Towards the end of my career as a newspaper pundit – I lasted fifteen years, and in Canada! – I wrote a column in reply to the many readers who had asked me a constructive question.
“What should we do?” they asked.
What “practical” advice could I give those who might share my weird outlook on life, so they could contribute to making their town, country, or planet, a better place?
But of course, such readers must be weird like me.
This oddness was well expressed in one of the innumerable formal complaints made against me, or more usually, against my newspaper for continuing to employ me. It was alleged that I was, “Not just conservative, but Christian; and not just Christian, but Catholic.”
(The complainant in question was not being droll. She actually thought the publication of a Catholic writer in a secular daily newspaper was a scandal of the first order; some breach of the separation of Church and State; made worse because I had publicly admitted to the charge.)
But of course, even in Canada, there were people on my side. And these often wrote letters of encouragement, or letters expressing their own despair for the future of everything they held sacred.
Among my own complaints against, let us say, my more liberal colleagues, was in effect that they were nattering nabobs of negativism. To be reasonable, this was often a defensive negativism: for on the positive side they were determined to protect the advances of the Nanny State, against the acerbic encroachments of truth and fact. Attacking the messenger was often their only recourse.
So let us be positive, I thought. I decided to present a “ten-point plan.” I explained that each of my practical suggestions would require no political action whatever. Yet each could also be accepted as a Kantian “categorical imperative,” in the sense that, if everyone did happen to follow them, or even a considerable number of people, our world would become a happier place.
I have a different audience at The Catholic Thing: fewer “hostile witnesses.” I bet several of you have already “smoaked the jest” (one of my favorite Swiftian phrases). There was mischief hidden in my “ten-point plan.”
For it was actually a paraphrase of the Ten Commandments, done into contemporary journalese. I was trying to be cute by mildly obscuring a rather obvious “secret agenda.”
My thought was, anyone with a basic education would see where I was going by the third point at latest, and would thus be riding along with the joke.
If course, a few people did get it. It was the number who evidently did not that surprised me: who wrote po-faced to complain that my suggestions were reactionary, and grievously wrong-headed – the first couple of them, outrageous; but most of the rest objectionable, too.
So be it. I am prepared, with Saint Paul and others, to expect some opposition. Perhaps less, in his day, to the purport of those Ten Commandments than we would find today, for in his era of the ancient world there seems to have been some general subscription to the notion of God, and to an “up” and “down” in morality.
Indeed, some notion of “basic decency” exists in all cultures I have encountered, and there is overlap on most important points. The idea that one should, for instance, honor one’s parents, is quite widely diffused; murder, theft, adultery, and so forth, are as likely to be discouraged by the Sheikh of al-Azhar, or the Dalai Lama, as by the Prefect in the Apostolic Signatura. There may be some variety on graven images, perhaps.
On the name and nature of the Deity, we are into a more oceanic theological debate, but even here there is remarkable agreement on the ultimate unity of things; and beyond this, that a “singularity” corresponds to that unity; and that, fundamental attributes of that singular God can be fairly guessed.
On the Muslim prayer beads, or Tasbih, for instance, some ninety-nine attributes of Allah are counted (three times around a “rosary” of thirty-three beads, divided into three sections of eleven). Consult the manual, and I think a Christian, or a Hindu or Confucian for that matter, would find no major objections, and possibly none at all. We can more or less agree that God is God; that He is merciful, compassionate, holy, all-seeing, benevolent, wise, and so forth.
As for the atheists, what can I say? There have always been atheists. Anthropologists have discovered evidence of them in even the most primitive tribal societies. But Stalin himself would refer to God, frequently in speech, and took it for granted that everyone would know what he meant by that figure of speech.
Indeed, sometimes I think the atheists have a better view of God than the believers, standing as they do at the greater distance. They can see more clearly what it is they are determined to deny. They’re too far away to miss the forest for the trees.
But of course, their denial is obtuse, and as such, not interesting.
Now, I do not expect any reader not exhaustively schooled in comparative religion to be able to recite the Tasbih, even in the wrong order, or in English instead of Arabic. It takes some memory work. But Christians living in Muslim lands, whether or not they can accomplish this feat, would know what a Muslim was doing in declaiming it, and spot a paraphrase right away.
I would also say that ten points are easier to remember than ninety-nine. (And that, two points are easier still, when it comes to that in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.)
What I find rather astonishing is that we have come to a time, not when the Ten Commandments are denied, but when a considerable part of the population has no idea what they might be. And this, notwithstanding they can read and write, after a fashion. And vote, et cetera.