Politics & Policy

Hume’s Gentle Witness

We should welcome honest talk about faith.

Brit Hume’s comments on Fox News Sunday — “I don’t think that [Buddhism] offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith,” and, “My message to Tiger [Woods] would be: Tiger, turn to the Christian faith, and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world” — have unleashed a torrent of criticism from the Left, including the various circus acts over at MSNBC and the Washington Post’s Tom Shales.

Shales’s criticisms in particular are manifestations of a mind that is enraged and slightly unhinged; they are ad hominem and, in some respects, unserious. But there are two lines of argument worth examining as they relate to what Hume said. The first is that he “dissed” all Buddhists; the second is that urging Woods to turn to the Christian faith is inappropriate, offensive, and out of line. Let’s examine both claims in turn.

What Hume said about Buddhism is, I believe, accurate. Whatever its virtues, Buddhism does not offer the kind of forgiveness and redemption that are central to Christianity. Buddhism’s hallmarks are (among other things) reincarnation; the belief that wisdom, discernment, and enlightenment can emerge through meditation, self-control, and self-denial; that suffering ceases with the achievement of Nirvana; and that the path to liberation is found through the extinguishing of human desires and passions. One of the many theological differences between Buddhism and Christianity is that the former does not entail a belief in God, if God is defined as a personal being who created the universe by design; and it asserts that “the human self . . . has no soul,” in the words of the religious scholar Huston Smith. Hume did not say that Buddhism doesn’t teach virtues (it does) or that there are no good qualities about it (there are). But forgiveness and redemption are not cornerstones of the Buddhist faith in the same way they are in the Christian faith.

The second argument is that Hume should not be in the business of “drum[ming] up new business” for his faith, that he doesn’t have the authority to do so, and that, in the words of Shales, “he should do it on his own time, not try to cross-pollinate religion and journalism and use Fox facilities to do it.”

Lots of commentators have offered opinions on what Tiger Woods has done and what he needs to do to recover. What was clearly motivating Hume was the hope that Woods can reconstruct his life; Hume believes Christianity, which was central to his own journey out of a terrible valley, is the best way in which to do so. (In a later, somewhat more expansive interview with Bill O’Reilly, Hume uses the example of Watergate convict Charles Colson, who turned his life around after he became a Christian.) Most people commenting on Tiger Woods deride him; Hume seems genuinely concerned for him. Is that a bad thing?

The intensity of offense taken at what Hume said is itself revealing. Perhaps it can partly be chalked up to shock; maybe Shales and Hume’s other critics are genuinely surprised to learn that those who hold the Christian faith do so because they believe the claims of Christ are true, that His story is real. But of course if Christians didn’t believe their faith were true, there would be no reason to embrace it, as the Apostle Paul himself understood.

Some people obviously disagree with Hume; that is certainly their right. They can offer a different remedy to Woods if they so desire. They may think that a commitment to materialism, or atheism, or pantheism, or something quite different, is what Woods needs. Or they may think what Woods did was not problematic, and that he should be free to indulge his appetites and passions. If so, let them make their case. But Hume, in the context of the discussion he was having, should be free to make his case. And one cannot help but think that if Hume had recommended that Woods embrace Transcendental Meditation, the philosophy of Deepak Chopra, or the New Age movement, instead of Christianity, Shales would not have been so offended.

I should add that when Christopher Hitchens, whom I like and whose company I enjoy, appeared on television shows promoting his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he was far more critical of Christianity than Hume was of Buddhism. Yet I don’t recall the Left saying that those criticisms were inappropriate for public debate. In fact, they weren’t — and neither are Hume’s words. Furthermore, those who are unnerved by Hume’s “sectarianism” were untroubled by the aggressive atheism of Hitchens.  

Many years ago, when I was in the midst of my own pilgrimage of faith, I came across a 1980 Firing Line interview between William F. Buckley Jr. and Malcolm Muggeridge on the question: How does one find faith? (Audio here.) The interview, which is wide-ranging and utterly engaging, helped shape my own views about Christianity.

In the course of the interview, Buckley said to Muggeridge that at a dinner party of intellectually curious and culturally diverse people you could bring up virtually any topic under the sun — from inventions and the most recent scientific discoveries to the politics of Pakistan to the latest play or fashion — anything except the pleasures that are to be taken from the study of God. For example, Buckley said, if you brought up the fact that a person dying of cancer had picked up the Bible and, in the course reading it, had discovered something that transported him into serene circumstances, the conversation would end in awkward silence.

In response, Muggeridge said that he himself should speak out more often than he did about his faith — and added that, when he did, the effect was far from deflating: He found it was an “enormous stimulant.” Buckley was somewhat incredulous: You would be dubbed a “Christer,” he protested, and suffer social ostracism. Muggeridge gently pushed back; while conceding that one has to speak in a way that is not dogmatic, he insisted that if a person speaks with sincerity about matters of faith — if he expresses the heart of the Christian message and says, in humility, that he believes the great purpose of life is to relate oneself to God through the incarnation — he found that “the interest is quickened and that the hostility which you expect to meet with, in fact you don’t.”

Let’s stipulate that Malcolm Muggeridge never met Tom Shales or Keith Olbermann. Let’s stipulate, too, that very few of us can speak about our faith in as engaging and winsome a way as Muggeridge. Still, his deeper point is valid. Rather than being mesmerized by the stupefying consensus that matters of faith — especially orthodox Christian faith — ought never to be raised in public, people like Buckley and Muggeridge (and Hume) should refuse to accept it. Not because they want to advance tired religious slogans and worn-out phrases; rather, because people are interested in dealing, in an authentic way, with the deepest questions of human existence, of which faith is often a key part. “The life of religion as a whole,” William James said, “is mankind’s most important function.” That, I think, is in part what Hume was getting at.

Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time on shallow discussions about largely inconsequential and evanescent issues; talking honestly about matters of faith and meaning shouldn’t be off-limits. In fact, we should welcome such conversations more often, in more forums, and in a more relaxed, comfortable, and confident way. It might actually interest people more than the latest daily tracking poll by Scott Rasmussen or the latest mutterings of Harry Reid.

Brit Hume is rightly recognized as one of the finest journalists of his generation. He also turns out to be a man of deep Christian faith who isn’t afraid to say so. That makes him not only rare, but very nearly unique. And admirable.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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