by Anthony Esolen | For the person whom we show to be ignorant is not the only one in the picture. When in doubt, err on the side of gentleness, and never resort to cheap abuse. Keep the truth in mind, and then fight as well as you can (images from Inspiration Ministries).
Charlie Brown and Linus are sitting on the floor, looking at something in a book and laughing. Lucy comes up to them and asks what they are laughing at. They show her, and she asks, “Why are you laughing at it?”
“Because we don’t understand it,” they say.
In old days, people among the intelligentsia who rejected the Christian faith were not entirely ignorant of what they were rejecting, even if they were usually also not deeply learned in Christian history, art, literature, philosophy, and theology. Sometimes they were learned, as was Henry Adams, who compared the cathedral to Our Lady at Chartres favorably to the “dynamo,” the most impressive invention on display at a great scientific exposition in Paris. Sometimes, like the sad and humane Matthew Arnold, they knew that the Christian faith had brought to the world the highest and noblest morality that man had ever found, and they wanted to preserve and even enhance that morality, if such a thing were conceivable, even while they could no longer accept the faith itself. Sometimes they were embittered enemies, like Nietzsche, who still understood, though in a monstrously distorted way, the grandeur of the God whose death they declared.
None of that is true now. None of it. We must say it to ourselves over and over. The enemies of the faith are no more learned than are all too many of our fellow believers. One Ta-Nehisi Coates, a self-described atheist, and a recipient of a popularly called “genius award” from the MacArthur Foundation, caused something of a stir a year ago when he admitted, without embarrassment, not only that he had never read Saint Augustine, but that he had never even heard of him. The self-styled “new atheists” do not read Thomas Aquinas, or John Henry Newman, or Etienne Gilson, or anybody, except perhaps once in a while in snippets detached from the whole and misunderstood. It’s downhill from there, if you are talking even about college professors in the humanities, let alone professors in the usually hostile social sciences, professors in other fields, school teachers, television personalities, journalists, and everybody with a computer and an account on social media.
We would be far better off with people who had never heard of Jesus Christ, and who would therefore approach our faith with some humility and care, just as any ordinary thinking person would do, upon encountering a culture that was utterly foreign to him. Instead we are dealing with people whose brains are filled with scraps and rags of what used to be the faith, and who therefore think they know all about what they have never bothered to investigate at all. Worst among them are those who went to a Catholic school, as I did, and picked up a small bundle of moral laws, tarnished, bent, and broken, without any connection one to another, to the human good, or to the nature of God himself. As they see it, they are in the know.
The danger that these people pose to our young people is severe, and not ever to be underestimated. We know, for example, that very few people are ever moved to accept the faith as a result of rational demonstration. Pascal understood this—Pascal with the relentlessly mathematical mind, who, as his sister writes of him, played with conic sections when he was a small boy. “When they do help some people,” says Pascal of the metaphysical proofs of God’s existence, “it is only at the moment when they see the demonstration. An hour later they are afraid of having made a mistake.” And even when they assent to the validity of the proof, that is not sufficient; that is not the virtue of faith. Satan knows that God exists, and knows it to his burning rage and despair.
But the converse of this truth is that people will lose their faith also not by rational demonstration, but by appeals to their feelings, by the powerful motion-in-inertia of the crowd, and by such things as ridicule. For a good man can hold his head high in noble suffering, and pride himself on his faithfulness; ridicule is harder to endure than the scourge. Ridicule rips the heart out of a young person. The young man who would bloody his knuckles in a fight for the faith may hang his head in shame when his friends laugh at him. The young woman who in a better time would inspire others with the nobility of her virtues and the purity of her love, will wilt like a flower in a dry land when her friends aim at her the barbs of false compassion for sinners and sentimental approval of their sin, letting her know without needing to say it openly that she would be contemptible if she did not go along with them on their sweet LOL way to vanity and delight.
How do we arm them, then, for the battle as it actually will be engaged? You do not send somebody into the field with bayonets when the enemy has hand grenades. You do not suit up with shoulder pads and a helmet for a basketball game.
My readers here may have many suggestions, born from their own experience in the battle, and they are most welcome to make them public. I have one here—one among many, but I have time only to mention this one. I give it with some hesitation, because it makes all the difference whether we are arguing with someone directly and not in public, or rather arguing publicly on behalf of one of our fellow Christians, or on behalf of the faith itself. It must also be done with some care, with some eloquence and poise, lest the weapon backfire. The suggestion is that stupidity and absurdity must be exposed as such.
Let me illustrate. Someone says that we should not force our morality down people’s throats because of some “archaic sky-god” we believe in. Such a person is massively ignorant. Christians do not believe in a “sky-god,” and indeed that is the very point of the first verse of Scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He created the heavens; the sacred author mentions the sun and the moon as mere instruments for bestowing light upon the earth, and not as divinities, and mentions the very stars as if they were afterthoughts. No Christian has ever believed that God dwelt in the sky. That sky may well be used as a feint, hardly even an image, of the “heaven of heavens” that is the presence of God; it is natural in man to do so. But God has placed his throne no more in the sky than in New Jersey, or rather he is infinitely present everywhere in his creation, in New Jersey no less than beyond the Milky Way. When Dante has ascended with Beatrice to the final sphere, the Empyrean, she is careful to say to him that this ring has no location but in the mind of God. All “where” and “when” spring from this place that is no place and this time that is no time, because it comprehends all place and all time.
So we might train ourselves and our children to answer back: “Tell us, since you know it so well, where in the New Testament the Father is said to dwell in a sky, or where Saint Augustine says that God is hovering over our heads? Or tell us, since you know, what sky-god it was that Father Georges Lemaitre believed in? Do you not know who Father Lemaitre was? He was Einstein’s friend, and the first proposer of what we call the Big Bang theory. Did you not know this? About what other great fields of human thought and human culture do you deliver your sentences of contempt, without knowing anything about them? Do you treat Chinese culture the same way, without knowing anything about it? Do you treat other human beings the same way, whom you have never met? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Or I hear that the moral teachings of the Church are “archaic.” Not old and venerable, even, but archaic, like a horse and buggy, or windmills. What is meant, of course, is that the Church’s sexual teachings are archaic, because, well, people want what they want and don’t care too much how they get it. How to respond?
We might do so in this vein. “I was not aware that human nature had changed. When did it do that? Or is human nature different also from one place to another? Does right turn into wrong and wrong turn into right when you cross a time zone? Does right turn into wrong and wrong turn into right when your odometer flips to 100,000, or when you tear off a certain month from your calendar? But assuming you are right, and we are now so enlightened in this particular feature of human life, where is this joyous wonderland you promise us? For surely new and improved morals must bring about joyous and wonderful people. Where is this land of new and improved wisdom, where joyous and wonderful people are all eager to marry, and do marry, and have plenty of happy children, and have only words of appreciation and gratitude for members of the other sex—men for women and women for men, rather than just for the one not-so-bruised apple out of a bucket of stinkers? Where is all this joy? When was the last time you yourself expressed gratitude for the other sex, and admiration for their virtues, rather than just for the one you culled from among the brown and soft and wormy?”
We can’t all fight in this way. But some people, in some situations, can and should. We must be ready with a response, and we should keep in mind the whole rhetorical and spiritual situation. For the person whom we show to be ignorant is not the only one in the picture. When in doubt, err on the side of gentleness, and never resort to cheap abuse. Keep the truth in mind, and then fight as well as you can.
Professor Anthony Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).