Friday, April 10, 2009

The Last Puritan

In the most recent episode of LOST, as in other earlier ones, we saw the "smoke monster" make someone confront their past, with the aim of bringing about repentance and a change in them.

In my recent visits to Triablogue, it has been somewhat like encountering the smoke monster. I was met over there by views and attitudes that once would have been mine. As I try to extract myself from the attempt at interaction, unsubscribing from the comment updates and so on, I realize that in my late teens and probably into my early twenties, I would have loved to have had a blog like that (blogs didn't exist yet), I would have treated visitors who disagreed with me in much the same way I was treated on Triablogue, and when the visiting scholar or whoever else it was left exasperated, I would have celebrated another "victory".

I don't just wonder how many of the bloggers over there will, a few decades from now, find themselves in my shoes, interacting with younger people who are much like their own former selves. I also wonder what views that I interact with now I may myself hold a few decades from now.

At any rate, I am grateful to the folks at Triablogue for giving me an experience akin to being grabbed by my past and told I had better listen to John Locke [the character in Lost].

Since I’m pushing 50, and since I’ve been in failing health for years, I don’t expect to be around a few decades from now. I expect to be in heaven–the heaven McGrath no longer believes in.

If I were to lose my faith, then Triablogue would testify against me–as a witness for the prosecution. My own arguments would indict me. Younger Christians could quote my arguments against me. And that’s a good thing.

But what about McGrath? He’s a standard-issue apostate, straight out of central casting. He’s objections are utterly predictable, utterly unoriginal, utterly refutable. Just a new actor reciting his lines from the same dog-eared script.

One thing he shares in common with so many other typecast apostates is a secularized Christian idealism. It’s the sort of thing that George Santayana pilloried in The Last Puritan. Santayana satirized the descents of New England Puritans, the men and women he knew at Harvard, who retained the remnants of Puritan duty without the Puritan faith which undergirded their sense of duty.

Mr. McGrath is apparently one of those apostates who embraces something resembling or approaching the secular theology of Kaufman, Bultmann, Cupitt, Robinson, Spong, and Phillips.

They deny the existence of an “external” deity. A God objective to ourselves. A God who ever does anything.

Yet they continue going to church. Attend the costume party.

And they retain a soft-headed idealism. They just replace one thing with another. Instead of prayer or evangelism, it’s recycling or global warming.

In their childish idealism they don’t think that losing faith in God entails any fundamental loss of values. For them, life goes on much the same. They may even pride themselves into thinking that this is a truly liberating experience. They’ve been emancipated from all the hang-ups of Biblical piety.

And, at one level, they’re welcome to their illusion. I don’t feel the need to disabuse everyone of their illusions. Some illusions are harmless.

A window thinks her late husband was utterly devoted to her. She was the love of his life. She takes great comfort in that belief.

Suppose I happen to know that her husband had a mistress. Should I tell her? No. That would be cruel. It would serve no purpose.

If apostates left us alone, we’d be happy to leave them alone. The loss of faith is a tragedy. But, as long as they mind their own business, it’s not of my business. A private tragedy.

Yet McGrath is a proselytizer. McGrath is like a man who used to enjoy a walk in the park. He enjoyed the birds and flowers and trees and fountains. The fireflies and butterflies. The children at play.

But at some point, for some reason, he took a dislike to the park. And because he no longer enjoys it, no one else should enjoy it either.

When he takes a chainsaw to the trees, dumps a wheelbarrow full of concrete into the pond, sows the path with poison birdseed, and so on, then I take exception.

Apostates and other atheists are dangerous because they are social engineers. Their ideas aren’t harmless ideas.

Rather, they want to coerce everyone into sharing their collective illusion. Consider the social vision of Peter Singer. And consider the fact that is well underway.

Atheism robs us of everything we care about. If there is no afterlife, then the grave robs us of everyone we care about. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Roommates. Childhood friends. The spouse who predeceases us. The daughter who died of cancer. And then, when death takes you, it robs you of everyone else you ever cared about.

It’s a terrible thing when you have nothing left to look forward to in life. A life without hope. When you can only look back. Look back at the past through the dim lens of memory. Remember what you cannot see or hear or touch. Just of photo album of yellowing pictures. Life fading into sepia.

Personal identity is bound up with memory. And memory is bound up with a sense of place. Remembering who we were by remembering where we were. Who we were with. Space is a dam against the erosion of time. But sooner or later, time and mortality wash it all away.

Atheism robs us of all the beauty. For, if atheism is true, then beauty is just a projection. Not something in the world, but something we project onto the world. The way we feel about it, and not the way it is.

The external world is merely functional. It ceases to be a divine emblem. Instead, it’s just a thing–like a carburetor.

And atheism robs us of our mental life. What is love? Love is just a chemical reaction which natural selection has programmed into us to make us procreate and tend our litter. It’s the incidental byproduct of a blind, unreasoning, and indifferent process.

Mr. McGrath is a fool. A shallow, callow fool. As long as he keeps his folly to himself, he is free to live and die inside illusion he’s created for himself. He is welcome to his superficiality.

But when he becomes a proselytizer, then I’ll disabuse him of his pretty illusions. Christians play for keeps.

Apostasy is Good Friday without the prospect of Easter. McGrath denies the empty tomb. And by denying the empty tomb, he entombs us all. Buried alive.


  1. Having rejected Christianity, James has adopted the values and mindset of the period of history and area of the world in which he happens to live, probably without ever evaluating that choice.

    But quite why the values and presumptions of late 20th century America should be more valid than those of any other land or era; more valid than those of early 20th century America, or of late 21st century America -- for all these sets of values change every 50 years or so -- is not stated.

    This is the real default of our age; to conform to some convenient subset of what "everyone thinks". But if we see that choice as a choice; as a value-system, to be critiqued the same as every other, then what can be said for it? Not much.

    And those who follow it never do say much. They instead keep hammering away at Christianity, while keeping their alternative off the table. It won't do.

  2. Steve Hays: "Mr. McGrath is a fool. A shallow, callow fool. As long as he keeps his folly to himself, he is free to live and die inside illusion he’s created for himself. He is welcome to his superficiality.

    But when he becomes a proselytizer, then I’ll disabuse him of his pretty illusions. Christians play for keeps."

    I fully agree on all counts. I would just add one more thing to Steve's excellent remarks.

    It's not only to "disabuse him of his pretty illusions", but to disabuse anyone else that he's infected with his pretty illusions. Actually, they're not even pretty illusions. They're ugly illusions.