuttal — childish, not in the sense of silliness or immaturity, but rather of unvarnished simplicity — there lies an even more evident and profound incoherence which can be discerned — from which a not-so-evident proposition emerges from the heart of anti-absolutism.

It is impossible to function as a human being in society without the concept of transcendent absolutes, even if this foundational principle is unrecognized or denied. We as humans do not simply move as pack animals, driven by instinct and primal drives, but are by our very nature creatures of judgment. We are constantly comparing, evaluating, appreciating or depreciating everyone and everything around us. The food is either tasty or awful; the woman is attractive or homely; the music is beautiful or grating; the weather is warm and pleasant or cold, wet, and miserable. Of course, some of these judgments are self-referential: the food tastes good to us, or bad to us; we prefer rock music to Rachmaninoff, while others may differ. Thus to some degree, we individually determine the standard against which we measure objects apart from ourselves. Yet even there it is possible to compare our preferences to a fixed standard: is slasher rock not discernibly different in quality from a Bach fugue?

But within the realm of human interactions, writ large as communities, societies, nations, and cultures, judgments about the outside world become collective, embodied in law and cultural and social strictures. Behavior which is objectionable to some is desirable to others; that which some find beneficial others find harmful. It is at this level of community and human interactions where some overarching determination or standard against which interpersonal behavior is measured becomes utterly necessary if we are to avoid a society capricious in its justice or cruel in its enforcement.

The anti-absolutist posits this standard in the consensus of the group, be it tribal, community, or society. The society at large, whatever its dimensions, determines that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, and enforces the standard through collective coercion or force. While this seems plausible at first glance, it almost immediately runs into problems with the de facto use of absolutes. What standard will the collective mind of a society choose? Is it simply the standard of survival? Is it a collective self-gratification? Self-interest alone? And how can it be a standard at all without becoming, to greater or lesser degree, a transcendent absolute?

If, as our commenter suggests, we decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, are these standards not infinitely malleable by their very nature? Such a philosophy of law is nothing more than the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the mob. For a society may agree by consensus that certain members of the society are inferior by nature, or should be exterminated, or have their possessions confiscated, their daughters raped, their members sold into slavery. Such societies are not mere abstract entities, but stark historical realities, evident in gulags, ethnic cleansings, and rape rooms to which even our most recent decades testify. Such a philosophy in its purest form is the will to power; those who gain dominance, either in number or by force, determine the standard against which all will be judged.

The notion that such a standard is invariably beneficial to a society or culture is ludicrous in the light of history. One need look no further than the 20th century, where the social consensus arising out of pathologies such as Nazism, Marxism, and the emperor worship and militarism of Japan, wrought horrors upon not only the world, but especially on the societies which themselves embraced these pathologic standards. That German militarism and anti-Semitism was profoundly destructive to the very society which engendered these ideas and standards is self-evident; ask the citizens of Hiroshima how Japan’s imperialistic and fanatical militarism panned out.

Yet the world of the anti-absolutist one cannot form a judgment about any such self-evident evils. It cannot say that Nazism and the Holocaust were evil — they can only say that by their own standards, self-engendered and not universal, that such abominations are different. The inevitable moral indifference arising from such a philosophy runs counter to every fiber of the human spirit. We cannot say such things are evil if we cannot reference them against an absolute standard arising above, and transcending, any consensus formed only by a society.

Our very language is steeped in the vocabulary of absolutes — it is impossible to communicate without them. Good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, wisdom and foolishness: these concepts are universal, ubiquitous, and unresectable from language and thought, across all cultures and civilizations.

The consequences of the rejection of absolutes, fully embraced, are nothing short of anarchy — or in its stead, tyranny. There can be no true justice, for justice appeals to a standard above the law, and thus judges not only behavior contrary to law, but the law itself. Absent a transcendent moral absolute, there is no limit to the granularity at which arbitrary determinations of good and evil, right and wrong, may occur. it is a recipe for tribalism at best, as competing groups determine their own rules, rejecting those of other groups, large or small, which run contrary to their perceived needs or desires. The inevitable conflict between tribal standards can bring nothing but perpetual conflict or isolation.

Those who claim to reject absolutes do not in reality reject all absolutes. There is never a quibble about the law of gravity, or the laws of nature, or those of nuclear physics or astronomy. Were they consistent in their philosophy, they would reject the term “law” (which implies an underlying transcendent; there is, after all, no laws without law-givers), and instead describe what their metaphysics mandates: that seemingly predictable behavior is no more than random coincidence; the electron may fall into the nucleus at any time, ending this existence as dramatically and as randomly as it came into being. As Chesterton said, “They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.”

