Wednesday, November 28, 2012

All Talk and No Hope?


Name one of the world's most prestigious present-day philosophers!

If you immediately said, "Charles Taylor," then you're probably not a conservative Republican.  In fact, you're probably an intellectual, and likely are reading this blog essay because you like to go slumming across the Internet every now and then.

Otherwise, you be excused for being as blank-headed as I was when it comes to the subject of renowned, contemporary philosophers.  I don't follow philosophy, even though I spout my own philosophical opinions often enough.  I took some philosophy in my liberal arts college days, but little of it has stuck with me as I live out real life beyond academia.

So when a college professor acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook an advertisement for Charles Taylor's visit to Baylor University, the first "Charles Taylor" that popped up into my brain was Liberia's evil ex-president, who is serving a 50-year prison term for war crimes.  That Charles Taylor reportedly once cut into the stomach of a pregnant woman to learn the fetus' gender so he could win a bet.

Perhaps knowing Charles Taylor, the African warlord, instead of Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, says more about me than I care to admit.  Suffice it to say, seeing that name in conjunction with a lecture being posted by this college professor, a devout evangelical, made me take a closer look.  And I learned that the "good" Charles Taylor is an Oxford-educated professor specializing in political and religious impacts on the way we think.  And how the way we think impacts politics and religion.  He's won both the 2007 Templeton Prize and the 2008 Kyoto Prize, which is Japan's version of Sweden's Nobel.

Searching For Answers

The event was yesterday, in Waco, which is an hour and a half drive from my home.  I had already finished most of my article due today for Crosswalk, and I figured traffic shouldn't be too bad on a Tuesday (the interstate between here and Waco is notoriously congested, thanks to Texas' low taxes which barely fund of our highway department).  I conducted some quick Internet research on this guy, and learned that while he's a political liberal, he's also a practicing Roman Catholic, not your typical atheist intellectual.

If anything else, maybe he could explain why liberals of faith are so in love with Barak Obama.

So I went.

The room was arranged with seating for about 100, but the chairs were already full, people lined the walls, and general confusion permeated the air as I stepped in.  "Wow," I thought.  "This guy must really be famous."

"...Either that, or a lot of Baylor's professors told their students attending this lecture would be easy extra credit work."

To be accurate, I wasn't attending the official lecture that Taylor was scheduled to deliver.  That would be in the evening, in a larger auditorium elsewhere on campus.  But I wasn't interested in staying for that.  This little "conversation," as Baylor was calling it, would be just fine.  Taylor would be fielding questions from a moderator and the audience with Dr. James Davison Hunter, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia.  I suspected that plenty of social science jargon would be tossed about in a stilted, high-handed manner, and the less formality to the setting, in my opinion, the better.

Formality was certainly out the window by the time dozens more people had managed to squeeze themselves into what Baylor called a "drawing room."  A baby grand piano sat in one corner, so I folded myself up and squeezed onto its bench, which was pinched between a wall and the keyboard.  It wasn't comfortable, but I was seated and out of the way.

And, as I figured, Taylor and Hunter pontificated about "sources," "narratives," and other vague buzz-words intended to fancifully describe the ordinary ways you and I communicate and interact.  When somebody removes their audience from the discussion, as academics are prone to do, and talk in ways that implicate everybody else outside the room, it's easy to sound very pompous and disconnected, whether you're genuinely trying to or not.  So right there, I was reminded to not be pompous and disconnected here on this blog.

Ostensibly a question-and-answer format between Taylor and Hunter, the "conversation" camped out for a long while on abstract themes, like the theories of Émile Durkheim, considered to be the father of sociology, whose name I surprised myself by remembering from my college days.

Finally, when it came time for the audience to ask questions, several commoners in the crowd tried to wrest some practical applications from Taylor and Hunter.  The audience seemed to lean in, hoping for morsels of relevance as take-aways for what, since they were mostly young college students, could affirm their hope for altruistic empowerment.

Unfortunately, little was stated succinctly, or was even all that groundbreaking.  I took a notepad with me and intended on taking notes throughout the "conversation," but nothing was said that either I didn't already know, hadn't already heard before, or brought fresh insight into how people of faith can better vote their faith.  Perhaps more than anything else, it was this complete lack of brilliance that struck me about Taylor, not to mention Hunter, and even their audience.

As he finished his final comments, Taylor lamented that he didn't have any answers to the problems audience members had identified about this month's elections.  Although he'd managed to take what all of us know about our partisan stalemate and slap some academic lipstick on it, all he and Hunter offered was a repackaging of the problems.  Some fancy terminology, of course, but no solutions.  Not even any hit that solutions are out there.

Answers Blowing In the Wind?

Granted, if solutions to America's political problems could be described in a little over an hour, Taylor and Brown wouldn't be doing so in a parlor on the ground floor of a college dormitory in Waco, Texas.  But there wasn't even any attempt, by this Roman Catholic, the professor from Virginia who specializes in religion, and the moderator of the event at a Baptist institution, to point to our one Source of hope.

By looking at the faces of people in the audience, I could tell what many of us must have been thinking:  "boy, that was a waste of time.  An hour and fifteen minutes of my life I'll never get back."

When a final, half-hearted invitation to the evening's keynote lecture was over, the room emptied in a rush, as attendees appeared anxious to get on with something - anything - more meaningful in their day.  Considering how full the room had been, and how congested its traffic flow had become after a number of folding chairs had been hastily brought in at the last minute, few people seemed interested in loitering about.

For those of you who may not be aware, Baylor University is affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination.  Yes, that Baptist group.  Not that Baylor plays by as strict a rulebook as some of the denomination's more conservative, traditional churches do.  It's certainly more of a "Christian" school than Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University are here in Texas, and it would still seem downright dowdy to an Ivy Leaguer, but recently, some conservative Baptists have been lamenting what appears to be Baylor's slow slide towards religious relativism.

If that religious relativism had anything to do with the dispiriting, doleful session with Taylor yesterday, then I think conservative Baptists have a right to be concerned.  As the conversation dwindled down to a discouraging assessment of how American Christians seem content to let intransigence over politics become their new religion, it apparently never occurred to Taylor, Hunter, or the moderator to remind us all that God is still in control.  He's in control of President Obama, He was in control of our recent election, and we can trust that He is in control of our country's future.

We don't know what that future looks like, and as mortals, we don't understand how God uses us to accomplish His sovereign will for each of us individually, our nation, and our world.  Maybe acknowledging the inability of their social sciences to get an "actionable" grip on what's going on in our world would have been unprofessional of the participants.

And, to the extent that professional philosophers tend to have an aversion towards implicitly instructing people how to behave, then I can understand why Taylor didn't give his audience a punchlist of tactics for re-energizing Christians to engage voters with whom we might not agree.  It was still odd, though, since Taylor, at least by his bio, appears to be a big believer in the power of big government.

That's why I said earlier that most conservative Republicans likely don't know who Taylor is.  Most conservatives would probably say that generating private wealth is the answer to America's problems.  Which doesn't reflect the truth of the Bible either, does it?

God should be our peace, despite whatever is happening politically.  The answers don't come from ourselves, or science, or money.  They come from Him.

As I drove back home, and the orange sun set across the brown ranchland stretching between Waco and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the temperature in my car dipped as the sun did.

Only the heater didn't ward off all the chill I felt.

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