Refuse to breathe thin air: Know the source of your convictions, challenge others on the source of theirs
I’ve written recently about the deliberate exclusion of informed religious faith as an influence in the political and social life of the West (see “Time to give the lie to a culture in denial” and “Dangerous! Both religious exclusion and religious common cause”). Since Catholicism is unique in basing itself on a manifest public Revelation from God, complete with a Divinely ordained authority to secure the authentic transmission of that Revelation over time, we must address this exclusion. How might we counter the powerful errors in our culture, manifested both privately and publicly, which contradict what any person of good will can know that God has taught?
One common approach to the problem is to demand freedom of religion or, even more extensively, freedom of conscience. While it is true that there can be no coercion in religious belief, claims for religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the West today are often merely stop-gap measures to prevent a State which specifically authorizes grave evils from coercing everyone to participate in those evils. In other words, having failed to win the political battle in favor of just laws, we fall back on Western notions of liberty of conscience in the hope of being exempted from the program.
As a tactic this may have occasional merit, but it further erodes the Catholic (or authentically Christian) position through an unspoken willingness to suspend opposition to evil as long as we can be exempted from direct participation in it by virtue of our peculiarity. The success of this approach depends in large part on our being perceived as an insignificant minority, so insignificant that the State can afford to humor us, much as it does the Amish in their enclaves or Native Americans on their reservations. This tactic is not immoral in itself, but it is primarily defensive and self-interested. It does not make a serious claim on our public life for the common good.
Another common approach is simply to move on to the next battle after each loss. In one sense this is inevitable, but it is a common related error to assume that, once a particular moral battle has been lost, we must accept the contrary state of affairs so as not to appear either shrill or disrespectful of the democratic process. Nor is this approach confined to public or political issues. We do this in our own families and among our own friends as well. Once people have severed yet another tie with the true and the good, we take it for granted that we must leave them alone in their errors. In this context, I sometimes wonder how often we even remember to continue to pray for errant friends and family members.
As I mentioned, in one sense this is inevitable. A wise person knows when his moral position has been decisively rejected (whether politically or personally), and he would be foolish indeed to continue to fight in the same way the particular battle that has now been lost. Yet too often the acceptance of one sort of defeat can cause us to withdraw entirely, to cease bearing witness, or even to refuse to remain active in those services of love which not only can soften hearts but “will heap burning coals” upon the heads of those who, in the matter at hand, have become our enemies (Rm 12:20). Authentic love, in other words, can force others to look inward, triggering a sense of shame.
The sources of conviction
But something more is needed. I would suggest that even in a hostile culture we must become known not only as emissaries of love in a comfortable sense but also as emissaries of intelligent conviction—as emissaries of truth.
In my previous essays I emphasized the objective public character of Christian Revelation and the consequent objective public character of the moral and doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church—claims that no other institution on earth can (or even does) make. The various opinions, philosophical schools, and religions of the world may deserve a fair hearing, but they are not all equally valid. Most consist of distinctive errors, lies or even fantasies dressing up a remarkably limited number of natural insights. All of these conflict in notable ways with God’s self-disclosure through the natural law, which we can know by reason, and/or with His formal Revelation in Jesus Christ, which is protected through time by the Church Christ established.
Therefore we cannot afford to accept today’s secular myths, or even to accord equal value to today’s religious myths. We cannot accept the demanded denial of Catholicism’s claim to convey clearly the true and the good as known from the God without whom there would be no reality at all. Instead we must fearlessly challenge others in both private and public situations to give an account of why they believe what they do, and to consider whether their own grounds of belief have any real merit. Our approach must be this:
Look, I can tell you exactly WHY this course of action or this law is evil rather than good. I can explain the matter with reasons drawn from the very nature of things. And if we cannot follow the natural argument, I will tell you what God has revealed about this while demonstrating that this revelation was both public and eminently credible. Now, can you give any rational account of the source and cogency of your own ideas?
Faithful informed Catholics know the origins and rationality of their convictions. In contrast, among our opponents both within and outside the Church, the vast majority simply pull their ideas out of thin air. They cannot frame a coherent argument for the truth or goodness of their (constantly changing) convictions. Normally they content themselves with a few slogans. But their argument consists mostly of the statements that “it is obvious” and “everybody knows it”, as if wisdom emerges automatically from the spirit of the times.
We must emphasize tirelessly that it simply will not do to dismiss either the moral significance of the structure of reality or the compelling evidence for Divine Revelation. It will not do to pretend that the true and the good are completely formless concepts, entirely dependent on the dominant set of unfettered human desires in each new decade of our jumbled history. We need to remind others that they should be ashamed of making up their own ideas of truth and goodness out of whole cloth, merely to agree with the dominant culture or to suit their own personal pleasures and purposes.
This is beneath our dignity as human persons. It is always unacceptable. We are not to pull our convictions—neither our religions, nor our philosophies, nor our morals—out of thin air.
Not out of thin air
What I am proposing here is a revolution in our anemic Western pluralism so that it does not marginalize truth. This revolution would take the form of what we might call an Anti-Thin Air Movement. Indeed, I often caution disgruntled correspondents that they must not make up their religion for themselves. The Anti-Thin Air Movement is an extension of the same idea. We live in a culture which prizes relativism in theory (your truth, my truth), but uses relativism only to destroy the claims of truth. The purpose is to clear the way for the imposition of moral error, so as to call good evil, and evil good. You will find the psychology behind it in Revelation as well: “For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn 3:20). This is why we need to attempt to shake people out of their complacency when it comes to the ideas in their own heads.
There is no intelligence in an opinion held because “everybody knows” it is true, or an opinion enshrined into law because “everybody knows” it is right. Catholics need to challenge this foolish complacency by becoming known for taking reality seriously. The first rule in this process is that truth is the mind’s conformity with reality. Living in the truth, then, is essential for avoiding catastrophic collisions with what is. Living in the truth is essential for personal happiness, social development, and ultimate fulfillment. Everything else is what we call destructive behavior.
Our continued love for others as exemplified in the corporal works of mercy is an important witness which can touch even those who refuse to think. But there needs also to be a spiritual and intellectual service, a witness to reality as something given, a witness to the beautiful wholeness of lives ordered to the true and the good. When people pull their convictions out of thin air, Catholics need to call them on it and challenge them with the reality of reality itself. This too is a service of love.
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