Friday, August 17, 2007

Lippmann's Answer to the Death of Faith

A few months ago I drove up to Vermont for work. I go there periodically to meet with my boss, who lives in one of those blessed spots where every kind of rustic beauty is on excessive display: uncut grass in pastures, the gray expanse of Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks in shadows on the other side. There's even a covered bridge in this picture, but why gild the lily?

Last year my boss moved her mom and dad, whose health is fragile, from New York to a house just a mile down the road from her, on the edge of the lake, and now her parents can watch the westerly light on the mountains at sunset. According to them, that's what they've always wanted - a house situated just this way, with this lovely view. Now, toward the ends of their lives, they finally have it.

Her dad, who is known within the family as Baba, is something of a period piece. Necessarily, I suppose. (Actually her mom, Ann, is too. They're New York Jewish liberal agnostics of a particular middle-class, middle-century sort. One time Ann said to Baba, "Remember in the '70s when every cocktail party you went to, everyone was in psychoanalysis?")

On this particular trip Baba pointed out a book he'd just picked up at a second-hand shop. Apparently he'd seen Andy Rooney on television saying that if his house was on fire, it's the one thing he'd grab on the way out the door. Since they're of the same generation and sensibility, this impressed Baba, and he found the book. It's A Preface to Morals, by Walter Lippmann, which looked, from his copy, like it'd been out of print for decades. Since Baba and I are totally simpatico, I promised him I'd find a copy, too, so we could read it in tandem. (In turn, he promised me he'd look up "Call It Sleep," a new favorite of mine which more or less tells his own story of immigrant Jewish life in New York.)

Anyway, I found the Lippmann book on Amazon and now have it in front me. It's all about the inexorable death of religious faith, and how at this point, even people who want to believe can't quite do it. In a sense, unbelief has always been part of faith. Throughout history, from the Greeks on, the orthodoxy of any period has spun off liberalizing dissenters, who in turn become the authors of a new orthodoxy, and on and on. But there's a natural end to the cycle, he says, and our modern society has arrived at it.

Lippmann is writing in 1929, when the loss of religious certainty (and authority) no doubt seemed certain to have dire, imminent consequences. From his perspective, there is no natural substitute for religious faith, though we'll keep on living in search of one. Faith made us comfortable; science makes us anxious.

So what next? Is there an answer, or just more anemic grasping for a faith we can all sign onto, whatever that may be? All signs are that Lippmann's going to propose something. I'll be reading avidly to find out what.

1 comment:

petersim said...

Speaking of faith you have got to check out this book: " The view from the center of the Universe." exploring the new shift from God to the total universe.

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