Ideas, Ideologies and Life

An excerpt from my upcoming book, The Romance of Religion:

In Fiddler on the Roof the jolly Jew Tevye sings a magnificent toast: “To life, to life, L’chaim, l’chaim, l’chaim to life!” He sings his anthem to life at his daughter’s wedding in the midst of grinding poverty, persecution and pogroms.

His praise of life and love and “all things illimitably ‘yes’” is all the more poignant and powerful because he sings with joy from a broken heart. This is the song of the true romantic: a song with zest for life in the midst of heartache, disappointment and evil.

Although the romantic hero Tevye longs to be a rich man he does not sing in praise of riches. He sings in praise of Life. It is true that he longs to be a rich man, but beneath that is his passion for life in whatever form it comes to him. Life is first. Life is basic. As a Jew, Tevye’s hymn to life is especially poignant because at the end of the play he is expelled from his home simply for being a Jew, and his expulsion from Tzarist Russia in the early 1900’s a harbinger of a later, more extreme expulsion of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’.

Tevye’s toast to life is all the sharper because of the forces of death that are arrayed against him. For whatever particular reasons the Tzars or the Nazis persecuted the Jews, the underlying reason is that they regarded some human life as disposable. The reason they regarded some human lives as disposable is because they had a seemingly good cause that seemed more important than life itself. That is to say, they had a cause that was more important than other people’s lives. They had a cause that kills, or if you like, they had a cause with claws.

A cause with claws invariably springs from a lofty ideology. No one sets out to commit mass murder; instead tyrants commit genocide to follow through with their ideology. History shows that mass murder can result from most any ideology. It could be a religious ideology. It could be a political ideology. It could be an economic ideology. It could be an ideology about class or caste. It could be an ideology about racial superiority, or it could be a combination of all these ideologies, but whatever the ideology and wherever and whenever, it is invariably an ideology that conceives a better life for all, and invariably the ideology which promises a better life for all is delivered by making sure there is no life for some.

So, for example, the Nazi system was a system of ethnic purity. They wanted to establish a superior race of human beings. Therefore those who were inferior were to be eliminated. The Marxists and French Revolutionaries wanted an economic and social system where all were equal, so they killed the economic overlords and those who were socially superior. The Ku Klux Klan desired a more pure racial system so those who were of the wrong color were eliminated. Communist Atheists wanted a superior humanistic society so those who believed in God were eliminated.

At least these other ideologies had lofty aims. They wanted to create a better human race or a better world. The ideology of our own society is the most boorish and vulgar of all. Our only ideology is that we wish to enjoy total individual sexual freedom, so those who impede that (the unborn) will be eliminated. Thus it is, that every human ideology that strives sincerely for a better life ends up destroying life. Those ideologies that dream of a better humanity inevitably end up killing individual humans…

…Push any ideology far enough and you will find violence, murder, mayhem, and genocide. This is because ideologies live for an idea, they do not live for life, and any ideology that does not put life first will invariably put it last. Similarly the good cause that does not first decide what is highest good will end up being bad, and the good cause that does not consider Life to be the highest good will end up taking Life.


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  • Andy

    Deep and thought-provoking; Thanks Father.

  • Überkäsegraf

    If I may offer a small correction Fr. Dwight? In the 1920's Tzarist Russia was no more. the play may be taking place at the beginning of the 20th century, when Tzar Nicholas II was still reigning.

  • JG

    Hi Father:The past couple posts are excellent. Keep up the good work. Sincerely, John

  • Howard

    Also, at this point of the story his heart had not yet been broken. That only really came with his 3rd daughter, who converted to the Orthodox Church to marry a Christian.I think a much deeper song is the "Sabbath prayer". He prays, "May you be deserving of praise" — not may you receive praise, or fame, or riches. Frankly, the politics of the musical are … interesting, given that this was written and filmed during the Cold War. The 2nd son-in-law, the proto-Communist, was presented as a kind of young hero, misunderstood by Tevye and oppressed by the evil forces of the Tsar, in spite of the fact that he was non-violent. Yeah, right.

  • Rev. Dr. Victoria A. Howard, Anchorite

    The history of the Catholic Church is by no means innocent. We are supposed to love our neighbor – but if Catholics decide to hate and alienate someone they don't like, they will. I have no Catholic frieds because they all abandoned me long ago, not through my fault. No one calls, no one cares, even my family who are Catholic. I also know that under 80 popes 50 million were tortured and killed just for being different. The Catholic Church sweeps that under the rug. Well, it is about time that the Catholic Church clean out its whited sepulchre, admit to the truth and expose for all to see, and maybe, forgive…

  • Howard

    @Victoria HowardIt is clear that you are very lonely, and I am sorry about that. Family relationships can be difficult under the best of circumstances. However, you would find it much easier to make and maintain friendships with Catholics if you did not make so many absurd claims.