Shrill Polemics

Something discussed in our recent Council of Advice meeting inspired me to write on the subject of shrillness on the part of many polemicists seeking to defend their convictions and win others over to them. One Council member regretted having used the word liberal as expressing a position against shrillness. I suggested using the word tolerant in that context, because liberal means different things to different people and points of view. We in the ACC are not liberals (relativism, indifference, etc.) but we are on the whole tolerant.

I have the impression in our polarised times that we are going back to an era like the 1920’s and 30’s when discussion was no longer possible. It is us and them, black and white, might is right, no quarter to the enemy. That era bred Mussolini and Hitler, a cruel totalitarian ideology without pity or tolerance designed to improve mankind, but which slaughtered millions for no reason other than their race or creed. The post-Communist world observes the genocide perpetrated against Christianity in the Middle-East and says nothing. Shrillness on one side and only our silence for an answer. What can we do but pray? It is a good question. We do care, but we are impotent faced with the looming monster.

The Muslims burning churches and slaughtering the innocent in Syria seem to believe they are doing it for God and truth. Hitler made the same claim eighty years ago. Many conservative Christians do not advocate killing people, but would – if they received authority to do so – would curb the liberty of others through laws and policing.

Between Islamic murderers and fanatical Christians, we find that these people are unable to reason. They have rejected both empathy and reason. When we find shrillness, it can only indicate an underlying fragility of their belief in truth and the spiritual. We ourselves have to learn from those people. We are tempted to build up strong positions against other creeds and faiths. Instead of looking at the positive things all Christians do, we seek to show up what is wrong with them and why they should “convert” to our “one true” camp. Insofar as we give way to this temptation, we discredit our own cause. I was so happy that during our meeting between the ACC Bishop in England and we his clergy and laity, we had a consensus that shrillness was not the way – but mature dialogue and empathy.

We are Catholics (even through Catholics in communion with Rome might dispute that fact). Our faith is calm, reasoned and experienced and rooted in the Scriptures and Tradition. We are called to discuss and debate points of doctrine, but always in the respect of the other “side”. We have both to believe in truth and practice tolerance. I have always expressed the idea that we need to be calm and kind. If we are shrill, we must be overreacting from the lack of credibility of what we believe in, from the shakiness of what can easily be refuted by the opponent.

One thing that has attracted me to the ACC is its maturity which comes from having been through suffering the experience of human conflict and sin. I am impressed by the calmness of our Archbishop and Bishops (which is not to say that there are occasional problems that need to be sorted out). We are no more perfect than anyone else, but we have learned lessons.

We must combat shrillness in ourselves and others. Truth has no fear of being challenged and discussed. We need to learn to let go and broaden our minds. We can do that through going out into the world and making the effort to understand what is going on. There is the old fable about the Sack of Constantinople in 1453 that theologians were discussing the gender of the angels whilst the Muslims were doing what they are doing today in Syria – burning churches and cutting priests’ throats. Christianity is challenged by greater realities than what any of us would care to imagine. Our shrillness only serves to fuel the arguments of the real enemy.

Just bear it in mind and think about it. It will make the difference between our survival or our annihilation.

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7 Responses to Shrill Polemics

  1. Patricius says:

    St Paul was intemperate. St Athanasius was intemperate. Luther was intemperate. Ridley was intemperate. Archbishop Laud was, by all accounts, very intolerant. There are scores of other saints and heroes of our Faith of a similar mould, architects and defenders of Tradition. What place do they hold in your religion of tolerance and calm?

    • Patrick, I never expected you to be rude on this blog. I have always been kind with you, and was not aiming at you whilst writing my article. If religion has to be shrill, then I’m afraid that Richard Dawkins is right and all we are is matter and money. Then love really has no place in this world – I would rather die.

      You talk of becoming Orthodox, but you are a very long way from being received by any priest concerned for peace in his parish and the good of his cradle-Orthodox faithful.

      I seem to be definitely through with this subject. Voltaire thought out the essential, and the message never got through. Well, there it is.

    • warwickensis says:

      I’m not sure that I would describe these gentlemen as necessarily intolerant. While I have my doubts about Luther (who is indeed on record for saying very intemperate things), certainly none of these folk were accepting of any alternative to their faiths. St Paul tolerated much, namely scourgings and beatings and stonings, all very humbly and submissively.

      I certainly do not accept any claim of the Islamic religion over me, but I have a duty of love and that must mean I tolerate their mosques for the sake of freedom.

      We do need to be careful about confusing the idea of acceptance with the idea of tolerance. The Lord himself requires us to put up with the tares in the midst of the wheat ahead of harvest time.

      • Paul Goings says:

        “We do need to be careful about confusing the idea of acceptance with the idea of tolerance.”

        This is the crucial distinction to be made. Acceptance is telling your Mohammedan neighbor that his religion is pretty much the same as your Catholicism. Tolerance is not shooting your Mohammedan neighbor unless he converts.

      • Stephen K says:

        I beg to suggest something more accurate here. “Acceptance” is regarding the other’s religion as his or her right to have, and disregarding both it and one’s own as eligibility criteria for loving neighbourliness; “tolerance” is putting one’s dislike of or disagreement with the other’s religion aside enough to maintain civil intercourse with them.

        Telling-your-Mohammedan-neighbour-that-his-religion-is-pretty-much-the-same-as-your-Catholicism might be “ignorance”, “irenicism” or “insensitivity” or “an insult” depending on the circumstances. Not shooting-your-Mahommedan-neighbour-unless-he-converts could be anything the lawful side of lunacy or fanaticism, but so minimalist as to be useless as a criterion or standard of Christian behaviour.

      • It suffices to look at the news about the persecution and annihilation of Christianity by barbarianism in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle-East. We don’t seem to be far from another world war with ourselves and our materialism being “the enemy” in regard to Russia. Going fanatical and intolerant is hardly likely to improve the situation.

        We either go out there and fight, and probably get killed, or we do something about our attitude – namely doing good where others are doing evil. Perhaps that helps to put things in perspective.

      • ed pacht says:

        Acceptance, it would seem to me, involves some degree of agreement with the thoughts or actions of the other, or at least taking them as in some sense equivalent to one’s own. This is not always possible or desirable. I remain convinced that Christ is at the center of it all and therefore that a nonacceptance of Christ produces a less acceptable thought pattern. However, rejection of those who differ renders communication (even that aimed toward ‘conversion’) next to impossible and breeds enmity, anger, and ultimately violence. Tolerance is the ability to live with ideas, practices, and attitudes that one does not like, perhaps finds abhorrent, both respecting and accepting the very persons holding them. One of the prime values of Christianity (even though it has often been laid aside or even scorned) is that one sets out, of his own free will to follow Jesus; and another is that one returns good for evil, suffers rather than inflicting suffering, and endeavors to love ones enemies.

        There are many ideas and practices in this world that I cannot accept, but, according to the Gospels, there are no persons I cannot love, none who merit Christ’s love less than I do. Following through on this is not easy. In fact it is superhuman, but it is our calling. God help us!

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