So I was really, really moved by Carl’s defense of the Sixties, at their best, as part of America’s distinctively Christian counterculture. I remember hearing these words a lot in bars and such in the very late Sixties:
Love is but a song we sing,
fear a way we die.
You can make the mountains ring,
Hear the angels cry.
Tho the dove is on the wing,
you need not know why.
And not thinking much of them or the accompanying music. It all seemed silly, soft, self-forgetful, a reverie made ridiculously easy with chemical help. Proto-New Agey pantheism and all that. It is also proto-Praise Music, as Carl says. I have no patience for that either. Meanwhile, I like the equally idealistic— “the way it’s supposed to be”—WOODEN SHIPS by the Jefferson Airplane just fine, because at least it’s not about amorphous love, a love that’s not at all erotic. At least WOODEN SHIPS—“take a sister by the hand”—has the erotic implications of a connection with another particular person. At least that’s more than a smile.
But maybe we should see these six lines as truly Christian as far as they go, and so as one opening among many to keep Locke in the Locke box. And maybe that’s part of the charm of Pope Francis in understanding where we libertarian and emotionally stunted Americans need to start, although the pope never fails to mention what we owe to the poor and marginalized who deserve our love.
Or maybe those lines really are just too easy, because they’re not about loving anyone in particular. The song of love doesn’t command anything more than a beneficent smile. It’s not about the virtue of charity. And, as Carl says, overcoming death can’t really be about singing a song that purges us of fear, of, better, the anxiety of being here for a contingent moment and then gone forever. It avoids the genuine humility or anxiety that’s the prelude to faith, not to mention the really hard intellectual work of the Epicurean or the severe personal discipline of the Buddhist. It even avoids the disturbing orgiastic features of Dionysian reveries—which I hear can be lots of fun.
Or maybe Carl understands all this—as well as the Beach Boys—better than we do because he grew up a California Protestant (as did that Berkeley Protestant Carey McWilliams). He can think outside the Puritanical, traditionalist, fundamentalist, Catholic box. The key to thinking about EVERY form of American Protestantism is to discover what’s true about it, before attending to its limitations.
The difficulty of making sense of Christianity on love is captured in the grammatically shaky words of the MOODY BLUES: “So love everybody. And make them your friend.” That is actually what Christians are supposed to do—be loving friends with each and every person. But that’s not really possible without love of the real, personal God. And even for Christians that command isn’t supposed to altogether obliterate the distinction between what you owe to all personal creatures and what you owe to the people you most know and love in your relational life, your friends in the obvious sense. Aristotle remains right that, from a natural point of view, you can only have a small number of friends, and a friendship of any quality is full of relational obligations.
The inspiration to love everyone—without real faith—actually undermines the virtues that flow from real love. And that’s why Tocqueville understood that detaching love from our enduring relationships with particular persons and our personal God ends up in pantheistic reveries that periodically divert us from our constant calculation about how to survive in a world shaped by individualistic indifference. For me, that’s what really endures from the song of love of the Sixties, although I really can see that Carl is right that there was more to the song than that.
In any case, everyone please encourage Carl to put his musical world together in a form that would make it accessible to the widest possible audience. There’s nothing like it anywhere else.
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