I was having lunch with a friend who is a priest. We were talking about the public role of religion when he told me that once he left the church building itself, he never spoke aloud the name of Christ. He was shocked by his own admission, as though understanding what it meant for the first time. So I did for him what somebody did for me when I was 16; I gave him a copy of God and Man at Yale.
When I was first introduced to it, the book was already more than ten years old. But it thrilled me, not just because of the power of William F. Buckley’s beautiful argument (all his arguments were works of art), but because it helped me understand something about the public relationship an intelligent person — something Buckley clearly was, and, at 16, something I certainly aspired to be — could have with God.
Of course, the book is not a religious tract; Nearer My God, one of Buckley’s later books, comes closer to that mark. God and Man at Yale is a deeply political book about the intolerance of the academy toward unfashionable concepts, about the stultifying effects of elitist groupthink on thought, and about the failure of the university to engage a wide range of ideas fairly and in simple good faith. Foremost among those ignored ideas, even at Yale: the relationship between God and man.
In the 50-odd years since God and Man at Yale first appeared (to condescending notice in the Times and elsewhere), little has changed on most campuses. They’re often the kind of narrow, intolerant, sanctimonious place Buckley discovered at Yale in 1951. As I recently discovered as I was writing about religion and education in a book about the Midwest, the lecture hall has abandoned God, even in “religious studies” departments at most big universities. The mission of many academics in those departments is to ridicule and diminish religious belief, usually from a secular sociological or anthropological point of view. Anything else, including the whole point of religion, is irrelevant.
What I took from God and Man at Yale that I value most was not just an anticipation of the politicized nature of higher education, but, almost incidentally, something else: The requirement — not just the wish — that, as a matter of spiritual health, it is necessary to try to meet God through a thoughtful struggle that should form the center of your intellectual life. That struggle continues until you die and finally discover the truth, which is that no matter what you believed about the Main Thing, you’re wrong about the details. It’s a thankless process in terms of what people at Yale would now call “outcomes,” but the unanticipated dividends along the way are the payoff.
Buckley seemed to be able to organize his extraordinary life around faith gracefully, and of course he had the ability to speak about it brilliantly and without affectation. Imagine putting God not only in the middle of your life but even in the titles of your books. I’m sure not as smart as I need to be to do what he did as well as he did it — and I’m not much for proselytizing, either — but thanks to Buckley’s little book, I don’t feel much compulsion to avoid the topic of God in conversation. This has led to a few interesting chats. I remember one with a friend, a publishing executive who had gone to an Ivy League school, who was terrified that sending his son to a Catholic prep school might “make him Catholic.” We talked about it for a long time — well over an hour. At the end, he thanked me and then said, as an afterthought, it was the first time he had seriously discussed religion since his college days.
The boy seems to have escaped unscathed, for now. But of course there’s always a chance that somebody, sometime might slip him a copy of God and Man at Yale — and condemn the lad however accidentally to a life of faithful curiosity.