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The Times and the Timeless

It’s wordy, and not nearly as reflective as the author thinks, but there’s some interesting material there: Across the Great Divide, a piece from Columbia Journalism Review on journalists and religion. The basic point seems to be that journalists are unable to deal with religion intelligently because they are looking for observable events that compose a day-to-day public narrative involving obvious features like conflict and fitting into another narrative, like politics, that is otherwise newsworthy. Salvation history and the Four Last Things are hard to deal with on those terms.

Some quotes:

“You are dealing with very squishy, difficult to quantify topics. Do you have a soul? What happens to it? Journalists tend to look for proof of things, and this is one area where proof is harder to come up with.”

In the end, the comment reflects what’s lacking in liberal modernity. Liberal moderns (including journalists) start with a commitment to what’s publicly verifiable and define that as reason and truth. Unfortunately, they can’t talk about such things without relying on understandings that aren’t publicly verifiable, at least not in the same routine way. You can’t talk about anything without taking a position on difficult-to-quantify topics that can seem very squishy. So what people do is fall back on default assumptions derived in a wholly formal and therefore blind and unthinking way: qualitative differences can’t be observed and verified in the required sense, for example, so “rationality” requires that differences in value and the like be ignored and everything treated the same. Hence liberalism. Whether that makes sense can’t be critically discussed—journalists don’t “look for proof” in the matter—because accepted definitions of truth and rationality can’t deal with the issue. The result is that religion becomes either craziness or an odd personal thing that some people are into.

Since that’s so, religious language seems noncognitive to journalists:

“It’s very hard to cover people’s beliefs because when you try to explain it, either by quoting them or even by paraphrasing, it sounds like jargon. The vocabulary that believers use is their own vocabulary. To outsiders who may not have the same beliefs, it sounds like gobbledygook.”

The same is true of any developed form of thought and practice, but when it’s nuclear physics reporters feel called upon to find ways of presenting the material that don’t sound like gobbledygook, because they believe that in the end there’s some substance there. That’s not true of religion, and it can’t be true of religion given modernist views as to what constitutes knowledge. So one suggestion is to bring out the personal side more:

“To listen to her show is to hear how intelligent and thoughtful religious people can be when they are allowed to be subjective and not merely regurgitate dogma.”

Another, more helpful suggestion, is for journalists to ask their subjects to restate what they are saying until they get to something both parties understand. That raises a well-known problem for Christian spokesmen today, by the way—how to state their concerns and beliefs in ways that are somewhat comprehensible to moderns without assimilating them to an ever-more-radical modernity.