Jim Curley asked the other day:

Do we fool ourselves on the popularity or greatness of our ideas simply because we surround ourselves with those who agree with us, i.e. blogs, books, and discuss things with people who common interests, ideals, values, politics, religion, etc.?

I’ve never been afraid to answer a rhetorical question, and there’s at least a little bit of evidence it wasn’t meant to be one, so I’ll bite.

On fooling ourselves about the greatness of ideas: Certainly very easy to do so.  I think in this respect dialogue is tremendously helpful, when you can it.  How to get it?  Cultivate both the habit of assuming the opponent has good reasons for his beliefs, and also the skill helping other people clarify and express their own opinions.   This assumes that you yourself are capable of logical thinking.  And then of course you have to show kindness and consideration in your discussion, something I have not always managed to do.

On fooling ourselves about the popularity of ideas: Well, if you are catholic, this is pretty easy to avoid, if you make yourself read the newspaper (a secular one) once in a while.  Or, say, turn on the television.  In this respect, I think those who make the news are at the greatest disadvantage — I have often heard something expressed in the media (that would usually be NPR, sometimes my local paper), or by a politician, supposedly describing ‘what Americans think’, that bore no resemblance to the opinions of the Americans I knew.   When you are the one who is speaking via one-way communication, it is quite easy to remain oblivious to your silent opposition.

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So, when to retreat, and when to engage?

I don’t think any aspect of life should go unquestioned (though certainly some questions are more pressing than others).   That said, there is a time and place for retreating to safe surroundings as well.  I’ll use the example of religion to hopefully explain what I think is a prudent course:

You have to learn apologetics.  End of story.   Apologetics being learned not only by studying, but also by practice.  And to practice, you need people who do not share your faith.

–> You just can’t hide yourself behind ‘well, I take it on faith’ and leave it that, and only that, and expect your faith to hold.  Sooner or later it is going to be questioned, and I have seen countless Catholics abandon their faith in the face of an unexpected ill-wind, because until that point they had never really learned what it was they believed or why they believed it.  Lack of intellectual sport earlier in life led to a mind incapable of dealing with a demanding faith.  And Christianity is most certainly a demanding faith.

[On this note, I’d like to go ahead and link Darwin Catholic’s classic post, Please Apostacize over Something Big.  I don’t think I’ve linked it before, and it is a point we don’t hear as often as we ought.]

Likewise, the only way to evangelize is to be, one way or another, engaged with the world.  It doesn’t do to hide the light of Christ under the basket, and it is just as hidden if you are sitting under the basket with it.  That said, sometimes sitting under the basket does make people wonder what you’re up to . . . here’s the Holy Father quoting St. Athanasius, who wrote The Life of St. Anthony, thus using the life of a hermit to evangelize the world:

“The fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere, that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God’s love of his soul.  For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Anthony renowned, but solely from his piety toward God.  That this was the gift of God no one will deny.

For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who dwelt hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes his own known everywhere, who also promised this to Anthony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.

[As found in The Fathers pp 66-67, Quoting The Life of Anthony, 93, 5-6.]

Why hide? Human weakness.  We kid ourselves if we think we are not influenced by our surroundings.  Even when we know a proposition is wrong, we can be worn down by repetition into gradually accepting it.  And often the push is very subtle — not an outright attack on the faith, but a gentle offering of this or that enticement which is not always and everywhere wrong, but may, if it reaches us at our point of vulnerability, be too much for us all the same.

By way of example, I’m debating right now whether to re-subscribe to the Wall Street Journal.  Great paper, started reading it in high school and still absolutely love it.  Dad sent me a check for my birthday with the instructions to use it for something for myself, so the money is there.  But here’s my concern: I’m materialistic enough already.  I don’t need every brilliant product waved in front of my face — I spend enough on wine, gadgets and home improvement as it is, without reading the Weekend Journal every Friday.

And although I know very well that the profit-motive is not the end all be all of human existence  – gosh, I have a whole other blog started up in part on that point — I do not entirely trust myself to remain level-headed in the face of the onslaught.  One thing I love about the Journal is that the christian worldview often gets press, especially on the editorial page; but just as often, or more so, I think, the business news is written from the perspective that profits really are the only bottom line.  I know this isn’t true, I ought to be able to filter that underlying assumption out when I read. But a brain is meant to learn, meant to pick up on subtle cues.  I expect I would find myself changing not only for the better (more informed, more on top of my profession), but also for the worse.  There is a balance that must be carefully walked.

We need to know ourselves, and know our own strength.  In the world of polemics, those who retreat from the wider world are often accused of ‘sheltering themselves’ or ‘not willing to engage in debate’.   Nonsense.  No matter how far we retreat, life will always find us.   Tossing out the ‘too-sheltered’ card is akin to blaming someone for not running the Ironman, on account of how they really do need to get a little exercise.  We are not all elite triathletes.  Some of us will do quite well just getting out for a brisk walk with our intellectual and spiritual opponents, and then going home to rest and tend house.

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