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The Fundamentalist Egalitarian

September 16, 2008


It's grimly amusing sometimes to watch people who do not know much about religious faith in general, and about Christianity in particular, instructing their intellectual inferiors in the meaning of terms like "fundamentalist" and "conservative" and "liberal". It's as if a bright Labrador Retriever were to deliver opinions on the Doorknob Principle, or the Origin of Food. Or as if hundreds of television reporters, whose trade's main tool is hair spray, and who have never read a single word of Truth and Tolerance or Introduction to Christianity or any of the other hundreds of essays the man has written, should inform us about the unyielding "conservatism" of Pope Benedict XVI. It's as if I were to advise women on what it feels like to be pregnant. Or as if my feminist colleagues at school were to know, just know, that boys don't have to be what every culture in the world would recognize as boys, but could be as malleable and ductile as good little polymers poured into the forms we would like them to take.


It's all the more amusing that anyone associated with academe should cast aspersions on "fundamentalism." We ourselves don't find it amusing, though. The cause is other than our well-noted humorlessness. It is that we illuminati have made a fine and self-serving connection between Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. That connection serves the double purpose of shielding us from the charge of bigotry (because we illuminati aren't really opposed to either Christianity or Islam; we are too egalitarian for that) and absolving us of the need to take either faith seriously enough to examine their differences. And since the people we take to be Islamic fundamentalists are mostly far away and not part of our electorate, we can direct our scorn at the Christian fundamentalists who are nearby and who vote. Abdullah flies an airplane into the World Trade Center, and we react with horror that Lois the Lutheran might consider keeping the local librarian from purchasing a subscription to Penthouse. Rasheed divorces his wife for burning the soup, and we react with horror that the Scouts may be teaching boys something of manhood and chivalry. Young men in Iran are willing to kill the enemies of Allah, even women and children, and we dread that people in our midst will prevent us from killing the children we ourselves have begotten and conceived. Ishmael has four wives, and we dread that Isabel will have four children. Next time you see an Amish farmer, or a Baptist mother with a schoolroom at home, or a faithful Catholic family filling a whole pew at church, know that you are seeing the dragonish spawn of Fundamentalism, prowling about the earth, seeking whom to deflower.


But that academic definition of Fundamentalism, it turns out, cuts the people who wield it. For if to be a Fundamentalist is to affirm, in the face of common sense and human experience and plain decency and the philosophical and theological wisdom of past generations, that certain propositions about human affairs are true and must be believed by everyone and must dictate our course of action at all times, then the Academy is a great breeding ground of Fundamentalism, though it breed little else. Now there are many tenets to the Academian creed, and we might spend all day enumerating them. Thou shalt despise thy country, so that it shall go well with thee in the faculty lounge. Thou shalt bear witness against the idea of the truth. But the linchpin of them all, it seems to me, is Egalitarianism. Now that egalitarianism somehow does not alter our shabby treatment of adjunct faculty, our sucking blood from the families of our students, and our cat-clawing scramble for perks and promotions. But alas, sin will always be with us; and it is dearly to be hoped that at the Second Coming of John Dewey, that great Egalitarian Snob, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, and the lady professor will lie down with the janitor, and they shall clean out the earth.


C. S. Lewis beheld this fundamentalism long ago, and it is really ridiculous for any attentive reader of his works to suggest otherwise. As my colleague Steve Hutchens has repeatedly pointed out, it's not simply the case that Lewis was not an egalitarian. He was most ardently inegalitarian, and this inegalitarianism runs like a river through every one of his works. He was so, because he saw the goodness of inequality in Scripture, in the Renaissance and medieval poetry he loved, and in life. He saw it in the dance of erotic love between man and woman, and its consummation in Christian marriage; see Spenser's Amoretti. He saw the fascinating interplay between the beautiful woman who inspires, and the man who is inspired by her; see the Divine Comedy. He knew that the truest man, the one most worthy of his beloved's reverence, would be that man who looks upon his wife as a gift he cannot deserve, more wondrous than all the rest of the created world; see Ferdinand kneeling before Miranda in Shakespeare's Tempest. He understood that the Trinity itself reveals that union is inconceivable without distinction; hence his exaltation of the sexes in Perelandra, seeing the biological male and female as beautiful instances of the infinitely greater and more profound distinction between the essential masculine and feminine, a distinction inscribed upon the world, as Dr. Hutchens observed so eloquently in his recent editorial for Touchstone. Lewis believed in inequality, we might say, because he believed in love: that creating love of God that made the angels in all their orders bright, and made the luminous dust of the universe; the God before whom all the sons of morning sang for joy, and who humbled himself in love to assume the form of a slave, and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross. In Perelandra, King Tor is "older" than his Queen Tinidril, yet from her obedience to God, which is also her willingness not to be older than he, he has received blessings beyond his imagination, and humbly accepts the gift of a world, her gift to him. In her obedience she is royal; in his royalty he is humble. Each in a different way shows forth the face of Christ. "Each fruit is the best fruit," says the Queen, because each is an incomparable gift of the Creator, who never repeats Himself. They are all the best, because they are not the same, nor are they equal. See Piccarda's speech in Dante's Paradise. "In my Father's house there are many mansions," says Jesus.


Think of that rich and complex tapestry of virtues, humility and proper pride, reverence and condescension, royalty and childlike simplicity, bound together in the love that wishes only to shower the beloved with greater and greater blessings. Now compare that with what the Fundamentalist Egalitarian believes. It is like comparing a hillside bursting in a wild variety of blooms with the dreary homogeneity of a parking lot. But thou shalt serve the parking lot, and no other.


Posted by Anthony Esolen at 10:54

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