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How Not to Have Arguments

From the perspective of eternity our little disagreements must look very petty indeed.

Old St. Mary's, Washington, D.C. (By V_E/Shutterstock)

A few weeks ago I was saddened to hear from a former fellow parishioner at Old St. Mary’s in D.C.’s Chinatown that Tom Bethell had died at the age of 84. I never really knew Bethell, a journalist whose work will be known to many readers here. But I did once have an argument with him.

This was about eight years ago. The disagreement itself is hardly worth discussing. In an online exchange I said some rather hard things about Bethell’s opposition to evolution under the dubious influence of modern Catholic apologetics. (It strikes me now that I was motivated in part by his environmental views and his insistence that autoimmune deficiency syndrome is not caused by HIV and, more shamefully, by a feeling that he was not quite as young and interesting as the writers I would have preferred to run in his place at the magazine where I was then an editor.) Anyway, I have since changed my mind, reverting to a position I had held even as a Marxist teenager, before I began my long, uneasy return to the Church more than ten years ago.

I will not mention my reasons for doing so here. In fact, I bring up the issue only by way of illustrating a few points that I think are worth making during the waning days of Lent about the value of charity and why arguments should only be made in good faith.

One is simply that we should not make arguments because of some real or perceived social advantage, or by proxy because we disagree with someone about other issues. It is dishonest to do so consciously even when the matter itself seems very small. Anyone who is willing to entertain one argument for purely social reasons is liable to find himself refusing to defend another for the same reason, perhaps one he would otherwise recognize as obviously false. He might find that he no longer quite believes it to be untrue, or that it is untrue but in ways that are irrelevant, or that the badness of the people who would otherwise be on his side requires him to change course. We can find ourselves performing these kinds of mental gymnastics if we are not attuned to our own motivations.

This is to say nothing of the fact that we do not always wish to earn the esteem of the same persons or groups whose approbation we seek when we are very young; indeed, it may be that the company that appeals to us when we are 24 or 25 will seem disagreeable as we age. Anyone who is old enough to have changed his mind about a reasonable number of things will know what I mean when I say that we often live to regret the harsh things we once said in favor of propositions that later appear to us wrong or insignificant.

Which brings me to perhaps my most important point, which is simply that we often say foolish things for which we never have a chance to apologize, either because circumstances prevent us from doing so or simply because the matter never seems urgent enough, until it is too late. I now realize that I must have seen Bethell more or less weekly at Old St Mary’s for years without thinking of broaching the subject or, indeed, consciously recalling our argument. Then my wife and I moved our children back to Michigan, and on the rare occasions when I visited Washington I found myself attending Mass elsewhere. It is now impossible for me to express remorse for my puerile conduct, much less to tell him that I have in a sense come round to his way of thinking.

For obvious reasons these speculations concerning earthly things have become irrelevant to Bethell, and I hope that he now rejoices in the promise whose fulfillment we will commemorate at Easter. In the meantime, those of us who must continue mourning and weeping in this vale of tears would do well to recognize that from the perspective of eternity, our opinions are insignificant. (This is something that those of us who share them for a living find difficult to believe.)

I do not mean to suggest that what we believe or disbelieve does not matter, only that there is a wide prudential field in which reasonable persons should feel entitled to disagree. Certainly on the Last Day it seems to me very unlikely that our Lord will ask me why I did not (for example) come around to the air raid offense or the Lockean account of property. I think it is almost certainly the case that heaven is full of people who in life subscribed to opinions that really are absurd, and that one of the two other places (the non-temporary one) is populated at least in part by persons whose formal beliefs were indubitably correct and well defended.

Having the wrong views about things of little importance will not keep us from eternal life, and expressing the right ones imprudently will not hold us in good stead with the Savior who warned that whosoever shall say “Thou fool” shall be in danger of hell fire.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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