In American Greatness, Roger Kimball quotes from Christopher Lasch,
“We have become too proficient in making excuses for ourselves—worse, in making excuses for the ‘disadvantaged.’ We are so busy defending our rights (rights conferred, for the most part, by judicial decree) that we give little thought to our responsibilities. We seldom say what we think, for fear of giving offense. We are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has to be earned. Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative lifestyles and communities.’ This is a tourist’s approach to morality. Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed characters, natural gifts put to good use. It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance.”
Lasch takes great pains to encourage us to abandon both pessimism and optimism for the more modest virtue of hope. There is much to recommend this. In any robust sense of the word, optimism involves turning a blind eye to the “odious facts” of the world around us just as pessimism involves a monstrous ingratitude in the face of the unearned blessings we receive. Both involve a culpable distortion of reality.
But what is perhaps most noteworthy is the way Lasch attempts to salvage some margin of religious commitment from the stern diagnosis he offers. Traditionally, of course, religion has functioned in part as a source of existential consolation. Lasch would have us downplay that aspect of religious teaching, eager, as always, to combat the tendency to “make people feel good about themselves.” For Lasch “the spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion.” A person with “a proper understanding of religion,” he says, would see it not as “a source of intellectual and emotional security,” but as “a challenge to complacency and pride.” There is of course something to this. For pride is assuredly the enemy of religious life. But how touching, how sad, really, that even here, even when it was a matter of life’s ultimate mysteries, we find Lasch arguing against the possibility of consolation or solace.
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