Sunday, March 30, 2008

Re-Affirming Faiths

(reflections on Gregory Epstein, humanist, and conservatism as recently considered by David Mamet and David Brooks.)

Listened this morning to Gregory Epstein, chaplain of the Humanists at Harvard, performing there ritual marryings and buryings without God, and promoting a faith in our efforts to live meaningful lives by promoting the best world that we can through individual and group efforts. He reads and respects the scriptures of different traditions (and he studied talmud for a year in Israel), but adds that he gets even more out of modern literature. (All on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH).

I have no quarrel with anything I heard from him. Do I have any difference with him at all? Wondering this bothered me through most of our week-after-Easter "lessons and songs" service. I guess I'm also soured by Spring's sudden retreat, and our cold grey skies, and by the fact that I can no longer put off designing a week's History project for the 7th grade.

Somewhere near communion, my mood shifted, thanks to a hymn I'd not sung before (number 109 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal), memorable for its mode-ish melody and a blue note. It didn't change anything: In practical terms, Epstein is right that God or no-God makes no difference at all to grown-ups, who should operate beyond the primitive reward-punishment scheme of heaven and hell.

My political beliefs have been refreshed recently by coming back into contact with the root of all political questions: Is man good, or not? I've long believed that man is dangerous in power, that all organizations (government, corporations) are suspect, and our Constitution is brilliant in balancing self-interested parties against each other, making room for courage and goodness.

These beliefs have been enunciated recently by playwright David Mamet and conservative columnist David Brooks. The first one has announced "Why I am no longer a brain-dead liberal" in the liberal newspaper THE VILLAGE VOICE; the other writes in a critique of the Bush administration, quoted in THE ST. CROIX REVIEW (December 2007). Conservatism, in both pieces, is neither a party affiliation nor a preference for policy, but an outlook that says, "Be careful: organizations are corrupt, we need protection from the powerful, society cannot be changed by legislative fiat without dreadful consequences."

Brooks, quoted in the REVIEW, writes

What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition. ... A temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform believing that efforts t quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote, 'pleasing commencements' but 'lamentable conclusions.'
Mamet asks:

Is the military always right? No. Neither is government, nor are the corporations—they are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will. Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not "Is everything perfect?" but "How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?" Put into which form, things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.

Mamet goes so far as to endorse Milton Friedman, Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell when he asserts that our nation is "not a schoolroom teaching values, but a marketplace." He writes:

"Aha," you will say, and you are right. I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

An older friend Charles Weeks, when I was in my early twenties, observed that I was not exactly a conservative, but "conservative in temperament." I think so. Burke, more than Bush, more even than Reagan, is my touchstone.

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