At the very heart of a philosophy of deterministic, self-engendered moral standards stands the individual. The rejection of moral absolutes is nothing more than radical individualism broadcast across society — the notion that we are the sole arbiters of our behavior and morality, the we alone determine what is right and what is wrong. As a corollary, there is another assumption underlying this one: that others should bear the consequences, especially adverse consequences of our actions. Those who reject moral absolutes gravitate to a nihilistic narcissism, where there are rights but no responsibilities, demanding freedom to act as they please without thought for anyone else, all the while demanding that others rescue them from wreckage their behavior has wrought.

This battle of worldviews lies at the very heart of our culture wars, of the endless societal conflicts engendered over abortion, or religion in the public square, or the status of heterosexual marriage, or unrestricted sexual license, or any one a host of other seemingly irreconcilable culture clashes which saturate and sour our daily lives. It is a take-no-prisoners battle, for there is no middle ground, no comfortable compromise which will bring peace and harmony. It is a battle to the death, a battle not only of the mind but of the heart.

It is, above all, about bending the knee, a battle for the soul: we will submit to the absolute, or destroy ourselves in dark delusion denying it.

It’s long past time we choose which it will be.

Crossing That Dark River

Often in the sturm und drang of a world gone mad, there comes, through the chaos and insanity, some brief moment of clarity. Such times pass by quickly, and are quickly forgotten — as this brief instance might have been, courtesy of my neighboring bellweather state of Oregon: (HT: Hot Air)

Last month her lung cancer, in remission for about two years, was back. After her oncologist prescribed a cancer drug that could slow the cancer growth and extend her life, [Barbara] Wagner was notified that the Oregon Health Plan wouldn \'t cover it.
 
It would cover comfort and care, including, if she chose, doctor-assisted suicide.
 
… Treatment of advanced cancer meant to prolong life, or change the course of this disease, is not covered by the Oregon Health Plan, said the unsigned letter Wagner received from LIPA, the Eugene company that administers the plan in Lane County.

Officials of LIPA and the state policy-making Health Services Commission say they \'ve not changed how they cover treatment of recurrent cancer.

But local oncologists say they \'ve seen a change and that their Oregon Health Plan patients with advanced cancer no longer get coverage for chemotherapy if it is considered comfort care.

It doesn \'t adhere to the standards of care set out in the oncology community, said Dr. John Caton, an oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Center.

Studies have found that chemotherapy can decrease pain and time spent in the hospital and increases quality of life, Caton said.

The Oregon Health Plan started out rationing health care in 1994.

We have, at last, arrived. The destination was never much in doubt — once the threshold of medical manslaughter had been breached, wrapped as always in comforting words of compassion and dignity, it was only a matter of time before our pragmatism trumped our principles. Once the absolute that physicians should be healers not hangmen was heaved overboard, it was inevitable that the relentless march of relativism would reach its logical port of call.

Death, after all, is expensive — the most expensive thing in life. It was not always so. In remote pasts, it was the very currency of life, short and brutal, with man’s primitive intellect sufficient solely to deal out death, not to defer it. There followed upon this time some glimmer of light and hope, wherein death’s timetable remained unfettered, but its stranglehold and certainty were tempered by a new hope and vision of humanity. We became in that time something more than mortal creatures, something extraordinary, an unspeakable treasure entombed within a fragile and decomposing frame. We became, something more than our mortal bodies; we became, something greater than our pain; we became, something whose beauty shown through even the ghastly horrors of the hour of our demise. Our prophets — then heeded — triumphantly thrust their swords through the dark heart of death: “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” We became, in that moment, something more than the physical, something greater than our short and brutish mortality. We became, indeed, truly human, for the very first time.

That humanity transcended and transformed all that we were and were to become, making us unique among creation not only in the foreknowledge of our death, but our transcendence of death itself. Life had meaning beyond the grave — and therefore had far more weight at the threshold of the tomb. Suffering became more than mere fate, but rather sacrifice and purification, preparation and salvation. The wholeness of the soul trumped the health of the body; death was transformed from hopeless certainty to triumphant transition.

But we knew better. We pursued the good, only to destroy the best. We set our minds to conquer death, to destroy disease, to end all pain, to become pure and perfect and permanent. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The diseases which slaughtered us were themselves slayed; the illnesses which tortured and tormented us fell before us. Our lives grew long, and healthier, more comfortable, and more productive. Our newfound longevity and greater health gave rise to ever more miracles, allowing us to pour out our intemperate and precipitous riches with drunken abandon upon dreams of death defeated.

Yet on the flanks of our salient there lay waiting the forces which would strangle and surround our triumphant advance. Our supply lines grew thin; the very lifeblood of our armies of science and medicine, that which made our soldiers not machines but men, grew emaciated and hoary, flaccid and frail. We neglected the soul which sustained our science; the spirit which brought healing to medicine grew cachectic and cold.

