Buckley on Belief

Published November 1, 1997

Books & Culture

William F. Buckley says he has never been tentative about his faith. But then, he’s never been talkative about it either.

Buried in the middle of this interview with William F. Buckley, Jr., is an extraordinary statement. Buckley, who has given hundreds of addresses on college and university campuses, remarks that “I’ve never been invited in my life to give a college speech or a seminar about which the subject of religion was discussed. It’s like a subtle sequestration that religion is something that you do on your own, and it’s disruptive to bring it up.”

That datum, which at first strikes the reader as incredible, confirms the diagnosis offered in George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief and Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. But it also says something about Buckley himself. As an editor, columnist, tv host, novelist, and the pre-eminent spokesman for conservatism in his generation, Buckley has never made a secret of his strong Christian faith, yet he confesses to a temperamental reticence. “I am not trained in the devotional mode, nor disposed to it,” he writes–nor, one might add, the evangelical mode.

That is precisely what makes his new book, Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (Doubleday, 313 pp.; $24.95), unique: Here, for the first time, Buckley writes at length about his faith, about some of the principal obstacles to Christian belief (despite self-deprecating comments concerning his lack of theological training, he displays considerable powers as an apologist), and about the distinctive experience of a Roman Catholic in the twentieth century.

In September, Michael Cromartie met with Buckley in New York at the offices of National Review to talk about his book and to get his sense of the state of Christendom at the end of the millennium.

Many years ago Garry Wills said this of you: “Being Catholic always mattered more to him than being conservative.” Is he right?

If he meant he has a higher loyalty to God than to civil society, then the answer is obvious: God has to be pre-eminent.

Why did you write this book?

It was the idea of a publisher. I undertook it, and after a year or so despaired of doing the reading I thought necessary to consummate it, so I gave it up. Then two years later, I got that little itchy feeling that one ought not give up the occasional challenge to do service to one’s Maker, so I undertook to return to it. Three or four years later, that is what materialized.

You say in your book, “I grew up in a large family of Catholics without even a decent ration of tentativeness among the lot of us about our religious faith.” Were you really never tentative about your faith? Never?

No, I never was. I know one brother who was, but he lay down and got over it.

How do you explain your own steadfastness?

Grace. I understand the nature of temptation, and I understand that the reach of temptation gets to almost everybody. But to the extent that one anticipates that possibility, in my case one has to reaffirm the postulates. And I never found any problem or conflict with these postulates and Christian doctrine. Which is a subject that I touch in this book. Therefore, I was never won over to skepticism, though skepticism can be very alluring. The Devil can be very alluring.

So the skeptical questions never got the best of you.

No, no. I wonder about them abstractly. Arnold Lunn, for instance, once asked, “How can an all-forgiving God be so adamantine on the subject of sin, ordaining perpetual torture and misery?” Now, abstractly, I have wondered about that. But my sense of question or bewilderment takes the form of “How can it be so?” not “Is it so?”

You describe in your book a debate between Monsignor Knox and Arnold Lunn, where they discuss who deserves eternal damnation.

Lunn’s question was:

You had a sexual night out and you wake up the next morning with a heart attack, and you don’t have an opportunity to be contrite, does that mean you go to hell? To which Knox said, “God’s not going to send anybody to hell who doesn’t belong there.” And that answer had a miraculous effect on Lunn’s skepticism.

You have some very moving pages about your mother and the naturalness of her relationship with God. You say, “Her worship of Him was as intense as that of a saint transfixed. And His companionship was as that of an old and very dear friend.” And then you say about her that she had the “habit of seeing the best in everyone” and “a humorous spark in her eye.” And she never broke her rule of “never, ever to complain, because, she explained, she could never repay God the favors He had done her, no matter what tribulations she might be made to suffer.” She had a great influence on you, too.

Well, she did. She had a great influence on all her children. She was a devoted mother and a superb human being. There is a sense in which one has to resist the temptation to assign a uniqueness to her. Which we nevertheless thought was hers.

So both your parents had a great influence on your own faith, both your father’s devotion and your mother’s godly example?

Yes, they did. My father was never in any sense ostentatious about his faith. But, as I think I explain somewhere in the book, if I stumbled into his bedroom just before he left in the morning for wherever he was going, one would find him on his knees praying.

You say in your book, “There is something about the modern disposition that compels even those who believe in Him to keep all such matters tidily secluded in one’s own tent. I am one of many millions who attend church on Sundays, receive the sacrament, say every day a prayer, particularly when a friend is ailing or gone; and yet I shrink from any religious communication that could possibly be thought intrusive.” Now why is this? Is this temperamental, or does it say something about the modern disposition?

