Saturday, December 26, 2020

Balancing Truth and Humility


"The truth shall set you free", our Lord promises in the Gospel (John 8:32). To stand in the truth gives one's life stability, direction, and purpose. It gives balance to our spiritual lives and prevents us from "from being tossed to and for by every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14). The desire for truth is inherent in human nature, as Aristotle observed, "all men by nature desire to know." This is a consequent of our rational nature imparted to us by God.

The subjective possession of that truth, however, can work strangely in us. Universal human experience reveals that often there are no more intransigent people than those convinced that they are right. Whether they actually are right matters little—the subjective belief that one is right is enough. Arguing with a person who is utterly certain of their rectitude can be endlessly frustrating. Such experiences demonstrate that, though truth can set us free, it can also make one arrogant. The universality of this experience should be sufficient to point to some connection between certitude and arrogance.

I would never claim that certainty makes one arrogant; that the connection exists does not mean it is necessary. There are a great many of us who live the truth faithfully while cultivating a genuine spirit of humility. Some of you, readers of this blog, whom I have been blessed to know in real life And the saints furnish innumerable examples as well. St. Bernard and St. Francis, despite their profound spiritual insights, were exceptionally humble men. St. Catherine of Siena remonstrated with popes but was docile and meek. If anyone had a right to be arrogant about his knowledge it was Moses, of whom Scripture says "the LORD would speak to Moses personally, as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex. 33:11); and yet Scripture also says "Moses was a man exceedingly meek above all men that dwelt upon earth" (Num. 12:3). Moses' unique knowledge of God did not make him arrogant; rather, it made him humble. 

Clearly a firm grasp of the truth need not necessarily make one prideful or intransigent. But it is a common enough pitfall nonetheless. I know this truth painfully, as I myself have frequently fallen into it in my life. There is a certain perverse sort of pride that can come with knowing you are right, especially in matters of faith where one is professing the very truth revealed by God Himself. A kind of ego contra mundum attitude can spring up, swelling ever greater to the degree one is opposed or contradicted. It's easy to feel like we are a noble martyr for the truth when in reality our defense is much more about being right. 

And obviously it's not an either-or proposition: sometimes we really are defending God's truth but doing so from selfish motives or with off-putting behavior. It can be hard to tease out the dividing line when we reflect on it. 

The question then, brethren, is how can we maintain a faith with such certainty that we are willing to be slain for it whilst simultaneously avoiding the vice of pride that is always liable to ensnare us? How can we be strong of faith but not obnoxiously strong-willed, arrogant, or just annoying when it comes to discussing it? How can we make sure we have removed the plank from our own eye before removing the speck from our brother's?

The only real answer is a continuous examination of our motives and focus on our own spiritual life and disposition, which is really the obligation of all Christians. However, I have found the following specific methods helpful over the years in cultivating humility about the treasure we possess:

(1) Resist the Temptation to view Faith in Sectarian Terms. It is easy to view the Faith—especially traditional Catholicism—as a sort of socio-political "movement", viewing it through a lens that is almost sectarian. Traditional Catholicism has its own media outlets, its own talking heads, its own "talking points", its own publications, its own partisans, and its own agenda. Not that it is wrong to have these things by any means, but it does mean we must always be on guard against treating the Faith the way we treat our own moribund secular politics. The Faith certain has socio-political ramifications, but it is not, at its heart, a socio-political "movement", and refusing to treat it as such helps dissipate some of the hostility that comes with sectarianism.

(2) Examen of Conscience for the Fruits of the Spirit. St. Paul teaches us that the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our souls are nine: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law." (Gal 5:22-23) When I was a younger Catholic, I was prone to skim over passages like this and focus my attention more on meaty doctrinal verses. Not that I thought this stuff was unimportant. More like, I took it for granted that I already possessed these fruits and did not need to worry about it. But a soul that cannot deal with disagreement without becoming arrogant and puffed up is not demonstrating these fruits. That is why St. Paul warns that if someone is arrogant in their talk it may be a sign that they lack the power of God in their life (1 Cor. 4:18); he also warns against Christians whose lives are characterized by "quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, [and] conceit" (2 Cor. 12:20). As I have gotten older, I have become more introspective about whether I possess these fruits, and more cognizant that a spirit that is joyful, patient, and gentle is not one that is habitually arrogant. I realize this is a little subjective, and there will always be those people who are wrongly accused of being arrogant merely because they are taking a stand for the truth. But in my experience, when a person is peaceful it is not difficult to disagree with them in a friendly manner.

