Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

On Matthew Vines, Heretic

Matthew Vines, whose video on a pro-gay hermeneutic of Scripture recently and surprisingly went viral (despite lasting over an hour!), was interviewed a little while ago by Justin Lee for GCN Radio, the podcast put out by the Gay Christian Network. The interview is about half an hour long; I encourage you to listen to the whole thing, but the bit I want to focus on runs from about the 10 minute mark to just before the 15.

His arguments in favor of a new sexual ethic are (from my reading on both sides of the issue) fairly standard, though better researched and articulated than is often the case. Replies have been made to it from a traditional standpoint, such as this essay on First Things by Joshua Gonnerman, so I won't linger over that for now.

Listening to the GCN interview, however, something did stand out to me, strongly. And that is that he doesn't make any concessions to his maybe being wrong. He is wrong, and I am extremely glad he doesn't even admit the possibility.

This may seem paradoxical; I altogether deny the charge. He believes in absolute truth, and therefore holds his views absolutely. I can't imagine not respecting that. Few things are so false as the notion, so common today, that we can only be on good terms with people whom we agree with; and, as a corollary, that we can only maintain civil relations with those we do disagree with, by watering down what we do believe. It's true that it can be hard to argue and be respectful, but it can be done -- Chesterton and Shaw disagreed with each other about as much as two men can, and were fast friends. I rate respect a damn sight higher than mere tolerance; I admit I prefer tolerance to persecution, but I don't care to settle for tolerance if respect is available.

Chesterton himself put the matter very plainly, in his introductory essay in the collection titled Heretics:

"In the former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law -- all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. ... For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox."

He goes on to say, speaking of Kipling and of Shaw himself, two of the men whom he first addresses:

"I wish to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach. I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or as a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic -- that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive -- I am concerned with him as a Heretic -- that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong."

Now, there is one inevitable misconception that must be cleared up immediately. Eight million percent of readers (in round figures; the actual number may of course be higher) will take this to mean I think Vines is going to Hell. I don't think this; I have less certainty about Matthew Vines' eternal fate than even about my own*, because it's none of my business. Even if we are to judge angels on the Last Day, I hope that we will be excused from the frightful task of judging men; and whether we judge anyone or anything then or no, the Last Day can look after itself -- we have other days meanwhile. To say that someone's opinions are wrong is not the same thing as saying that they are sinning by holding them; nor, even if we knew that, would that be the same thing as knowing their final destiny.

But hang on. Isn't saying that someone is a heretic more than just saying they're wrong? Well, in one sense, no. False doctrine and heresy are synonymous terms, if we are talking simply about the thing being believed. The sense in which heresy can be a sin comes in only when the reasons, or lack of reasons, that a person has for believing something are clarified -- when a person is believing a false doctrine because of a refusal to trust God, for one reason or another. And because only God looks on the heart, that question is in a real sense unanswerable -- except of ourselves, to ourselves. We do not know whether someone else holds their beliefs for bad reasons, but we can realize that we do; we often have to, and in fact Vines makes that very point in the interview I linked to, acknowledging his own bad reasons for the opinions he held before converting to a pro-gay hermeneutic.

That is one of the reasons that I can't join in the tendency, on display among a lot of Catholic bloggers, authors, and apologists, to not simply argue with but despise those who hold beliefs contradictory to the Catholic faith. I find it distasteful and counterproductive, and seriously at risk for being sinful, since no poison is deadlier than pride. But aside from all that, I just can't, and won't, understand the feeling that people who are thoughtful enough to be solid, dogmatic heretics deserve to be mocked.**

Am I grieved when people espouse heretical beliefs? Of course. Just as Vines is grieved when I espouse the traditional doctrines of Catholicism, and he should be, because the truth matters. I very much imagine, expect, and hope that Matthew Vines would regard me simply and categorically as a heretic, for the same reasons I regard him as one; and I don't doubt that he would nevertheless be as capable of respecting me as I respect him.

But is it really respecting someone to call them a heretic -- to call them wrong? I think it, in a way, extremely respectful. It is certainly more respectful than speaking and acting as though their ideas are too unimportant to be wrong or right. To quote my master Chesterton once again:

"... I would ask first and foremost, that men such as these of whom I have spoken should not be insulted by being taken for artists. No man has any right whatever merely to enjoy the work of Mr. Bernard Shaw; he might as well enjoy the invasion of his country by the French. Mr. Shaw writes either to convince or to enrage us. ... If a man convinces us at all, it should be by his convictions. ... If a man comes into Hyde Park to preach it is permissible to hoot him; but it is discourteous to applaud him as a performing bear. And an artist is only a performing bear compared with the meanest man who fancies he has anything to say."

Naturally I have no idea whether Matthew Vines will ever read this. But if ever you do, sir, permit me to close by raising a glass in your honor. (I hope you like whiskey, not least because if you don't, you're wrong about that too.) Slainte.***

*The Catholic doctrine of assurance need not detain us, but can be summed up in a beautiful quote from Saint Joan of Arc, in an answer she gave during her trial for heresy. Asked whether she knew herself to be in a state of grace -- an attempt to trap her, so that she could be accused of either admitting that she was in sin (if she said no) or presuming upon her own holiness (if she said yes), the prophetess replied simply, "If I am not, may God put me there; if I am, may God keep me there."

** This isn't the same as playful banter -- something of which Chesterton dealing with Shaw (and, indeed, Chesterton dealing with basically everybody) is a splendid example. Humor of this sort is founded on respect, on taking the other person and their position seriously; it is humorous in form, precisely because it views the other person as being able to handle the humor. People often assume that all humor about opposing viewpoints is contemptuous, but this seems to me to be based in a subconscious idea that humor is always hostile -- a patently obvious falsehood, once it is stated out loud.

*** In answer to your question, yes I did do the Darth Vader Episode III "Nooooo" when I realized I don't know how to get an accent mark over the 'a' in that word.

1 comment:

  1. I have to read, and re-read this. But, again, thank you. You are providing lamp posts for me. I am in a new area, and I am trying to find my way. You articulate things that I sense but don't manage to give words to.

    I have my beloved child, and she is pursuing a way I think is wrong. But I don't have to be any less than what Chesterton was: a thoughtful Christian. Being in dialogue is the critical thing.

    So, again, thank you. Please continue to keep the lights on.