Cart and Horse and Caritas
This is a follow-up to last week’s journal; I want to expand a bit on my reasons for more or less dropping out of the bitter and embittering American cultural-political debate. (My apologies if I repeat myself; I felt that I had not said all that I wanted to say. And for convenience I’m going to use the word “politics” and “political” to refer to the whole complex of issues.)
I say “more or less” because I don’t mean to say that I’ll never comment on these questions at all, much less forbid that they ever be mentioned in the comments. And I certainly don’t mean to say that I’ve abandoned my views on the specific matters that make up that debate. But I don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want to write so that someone who doesn’t know me well would take one look at this blog and say “Oh, a conservative” (or “Oh, a liberal”—yes, there are some who would see me that way) and dismiss everything I have to say. As I mentioned last week, I think this may have happened at least once or twice. And I really don’t want it to happen because I am far more concerned with other more fundamental things.
My recent multiple re-readings of the opening sections of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritus Est (God Is Love) have confirmed me in taking this direction. The pope’s wonder-filled vision of love as the essence of reality is deeply moving to me. And my own perception of that same reality is what I want above all to communicate to anyone who reads what I write. Most especially, it’s what I want to communicate, or at least suggest, to anyone who has not seen it.
Truth divides, necessarily. There’s no getting around that. But if division must exist I would much prefer that it involve the ultimate questions. Who and what are we? What are we for? What is the world, and what is it for? To whom, if anyone, are we responsible, and what does that responsibility entail? What do we dare to hope? One’s answers to those questions are much more important than one’s views on any political matter.
The word “divisive” is thrown around much too freely. Usually “you are being divisive” means “you are unwilling to accept my judgment that this matter is unimportant.” But our political debate is all too often genuinely divisive with respect to the ultimate questions: disagreement about secondary things can create a climate of suspicion in which primary things can’t even be discussed.
As we all know, it’s the so-called “social issues” that are the source of much or most of the rage that has characterized the American debate for many years now. Is it good for anyone to have sexual relations with anybody as long as they both consent? What is marriage? Should abortion be restricted? What about pornography? How should homosexuality be treated in the law? Is materialistic evolution deniable? And so forth. As things presently stand, there’s not much place for dialog on these: if you come down on one side or the other, anyone on the other side is not likely to listen any further to you. I want to avoid displaying the tribal symbols, so to speak—to avoid giving the signals that too often produce reflexive hostility and rejection.
The broad political questions involved here are, for any one of us, less urgent and important than the individual souls we encounter. If someone I know has had an abortion, my first concern is not for her status before the law, but for her. I want her to know that the heart of reality is love, not just love in the abstract but love for her in particular, and that in the end nothing can separate her from that love except her own refusal of it. Almost certainly there is some pain, or a scar covering that pain, in her heart, and it may be keeping her away from God by many different means. She may not be able or willing to face God, or even the possibility that God exists, unless she can believe that he is ready to pour out his love and mercy on her. My job is to help her see that. If by my words—harsh or callous or merely careless words commenting on the political question—I fail to assist her toward that vision, or, God forbid, even hinder her, what is God’s judgment on me likely to be?
Similarly for the practicing homosexual: the idea that men can marry men and women marry women is akin to the idea that a circle can have four corners. It implies an understanding of the word “marriage” that makes it mean something altogether different. But that argument, and the following one about laws, is secondary to my encounter with that person. Only if I am guided first and foremost by the desire that he (or she) would see and know divine love do I have the right to expect him (or her) to listen to anything I have to say about human love. If by flippant or derogatory remarks in the context of the political argument I make it more difficult for him or her to see divine love, what is God’s judgment on me likely to be?
I realize, of course, that there is a place for hard words. Sometimes a shock is what’s needed; we have the example of the prophets and of Jesus himself for that. But I can think of several arguments against a resort to denunciation on the part of those who are not explicitly called to it. There’s the simple fact of human nature, that one is far more likely to respond to kindness and sympathy than to anger and condemnation. There’s the fact that the harshness of the prophets and, at times, of Jesus was directed mainly to those already of the household of faith who were not living up to their calling. And there’s the example of Jesus and the woman about to be stoned for adultery: only after he had saved her life did he tell her to go and sin no more.
At any rate I’m about as certain as one can ever be about this sort of thing that hard words are not what God wants from me. And if he does want it he will have to tell me so directly.
It’s occurred to me, in thinking about all this, that Christians across the political spectrum have been guilty of putting the cart before the horse. I think it’s pretty obvious that many “progressive” (to use their preferred term) Christians have less interest in the faith itself than in the political purposes to which it can be put—anyone paying attention can see the association of doctrinal skepticism with left-wing activism. But Christians who are orthodox in doctrine can slip into a more subtle mistake which still puts the cart before the horse: they can, perhaps unconsciously, see the establishment of a Christian social order as the crucial step toward saving souls rather than vice-versa. The paradox is that it’s only the conversion of individuals that can bring about solid and lasting social change.
We all know this, I think, but sometimes we need a reminder. I got a useful one recently from, of all people, the entertainment editor of the local paper. Discussing the controversy over an appearance by the rapper Ludacris, he said, “Funny thing about the [culture war]—yelling ‘charge’ tends to signify that you're actually a re-enactor, rehashing a battle that was over before you woke up. Actually being a culture warrior means living a life people want to emulate.”