Saturday, April 07, 2012

Apologetics and scorn

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." - Martin Luther

This quote, which appears at the very beginning of C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, came to mind recently, in the context of an argument I had involved myself in on other corners of the Internet. What started as my amused observation of cowardice by the New York Times quickly turned into an erring of grievances towards the Catholic Church, with your humble narrator playing the role of the apologist for that venerable institution.

The subject of apologetics interests me greatly, partially for very personal reasons. I had drifted away from the Faith during college, before being brought back after reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. It is shameful that in all my years of Catholic education, from kindergarten through high school, I had never encountered a solid intellectual defense of Christian truth before the age of 20. But once I had been exposed to this aspect of the Church, I threw myself into the topic headlong. I still have much to learn, but in our benighted times, possessing even a modest amount of information on a topic is enough to separate oneself from the dreck masses.

Hence I find that this comparatively insignificant education I have given myself proves sufficient when dealing with most critics of the Church. Heaven knows what they are reading. Probably just Dawkins. I have found that the most elementary criticisms are leveled as if they are substantial: that faith is somehow against science, or that all the wars were religious in nature, and so on. Being able to answer these is essential in reminding our smug objectors that having read a few books does not grant them intellectual superiority. On the other hand, heaven knows how our fellow defenders are handling themselves if this sort of nonsense has not been successfully rebutted before.

Now, just because I believe I have handled myself well doesn't mean I have, in fact, done so. It is difficult to say what influence these excursions may have on others; perhaps they believe they have emerged victorious. One hopes that at the very least, some of the more pedestrian objections should be shelved, replaced by more meaningful ones.

Still, I think we err in thinking that the opposition to the Church is merely rational. This is not to say there are not honest critics of the Church, but the argument usually reveals something deeper, what Chesterton called, "the halo of hatred around the Church of God".

These charges, then, come from deep within the human breast. It isn't merely that the Church is unhelpful, but that she prevents progress by clinging to her antiquarian ways. It is not enough that Catholics apostatize, the Church must die a well deserved death. These critics really do feel harmed by the Church, and while some, notably those who have been abused by priests, deserve all the mercy we can muster, most have, thankfully, not been so harmed.

This finally brings us back to Luther, ironically enough given his own views of the Church. The heretic, too, may know wisdom, and on this point he was onto something. Apologists should seek to be charitable towards those who wish to better understand the Church, but towards those who are scornful, scorn must be returned. We must treat petty criticism with all the respect it merits: none.

This is important because the alternative is to perpetuate the fiction that humanity would be just fine without the Church, that one may take it or leave it. This is preposterous. It is a historical fact that the Church was instrumental in defending civilization from the barbarians, in carrying the torch during the dark ages until the flame would spread to light up Christendom. It is likewise a historical fact that we have two centuries during which Christendom has dropped the Faith in favor of secular dreams that have ended in nightmares. The age of apostasy is the age of the guillotine, the gas chamber and the gulag. That the world would be better off without the Church was misguided when proffered by the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Now, it is worse: it is willfully ignorant.

I do not profess to know how this strategy will work in the arena, but I think it worthwhile to pursue irrespective of success. It is up to the critic to explain why his vision is any less false than those which came before him, and which his so closely resembles. Blind optimism is not enough when the stakes are so high. It is up to us to remind him of these past failures.

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