Truth and Happiness

by Peter Blair | 5/7/09 3:10am

There is an odd mixture of important insights and destructive ideas in Sam Buntz's recent column ("A Story to Live By," May 4). He rightly recognizes, I think, the death of transcendence in our modern materialistic culture. Of course, even modern people still occasionally feel the deep need for something higher than themselves that has moved humanity since our first days. The problem today is that instead of praying, people take a yoga class. Buntz, however, is correct that "the forces of dictatorial materialism threaten to subdue this higher yearning." It is no wonder that suicide rates are often higher in richer countries (and thus, generally, more materialistic cultures) than in poorer countries. He is right too, I think, in his identification of the general human need for myth, and is also correct about the nature of atheism, namely that it destroys all moral bonds.

But the rest of Buntz's article shows how much he truly is a product of the deep confusion that characterizes our era. What is one to make of the statement that "I'd rather hang out with somebody who believes a total lie, as long as it is a creative, coherent, sophisticated and interesting lie"? Presumably Buntz doesn't deny the existence and knowability of truth. After all, he knows that this hypothetical friend's belief is a lie. But if the truth is knowable, why wouldn't you want to know it? Buntz would have us disregard and ignore the truth, in favor of "excitement." Of course, that is death to learning and the university. If we should all just adhere to what we find most inspiring, why even bother to go to school?

Buntz seems to want to make everything subjective, reducing everything to feelings, to how emotionally satisfying it is. Buntz would have excitement and freshness, not truth, be the test for everything. This doctrine, though, is just as dangerous to morality as is atheism. In the end, it is basically no more than hedonism, giving us license to find pleasure and satisfaction in whatever we want. It is also dangerous, say, to science. Why not believe in a Ptolemaic universe if you find the idea of the Earth being at the center of everything "romantic"?

And then there is Buntz's statement that religion has led to moral nihilism. He, however, does not make it clear how exactly we can lay the blame on religion's doorstep. He doesn't show how the morality and the narrative of, for example, Christianity are no longer relevant. The Ten Commandments still seem like good guides to moral behavior. The only support he offers seems to be that religion is guilty because it is not "updated." It seems simply that Buntz is bored with old religions and wants something new. Suppose I were to say I was bored with the theory of gravity and decided to say that instead we are held to the Earth by magnets that were put into us at birth, because I find the latter explanation more interesting.

But it goes further than that. I think that if Buntz -- or anybody else -- were to truly examine Christianity, he would find its claims to be as interesting, arresting, fresh, exciting and joyful as they were to the early Christians. Just because something isn't new, temporally speaking, doesn't mean it can't be novel. As C.S. Lewis once said, "The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened."

Christianity has all the qualities of myth, the emotional satisfaction that Buntz seems so desperately to desire. It has all the striking novelty of any myth or narrative that Buntz could come up with. To argue that Christianity is to blame for moral nihilism because it is not exciting enough reveals, I think, a lack of true understanding of its claims.

Nevertheless, people should not believe Christianity, or anything else, simply for its emotional satisfaction. To quote C.S. Lewis once more, "In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort [or romanticism or anything else] is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth -- only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair."

He might as well have been speaking to Buntz.