There are some doctrine that are ill-suited for some times. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians that he “gave them milk to drink, not meat, for you were not yet able.” (1 Cor. 3:2). That is, he didn’t try to convey the fullness or complexity of Christian doctrine to them, since he knew they weren’t yet ready to understand or profit by it.
The trouble is that if you don’t understand basic ideas, you won’t understand the more complex ones. If the foundation is ill laid, the building will not stand solid. This is one of the chief problems of the modern world; that most of us never learn our basics, yet we attempt to understand the advanced lessons.
To take an example, we often hear, in Christian circles, of the vanity of worldly good and that the good of Christ is other and greater than the greatness of mankind. This is, of course, very true, but it is not, in our day and age, very proper, for we have lost most of our idea of the greatness of man.
People in St. Paul’s day, and for most of the centuries following had a clear notion of what constituted earthly greatness and goodness. They had at least a basic understanding of virtue and nobility; able to look to illustrious figures like King David, Hector, Alexander, Scipio Africanus, Aeneas, and so on for their examples of Earthly greatness. To know that the glory of Christ surpassed these, therefore, conveyed a real idea to their minds.
But that is no longer true in our day. Our conceptions of morality and greatness of spirit are so skewed that we don’t even comprehend the basics of what it consists. We hold up superficialities like sex or skin color, political views or whether a man owned slaves and judge accordingly. Of honor, nobility, magnanimity, chastity, charity, beauty, wisdom, courage, and justice we think (to borrow a phrase from Prof. Lewis) “as a baboon thinks of classical music.”
For contemporary Christians, the first step is not comprehending the glory of Christ; it is comprehending the greatness of man. Not because man is greater than Christ, but because he is less. Because it is easier to understand mortal virtues than divine ones, and yet we have not even progressed that far.
Christ Himself assumed that His disciples understood basic morality and so could understand His taking it to a higher level: “You have heard it said…” “Even of yourselves judge what is right.” “If you who are wicked know how to give good things.” My argument is that, in the modern world, that is no longer the case and we Christians ought to act accordingly. When we preach, our first preaching should be the fundamentals of right and wrong, good and evil, greatness and meanness.
This is one reason I find it annoying when certain Christians try to say things like “our true country is not here, therefore it doesn’t matter what happens to America.” The first part of the statement is true, but what does it matter where our true country is if we can’t even muster the basic virtue of caring for the one we happen to find ourselves in? What is the sense of saying “it doesn’t matter if you’re unable to ride the pony; you’ll be getting a stallion one day”? To paraphrase St. John, if we don’t love the earthly country we see, how do we expect to love the heavenly one we don’t see?
What many of us seem to forget is that Earthly virtues are not simply contrary to heavenly ones, but are as immature forms of the same ideas. They are precursors, by which we train on lighter things to be able to bear the heavier. That is why men who most manifest the heavenly virtues are not for that reason bare of the cardinal ones. This is also why Christians traditionally honor worldly and even pagan glory: why the Medievals were fascinated by the Romans and Greeks, and why men like Washington and Columbus have been celebrated by Christian writers.
This is the doctrine of objective value, which is less a Christian doctrine than a human one. That is to say, it is a more basic and fundamental doctrine than any of the tenets of Christianity. It isn’t that one cannot successfully be a saint without holding it; it’s that one cannot be a human being.
In summary, in our day and age the first step of evangelization is often simply to convince people of the reality of value, not as a subjective and self-willed part of one’s personality, but as an objective and external reality that demands a certain response. We must first convert people to the human race before we attempt to convert them to Christianity.