The Hierarchy of Truth vs. the Horse You Rode in On
So the other day, comedienne Sarah Silverman made a fool of herself by declaring unborn babies to be "just goo" to fellow medical expert, Bill Maher who says nobody should get vaccinated. It was a particularly epic display of the sort of science denialism that you don't much hear about in the media. I would like to see a freshman in high school biology try to escape an F by answering a quiz on fetal development with "It's just goo". This is what happens when a culture supposedly devoted to reason gets its science and philosophy from a comedian.
The expected uproar and denunciation of this kind of anti-intellectual idiocy from the pro-life brigade was swift and entirely just--for a while. But then something happened that I notice has happened many many times before and seems to be a pan-human phenomenon. The people incensed by Silverman's stupid and evil comments on abortion couldn't just stop with denouncing her comments on abortion. They had to go on and denounce everything about her.
As I say, it's a pan-human phenomenon. Every public figure who comes under just attack for something terrible they have said or done almost immediately comes under attack for everything they have said or done. It's why everybody from Bush to Obama gets compared to Hitler when they aren't, you know, Hitler. It's why the 9/11 bombers were irrationally denounced as "cowards" when the reality was that their sins were pride, fanaticism, a hatred of life, and zeal without knowledge. Precisely what they had was an excess of courage untethered from other and greater virtues. But people hated them so much for what they did that they said anything--including nonsense--simply to denounce them.
One of the things the Church Fathers noted about the Passion of Christ was that there was a reason the evangelists noted the detail, not merely that Peter attacked the high priest's slave to prevent Jesus' arrest, but that he cut off his ear. The evangelists don't include details like that for nothing, but because they see some spiritual significance in it. The Fathers argue that the significance here is that displays of sin (such as Peter's anger) create deafness. We cannot hear when we embrace hatred.
Okay. So what? Does that mean we need to listen to Silverman's dumb junk about babies being goo? No. But we do have to listen to Jesus' command (not suggestion):
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:43–48)
It is just about the easiest thing in the world to declare of an enemy that, having said or done something heinous, there is nothing about them worth anything. And indeed, throughout the history of the Church, there have been members of the Church eager to implement that strategy. "Were some Jews hostile to Christ and the Church?" said Marcion. "Very well then, let's simply ditch the entire Old Testament and the Jewish God as evil." The Church refused this easy course of action and instead insisted that both the Old Testament and the Jews were somehow at the heart of God's dealings with the world and inextricably bound up with the mission and destiny of the Church.
Still others looked at the brutal persecutions meted out to Christians by pagans and said, "To hell with pagans and anything they think or care about." The Church, in contrast, carefully preserved as much of good of the pagan world as it could and became thereby the conduit by which the bulk of pagan antiquity was saved from Vandals, Vikings, and similar representatives of mindless destruction.
Still others responded to Muslim hostility to the faith by saying "The hell with Muslims and anything they have to say." St. Thomas said, "Actually, the Muslim preservation of Aristotle is a good thing and we can reconcile not only the pagan Greek, but his Muslim commentators with the faith, thereby enriching our understanding of God and of the world."
What this all comes back to is Paul's counsel "Test everything. Hold fast what is good." (1 Thes 5:17). It's an unpopular counsel in an age that is far more interested in burning heretics than in making converts or loving enemies. But the Church's habit of mind has stood it in good stead and has made it possible for the Church to benefit immensely by absorbing whatever good it can find in even the worst of its enemies. As Augustine noted, when the Israelites left Egypt, they took with them all sorts of goodies the Egyptians gave them just to hurry them on their way. They did not despise the gifts as having Egyptian cooties, but saw that they were good. The creation narrative in Genesis shows this same kind of approach. What is not noticed by many moderns is that all the creatures Genesis 1 describes were, among other things, worshipped as gods by the neighbors of Israel. But instead of writing a screed denouncing the sun, moon, stars, animals and so forth as filthy idols and evil, Genesis instead took the sane approach and says they are the good gifts of a good God. The Old Testament will have plenty to say about idolatry. But it never makes the easy and lazy mistake of leaping from the evil of idol worship to the idiocy of denouncing creation wholesale.
This is why the Church likewise takes seriously the command to love enemies: because our enemy is still in the image and likeness of God and therefore has concealed within him somewhere a piece of something God wishes to reveal to us. Throw away that weird old trunk that your crazy uncle gave you and you might discover that you threw away the pearl of great price in it that he wanted you to have.
I'm speaking to myself as much as anybody here. There are people in this world I cannot stand, just as there are people you cannot stand. It's fine to loathe the evil things they do and it's necessary to admonish them to repent. But the moment we pass from hating what is evil in them to hating everything about them because of the evil that is only part of who they are? That is the moment we pass to calling good evil--thereby missing the Image of God buried there.
This is why the Church emphasizes the heirarchy of truth, which looks for what can be affimed in common with even the most arcane and esoteric human thinking rather than the "and the horse you rode in on!" style of American culture warring that seeks out enemies to carpet bomb with blanket denunciations. The faith can be fierce in its denunciations of falsehood. But it has a peculiar gift for following up such denunciations with, "But of course, he still has good things he is saying and doing too." It's that kind of balance and sanity that is one of many reasons I love (and need) the Faith.