Monday, December 22, 2008

Fire and brimstone

Kyle Gann links to an article by Christopher Hitchens on the upcoming inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama. Obama has chosen megachurch pastor Rick Warren to officiate at the event, and Hitchens - along with many others - objects to the Warren's socially conservative political views. What's interesting about this, however, is that instead of targeting Warren's more controversial pronouncements - including some extremely tasteless and inflammatory remarks about gay marriage and abortion - Hitchens targets his belief that only Christians will get into heaven. The problem isn't that Warren has compared women who have abortions to Nazis - the problem is that Warren doesn't extend the evangelical Christian concept of heaven to Jews and Mormons. Or, to put it more simply: Warren thinks that people who don't fulfill the Christian criteria for salvation will not be saved.

Hitchens, in other words, is tapping into a uniquely irritating tradition of half-baked, dorm room postmodernism. In order to be acceptable for Hitchens's purposes, a Christian has to cut his brain in half - one half of your brain (the half you keep strictly to yourself) thinks that Christianity is true, while the other (the half you use in polite conversation) thinks there is no objective truth to any religion and all ideologies are equally correct. This not only prevents a person from having any sort of unified worldview, but makes nonsense of any sort of logic. Inasmuch as Christianity makes positivistic statements about the nature of reality, it makes statements that are either true or false:

(Christianity is true if and only if all of its key doctrinal statements are true.)

Since each of those true/false doctrinal statements conflicts with claims made by other religions, it follows that Christianity is not compatible with those other religions. A key Christian doctrine, for example, is the divinity of Christ. If this doctrine is incorrect, there is no foundation to the Christian faith whatsoever. You can assert, as the Muslims do, that Jesus was a prophet but not divine; you can assert, as most other major religions do, that Jesus was an important historical figure but not a prophet; you can assert, as Tom Harpur has, that Jesus never existed. You cannot, however, claim that all four groups are equally correct on this issue: that is nonsense, and would be accepted as such in any other area of historical inquiry.

Yet somehow, this watered-down, parlour nihilism became sufficiently prevalent in society that a journalist like Hitchens would take it up deliberately to make an historical point. I say deliberately because Hitchens, as an outspoken atheist, has made it clear that he doesn't believe all religions to be equally correct: he believes they're all wrong. At the end of the article, he lets the secret slip by admitting that the best alternative to Warren is a "dignified old hypocrite with no factional allegiance". He knows that he's holding Christianity to an impossible standard - the only alternative is doublethink and hypocrisy - but he also knows that his readership is too besotted by postmodernist fuzzy thinking to realize this.

. . . and here I should make the disclaimer that I have no love for Rick Warren or the ultraprotestant, socially conservative McChristianity that he represents. My point is simply the obvious one that "cultural sensitivity" does not obviate the need for logic.

Why am I posting this on a music blog? Unfortunately, the Relativism Lite school of philosophy has spread from ethics, where it originated, westward into metaphysics and eastward into aesthetics, where it affects us. The people who claim that all religions are equally correct have doppelgangers in the musical world; they're the people who claim that all musical traditions have equal aesthetic quality, or that Bach and Beethoven are only considered great because of our societal indoctrination, and that if things had turned out differently we would be listening to Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf or Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre instead. In either case, their basic claim is that our musical tastes are totally subjective - we're blinkered by our cultural prejudices and neurobiological peculiarities, and are incapable of hearing music the way others do. Take this attitude to its logical conclusion, and we all become automata: incapable of communicating our musical experience to others, unable to expand our horizons, and bereft of any aesthetic judgment of our own.

. . . and here I must make the inevitable disclaimer that this attitude does not imply contempt for other musics than the Western classical tradition. Rather than saying that all musical traditions are equally valuable from an aesthetic standpoint, I would say that they are valid in different ways: the style of Mahler is terrific for building large-scale symphonic structures, but not so great for more intimate, concise utterances, or for providing a context for improvisation. When you open yourself to the possibility that all musics might not be of equal aesthetic worth, the logical next step is to compare them, to try to understand them, and to figure out what their relative strengths and weaknesses might be. It's one thing to avoid the rush to judgment: it's another to claim that judgment is impossible.

Proof of the poisonous nature of this aesthetic is everywhere. Consider the CBC's decision to gut its intelligent classical programming in favour of easy-listening in prime time and Lite Klassics during the day: if you don't believe that music has any objective value beyond its cultural milieu, why would you ever devote programming time to any genre that didn't have wide popularity? Or look at the appalling state of liturgical music in churches across the country: if you believe that people's cultural surroundings completely predetermine their aesthetic tastes, and your congregation seems to enjoy bad imitations of '70s folk rock, why would you perform anything else? I think that in retrospect, our current cultural problems will turn out to have been intellectual ones: fuzzy thinking, high-school-cafeteria relativism, and a false distinction between form (aesthetics; culture) and function (ethics; politics).

In other news, I think I have just become the first person ever to cite Christopher Hitchens in a discussion of aesthetics. If all of my site hits in the next month come from people searching for information about him on Google, I will be annoyed.

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