I’m in the habit of sending out “Happy New Year” notes to my friends, cordial acquaintances, and other regular correspondents. Those who reply usually just echo the wish, perhaps with a few words of personal news attached. However, this year one friend, whom I’ll call Smith, included in his response that he’d decided to become a Christian. As he and I had not previously discussed faith or religious affiliation, it took me by surprise.
Of course, it was a very good surprise. I congratulated Smith and wished him all the best… then sat back and contemplated the development in a wider context. You see, Smith is extremely bright. Moreover, he’s a recognized authority in a difficult field. One does not lightly introduce subjects that depend on unfalsifiable premises in conversations with such a person. It cross-cuts the mindset – and on this I speak with authority.
Now, it’s among the unquestioned maxims of our time that religious solicitors – the sort who come to your door uninvited and seek to involve you in conversations about faith, religion, and religious practices – are to be shunned as pests. Mind you, I find them annoying too. But they are motivated, in the main, by a sincere belief that they have something of value to offer you – and at no cost to you. They mean well, even if their methods are intrusive and somewhat presumptuous. Indeed, no one could “mean better.”
View this brief video from Penn Jillette, a notable atheist. You may have seen it before. If not, please take the time:
The most striking thing in there is Jillette’s announcement that he disrespects religious people who don’t proselytize. It’s a radical departure from the common attitude, but Jillette is known for charting his own course in all things. When I first saw it, it put me in mind of a story my dear friend Duyen told me, about the early days of her husband-to-be’s courtship of her:
Yesterday I visited with a new friend who’s rapidly becoming a very close friend: Matt, the gun store manager I met on my “armament shopping trip” a few weeks ago. He’s a little younger than I am — he’ll be 26 just about as I turn 34 — but he has a hard sense about him that a lot of older people could stand to learn from. Maybe that comes from working around “deadly weapons” and the people who love them. I couldn’t say. But I really enjoy the spin he puts on some of the stuff we talk about. (I also love that he has no fear about driving into New York City on the spur of the moment.)
Matt has no religion. I, of course, told him that I’m a practicing Catholic…just yesterday evening, for the first time. In the process of getting to know someone who might become really important to you, you can’t just blurt out the most important stuff about you; you have to choose the right time and setting. You also have to work up enough nerve, for some things at least. Religion is one of them.
Matt was curious. He wanted to know more. Not in a prosecuting-attorney sort of way, either. He really, truly wanted my reasons. He wasn’t about to let me get away with a synopsis, either; he wanted the whole story. So I did my best to give it to him.
I had no problem explaining the core of Christian doctrine — hey, we sum the whole thing up in one prayer — and no problem with the basic rituals of Roman Catholicism and why we practice them. But how do you explain conversion? It’s an internal process. It involves things no one else can see, hear, or feel — what Fran calls private knowledge. Talking about it can make you sound like some kind of nut.
I tried to avoid it, but Matt wouldn’t let me. I became curious about the intensity of his interest, but I kept all my questions to myself and just did what I could.
He took it seriously. That surprised me more than anything else. He didn’t pull a face. he didn’t act as if I was someone who had to be handled very carefully. He accepted what I said as a truthful narration of what I’d experienced.
After a while, he said, “Do you think that happens to everyone? Because it hasn’t happened to me.”
I tried flippancy. “Well, you’re not dead yet.”
He scowled. “Look, if this is a good thing, then it ought to be available to everyone. Catholics don’t believe in predestination like the Calvinists, do they?”
That set me back. “No, of course not.”
“Then I want to know why you and not me,” he said.
Oh boy, I thought, now I have to play theologian.
“Look,” I said, “I’m not a missionary, I’m just a believer. I wouldn’t dream of trying to convert you.”
I was punch-drunk by then. “Well, most people consider it impolite to press their religion on other people.”
And this twenty-five-year-old man who sells steel, lead, and gunpowder for a living, who’s surrounded six days a week by people whose every third word is obscene, who described the household he grew up in as “a demilitarized zone,” said to me, “That’s their problem. If this is good stuff, I want in. And if you believe it’s good stuff, you should be out there trying to share it with others. Especially as it costs you nothing.”
And so we begin.
Just in case it isn’t entirely clear yet, I’m of the opinion that the world needs more sincere Christians. (The Westboro Baptists and such aside, denomination hardly matters. Smith isn’t becoming a Catholic, but so what? All Christians profess the same fundamental faith. All pledge to adhere to an Ethic based on the Ten Commandments and the two Great Commandments of Matthew chapter 22.) America is in the direst imaginable need of such Christians. So how do we go about increasing their number, in a world that reacts negatively to explicit attempts to proselytize?
Smith cited the examples of his Christian friends. Matt was moved by Duyen’s own faith and its promises. But neither case is typical.
Early in The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis cites another case, which his demon-protagonist Screwtape was at pains to thwart:
I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.
The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear What He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle it the end of a morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind”, he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about “that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic.”
Such reactions against “the aberrations of mere logic” are commonplace today. You can’t discuss Thomas Aquinas’s discourse on the necessity of an uncreated Creator with a man whose attention is on his stomach, his bills, or the traffic noise from the street outside. It is quite possible that the modern world is simply too busy for argument to be useful. Besides, how many people are interested in logical argument today, whether in this context or any other?
