I’m on the closing leg of the epic and definitive literary criticism tome of Bob Dylan’s catalog, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, and author Christopher Ricks closes with a section on Dylan’s ‘born-again’ phase. He, to his credit, takes no time in taking Dylan’s fans to task for neglecting, bemoaning or otherwise pooh-poohing the Christian years. Ricks:
I myself am not a Christian believer, being an atheist. One delight of Dylan’s Christian songs can arise from finding (to your surprise and not chagrin) that your own system of beliefs doesn’t have a monopoly of intuition, sensitivity, scruple, and concern. Most Dylan-lovers are presumed to be liberals, and the big trap for liberals is always that our liberalism may make us very illiberal about other people’s sometimes letting us down by declining to be liberals. The illiberal liberal has a way of pretending that the page he would rather not read is illegible …
[Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, p. 379]
Politics–particularly current polarized politics–notwithstanding, Western civilization is inherently liberal: classic liberalism espouses freedom and the ability to explore and pursue the truth for ourselves. Not that everyone comes to their own truth, which would be, in Ricks’ term and viewpoint, illiberal and I would add self-referentially incoherent, but that we are able to, if not obtain truth outright, at least come to a close approximation to it. The writer’s forthrightness in the shortcomings of modern liberalism–shortcomings which are also ubiquitous across and amongst the social strata–is welcomed.
It is the last sentence which best sums up the current situation: our tendency to receive disagreeing perspective as not different, or not even disagreeable, but unintelligible. It is no surprise that the unrefined person will, when confronted with a contrary position, default to ad hominem, which is exactly what Ricks is talking about above. The folk crowd loved Dylan until he went electric, at which point they hated him. The rock and roll scenesters loved Dylan until he had a religious experience and began singing (and preaching) about it. As a result, these fanchildren have taken Dylan’s narrative and revised and redacted it to emphasize his folk era and the rock and roll triumvirate par excellence: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde. He’s a legend because of those works and in spite of his religious years. We don’t count those.
Never mind that those records are just as inspired–perhaps moreso, given the subject matter–as those early works which turned American pop music on its head.
The fact is that we are all believers. At our very essence as persons, we believe. And that belief is religious in nature, because it has to be, and because it is the governing principle of our lives. Similarly, we all, if we are in any way honest, doubt: when the governing principle of our lives is challenged, belief in God or nothing transcendent, belief in liberty or governmental control, Stones or Beatles, it causes us anxiety.
Thus all of us are saved by grace: for the Christian, that carries a specific connotation–that we get what we don’t deserve. But the problem there is with what it is we exactly deserve. Do those who disagree deserve damnation? I won’t speak to that religiously, at least not directly. But it’s a tyrannical position to hold, one to which we humans are generally not entitled, when we consider other vantage points not merely as points of disagreement, but outright unintelligibility. This goes hand-in-hand with a recent post on unity and liberty, rather than against it; the point here is not that everyone gets along, but that none of us have it all together. Pursuit of truth is a messy thing, and if we are going to challenge the belief structure of another, we’d better be sure that we’re doing so in a way which is intellectually honest and personally gracious. To this extent, I largely speak to myself, though I do provide one caveat: when a person becomes so closely identified with a specific movement or train of thought that s/he is personally compromised by irrational commitment to it, then I believe it’s open season. (I call this the Calvinist clause.)
For example, I cringe when I see a supposed expose of a group of people which purports to be ‘honest’ or the ‘truth behind’ x; usually that’s the tell-tale sign that 1) it’s not going to be honest, and 2) they’re going to disagree with said group. It’s neither honest nor charitable. One needs not challenge the rhetoric or the argument, just the psychological point that this group of people is personally aggrieved with that group. That’s not a matter of theology or philosophy or politics, but of pride (not that these are always mutually exclusive, mind you.)
Yes, there are things we know, but we ought not conflate what we know with what we simply believe. If we believe in the resurrection of Christ, we will, as Ricks notes, view competing religious viewpoints, both within and without Christianity, as inane. If we know it happened, we will hold a position of certainty, but tempered with the grace of knowing that we don’t deserve it, either. It’s not that we’re all right, it’s that we’re all wrong.
What we believe should humble us, while what we know should make us humble. Belief does not, and never will, give us the license to be jerks in the name of the cause. If anything, jerkiness denigrates the cause. So often we readily blaspheme what we believe to be sacred that it’s amazing to think we are capable of reaching for anything of meaning at all.
Grace, then, is the most humiliating virtue of all.