September 2017

All Er Nuthin’

I love musicals. When I was in high school, I was part of a singing and dancing chorus for the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1955 musical, “Oklahoma.” I loved a lot of the songs, but one comes back to me often these days. Its title: “All Er Nuthin’.” Back then, I liked it because it conveyed a sort of bravado and commitment, as when someone says, “Whatever it takes!” The phrase implies total commitment, something to be admired. But now, I think of the song when I see extremism and polarization. Why does it have to be “all or nothing” when what we really need is a prudent balance?

Our own age has been described as an “age of polarization.” The art of thoughtful conversation seems to be lost. Instead of explanations and reflective commentary, we drown in assertions and counter-assertions. Labels multiply like viruses. These labels, once pasted on someone or something, prove very difficult to remove.

I recently encountered a version of this “all or nothing” polarization in, of all places, a survey designed to clarify the relationship between religion and politics. The survey described atheists and agnostics as people who depended on scientific evidence as the basis of truth and looked to human reason and experience as the foundation for moral judgment. They practice “free thinking” rather than accept tradition and dogma.

I immediately asked myself what sources I depend on as a Christian believer. I certainly depend on scientific evidence as a source, but not the only source, of important knowledge. Human reason and experience play an important role in the formation of my moral judgments. I would like to believe that I think freely and responsibly about the religious beliefs that I affirm. The way the survey described atheists and agonistics leads me to believe that I am part atheist and part believer.

Actually, I try to think and believe simultaneously, not think OR believe. I take science seriously and find that it both challenges and deepens my religious faith. I’d be lost if I didn’t take the lessons of life, of human experience, into my understanding of what constitutes morality. And if tradition and dogma don’t deepen my understanding of how to live and love, well, then they’re just not useful. In my last monthly reflection, I wrote about the close relationship between thinking and believing. I am at it again here. I apologize, but I keep running into this dichotomy in our culture between faith and reason. Reasoning and believing don’t cancel each other out. As much as I liked that song, “All Er Nuthin’,” I now prefer to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia.”

Recent Oxford Publications

The True Wealth of Nations

“An invaluable contribution at the intersection of contemporary economic, ethical, and religious thought”
— David Hollenbach, Georgetown University