Like many people, I suppose, my bookshelves are filled with books I’ve purchased with plans to read someday, sometime … but not right now. A couple of weeks ago, I grabbed one of those books, bought almost 10 years ago, and finally dug in—a good choice given the Easter season.
The book is Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, by the recently departed William F. Buckley, Jr., published in 1997. The occasion for the trip to my bookshelf was Buckley’s death a few weeks ago and a subsequent conversation with one of my students concerning Buckley’s work. It occurred to me during that conversation that Buckley had written a spiritual autobiography, and that I had squirreled it away for too long. I grabbed it, and haven’t been able to put it down.
As is the case with anything Buckley wrote, it is difficult to briefly summarize the richness of the thoughts in this book—the only full account of the man’s life as told through the prism of his faith. One senses the great conservative’s sadness in realizing, as time moved on, that Christendom—though not Christianity—had gradually withered on the vine in America. In considering the question, “Where does one learn about God?” Buckley made clear that the answer in his youth was—anywhere.
The pervasiveness of the faith of Buckley’s youth—its omnipresence—is gone, even though the gates of Hell will not ultimately prevail against it. On that latter point, it must be understood by Protestants that this autobiography is distinctly Catholic, given that Buckley was a lifelong devout Catholic. Since this book was an exploration of his spiritual journey, it is also at times a defense and even an apologetic of his orthodox Roman Catholicism.
That said, there is much here for the non-Catholic. I will highlight one item of supreme relevance to Buckley’s life and the life of modern America: the de-Christianization of American education, especially higher education. This was a theme that defined the early Buckley, who was launched onto the national stage by his 1951 classic, God and Man at Yale.
In that first work, Buckley argued that American higher education had drifted from its Christian moorings, rapidly separating itself from initial intentions, readily violating mission statements everywhere. It was doing so under the guise of “academic freedom,” and under the leadership of faculties who had wrested away hiring decisions from college presidents and administrators.
Today, such an assessment would be a statement of the obvious. Yet, what is now passé was, at Buckley’s writing, a cruise missile at the ivory tower. The conservative standard-bearer was, as usual, ahead of his time—and was also, as usual, attacked for his opinion.
Alas, it was only in Nearer, My God that Buckley was able to do what he could never do in God and Man at Yale: respond to the 1950s critics of his book. In this fuller accounting of his faith experience, Buckley relates how he was excoriated by religious left intellectuals who thought the young man had lost his mind: Ivy League colleges losing their Christian compass? Nonsense! What claptrap!
Buckley’s voice from the wilderness was deemed another example of right-wing paranoia, as if Joe McCarthy was sizing up new targets. Now, it is illuminating to read Buckley’s response to those critics of a half century ago, not to mention how he incorporates observations from contemporary Christian scholars like George Marsden.
What’s also revealing is Buckley’s treatment of the religion question in America’s influential elite prep schools in the Northeast. This was something he had no reason to doubt as a young man at Millbrook School in Connecticut in the 1940s, when Christendom was the norm. Today is quite another story. Buckley was so exercised by this issue in Nearer, My God that it looks as if his editors requested he transfer his complaints into appendices, which he did in Appendix A, “Further Commentary on the Millbrook Christmas Celebration,” and Appendix B, “A Listing of Religious Activities at Various Schools.” These sections are both riveting and revolting—signs of the times and of the disastrous drift of elite education.
Buckley makes clear that there is a new god at many of these institutions: multiculturalism. The Judeo-Christian God has been replaced by the golden, molten calf of multiculturalism.
Aside from the painful material on education, Nearer, My God is (overall) more inspiring than disturbing, more hopeful than pessimistic. Only William F. Buckley, Jr. could take us on a journey through additional spiritual odysseys—the likes of Arnold Lunn and Whittaker Chambers and Malcolm Muggeridge, all of whom he knew uniquely—while also engaging us from the glory of the resurrection to the mundane but crucial matter of the development of Christian doctrine.
Nearer, My God was a fruitful addition to my Easter readings. I heartily recommend it to all fans of Mr. Buckley—and his God—as perhaps his most timeless of works.