Our Particular Challenge

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.


Cardinal Virtues Begin on Catholic Match

Over the next few weeks, CatholicMatch will be running a series of articles I wrote on the Cardinal Virtues. The Introduction went up today:

When we only have ourselves to consider, we can (and many do) distract ourselves with hedonistic indulgence, with ever more novel and transgressive pleasures, or, failing that, with the bitter delights of resentment towards a world that has ‘cheated’ us and so live what seems a tolerably happy life even without virtue. But when we share our lives with someone else, when we’re responsible for not just our own but another’s happiness, it’s much harder to fake contentment.

The other person generally doesn’t let us get away with it, and, assuming she’s just as bad as we are, we get to experience the abrasive, sandpaper-like results of vice without the anesthetic of self-approval. This is one reason why so many relationships fall apart, and why they often end so acrimoniously.

Basically, to have good relationship requires good people; you can’t live well together if you don’t know how to live well in the first place, any more than you would suddenly be able to draw well just because you’re partnered with someone who doesn’t know how to draw either.

Read it all.

Link: 20 Things Every Man Should Be Able to Do

It’s rare to find good advice these days, especially on the internet, where everyone and anyone suddenly becomes an expert toting batches of statistics in service of advice that is typically shallow or obvious or both.

That’s one reason I like Chad Howse of Be Legendary and Average 2 Alpha: the guy actually seems like a legitimate thinker who believes what he says. More importantly, his advice actually has some substance and moral intelligence to it. Like this 20 Things Every Man Should Be Able to Do post. Most of the time, if you found a post like this on the internet, it would start off with something like “Make Mistakes and Keep Trying,” or “Express His Emotions,” or something equally trite. The first entries on this list?

1. Find meaning in suffering

To be a man is to endure what others cannot. Every man should read Man’s Search for Meaning, for an explanation of what it is to find meaning in suffering, but also Unbroken, to understand that no matter what we’re going through, it could be both worse and others have endured worse and come out better for it. Whatever you’re embroiled in, seek the meaning of it, seek the challenge within it, and turn it into something that strengthens you.

2. Bear any burden

We’re asked to not only bear our own troubles but to take on those of others and aid them in their difficulty. Know this. It isn’t just about you, but about those who depend on you.

Cool, huh?

The list goes on from there, with no token “silly” entries (i.e. “Put up with chick flicks”). Every entry is about either a practical skill / ability or a virtue. The whole list is, as the title indicates, about being the best man you can be, and actually has an idea what is meant by that.

You can see why I like this guy’s writing; it’s rooted in eternal values (he often cites classical and historical sources) and offers little conciliation to modernity. After you finish this list, you should stick around and check out more of it.