So here we stand. We have squandered great wealth to defeat death — only to find ourselves impoverished, and turning to death itself for our answers. The succubus we sought to defeat now dominates us, for she is a lusty and insatiable whore. We have sacrificed our humanity, our compassion, our empathy, our humility in the face of a force far greater than ourselves, while forgetting the power and grace and the vision which first led us and empowered us on this grand crusade. Our weapons are now turned upon us; let the slaughter begin.

We will, no doubt, congratulate ourselves on the wealth we save. We will no doubt develop ever more ingenious and efficient means to facilitate our self-immolation while comforting ourselves with our vast knowledge and perceived compassion. Those who treasure life at its end, who find in and through its suffering and debilitation the joy of relationships, and meaning, and mercy, and grace, will become our enemies, for they will siphon off mammon much needed to mitigate the consequences of our madness.

It has been said, once, that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. We have poured our treasure in untold measure into conquering death — finding succor in our victories, while forgetting how to die. The boatman now awaits us to carry us across that dark river — and we have insufficient moral currency to ignore his call.

Drinking the Kool-AIDS

Threat of world Aids pandemic among heterosexuals is over, report admits:

A quarter of a century after the outbreak of AIDS, the World Health Organization (WHO) has accepted that the threat of a global heterosexual pandemic has disappeared.

In the first official admission that the universal prevention strategy promoted by the major Aids organizations may have been misdirected, Kevin de Cock, the head of the WHO’s department of HIV/AIDS said there will be no generalized epidemic of AIDS in the heterosexual population outside Africa.

Dr. de Cock, an epidemiologist who has spent much of his career leading the battle against the disease, said understanding of the threat posed by the virus had changed. Whereas once it was seen as a risk to populations everywhere, it was now recognized that, outside sub-Saharan Africa, it was confined to high-risk groups including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and sex workers and their clients.

There was never very much evidence of the threat of AIDS to low-risk, heterosexual populations — a threat which was nevertheless widely hyped to drum up massive research and public education funding for a disease whose risk has always been extremely low in heterosexuals who did not use IV drugs or visit prostitutes.

While medical treatment of AIDS has advanced greatly — mostly through the breakthrough of protease inhibitor therapy (enormously expensive drugs with a host of serious side effects) — prevention efforts designed to change high-risk behavior have failed dismally. No surprise there — you can’t cure addictions — sexual, drug, or otherwise — with education.

But, hey, our schools taught several generations of kids to use condoms rather than study math, so it was worth it, no?

And Dr. de Cock?? Sometimes life is funnier than fiction …

Liberalism & Gnosticism

Sorry to go dark for so long — more on that later. Hope to have some time for new stuff soon. In the meantime, here’s another repost from the past.

 
Sunset SkyIt takes only a brief review of conservative web sites, print media, and pundit blogs to be left with the impression of a deep frustration with liberalism. Not merely the disagreement with their beliefs and priorities, mind you — that is a given — but rather with their peculiar unresponsiveness to arguments of reason and logic. The scenario goes something like this: Some Democrat in Congress or liberal pundit makes an outrageous charge about Bush, or Iraq, or Republicans, or Christians, or whatever. The conservative blogs explode with the news, followed shortly by detailed rebuttal of the charges, or ample testimony to prior events proving the hypocrisy of the attack. Well-reasoned, factual defense is the rule rather than the exception. Yet all to no avail. Those on the Left either shrug, or respond with even more outrageous accusations, or go ad hominem. I often wonder whether all this energy and effort has accomplished anything beyond making us feel better about ourselves and venting our frustration.

I believe the problem is that we don’t understand liberals.

Now, before you start thinking I’m having a kumbaya moment, hear me out: we don’t understand liberals because contemporary liberalism is the new Gnosticism.

Gnosticism as a religion is ancient — predating Christianity by at least several centuries, and coexisting with it for several more before dying out. It was in many ways a syncretic belief system, drawing elements from virtually every religion it touched: Buddhism, Indian pantheism, Greek philosophy and myth, Jewish mysticism, and Christianity.

Gnosticism (from the Greek gnosis, to know, or knowledge) was manifested in many forms and sects, but all shared common core beliefs: dualism, wherein the world was evil and the immaterial good; the importance of secret knowledge, magical in nature, by which those possessing such knowledge could overcome the evil of the material world; and pantheism. It was also a profoundly pessimistic belief system. As J.P. Arendzen, in his excellent summary of Gnosticism, explains:

This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence — this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought … Gnosticism is pseudo-intellectual, and trusts exclusively to magical knowledge.

