Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Alma mater misericordiae

Tonight is a homecoming of sorts, as I return to my alma mater, New York University (B.S. Communications, '89), to participate in a student-alumni roundtable.

My NYU experience led to my conversion to Christianity and eventual Catholicism, though not in the way my professors would have hoped.

In the fall of 1994, I was in my first semester of graduate school at NYU's redundantly named School of Education, majoring in — brace yourself — environmental-conservation education.

With the CD-reissue boom gone bust, my liner-note-writing assignments were drying up, so I was returning to higher-ed after a five-year absence with the aim of getting a degree that would help me get a "real job." Being that I was a good liberal with a nagging idea that I should try to make the world a better place, I chose environmental-conservation education with the aim of becoming a publicist for a group like the Natural Resource Defense Council, where I had interned in college.

In truth, I hadn't the slightest interest in environmental issues, but my sister seemed to like her job as an agricultural economist. (Sis is now a rabbi.) Plus, as a depressed loner, I was attracted to the idea of helping the Earth without having to reach out and help actual people. (My depression would be healed upon my conversion; shedding my loner status is a work in progress.)

One of the core courses for my major was in philosophies of nature. Taught by the department's heads, Thomas Colwell and Millard Clements, it purported to show how various world religions' views affected humankind's treatment of the environment.

At the time I took the course, I was a confirmed agnostic. I did have a certain respect for the Reform Judaism in which I was raised, and also respected Christianity, as my mother had converted when I was a teen and I had seen the overall positive effect of her faith on her life. However, when it came to rating various religions' beliefs, I didn't think I had a dog in that fight — any faith that was nonoppressive was OK by me.

As the course progressed, I became uneasy with the professors' teaching methods. Colwell and Clements used what I have since discovered is the common propaganda method used by liberals seeking to discredit Judeo-Christianity: When they wanted to demonstrate a "good" religion's views on the environment, they would have us read original source material, such as the Tao Te Ching, or texts from Native American mythologies. When they wanted to demonstrate the "bad" views of Judaism and Christianity, they had us read chapters from a book whose author cherry-picked Bible quotes and framed them within the author's critical commentary.

The professors' technique was so obviously propagandistic that it stirred the rebel in me. I started to phone my mother after class and ask her questions like, "Does the Bible's concept of dominion really mean that man can do whatever he wants?"

Mom pointed me to the reams of verses about responsible stewardship, such as God's instructions to the Jews on giving the land a "sabbath." I would then bring up those verses in class — and the professors could barely disguise their disdain.

Another aspect of the course that led me to question my universalistic views was learning for the first time about relativism. Colwell and Clements outlined relativism as the central philosophy upon which the environmental-conservation movement rested. They taught it as truth (as did, I would discover, the other professors in their department).

It seemed obvious to me that if relativism were truth, then relativism could not be true, as relativism teaches there is no absolute truth. Likewise, if relativism were true, then it seemed obvious that one could do whatever one pleased to the Earth, since conservation was no longer an absolute good. Again I raised my voice in class, and again I became the bane of my professors. That really bothered me, as I wanted to do well in school and couldn't for the life of me figure out why it was necessary to subscribe to relativism in order to be a good environmentalist.

A year later, as a grad-school dropout, I was conducting a phone interview with Sugarplastic lead singer  Ben Eshbach when I asked the musician what he was currently reading. He replied, "The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton."

I subsequently bought the book, expecting some P.G. Wodehouse kind of thing [warning: spoilers ahead]. Instead, I was broadsided by the novel's stunning assault upon relativism. Chesterton, who was writing in 1907, did not mention the philosophy by name, but it was instantly recognizable to me in the pronouncements of the novel's anarchist villain.

The book was centered around a philosophy of nature, but one far more radical than anything I'd heard from my aged lefty lecturers. Its Deity-like figure, Sunday, stood for, as Chesterton put it in an interview, "Nature as distinguished from God. Huge, boisterous, full of vitality, dancing with a hundred legs, bright with the glare of the sun, and at first sight, somewhat regardless of us and our desires. There is a phrase used at the end, spoken by Sunday: 'Can ye drink from the cup that I drink of?' which seems to mean that Sunday is God. That is the only serious note in the book; the face of Sunday changes, you tear off the mask of Nature and you find God."

What was most affecting to me at the time, suffering from depression as I was, was the book's treatment of the problem of evil. It was a problem that my professors had refused even to acknowledge beyond their criticisms of Judeo-Christianity's treatment of the environment, which they termed not evil but "destructive."

The novel's protagonist, Gabriel Syme, observes that the perplexing and elusive Sunday looks frightening from the back and lovable from the front. "[T]hat has been for me the mystery of Sunday," he says, "and it is also the mystery of the world. When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained."

Reading that today, it reminds me of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's likening of the course of one's life to a tapestry that we see as God weaves it — but only from behind. That is, in fact, how tapestries are woven, Sheen said — the weaving is done from the back. Seen from behind, it can look messy and ugly, with no meaning or purpose. Yet, from God's side, it is a coherent picture and can be a work of great beauty — one which we will be able to finally see when, God willing, we are in heaven.

So, in a way, I owe everything to NYU — not for what it taught me, but for how it showed me that the truths offered by mainstream academics were sorely lacking in Truth.