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The Leading Edge with Phillip Johnson


I recently spent a month in the hospital. The care was excellent, visitors were frequent, and even the food was tolerable, but even so, the monotonous hospital routine got me down. To give me an imaginative respite, my wife brought a copy of A Common Life, Jan Karon’s latest novel of life in Mitford. Mitford is a sort of American Shangri-La, where the virtues of traditional small town life have been preserved through the influence of Father Tim, an aging Episcopal priest who still uses the old Book of Common Prayer and practices its principles. In A Common Life, Father Tim finally gets up the nerve to propose to his sweetheart, Cynthia (who writes and illustrates children’s books featuring her cat, Violet). Thus ensues the mother of all sentimental weddings, with such trimmings as an a capella solo by the now 13-year-old waif Tim has raised, a bride who accidentally locks herself in the bathroom and almost misses the ceremony, and a scenic honeymoon cottage that is a shade too rustic.

Smile patronizingly if you like, but the story was perfect for the occasion. For an evening, my hospital room seemed to be in Mitford, and contentment filled my soul. In the morning I told my wife that I had enjoyed the book, but I was tempted to add that the setting was unbelievable, because in the real world Father Tim would have been put out to pasture by a Spong-like bishop to make way for some angry lesbian, and the state would be using its eminent domain power to level the town so pseudo-Indians could erect another casino.

Those cynical words never left my lips, however, because I remembered just in time to say, "Actually, we live in exactly that sort of place." Well, maybe not exactly, because the time warp in what we call the "People’s Republic of Berkeley" is set to 1969, so the radicals (in Berkeley, that means people who oppose all change) can forever reenact the old demonstrations that gave them their pleasing glow of self-righteousness. If you are among Jan Karon’s millions of contented readers, I imagine you are thinking, what could be more unlike Mitford than Berkeley?

You had better think again, because our part of Berkeley really is a lot like Mitford. Our Presbyterian church may not have anything as classy as the Book of Common Prayer, but we do have pastors who believe the creeds, the best plain food in town, peaceful coexistence between the Sunday morning traditional services and the Sunday evening praise band, and a congregation full of loving hearts. Our denomination (like Father Tim’s) is run by fools whose religion is political correctness, but so far we have managed to ignore them.

So if you want to know where the common-sensical America of small towns and good neighbors has gone, it is still there, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. Besides, the old America wasn’t always so sane. Mitford has one schizophrenic, but in the midwestern town where I grew up in the supposedly placid 1950s, the town madman got himself elected mayor, picked up a floozy in a bar, and appointed her police chief. Our contemporary wacko politicians still have a ways to go to match that.

Berkeley/Mitford is also home to a great university, complete with public intellectuals who write for sophisticated journals like The New York Review of Books.

The most prominent of these is philosopher John Searle. Searle first came to public notice as the academic spokesman for the "free speech" demonstrators of 1964. Later he saw that the protests had become an end in themselves and were damaging the university, so he became a stalwart defender of Enlightenment rationalism against the postmodernist hordes. He remains a vehement materialist, although it was materialism that destroyed the metaphysical basis for value statements and hence made inevitable the nihilism that Searle has vainly resisted.

The latest Berkeley champion to take the field in defense of scientific materialism in the New York Review of Books is English professor Fred Crews, and this time the prime target of his two-part diatribe (in the October 4 and October 28, 2001 issues) is the very Wedge of which I am the leading edge. Crews once delighted readers with his clever parodies of literary criticism (The Pooh Perplex) until he turned against the Freudianism of his early days and took to flogging the dead horse of Freud’s scientific pretensions with all the obsessive bitterness of an apostate.

Disenchantment with Freud turned Crews towards Darwin, and then to Richard Dawkins-style aggressive atheism. Many Darwinists try to avoid tying Darwinism too explicitly to atheism, for fear that the Christians will make serious trouble if they are not offered a fig leaf to cover their cognitive nakedness. Hence the patently insincere "compatibilism" of the PBS Evolution series (scoffingly dubbed "the neutered Darwin" by the Internet magazine Slate), which insists that Darwinism, including even such blatantly ideological branches as evolutionary psychology, is opposed only by Genesis literalists. The series shows biology professor Kenneth Miller taking Roman Catholic Communion to convey the impression that Darwinism is compatible even with the most traditional forms of Christianity.

Fred Crews will have none of this prevarication. He dismisses Stephen Jay Gould’s lofty concept that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" (with science policing the boundary) by remarking that "As Phillip Johnson has understandably complained, ‘This is "separate but equal" of the apartheid variety." Crews told me that I would hate his pro-Darwinist essays, but of course I loved them. My goal has been to carry the case against Darwinism into the intellectual mainstream, and that effort has spectacularly succeeded when the editors of The New York Review of Books feel that they have to devote most of two issues to a defense of the endangered orthodoxy. Besides, my strategy requires driving a wedge between the atheistical Darwinists and their dupes in the religious world. Now it looks as if the most uncompromising Darwinists are going to wield the hammer for me.

If you’ll excuse me, I have to go to a clan gathering in the country. My in-laws call it the "Nutting," because we used to use the occasion to glean the walnuts that remained on the ground after the picking machine had gone through the orchard. Does that sound corny? Well, that’s how we are in Mitford.  

Contributing editor Phillip Johnson’s stroke was more serious than previously reported, but he continues to recover very well at home, in a community that is more wholesome than its reputation would suggest.