Volume Eight, Number Five............September 1984

The Reglious Life In America

If your request is related to religion, please provide evidence of your religious conviction, such as a letter from a church official, and a written explanation of the conflict between your reglious beliefs and public education.

IT TAKES no special wisdom to see that wherever there is competition, there are peddlers of similar products. Breweries compete with each other, not with IBM. And when the products are in no important way to be distinguished from each other, the competition assumes not only a special ferocity, but also a special flavor. It becomes affective, seeking not the informed consent of the customer, but rather the approbation of his sentiments. The conflict between public education and religious, or even "reglious" education is thus clarified.

Those agencies are different only in detail; in principle, not at all. For each, "education" is a certain road to a certain city, rather than a way of journeying and of founding a city. Each has its graven tablet of indisputable notions; each claims special knowledge and powers not available to the infidel; and each deems itself worthy of consideration and respect as a High Calling.

As you can see from the citation above, however, they do not compete on an equal footing. One of them is required by law to justify itself before the other, and the other is permitted by law to justify itself only in its own courts.

That passage comes from a form that you would have to fill in if you lived in Columbus, Ohio, and wanted to "educate" your children at home. One of the other questions asks what provision you have made for your child "to interact with other young people." Another wants you to "explain the provisions that have been made for the continuous supervision of the pupil."

Education is not something floating around out there, slices of which you may lop off here and there and graft onto your own substance. It is a way of the mind, not a content, and can not exist except in a mind. It is an absolutely inward and private condition. And all of that is also true of religion.

Thus it is that the schools would require of their competitors the very practices by which they so regularly prevent the ignition of education in children. That spark goes off only in a solitary, reflecting mind, only in a person who has stepped out of the noise of doing and into the stillness of considering. It is not as we read the page that education illuminates us; it is when we look up.

If we are kept busy interacting with others under continual supervision, however, only a happy, gifted few of us will ever look up.

We suppose, therefore, that people with religious designs will be happy to promise that, where interacting and continual supervision are concerned, they will do as much harm as the public schools. But we just can't guess how they deal with the abominations implied by the instruction cited above.

Maybe there is, somewhere in our land, an obsequious wimp who will comply with that outrageous requirement, who will humbly solicit and submit the testimony of a "church official" as to the existence of his religious convictions. Let's hope there aren't two. There is only one proper response that an American can make when an agency of government asks about his inner life. It is, in its only polite version: None of your damned business, buster.

There are, however and alas, more than two obsequious wimps.

This is the most calamitous consequence of what we have been trained to call "public education." Its very existence, maintained by laws beyond counting, has brought us gradually into an almost universal, obsequious wimpdom. We actually believe that an agency of government should be empowered both to enquire into and to modify the inner life of the individual mind. We not only wear that chain, but we wear it proudly, supposing it the special virtue of "a free country" that its children are required by law to submit their minds to the scrutiny of state workers whose job it is to do something to those minds. As in Albania. It is lucky for most of us, especially those who use his name to justify such a system, that Jefferson is dead.

The makers of our Constitution were not a congregation of religious enthusiasts. If they protected religion from the intrusive propensities of all government and its functionaries, it was not because they loved churches and doctrines. It was because they loved freedom, and hated tyranny, especially tyranny over the mind. They knew that religion can not exist except in a mind. The ammendment protects not churches, but individuals, minds. It affirms that the inner life of individuals is none of government's damned business.

Consider these words of Madison. He is speaking, in 1789, in the first Congress, against a grant of subsidy to certain farmers and fishermen, an act that would, he said, "subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America."* He warns of consequences of the worst kind:

If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union. . .

His chosen examples are remarkably interesting. How can we not find in his argument, which did prevail, an acknowledged abhorrence of the very idea of education by government? If school and state were not constitutionally separated by those who made the Republic, it must have been because they thought better of us than we have deserved.

So now we have what we deserve--legions of insolent twerps who can require of us an accounting of "reglious" beliefs, accompanied by written corroboration from an "official."

And of those twerps, we can require no accounting. They are official. They don't have to understand the meaning of what they do, which is, in any case, never the result of a mind's understanding, but only an implementation of policy born of compromise. They can not be required to justify the idea that continual supervision and interacting with others are essential to education, because it isn't truly an idea whose reason and logic might be demonstrated. They do not have to form any thoughtful understanding of that bizarre belief before requiring individual citizens to act as though they shared it. All they have to know is that it is policy. Policy is to the state what doctrine is to the church. It doesn't have to make sense.

In our land there are many cults, many belief systems, many congregations united by a collective faith in the undemonstrable. Only one has a charter from the state, a license to take into custody all our children and do to their minds whatever its latest belief requires.

That, too, we deserve. Is there some way for us to stop deserving it?

