Dear Fr Donagh,
I’m paraphrasing but somewhere in your answers in ‘Between Ourselves’ you wrote that a Christian should be able to look out at the world and all its fast-paced challenges with understanding and toleration, open and not defensive. Elsewhere you wrote of practising Christians being at sea and that we have long since left the shore of the old fundamentalist certainties.
Quite frequently, I encounter challenges to my own Christian beliefs at a personal level in the form of books, television shows, films and the casual conversations of friends and acquaintances and also at a societal level, e.g. the coming referendum on gay marriage, the constant ripples caused by the ever-recurring debate on abortion and the strong arguments to be made for euthanasia in certain cases.
I know that these are big ethical issues and there are no instant answers. I can’t bury my head in the sand - although, at times, I’m tempted to do just that! As I grow older I’ve noticed a fortress conservative mentality growing in me and I don’t like that one bit! At the same time, John Milton’s statement: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue” has a ring of truth about it that appeals to me. As I write this I note the ambivalence.
I’m certainly not expecting a magic formula but I would be interested to hear your views and suggestions as to how a challenged Christian might negotiate his/her way in the cut and thrust of everyday life, trusting in one’s Faith and being open and tolerant in an ever-changing society at the same time.
As always your website is a great help. Keep up the good work!
Yours sincerely, John
Why didn’t you ask me a nice simple question that I could answer from my comfort zone? With your question I'm in the same discomfort zone as you.
Whether to be a ‘culture warrior’ or a contemplative, whether to rush into battle or to run away…. I hope and pray to God that there is a defensible alternative to these positions.
‘Culture warriors’ is a term that has become familiar from the American scene. The outlook, especially when it is focused on a single issue, can be strangely depressing and disturbing – even as one recognises the good intentions that motivate it. The fighting instinct has to be carefully examined. Like all our instincts it is perfectly ambiguous. Love, for example, is ambiguous: at one end of its spectrum it is about greed and lust, while at the other end it is about heroic self-sacrifice and even mystical union with God. It would be a very foolish person who took it at face value. Likewise the aggressive instinct. If our energies are to be of service to the Gospel they had better be purified of ego – in other words, crucified. What I see in many ‘culture warriors’ is that they are not sufficiently crucified. The self-emptying of Jesus is not what you see, but too often an arrogant spirit. There is often a clear absence of compassion for actual, as distinct from theoretical, people. I don’t want to give examples, because that it not what we are about here.
It is crucial to note, though, that there are culture warriors on both sides of all those debates you mention. There are intense pressure groups that are so vocal you can scarcely hear any other voice. Culture warriors on both sides tend to vilify anyone holding an opposite view, but the champions at this are clearly the minority pressure groups. They have virtually full control of the media. Majorities are not popular today. The 20th century saw too many absolutist regimes, and now the movement is to the opposite extreme. Majorities are fair game. It is possible for any minority group to formulate its cause in words that make its opposite appear intolerant and bigoted. The majority of the population are decent people: they want to see people treated “equally”; and they don’t want to deprive anyone of what is described as a “right”. You notice, however, that these two words – ‘equal’ and ‘right’ – are abstract words that can be used for any purpose. (See last month’s ‘Between Ourselves’ on equality.) The purpose, clearly, is not to clarity an issue, but to win. It seems to me that what we have now is not democracy but ‘minocracy’ (to coin a word). Minority rule. They are able to bully the majority because no one wants to appear bigoted or intolerant. Whew! Culture wars!
What is a Christian to do? Join in the fight, or flee the scene? Fleeing from the scene could not be right. The world around us is in agony in many ways. Leaving the scene of an accident is considered a crime. Likewise, turning one’s back on the real problems of our world is not a Christian response. Milton’s “fugitive and cloistered virtue” names a sore spot for all of us.
For a start, Christians should not waste God's gift by fighting one another. What are we to do? Take stock. There is some sort of comfort in knowing that it is not the first time Christian communities are torn by conflict. From the beginning there have been factions in the Church. There was conflict even within the Johannine community. And as early as 53 – 57 AD St Paul had to write to the people of Corinth: “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:11-13). Sadly, in our world, the answer is yes. We waste God's gift and we deprive the world of the clear light of the Gospel. How can we bring the peace of Christ to the world if we are not at peace among ourselves?
To take it back a step: how can we be at peace among ourselves if we are not at peace within ourselves? Culture warriors of both kinds want to fight it ‘out there’, but clearly we have to bring it home. The fault line, the ‘fight or flight’ ambivalence, runs right through your heart. We have to see it and suffer it – be crucified by it – and let God bring something new into the world through it. That is where real change happens. We have to struggle against the laziness that lets us be manipulated by slogans and catch-words. We have to look at where we are being led – or rather driven. We have to think and speak from the heart of the Gospel, the ‘good news’ that sets us free. Nothing but the truth will set us free. But we have to find the Gospel truth – not an ideology that expresses itself in harsh pronouncements. These have the opposite effect to the one intended. But from contemplation we can bring the lucidity and compassion of the Gospel to the divisive problems of our world.
The world was never in greater need of contemplation. Entering a monastery – for some, at any rate – could well be a flight from the tormented world, but contemplation is not a flight from anything. All Christians are called to be contemplatives. I think most of the real contemplatives are to be found in the wide world, doing ordinary jobs. Witness Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In fact he is my answer to your question. One of his core teachings is that we are not called to fight evil directly but to expose it to the light. It has to be the light of the Gospel, however, not our own egotistical views.
This is certainly not simple, as you know. Struggle is a constant. St Paul wrote about “the women who have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” (Phil 4:3). It is a different kind of struggle; it is “against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:12). Even his own vast energy and his brilliant mind were not equal to this kind of struggle: “I toil and struggle with all the energy that God powerfully inspires within me” (Col 1:29).
Richard Rohr’s website is: https://cac.org/ It is a deep well and a source of hope for us all.
This is the best I can do, John.