Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why ‘South Park’ is More Interesting than David Brooks

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Why South Park is More Interesting than David Brooks
And Why it Matters

By Santiago Ramos

mediapic2Apr29 mediapic1Apr29 A DEBATE CAN be noteworthy not only because of the clash between both sides but because closer scrutiny reveals a startling lack of contrast between them. This lack might reveal a shared poverty of imagination.

Had Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the notorious Comedy Central cartoon, South Park, merely decided to mock the Book of Mormon in their new, eponymous Broadway musical, they would not have made the headlines. Catholics, Muslims, Evangelicals, Jews, and Mormons have all already been the target of their satire. The news about The Book of Mormon is that with it, Parker and Stone are doing the unexpected: their show only lightly mocks religion, and it makes a greater point about its fundamental goodness.

NEW YORK TIMES columnist David Brooks attempted to articulate their point in his column last week, and to offer a critique of it. Under the heading, “Creed or Chaos,” he writes:

The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch. […] But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.

Brooks and Parker and Stone are in agreement about the fundamental virtue of religion: that it can inspire people to do good, to practice service, and to love one another. The difference between the two sides, as Brooks sees it, lies in the importance of having a specific, rigorous creed. Parker and Stone think, according to Brooks, that having one is not essential. Brooks is a sociologist and he knows better:

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, non-doctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

Rigorous theology, Brooks writes, provides people with a “map of reality” which consists of the accumulated wisdom of many generations, and not just the genius of one person. It is an approximation of reality—just like any map—but it is useful for living.

My first question upon reading Brooks’ column was: What is your standpoint? Not, Where do you stand? Brooks makes it quite clear what his opinion is. But, how can he have the opinion that he has? If, as he asserts in his column, religion is largely about the stories it tells, how can he be so sure that he knows the meaning and the ending of the story?

Put it differently: Brooks writes that he and the South Park creators are in agreement over what is the essential good thing about religion. That essential good thing is its promotion of love, order, service, and all those virtues that make life better in society. But my question is: How do you know? "Could the essential good be something beyond what he is imagining it to be?"

IT SHOULD NOT be a big claim to make: the good that human beings seek with religion is not easily understood and explained for us by sociologists. Not because sociologists are bad, but because it does not necessarily follow that their method for looking at the world is equipped to grasp what exactly we are attempting to grasp with religion.

Even though Brooks bends over backwards to respect, appreciate, and explain the irreducible complexities of religions and creeds, he reduces them in a different way. He is reverential about what religions are in and of themselves, but not at what they might possibly point to, or even what they are truly asking about. It’s this type of oversight that the French philosopher Maurice Blondel was criticizing when he chided those thinkers who “persuade the credulous that all the obscurity is already clarity for themselves.”

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, while perhaps not as “nice” as Brooks, are more interesting for one small but not insignificant reason: they have not only mocked all religions, but they have also mocked Richard Dawkins. The “stupidest” explanation for the origin of the universe, Trey Parker once said in a 60 Minutes interview, is to say that it exists “just ‘cuz.” The lack of wonder is what he objected to. His and Stone’s response was to mercilessly skewer Dawkins in an episode titled “Go God Go!” At least Parker and Stone express some wonder and reverence, if not for religion itself, then for the religious questions.

People don’t become religious for sociological reasons. Brooks might agree with that statement, but the problem is not notional agreement but the knee-jerk attempt to reach for the most “respectable” set of criteria with which to defend religion: the good effects that it can have on society. This criteria is “respectable” because it is in some sense “objective.” But the beauty and complexity and rigor Brooks admires doesn’t come from people looking for objective criteria and effective ways to bring about public order and virtue. It comes from people standing in awe before life and the world, and asking Why and What is it all for?

The criterion to use to answer those questions is personal. Not personal in the consumerist sense of arbitrary preference, but in the philosophical sense of, “I am searching for something that fulfills my need for meaning.” Perhaps we live in a time where we are less certain about using such a criterion; or perhaps we don’t know how. But we should be wary of thinking that we don’t need it and that we’ve already answered the question of meaning without it.

Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.