(3) Remember Faith is a Gift: The awareness of faith as a gift is tremendous antidote against being puffed up with pride. Sometimes I think when we get arrogant about the truth we possess, it is because we somehow view the truth as "ours"—often, it feels like something we discovered through our own study, our own labors, our own searching; something we built with our own mental and spiritual blood, sweat, and tears. We must remember, however, that faith is a gift. It is a gift of God in a threefold sense: (a) Divine Revelation itself is a communication from God to man, given gratuitously out of love, of truths that we would have no way of knowing by reason alone (b) the faith we enjoy today is something that was passed on to us by the Church of ages past delivered "once and for all to the saints" (Jude 1:3) which we receive as an inheritance (c) the theological virtue of faith itself is a gift bestowed on each one of us by God through baptism and maintained by grace. None of us saves himself. It is very difficult to be prideful about the certitude of faith we possess when we view it wholly as a gift.

(4) A Lively Awareness of Grace: What does it mean to have "eyes to see" as the Scriptures say (Ezk. 12:2)? To see with eyes of flesh is one thing, to see with eyes of the spirit is another. Spiritual sight is awareness of the movements of grace behind the scenes that form men's souls and bring about the will of God in the affairs of men. Focusing on the working of grace helps us to decrease and Christ to increase, because we become more aware of the actions of God behind our affairs. Though of course we always understand the power of a good argument, we become less inclined to think, "It is my job to change this person's mind through my persuasive rhetoric" and more accustomed to see these things as in the hand of God. When I dispense divine truth, I am merely as one beggar trying to show another beggar where to find some food. See also: "Christ Will Give You Victory" (USC, Jan. 2019)


4 comments:

Lynne said...

If this were Facebook, I'd "like" it.

Boniface said...

You can share it on Facebook : )

Gregorius said...

This is a fantastic post, Boniface, with a host of welcome reminders; thank you for writing it.

I do have a question about your first method though: we traditional Catholics really do think and live differently to our brother regular Catholics. As such it is inevitable that we clash socially, precisely on the very thing that should unite us. It seems the only way to avoid dividing ourselves at Christmas gatherings and the like is by not talking about our differences, given how sore they are. But then, we would never share that tradition which is most beneficial to us Catholics. It seems to me we're stuck between a rock and a hard place: we either evangelise our brothers in the faith and cause much strife and resentment, or we don't, in order to keep the peace. One has to give for the sake of other, and I don't know which one to choose, as a matter of principle.

Boniface said...

@Gregorius,

That is an excellent question, my brother, for which there is no easy answer other than using prudence. I guess I would say, while I agree that the differences amongst Catholics can be occasion of a clash of belief and lifestyle, as you say, it is not inevitable that such differences must become cause for bitter argument when they are discussed. At least among friends, a hostile argument seldom breaks out because of what is being said, but more so because of the manner of the arguers, their defensiveness, eagerness to "score points" in the debate, etc. Conversely, while a reasoned argument will always hold value, few people are convinced by raw argumentation alone; usually they have to be disposed to recognize the merit of an argument through other means (eg, friendship, vulnerability, good example, etc).

I say in the post to avoid thinking of the Faith in sectarian terms. Sectarianism is ultimately about power struggle--about us vs. them, seeing other people as our enemies, wanting to "win" at all costs, a posture of defensiveness and latent aggression towards those who are not part of our "sect", etc. These sorts of dispositions must be avoided. I would keep in mind the following points:

(1) NOT EVERY INCORRECT STATEMENT NEEDS TO BE REFUTED. It is okay to let other people say incorrect things without feeling the need to jump in and offer correction continually. Obviously some things we cannot and should not keep silent about, but sometimes we should also learn to just smile and sip our wine when somebody else is saying something errant. Fewer words delivered timely are better than a multitude of words delivered out of season. Know when to just let something go.

(2) IT IS BETTER TO BE ASKED YOUR OPINION THAN TO INTERVENE. In such conversations, it is far better to sit quietly and listen and wait for someone to ask for you to give your opinion rather than to interject when you have not been asked. Persons who ask your opinion are more disposed to listen than those who have your opinion thrust upon them. Generally people will see from your face that you want to say something and will ask if you seem eager.

(3) BEGIN BY AFFIRMING WHAT IS GOOD AND STRONG IN YOUR ARGUMENT INSTEAD OF WHAT IS ATTACKING WHAT IS WEAK IN THEIRS. Particularly in arguments about liturgy, it is far better to expound upon the beauty of the traditional liturgy than to try to belittle the liturgy of others. Draw them by honey.

(4) SINCERELY LISTEN TO THE ARGUMENTS OF OTHERS. Do not be those one of those persons who do not listen, but merely wait to talk. When someone else is speaking listen intently, and to demonstrate you have understood, I will often repeat their argument back afterwards ("Just so I'm clear, what you're saying is..."). This lets them know you are really listening and makes them respect your comments more.

(5) FINALLY, AVOID BEING DEFENSIVE. This is challenging, but it is ultimately okay if someone disagrees with you. The Faith is not yours; you do not need to feel slighted or bitter or defensive if they do not accept what you are saying. If you can avoid being defensive, and instead take the disposition of seeking for the truth together, the conversation will be much more pleasant.

Of course, the True Faith will always provoke opposition. But there is no necessary reason that opposition much turn into angry debates, especially amongst friends.