Today, evangelization must be by example.
There’s a story about Francis of Assisi, one of the greatest of the saints of medieval times:
Saint Francis of Assisi was known for his embrace of poverty and utter simplicity. His evangelism was largely by example. An illustrative story about his style of evangelism concerns a brother in a monastic order where Francis had taken lodging. One day the young monk begged Francis for permission to accompany him on a day’s preaching. The saint assented, and they went forth from the monastery at daybreak.
First they came upon a group of men laboring in the field. Francis said “Let us work beside them,” which they did, in silence, for several hours before passing onward.
Next they came upon a village where they found a group deep in prayer. Francis said “Let us pray with them,” which they did, in silence, for another hour before passing onward.
Late in the day they entered a village where a wedding celebration was in progress. Francis said “Let us rejoice with them,” which they did. At last dusk was upon them and it was time to return to the monastery.
When they had returned to the monastery, the young monk said to Francis, “Brother, was it not your intention to preach today? Yet we spoke not a word of preachment from departure to return.”
Francis smiled. “Brother,” he replied, “this day we have done nothing but preach, from dawn till dusk.”
This tale might be the origin of Francis’s exhortation to “At all times preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.” Perhaps it was easier in Francis’s time. Even so, the method remains applicable. Ask Smith.
There’s a lot of loose talk about “root causes” for this and that. Most of it comes from persons determined to avoid all consideration of proximate causes. Proximate causes – the decisions and actions of the people who actually do things – are absolutely unarguable. Under a doctrine of human free will, they’re the only thing that really matter…which is why the “root causes” fans prefer to avoid the subject altogether.
Consider the rioting, vandalism, looting, and other violence that’s afflicted America’s cities these past two years. It wasn’t perpetrated by ghosts, aliens, or werewolves, but by human beings: mostly young men. Didn’t those persons possess free wills? Didn’t they choose to go rampaging, looting, and destroying? What about the perpetrators of the “smash and grab” robberies that have been in the news of late?
The “root causes” fan waves those questions aside. He’d rather talk abstractions: lack of opportunity; poor upbringing; inadequate schooling; what have you. Never mind that plenty of young men afflicted by some or all of those conditions have chosen not to go rampaging, looting, and destroying. Why not? Why haven’t they joined their coevals? Don’t they want to be “in with the in crowd?”
A sincere Christian would not go rampaging, looting, and destroying. It would violate his pledge to the Christian Ethic. But without the Ethic, what would deter him? Certainly not the impossibility of the thing; the rioters and “smash-and-grabbers” of our time have clearly demonstrated how possible it is. So why not join the gang for fun and profit?
As I’ve written before, the countervailing forces to such behavior are:
- Fear of the potential consequences of lawbreaking (e.g., being shot down while committing a crime);
- Fear of punishment as applied by the secular justice system;
- Fear of the opinions of others.
All three of those deterrents have been badly weakened. The steady assault on the right to defend oneself, one’s loved ones, and one’s property with lethal force is eroding #1. The “rehabilitation over deterrence” philosophy has eaten deeply into #2. The “what’s right is what’s right for you” thesis has all but destroyed #3. As a result, an increasing number of Americans have adopted “whatever I can get away with” as their standard.
The recent trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is a data point of importance. The prosecution strained logic and evidence completely out of proportion to convict that young man for daring to defend himself against murderous thugs – two convicted criminals and a domestic abuser – who had already attacked him. The huge number of hardened criminals being granted clemency, suspended sentences, or paroles without any substantial justification is a forest of data points. Yet the judges who commit those crimes against public safety preen themselves for their “compassion.” Of the diminution of the force of opinion, it’s unnecessary to speak.
I trust no more need be said on that subject.
This is getting to be quite the diatribe. I can’t be perfectly sure I’ve accomplished my mission in all its particulars. But I trust my central thesis is clear:
The remedy for nearly all “social problems”
Is a return to sincere Christianity.
Indeed, it might be pointless to discuss any other course. Certainly it’s pointless to look to government, for governments fatten on problems. They propose “solutions” that increase their power, regardless of whether they have even a cosmetic curative effect. (Of course they reject all suggestions that they’re the cause of the problem.) If this hasn’t become clear over the two years immediately behind us, I can’t imagine what would make it so.
So, Gentle Reader, I’ll be returning to this line of reasoning frequently in 2022. I want a return to sincere Christianity. I want the social order that prevailed when the overwhelming majority of us were Christians, sincere about it, and willing to castigate and punish persons who violate the Ethic. I want all talk of “root causes” to be dismissed with prejudice and proximate causes – the conscious decisions of individual actors – to be all that matters, just as it was when we learned the Ten Commandments at our mothers’ knees.
For now, turn from the words of Francis Porretto and contemplate the methods of Francis of Assisi. I hope they appeal to you, for I have none better. But note that they begin with your behavior: your adherence to the Ten Commandments and the two Great Commandments. As Albert Jay Nock said, the only way to improve society is to present it with a single improved member: yourself.
May God bless and keep you all.