Last week I went fist-to-face with one of the “new atheists,” John Derbyshire of National Review. It’s not like I make a habit of badgering those who don’t share the gift of faith. Only God can give that out. At our best, we’re His bicycle messengers. We really can help people cut the twine and remove the bubble wrap — or we can act all squirrelly and suspicious, and make folks refuse delivery, in case the box is brimming with anthrax spores.
But Derbyshire’s latest blast at folks with faith was just plain insulting, so bullying and intemperate that I felt justified in giving him the Full Frontal Zmirak. That’s the intellectual equivalent of the scene in Animal House when a toga-clad John Belushi grabs a folk-singer’s guitar and smashes it to bits. Then he shrugs and mutters, “Sorry.”
What drove me to it? Just this: Derbyshire had the gall to suggest that belief in Christ is a dodge for the timid, a happy little tale we tell ourselves. You know, wishful thinking.
It’s clear that Derbyshire was never an orthodox Catholic teenager. You guys out there who have been through that know what I mean: Spend enough time tightrope walking on a scapular string over the flames of hell, and you learn to agree with Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte — who answers Charles Ryder’s question in Brideshead Revisited:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”
“Is it nonsense? I wish it were.”
Amen, brother. In fact, I’m writing a book on just this subject, laying out with my usual tactlessness the downside of our Faith — the ways in which the abiding (or is it stalking?) presence of God ruins all our fun. Not our happiness. And not our “joy,” that deep, soul satisfaction that saints are said to find in hunger and thirst, abuse, and execution — indeed, in just about whatever happens to them. I wouldn’t know.
I’m talking about the low-grade, ordinary satisfactions we fallen men have every right to expect from life — especially middle-class life in a high-tech, wealthy country that has stockpiled enough “city-buster” nuclear weapons to keep most of the world smiling at us nervously. The kind of middling, easy pleasures that make you wish you could live 500 mediocre years in which to try them.
To hell with quality time; I’m looking for Quantity Time™. There is too much Lite beer that needs drinking; there are too many raunchy Web sites I haven’t found, too many back episodes of Malcolm in the Middle I haven’t seen. To paraphrase the section of The Iliad where Achilles is offered by the gods a choice of destinies, I seek a long life, with absolutely no glory. No pain and no gain — sounds like a plan.
The one thing that bothers me, that’s always gnawed at the back of my mind, is the thought that scientists will come up with a cure for death . . . five minutes after I croak. Or at least some treatment that stops the aging process and lets us all stick around for centuries.
Of course, that would mean most of us will have to stop having children. (The American Catholics who are faithful to Humanae Vitae — all 72 of them — will turn down this deal, and if they’re not all interned behind chicken wire somewhere in Idaho, they’ll go right on filling up minivans with kids christened Patrick and Lucia, and sticking out on the road like Amish buggies: “Warning — Procreating Vehicle.”)
The rest of us will take those red-brick public schools — to which we Catholic kids in New York were always warned we might be sent if we misbehaved, so we could get stabbed — and turn them into Adult Recreational Facilities. Since we won’t really be aging so much as slowly growing stale, these won’t need to be like nursing homes, with low impact calisthenics, Wednesday afternoon bingo games, and chipper dance instructors named Amy and Pablo to teach us all the Electric Slide.
No, with perfect health, generic Viagra, and organs replicated at need by handy stem cells, we can go right on living like Baby Boomers — refusing at once to grow old or grow up. In fact, I predict a certain amount of regression as we wade through our second or third century of Quantity Time™. For my 200th birthday, I bet I’ll be drinking Jello tequila shots and playing Twister with some perky young blonde who’s half my age. We can put the “Adult” back into Adult Recreational Facility.
Of course, this isn’t really a substitute for the resurrection of the body — but at least it doesn’t require that pesky cross.
Next week, I’ll delve more deeply into this theme, and offer a preview of the next book I’m working on, whose full title is We Regret to Inform You that Christ Is Risen: Seven Key Aspects of Life Where Jesus Spoils Our Fun. Those seven areas, as I’ll explain next Tuesday, are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
Christ: What a buzzkill.