THE BIG QUESTIONS

Jon Meacham’s religion writing in Newsweek is often quite good, but his Christmas Day Times Book Review essay on religious books is wearying and banal. This conclusion, in particular:

On Christmas morning 1825, John Henry Newman, a young man of ferocious intellect and intense faith who had just been ordained an Anglican priest (he would die a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church), preached a sermon while a curate of St. Clement’s Church, Oxford. “It is a day of joy: it is good to be joyful – it is wrong to be otherwise,” Newman said. “Let us seek the grace of a cheerful heart, an even temper, sweetness, gentleness and brightness of mind, as walking in His light and by His grace.” Such was the view of a questing and committed Christian, a view not so different from that of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century American agnostic. “Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget – a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds – a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine.” Newman thought the brightness came from the Christ child; Ingersoll from simple human kindness. The important thing is that both detected light and each cherished it according to the dictates of his own mind and his own heart – an encouraging sign that there is more than one way to overcome the darkness.

Well, no. The important thing is whether Newman or Ingersoll had it right – whether Christ was, in fact, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, etc. etc. and the Catholic Church his instrument on Earth – or whether, to pluck a quote from Ingersoll, “the man who invented the telescope found out more about heaven than the closed eyes of prayer ever discovered.” (Or whether both were wrong and Muhammed had it right, or Spinoza, or someone else.) Newman and Ingersoll weren’t at odds over some abstruse point of theology, like whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son – they disagreed on questions that lie at the heart of who we are, what the universe is, what our purpose is on Earth and what our ultimate destiny might be. The fact that both men “detected light” and tried to “overcome the darkness” is a good thing – but it’s not the most important thing. Indeed, the fact that two men as diametrically opposed as Ingersoll and Newman could agree on it should be a pretty obvious signal that it’s not the most important thing.

This is a confusion that liberalism has wandered into lately. The original aim of the liberal philosophers was to remove the “high” questions, the important-but-unresolvable questions – what is virtue? is Jesus Christ the Son of God? where do we go when we die? etc. – from the political realm, where they had caused so much trouble, and into the private and personal sphere. Politics henceforth would focus on lower matters, and be more peacable because of it. The difficulty, of course, is that over time liberalism lost sight of the fact that the high questions are high, and the low questions low, and came to believe that because everyone could agree, say, that you should respect your neighbor’s property and avoid killing your enemy whenever possible, these were the most important questions facing humanity, and nobody – not even essayists and intellectuals – should sweat the other, harder-to-answer stuff. In early liberalism, governments weren’t supposed to take positions on Christ’s divinity, because the question was too important to be adjudicated by the state; in late liberalism, writers for the Times Book Review aren’t supposed to take positions on Christ’s divinity, because the question isn’t important enough to worry over.

Look, it’s swell that Ingersoll and Newman both enjoyed Christmas, and that both used the holiday as an opportunity to urge their listeners to be nice to one another. But Meacham is a practicing Christian, I believe, and so he presumably thinks that Newman was right about the rather important question of what Christmas is, and Ingersoll mistaken. Why doesn’t he tell us why, instead of ducking the issue? That would be an essay worth reading.

– posted by Ross

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