So in what ways is modern liberalism Gnostic in nature?

First and foremost, in modern liberalism, what you believe is more important than how you act. Gnostic sects were often hedonistic — after all, since you possess special knowledge of the truth, and the physical world is evil, why pursue noble behavior with an inherently wicked material body? While not all – or even most – liberals are hedonistic (although Hollywood does come to mind…), contemporary liberalism has enshrined tolerance of hedonism as a core belief.

More fundamentally, there is a disconnect in liberalism between belief and action. As a result, there is no such thing as hypocrisy. So the National Organization of Women, tireless in its campaign on violence against women, sexual harassment, and the tyranny of men in the workplace and in society, stands wholeheartedly behind Bill Clinton, who used a dim-witted intern for sex (in the workplace, moreover!) and who was credibly charged with sexual assault on Juanita Brodderick. Hypocrisy? No, Bill Clinton “understood” women and women’s issues — his knowledge trumped his behavior, no matter how despicable.

There are many such similar examples, once you start looking for them. I recall a gay activist on NPR instructing Terry Gross that the solution to “anti-gay intolerance” (i.e., anyone who had qualms about homosexuality, either in its morality or social agenda) was “education”. If we religious or socially conservative cretins were only properly “educated”–if and when we finally “got it” — then all of our opposition to homosexuality would melt away like an ice sculpture in August.

It is no accident that many of our most liberal intellectuals reside in the universities, in the rarefied atmosphere where ideas are everything and their practical application moot. We conservatives often marvel at the naivety of the peace movement, where World Peace can be achieved if only we “visualize” it. Like the magic formulas used by the Gnostics to dispel evil spirits and emanations, simply believing that peace can be achieved by “loving one another”, and mutual understanding is sufficient to transform those intent on evil, destruction, and domination. Human shields defend tyrannical monsters who would shred them in a heartbeat were they not so useful, in order to “put an end to war.” Judges implement rulings based on higher Sophia rather than the law, blissfully dismissing their profound impact on the Great Unknowing Masses below.

The profound pessimism of the Gnostic world view is seen in contemporary liberalism as well. If ever there was a gentle giant in history — a nation overwhelmingly dominant yet benign in its use of power — it is the United States of the 20th and 21st century. Yet we are treated to an endless litany of tirades about our racist, sexist, imperialist ways, which will only end when the Left “takes America back” — ignoring that a nation so administered would cease to exist in short order. American liberalism was not always so. As recently as twenty years ago, it was optimistic, hopeful and other-oriented, albeit with misconceptions about human nature which proved the undoing of its policies and programs. Only at its farthest fringes did pessimism reign, but today this dark view is increasingly the dominant one.

Analogies have their limits, as does this one. Ancient Gnosticism was deeply religious, although pantheistic, whereas modern liberal thinking is profoundly secular and agnostic, for example. But even here similarities persist: how many New Age conservatives do you know? Modern secular liberalism is far more religion than political philosophy, and therefore largely resistant to confrontation or compromise based on logic and reason.

Gnosticism as a religious force collapsed of its own weight, crippled by its internal inconsistencies and the lack of power sufficient to transform and ennoble the human spirit. Yet failed ideas die hard, given the intransigence of human pride. How very odd that our predominant postmodern political philosophy is so ancient in origin.

Grace 4 U2

This is a re-post from several years ago, to quell the restless masses until time permits me to write something afresh.

 
Bono of U2After seemingly endless weeks recently of watching Tom Cruise air-box, jump on chairs, pontificate on depression, and talk about the idiocy of Scientology, it’s definitely refreshing — yea, one might even say a veritable antidepressant — to have some sanity expressed by another celebrity who appears to have a more rational cerebrum (although, granted, not as much of a pretty boy). Swiftly and with Style (HT: In the Agora) finds an intriguing quote from Bono, of U2 fame, in his book Bono in Conversation:

It \'s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. . . .You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics --in physical laws --every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It \'s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I \'m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I \'ve done a lot of stupid stuff. . . .

I \'d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I \'d be in deep sh-t. It doesn \'t excuse my mistakes, but I \'m holding out for Grace. I \'m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don \'t have to depend on my own religiosity.

I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there \'s mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and let \'s face it, you \'re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That \'s the point. It should keep us humbled… It \'s not our own good works that get us through the gates of Heaven.

It’s a little scary when Karma and Christ get mentioned in the same breath — from a rock star never seen without his wrap-around shades and so-cool demeanor — in a literary aside laced with the appropriate profanities, moreover — and it’s one of the clearest expressions of how the world works you’ve heard in months. God’s a very funny guy sometimes, and uses rather peculiar mouthpieces — which gives me great hope indeed.
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