“Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgement that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them.”
— William F. Buckley Jr.
Moments ago, I caught myself engrossed in a long news story about the goings on in the United States Senate over the two-trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus. You will, no doubt, forgive my indulgence in breaking news. And my frequent checking on the latest in the disease’s progress. Two-trillion dollars and a global pandemic are important things, are they not?
While reading the story, as if on a whisper from God, I remembered this Buckley quote from the first issue of National Review. Specifically, I “heard” the part that goes: “all that is finally important in human experience is behind us.”
I was reminded of all the other pivotal moments in my life. Or, at least, moments I thought pivotal at the time: the 1976 election, the 1980 Winter Olympics hockey game between the USA and the USSR, the 1980 election, the near sale of the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon, George H.W. Bush regurgitating on the Prime Minister of Japan, the 1994 election, the debates in the US House of Representatives over Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” and so on.
I saw myself as a freshman at Fontbonne College missing a cue during rehearsal of a play, so engrossed was I in a National Review special edition devoted completely to trade and tariffs.
Those indulgences could also be forgiven. Each issue or event meant a great deal to a great many at the time. And I retained a lot of information I learned, information that has come in handy when writing this blog or books or debating someone at 11:30 at night in a neighborhood saloon.
And, yet, looking back on myself today, I know that my time and attention could have been better spent. I don’t necessarily mean more productively, but that, too. No, my time would have been better spent laughing instead of debating, praying instead of absorbing, or even chasing girls instead of shouting at the television.
While all my indulgences involved weighty matters at the time, they were not of final importance. And neither is coronavirus or the stimulus bill finally important. Instead, they are momentarily important. A year from now, even six months from now, some other momentary spasm will capture our attentions. A spasm that, in its time, will seem the Most Important Issue We Face, just every four year we witness The Most Important Election Of All Time.
Buckley defined conservatism nearly 70 years ago. If “all that is finally important” was old news then, how much older must it be today? And if the great truths were already known then, what remains to be explored in the print beneath today’s hysterical headlines?
Coronavirus and the strains it places on certain hospitals in certain places remains important in the temporal lives of the victims and the caregivers. Of surpassing import, though, is the condition of the souls of those people. In the end, whether you die of a novel coronavirus or an invading army or a crashing meteorite, your time on earth will end and a single question will remain: how did you spend it?
The Bible, Old and New, gave us plenty of reminders that human time is an illusion of our making. Thus, the urgency to know what’s going on in the Senate chamber is an illusion. We feel the need to know what’s hidden, yet all truth has already been revealed. God told us everything He wanted us to know. Our curiosity about what Comrade Bernie is up to must be attributed, then, to our fallen nature, not our quest for the divine.
If the coronavirus pandemic has given us anything, it has given a reminder of our mortality and the time to do something about it.
My sister passed away about three weeks ago, just as the coronavirus was capturing attention. In her final days, she asked for the sacrament of Extreme Unction, more commonly called Last Rites. She also requested a proper funeral. She received both.
In her final days of lucidity, coronavirus was of little concern to her. Neither, really, were her ailments, cancer and whooping cough. Her final concern was her soul.
Many people erroneously assumed Buckley’s reference to “finally important” things was a reference to The Wealth of Nations or the Declaration of Independence. No. Buckley was referring to the moment that we will all face sooner than most of us wish: the moment when we must answer for how we spent our time. Something tells me God won’t be impressed with our knowledge of the issues surrounding H.R. 748. Learn all you want about this, but it will not be on the final exam.
But at last came also the other virgins, saying: Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answering said: Amen I say to you, I know you not. Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour.
That is the known truth and the finally important thing Buckley spoke of.