Thursday, October 28, 2004

Blame a Scot! - Robert Wright on George W. Bush

Robert Wright contributes a useful op-ed to the New York Times today (Faith, Hope and Clarity, 28 Oct):

Every morning President Bush reads a devotional from "My Utmost for His Highest," a collection of homilies by a Protestant minister named Oswald Chambers, who lived a century ago…

Chambers was Scottish, and he conforms to the stereotype of Scots as a bit dour (as in the joke about the Scot who responds to "What a lovely day!" by saying, "Just wait.") In the entry for Dec. 4, by way of underscoring adversity, Chambers asserts, "Everything outside my physical life is designed to cause my death."

In all things and at all times [according to Chambers], you must do God's will…But what exactly does God want? Chambers gives little substantive advice. There is no great stress on Jesus' ethical teaching - not much about loving your neighbor or loving your enemy. (And Chambers doesn't seem to share Isaiah's hope of beating swords into plowshares. "Life without war is impossible in the natural or the supernatural realm.") But the basic idea is that, once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable. "If you obey God in the first thing he shows you, then he instantly opens up the next truth to you," Chambers writes.

And you shouldn't let your powers of reflection get in the way. Chambers lauds Abraham for preparing to slay his son at God's command without, as the Bible put it, conferring "with flesh and blood."

Wright (who is a visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, is the author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny) explains he was raised a Southern Baptist, and remembers going to Calvary Baptist Church in Midland, Tex., his family's hometown as well as Mr. Bush's (though, because his father was a career soldier, he lived there only one year). He recalls the only theological pronouncement he ever heard from his father: "I don't think God tells you which car to buy."

Wright continues:

I find being human so deeply challenging that I can't imagine it without an anchoring spirituality in some sense of the word. So I respect Mr. Bush's religious impulse, and I even find Chambers's Scottish austerity true and appealing in a generic way…Still, it's another question whether Chambers's worldview, as mediated by Mr. Bush, should help shape the world's future.

Wright observes that even Chambers began to change his mind as the catastrophe of the First World War unfolded around him. And what of George W. Bush?

Some have marveled at Mr. Bush's refusal to admit any mistakes in Iraq other than "catastrophic success." But what looks like negative feedback to some of us - more than 1,100 dead Americans, more than 10,000 dead Iraqi civilians and the biggest incubator of anti-American terrorists in history - is, through Chambers's eyes, not cause for doubt. Indeed, seemingly negative feedback may be positive feedback, proof that God is there, testing your faith, strengthening your resolve.

To my mind, George W. Bush ’s logic leads, inexorably, to something akin to the situation described by Wilfred Owen in his Parable of the Old Man and the Young Man.

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