Hunger in America

Egypt riseth up like a flood, and his waters are moved like the rivers and he saith, I will go up, and will cover the earth; I will destroy the city and the inhabitants thereof. § Come up, ye heroes; and rage, ye chariots; and let the mighty men come forth; the Ethiopians and the Libyans, that handle the shield; and the Lydians, that handle and bend the bow. § For this is the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of vengeance, that he may avenge him of his adversaries; and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood... § Go up into Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt; in vain shalt thou use many medicines, for thou shalt not be cured. § The nations have heard of thy shame...

THE epigraph is, to be sure, unusual, and a bit long. Please read it anyway. Twice. Read it not with the reading of the schools, not as "a receiver of a communication," but as a thoughtful inquirer into the meaning of what is said, as one who intends to say something about what is said.

Read it slowly, as you would read a gnarled sonnet of Donne, moving your lips the while. Listen. Discover its voice and its tone. Judge the effects of diction, its rhythms, its curt images and its metaphors. Pronounce it, at last, not right or wrong, which is useful only with regard to "a communication," but good or bad, either well-wrought or ill. Consider how, if there were going to be a test, you could justify your verdict. Do all of that now, and do it well, for there is going to be a test--every day of your life, and what follows is the dreadful tale of a man who failed it. So take your time. We can wait.

Good. All of that has made you an understander, not just a receiver.

What understanding have you of the word "medicines"? What sorts of "medicines" does he have in mind who speaks those words? Is he thinking of such things as antibiotics and decongestants, or even some imaginable ancient equivalents?

In what tone and with what intent does he say those words? Are they a taunting rebuke to that "daughter of Egypt," assuring her that she has no hope at all of evading the just consequences of her deeds: or are they a bit of helpful advice on health-care?

Or can it be that the bloody aggressions of Egypt have nothing to do with the case? Did the speaker, all in the midst of his imprecations against the trouble-makers of a turbulent time, take a little time off to issue a commandment to us? When he says, "In vain shalt thou thou use many medicines, for thou shalt not be cured," is he ordering us, or any one at all, to refrain utterly from all medical knowledge and practice?

If that last is what you have conduded from your reading of the cited passage, then you are utterly illiterate. You can not read. It matters not at all that you know the letters and the words.

Consider now the plight of a man who knows the letters and the words, but who can not read at all. Because he can not read at all, and because he imagines that he can, he was found guilty of certain criminal acts related to the death of his son.

Bill Barnhart's child died of hunger at the age of two and a half. For five months, what nourishment the boy had been able to swallow was gobbled up by the tumor that was growing in his belly. The child shriveled and the tumor prospered, until its greed undid them both. After a meager last supper, a few dry Cheerios and a sip of grape juice, host and guest died quietly together.

Barnhart, along with his wife, was eventually convicted of endangering the life of a child, and involuntary manslaughter. He can not, for the life of him, understand why.

He is as much aggrieved as grieved. He understands the passage that you have so carefully read, along with a few carefully selected other passages that he can not read, as God's commandment to him to keep sick children away from doctors.

"I did nothing wrong," he said. "My conscience doesn't bother me."

That, we do believe. Conscience is a high wall of scrawled graffiti where the world can write what it pleases, a random anthology of pet notions, unexamined sentiments, and popular slogans remarkable chiefly for their vagueness. Conscience stands always in need of editing, a job that can't be done except through thoughtful reading of the scrawls.

But something bothers Barnhart. He is baffled and vexed, all unable to account for his suffering. He wonders why not one member of the jury was willing to ‘stand up for God's rights,' in which notion he sees neither the absurdity nor the irony. In a speech whose devastating and utterly unintended power makes him sound like a character in a play by Arthur Miller, he points out the very passage cited above, and says to a reporter:

I want you to read that and see what you expect somebody to take out of that there. I'd like you to tell me what your interpretation is. I'd like you to study the whole thing out.

How long would it take to sit down with Bill Barnhart to study the whole thing out? That is exactly what he needs: the whole thing, the whole art and power of language and thought.

Literacy is not a knack. It is a moral condition. The ability to read attentively, reflectively, and judiciously is also the ability to be attentive, reflective, and judicious. It is not an optional adornment for just and sane living. It is a necessity. It is the necessity. It is not a variety or portion of education. It is education. It is the whole thing, the wholesome nourishment of the mind, by which it may grow strong enough to be the master of the will and not its slave, the judge of desire and not its procurer, the censor of sentiment and not its tool, and the inquisitor of belief, not its flack. It is our only path to whatever wisdom we can have, which is our only path to whatever goodness we can know, which is our only path to whatever happiness we can enjoy.

Bill Barnhart is not a happy man. His "faith," which is every bit as involuntary as his manslaughter, has not made him whole. He taketh no balm in Gilead. In vain shall he use many medicines, for he shall not be cured. Hunger is eating him up. All that might nourish him is straight-way devoured by the tumor that lives in his belly.

