Friday, January 8, 2010

Introduction to a Chivalrous Orthodoxy

"It is true that I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile." -- G. K. Chesterton

There is no shortage of blogs on Catholic theology and spirituality today, so perhaps one more will do little harm.

I have been half-officially blogging on Facebook for some time, and, wishing to expose myself to the ridicule of a wider audience, I decided to take up the defense of Catholic Christianity here as well. My chief hope is twofold: first, to explain Catholic teaching (to the best of my ability) to anybody who is uncertain about it; and second, to push for a more chivalrous atmosphere in such blogs as these, and life in general.

Admittedly, achieving chivalry on the internet is probably at least twice as hard as performing the miracle of transubstantiation. After all, that only requires a miracle; whereas mutual kindness, respect, fair play, courage, integrity, and general merriment require a clear head and a willing heart, rather rarer commodities than miracles. Nevertheless, I am not attempting this because I think I am likely to succeed in bringing about a general change. I am not attempting it even in order to have a gloriously dramatic failure in bringing about a general change (which would probably be the more credible of those two motivations). I am attempting it for the most profitless of all possible reasons: because I think it is worth doing.

So, from this ardent and uncertain hope, let us begin. When I speak of a chivalrous orthodoxy, I have certain particular aspects of chivalry in mind:

1. Honesty. This means more than not telling lies; it means owning up to one's ignorance (a form of humility in which one may take perverse pride), checking one's facts for factuality, and the rigors of actually bothering to think. If there is to be any intelligent discussion of anything in the universe, it must be based upon a clear understanding of what the two disputants are saying. Without this: vanity, vanity, saith the Preacher. For if one man demands leche and the other angrily insists on having lait instead, we have come to a pretty pass if they are more concerned about winning than about drinking their milk. With luck and grace, each will investigate the other's position; though, if grace be lacking, they might still manage at least to throttle each other and leave the milk for the growing children who need it.

2. Respect. Respect is greatly preferable to mere tolerance. In its contemporary avatar, tolerance merely means never thinking the other fellow wrong. Presumably one must not even think oneself right for being tolerant, at least when conversing with a fundamentalist who thinks that tolerance is wrong. Respect, on the other hand, means being quite willing to think the other fellow wrong, but putting a premium on discussing the ideas rather than the man who has them. Just because a man has ideas does not mean they are his; there is no call to go blaming him for them.

Anyway, it is far more respectful to suppose that a man will be willing to change his mind when intelligently challenged by argument than it is to suppose that he will be either a bigot or a clod. This may be what St Louis of France meant when he said that the duty of a Christian was either to argue with a heretic like a philosopher, or else to thrust a sword into him as far as it would go -- like a Crusader. Nowadays men have fallen into the fatal trap of thinking that all disagreement is persecution, and that all persecution comes from bigotry. These are actually very shallow evaluations, as G. K. Chesterton pointed out in Heretics. Disagreement may easily be conducted without any summons to violence or suppression; and even persecution may, on rare occasions, be the result of fanaticism rather than bigotry. Bigotry, as the fat man wrote, may be defined as the anger of men who have no opinions; whereas fanaticism is only a morbid exaggeration of an opinion; usually a true opinion.

3. Magnanimity. Unless Saint Pio of Pietrelcina is trolling about the blogosphere, bilocating from the Empyrean, we do not know why the other fellow thinks as he does. Magnanimity does him the courtesy of assuming that he means as well as we do, or better. After all, few things could be so devastatingly embarrassing as finding out that one's opponent was wrong and still a better man than oneself.

4. Panache. This word signifies a stylish, energetic courage; heroism, but with a little more reckless laughter in it. This is desperately needed among the pious in our day. Few things have done so much damage as the association of orthodoxy with respectability. We need to recover the drama, the romance, the disreputability of genuine Christianity. Of course, it may be too late, if we will accept the World's definition of "too late"; that is, too late to gain or preserve the privileges of social and political power. But that would be to put our trust in princes. It is putting our trust in principle -- or better, in God -- and saying, with a mad grin, "Do your worst," that makes it panache. And given the realities in which all men live, our only options are panache, stoicism, and pettiness: that is, courage with laughter, courage without laughter, and being a laughingstock.

With these forms in mind, we shall shortly embark. Ladies and gentlemen, Dominus vobiscum.

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