I think it’s the culture. I think I mention in the book that all of Ephesus rejoiced when word came in after a church council that they affirmed the Homoousian view of Christ. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. But then I am, by nature, indisposed to bring up religious matters uninvited. I just don’t do it. For that reason, I won’t turn to someone, as Bishop Fulton Sheen did to the skeptical journalist Heywood Broun. Sheen phoned Broun and Broun said, “What are you calling me about?” And Sheen said, “Your immortal soul.” It was very providential, because years later Broun became a Christian. But I don’t have that kind of evangelistic skill or inclination.

Yet you admire it in others. You talk about going to a prison with Charles Colson and hearing him preach.

That’s different, because Charles Colson is a missionary, and he accepts the mandate of public instruction.

But there is something about the effect of secularization that creates in the modern disposition a difficulty about discussing things that are theological and transcendent in nature.

Yes, it does. It’s sort of like asking about your sex life. People consider it rude. You almost have to have a rubric that is specifically inviting: “Let’s talk about God.” That rubric isn’t all that hard to arrange, and yet it is not done very much. I’ve never been invited in my life to give a college speech or a seminar about which the subject of religion was discussed. It’s like a subtle sequestration that religion is something that you do on your own, and it’s disruptive to bring it up.

Now if someone came to you in a broken and contrite state and said to you, “My life is a mess and I’ve just read your new book Nearer, My God, and I want to meet God,” it wouldn’t be difficult for you to respond to that plea?

No, but what I would do is find somebody more skillful than I to send them to. If someone came to me and said, “I am a sinner,” I would say, “I’ll help you in any way I can.” But I could think of many more people who’d be more skillful and have had more experience in doing this sort of thing than I have.

What thinkers have most influenced you theologically?

I’m asked that question every now and then; I can never answer it to the interviewer’s satisfaction or even my own, because it’s like asking for favorite books. I don’t know what my favorite books are. They sort of melt into a deposit. And that deposit is not easy to pull apart and say, “Here’s Saint Thomas, or Saint Augustine, or G. K. Chesterton.” Chesterton fascinates me stylistically, and of course he is enormously profound. Although I’ve read a lot of Chesterton, I would be wrong to say that he was in any sense a Holy Grail in terms of my itinerary. You have to remember that I began as a believer. So that it isn’t as though in my youth I was in search of something that I suddenly discovered, like finding the woman you marry. I’m a theological novice, but I simply assume that the Christian prism tends to inform Christians, whatever they are reading. In that sense, I feel the ubiquity of the Christian ideal. I like to think that Christianity is universally informative. Whatever you do, there is always something there that consoles, guides, or inhibits.

Broadly speaking, there are two views of the state of the church at the end of the twentieth century. Some observers see the church in decline and retreat under the onslaught of secularization. Others see a robust presence of the church in the great moral debates of the day and perhaps even something of a religious renewal going on. How do you see the state of things?

To the extent that the lessons of Christianity are needed, their need is accentuated by the extent to which they are not heeded. So when you have a rise in crime, illegitimacy, a lack of concern for others, despair or suicide, that is in a sense a tropism that reminds you that Christianity can help in understanding a phenomenon of that kind. Now, I think the figure is that roughly 90 percent of Americans believe in God, while in England only 5 percent of the people know why Easter’s a holiday. Both of those reports may be misleading. But whatever the current measures of belief or disbelief, we know the world has gone through these things before, and one has to assume that when Christ promised that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against us, he didn’t mean that just three people would still believe. He must have meant something more general than that. There are young people, 18, 19, 20 years old, who are deciding every day to give their lives to spread the Word. Their willingness to do that suggests the inherent vibrancy of the Christian faith, and in that vibrancy I profoundly believe. To what extent it will reach people and help thwart the intentions of the modern academy, which is explicitly opposed to Christianity, it’s hard to say.

This is interesting, because you once described yourself as a philosophical pessimist who remained a temperamental optimist. Let me put it this way and see if you agree: Your philosophical pessimism is rooted in your belief in the fallenness of our human nature. And your temperamental optimism is rooted in God’s sovereignty and God’s ability to take chaos and bring renewal and revival in the world.

I think that’s fair, but I would add to that a sort of personal ebulliency that sustains me. I’m likelier to say that the bottle is half full than half empty.

Do you think that is rooted in a religious confidence?