The Barnharts of our time, by the millions, live by the law of the belly. The belly was once believed to be the origin and dwelling place of impulse and appetite, the nettles and whips of our nature least susceptible to the governance of Reason. Orwell saluted the appropriateness of that metaphor in "bellyfeel," the mindless and ardent loyalty of the "true believer," and we acknowledge it when we have "gut feelings."

As to the presence of gut feelings, there is no disputation. We can not doubt Barnhart's word when he says, "We feel that God wrote this Bible." Although a thoughtful person would have said "I feel," recognizing that as to the feelings of others all evidence is hearsay, and acknowledging the possibility that Justin probably had no feelings one way or the other in this crucial matter, we nevertheless do believe that Barnhart does believe that he feels what he says he feels.

And so do we all.

When he justifies his acts by his feelings, Barnhart stands where we all stand, often, every day. It is the Occasion of Education. All he needs is a true teacher to stay him a while.

In this case, a true teacher would probably start out by quoting from Isaiah: "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord." And he will leave aside until later, much later, the rest of the verse. He will not quarrel as to the author of the Bible, for it truly doesn't matter. He would urge only that if God had written a book, it would turn out to be a very fine book indeed. Better than anything ever done by Homer, or Dante, or Milton. Better than Shakespeare, far better. Whatever excellencies of language and thought we find in the countless books by the legions of the lesser, shall we not find in ultimate perfection in the one perfect book of the greater? Where the many plumb deepness beyond deepness, shall the one not leave us glimpses of the abyss? If the simple song of a poet can dwell forever in the mind, arising and living again and again, shining each time with new, undreamed of light, shall we knock off a line of Jeremiah and say, "That's that"?

Just now, of course, none of that would mean anything to Barnhart. He has been to school, which is why he can not read. He knows nothing of the excellencies of language and thought, for no one could show them to him. He knows nothing of deepness in great authors, for he hasn't read them. The words of poets do not arise and live in his mind, and even the words by which he lives and requires helpless children to live--or to die, as luck would have it--even the words he calls "God's" are dead slogans, bones that can not live.

Fundamental literalism is not only a sickness of religion; it is a sickness of the mind. It is essentially a Basic Minimum Competence writ large and applied indiscriminately to all supposed human "problems"--anything from filling out an application for a driving license to distinguishing the worthy from the unworthy. Among its components, two are essential. One is a blindness to metaphor, and the other is the nourishment of the tumor that lives in the belly, the feeling that feeling is knowing. Out of the notion that communication is the purpose of language, the schools provide the first, and out of the feeling that education is the result of "adjustment" in "the affective domain," the schools provide the second. In fact, though they haven't the wit to figure it out, the simpleton religionists have no better friends than the simpleton educationists, who turn out, yearly, millions of empty children, prepared not for life, but only for the unexamined life, and so terribly hungry that they will swallow anything.

They will take no balm. In vain will they gobble up dry Cheerios and guzzle down grape juice, for they will never be nourished.

We Toot a Salute!

and Brief Notes

THREE long-time readers and partisans have been chosen as the winners of the Amazing Blurb Contest. While we did not do the choosing, we applaud it vigorously.

We have a rule against giving out the names of our readers. However, since these three can be found on the dust jacket of The Leaning Tower of Babel, we don't mind telling you that they are Lois DeBakey, Roy Meador, and Bob Verdun. We salute them.

BY NOW, the winners will have their copies of the book, which is a pretty fat collection of pieces from our first seven years. But if you want your own copy, you'll have to go to your local book market where the teenager in charge will tell you that the book has been out of print for years. Then you can go home and order it from Readers Express at 1-800-852-5000.They take plastic, and they carry also The Graves of Academe, but we'd feel better if they had an apostrophe.

MANY of our readers would enjoy "Editor's Revenge," an always instructive and often hilarious newsletter of bent and broken English. Write for a sample to PO Box 805, Morrisville, NJ 07960.

ALVARADO is gone. He was, you may recall, the "chancellor" of all government schools in New York City, and a man whose mental powers we have occasionally examined. About his dismissal, which was not related to his acknowledged prowess as an "educator," of course, we know only one interesting fact:

Alvarado's troubles arose from his habit of borrowing money from ‘subordinates.' At one point in the hassle he admitted that, while he had done nothing wrong, some of his doings might be perceived as wrong by those who lacked a sufficient appreciation of a culture other than their own.

Alvarado has been replaced by a certain Quinones. About Quinones we know only one interesting fact:

On the day he became chancellor, he cheerily announced that his horoscope was auspicious for the "finalizing of contracts." He is a Libra.

The Underground

R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

Eight issues a year. Yearly subscription: Persons in USA & Canada, $15US;
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Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

* Quoted in "Freedom and Democracy" a disturbing essay by John Hospers, in The Freeman, June 1984. back

† The whole story is told by Michael E. Ruane in The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine of June 17, 1984. That issue made observance of Fathers' Day as well. back

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