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The Problem Of Truth & Triumphalism

Something I read on the Internet this morning reminded me of an incident from The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. In it, I was talking about that time in 1993 when I was living in Washington, DC, mostly to follow my dream of being a journalist, but partly because I needed to get away from […]

Something I read on the Internet this morning reminded me of an incident from The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. In it, I was talking about that time in 1993 when I was living in Washington, DC, mostly to follow my dream of being a journalist, but partly because I needed to get away from the heavy presence of my dad, with whom I often argued. After the birth of my niece Hannah, decided that I didn’t want to be so far from my family. I quit my job and moved back to Louisiana. Then this happened:

Things were going well with my family too. I loved seeing them all again, and participating in the joy and togetherness the baby occasioned.

And then one night in December, Paw and I were riding down a country lane when he said something shocking, even life-changing. He said it casually, in no way triumphally. Understand, his was an expression of gentle gratitude, not mockery: “I’m so glad you came back home, son. You realize now that I was right all along.”

At that moment, I knew that there was no staying here — that he couldn’t help seeing the relationship between us as a matter of asserting power and winning an argument. The year and a half I’d lived in DC taught me that my dad and I would never see eye to eye, but we had something to gain by enjoying each other’s company. In those two casually delivered lines, I understood that to remain in place would require either agreeing with him that he was Right and I had been Wrong — something I could never do, because from my point of view, it simply wasn’t true — or having to spend every single day fighting, even if the fight was only within my own heart. I couldn’t do it, and wouldn’t do it. I went back to Washington, and didn’t move back to Louisiana for 17 years.

It was meant to be, and it’s all better now, but still, consider what was lost through that entirely unnecessary expression of pride and assertion of authority. As I tell my kids when they argue with each other, being right isn’t always the most important thing. Treating your brother or sister with grace does not require you to abandon your convictions.

What brought this to mind was a post by Alan Jacobs, who is an Anglican Evangelical, in which he critiques Jody Bottum’s book An Anxious Age, about post-Protestant America. Excerpt:

Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

(And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

That last example might be making too fine a distinction — I think it’s possible to argue that distributism is “distinctively Catholic” in its concepts, but not exclude non-Catholics from the discussion. Still, Alan is onto something here that afflicts many of us. I call it the problem of truth and triumphalism.

The intellectual arrogance identified by Alan that exists within certain Catholic circles is something I once was guilty of, without realizing it. To me, as an adult convert to Catholicism, the intellectual and aesthetic riches of the Catholic faith were so blindingly obvious that I couldn’t see that the Protestant traditions were worth taking seriously, except in a political and personal sense. That is, I respected Protestants as serious Christians and good people with whom we could and should work on causes of mutual concern, but I didn’t trouble myself to take them seriously on the intellectual front. This was an example of my unearned pride. As far as I was concerned, I had joined the intellectual A team of American Christianity, and Father Neuhaus was our Joe Torre. At the time I didn’t realize it, but looking back, I can see that the only conversations I thought really mattered were between Catholics.

As I write this, I remember a professor telling me years ago at a conference that he might have left Protestantism for Catholicism, except for the fact that his Catholic convert friends were so intellectually haughty in their newfound Catholicism that they kept him away from the Roman church. What that man experienced is a constant temptation for intellectual converts to Catholicism.

On the Protestant side, I have much less experience, but I have been shocked in the past by the arrogance some there have towards Catholicism. All they seem to know about it is that Catholics were Wrong in the 16th century, and they still are. There is among this sort of Protestant a sense, one of which they are perhaps dimly aware, that there is nothing to be learned from Catholicism, except how not to be Christian.

Among the Eastern Orthodox, I’ve seen more mindless anti-Catholicism than mindless anti-Protestantism. My guess is that Orthodox converts typically come out of Protestant churches, and though they have rejected what they regard as the theological errors of Protestantism, they are still grateful for the formation they received there. Having had no experience of Catholicism, they unthinkingly bring into Orthodoxy the anti-Catholic prejudices they may have had, and add some new ones tendered by cradle Orthodox.

Another general observation: Among Protestant intellectuals, there is sympathy for and openness to Catholicism; anti-Catholicism is something you tend to find more among the people. It is the reverse among Catholic intellectuals re: Protestantism. Intellectually disengaged Catholics tend to like their Protestant neighbors just fine, but tend not to think theologically all that much about Protestantism.

Again, these are generalities, and only my subjective, personal observations. Your mileage may vary.

I don’t mean to say that truth doesn’t matter, and that out of politeness, we should never criticize each other across our traditions. We have to do that, if we are going to be faithful to our own convictions. For Christians of any tradition who are serious about their faith, these dogmatic and doctrinal differences are not negligible, and we shouldn’t treat them as such.

That said, the way in which we are faithful to the truth, as we understand it, is almost as important as the truth itself. Triumphalism is a manifestation of pride, and that is not a Christian virtue. Triumphalism, like pride, blinds us to the faults within ourselves and our tradition. It also blinds us to what is good within other traditions, misguided though they might ultimately be. And triumphalism will also likely blind the Other to the truth within our tradition, and may well, in the end, keep the Other from embracing the truth as we know it.

In 1995, I went to my local Greek Orthodox church’s parish festival. When a layman inside the church saw me reverencing icons, he asked me if I was Orthodox. No, I said, Catholic — whereupon he unloaded on me about everything that was wrong with the Catholic Church. I went straight home, discouraged. Fortunately I knew from being in the company of my Orthodox friends the Mathewes-Greens that that obnoxious Greek man was not typical of Orthodoxy. If I had not known the Mathewes-Greens, I wonder if I would have written off Orthodoxy entirely.

It is difficult to stand up for the truth as we know it within our own tradition, and to point out errors in other traditions, while doing so in charity and humility. But we have to try, and try hard. I think this morning about a fundamentalist pastor reader of mine back in 2002, when I was at National Review. He lived in a town outside of NYC, and asked to have coffee with me one day. I figured out when I met him that he wanted the opportunity to witness to me about the errors of my Catholicism. We had a vigorous but polite hour together, and needless to say, the man failed to convince me to leave Catholicism and embrace Protestant fundamentalism. But I left that conversation with a lot of respect for him. He cared about me enough to want to lead me to what he saw as a saving truth, but he never ceased to be polite and respectful as he spoke

To be sure, unlike many people today, I don’t see disagreement, theologically or otherwise, as evidence of disrespect. Some of the criticism that fundamentalist man leveled at Catholicism was true, or true enough, and I tried to be open to learning from him (I don’t think he felt the same about me as a Catholic, which is probably why I didn’t try to meet him again). I don’t mind at all if someone criticizes, and criticizes strongly, my church and faith tradition. Heaven knows there’s much to criticize, and it would be a false ecumenism that decided the fundamental differences between the churches don’t matter. I expect liberal Protestants to strongly criticize Orthodoxy; by so doing, they pay Orthodoxy the compliment of taking it seriously.

But some ways of criticizing are better than others. To be sure, there is no formula here, but triumphalism is never attractive. When someone from a rival tradition says or does something outrageous, it ought to be treated with outrage. But we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. This is something I struggle with, but probably don’t struggle with as much as I should. Standing in truth is an important thing, but it’s not always the most important thing. If we do it in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, we can drive apart fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, in ways that will be difficult to heal, if they ever can be.



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