No, I don’t think so. For example, Malcolm Muggeridge always talked about how Christendom was something that had ended–that we are now in effect back in the subterranean channels, having to do it all over again. And yet he was also, by nature, very happy and amusing. I should like to think that the inherent vibrancy of Christianity is waiting to be understood and appreciated. Mind you, I move among a set of people who are the intelligentsia. They are among the most deprived. If one were moving among most other sets of people, one would feel less loneliness in this matter. It is one thing to consult only with the faculty of Yale but quite another to consult the Civic Council of Columbus, Ohio. Christianity is more likely to be a staple part of their lives.

You discuss in your book George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. When you wrote God and Man at Yale, did you ever believe that it could get this bad?

Yes, because it seemed to me that it was so bad in 1949 and 1950 that the vector was pretty plain. Really, there is not such an enormous difference between how it was in the 1950s and in 1997. What has changed is that any attempt to deny the imperial reach of secularist skepticism is increasingly implausible.

You have sympathy for libertarian views. Are you at all concerned that libertarianism sometimes encourages moral relativism and sometimes spills over to loosen moral restraint?

Oh, absolutely; very much so. The libertarian hubris–Ayn Rand took it to its extreme–really suggests the only thing that matters is your own satisfaction. Now, they will subtly acknowledge that your satisfaction might be affected by philanthropic enterprises, but that does strike me as cynical. What they are saying is that what matters is not that you have helped the poor; what matters is that you feel better, and if you feel better, then you are simply exercising your rights under a libertarian order. What they refuse to accept, what is denounced under Randism, is altruism. It is the notion that you might help the poor because you feel it is the right thing to do.

I am a presumptive libertarian, which is to say I believe a very hard case has to be made before the intervention of the state, but the presumption is rebuttable. In many ways, a libertarian would say it’s not rebuttable, it’s absolute.

In the book, you have some disagreements with the Catholic church concerning birth control and you have some ambivalence about annulments. Is Humanae Vitae binding on all Catholics?

Humanae Vitae is a papal teaching; it’s never been enunciated as ex cathedra. So the question, Does one need to go to confession if one uses birth control? is differently interpreted by different Catholic theologians. Some say yes; some say no, if there is no sense of sin. I discuss that at some length in the book. I tend to feel that it’s not only safe but correct to be guided by the presumptive correctness of the papal teaching in the matter. But there is something discomfiting in the knowledge that while birth control is exercised approximately in the same ratio among Protestants and among Catholics, there is no sense of reticence by Catholic women when they go to the Communion rail. So manifestly, they don’t feel this as a disqualifying moral weight. They may be making a theological mistake or a mistake in docility. But I don’t think they are consciously flouting Christian doctrine; otherwise, they wouldn’t be in the church in the first place.

So encyclicals are not binding; they are teaching instruments?

Encyclicals are a form of exercising the magisterium. The magisterium is the teaching authority of the church. The pope uses his encyclicals to make occasional pronouncements. The current pope feels very strongly, as did Pope Paul, on this particular subject, but I guess what I am saying is that if 10 or 15 years from now, if there is a modification of Humanae Vitae, I don’t think it will be deeply troubling to most Catholic theologians. It will be to some. One of the things that attracted Malcolm Muggeridge to the church was Humanae Vitae.

You write that we need to “nurture an ethos and to revive an ethos.” Tell us what you mean by that.

It is very difficult to effect an ethos, but that doesn’t mean that an ethos oughtn’t to be addressed as something that is remediable. I gave as an example anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was endemic when I was a boy. But what happened was that the Holocaust compelled people to confront that delinquency. It happened with blacks also. And the ethos did change. There is some anti-Semitism now, sure, but nothing like what there used to be. When I was at Yale, the first Jewish professor to achieve tenure arrived about the same time I did. So the difference between then and now is simply enormous. By the same token, if one wants to beat back the idea that sex ought to always be an entirely permissive exercise–just when you feel like it–one mustn’t be resigned to the opposition that it is an unmodifiable part of the ethos. Assaults on it and criticism of it can be offered. And therefore an ethos can be changed and revived.

Once when defining conservatism you said it is the “tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us.” What did you mean?

I wrote that in 1957. What I meant was that it is inconceivable to me as a Christian that God forgot to say critical things, or if there was anything terrifically important, it’s hard to think that Jesus would have forgotten to pass it along. Obviously, there are lots of refinements on the Ten Commandments and the creed. But in terms of importance, what has been said is what is important. All the rest is exegesis and development.

Source Notes
Books & Culture, Vol 3, No 6

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