Self-Criticism, Study, Beyond Self-Attachment...
"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts," someone has said
Dec. 2, 2010: This morning I received a note from a kind of atheist. For quite a long time now I have been trying to spend at least a few minutes a day at the typical YouTube anti-christian forums in the hopes of gently helping people to at least see parts of things they might not have considered before, or sufficiently. And most of the time I find myself simply execrated, called names, sworn at. I suppose that over the years it's that lack of civility that still shocks me, if anything does. I mean these people are supposed to be Enlightened, very smart, far smarter than us "dickheads".
Anyway, a man [or woman, it doesn't matter] writes me politely and says s/he has been considering things. And that's all I've ever hoped for in such dialogs, such as they are. So many people online exude a persona of absolute confidence, provocative dismissive cockiness. But that only makes me want to probe them even more, to see how much they really know, how much they have really thought. And very often another thing reveals itself. So many of them have hardly got to first base in either a study of atheism or anti-Catholicism. They simply proceed on the basis of a prejudice, and a bitter animus. Any fact that challenges their assumptions they dismiss out of hand; it becomes clear almost immediately that they have no real desire to critically appraise either the facts or their own thoughts. They are content to simply repeat the unchecked Talking Points they picked up somewhere, likely online, a video, whatever: Hitler was a Christian, the Jesuits run the world, religion is the cause of all evils in the world, and so on.
But we are not blameless either. I find not a few traditionalists and liberal Catholics have the same general mindset. They seek to ensnare others, attack alternative considerations, mock, and buttress "the position". They are unfamiliar with self-doubt, never ever change their minds, and refuse to even entertain self-criticism. Most seem bent on consistency at all costs [as if consistency in error or prejudice was a virtue], even when shown they are in error. Questioning premises is not their thing. In this these are not dissimilar to the dogmatic atheists.
Yet, like Nicodemus, even some of these contact me privately, and then the real person (sometimes slowly) emerges and sometimes the walls come down.
The most difficult attachment it seems to me is the desire at all costs to preserve one's reputation, even if that reputation is deeply embedded in unworthy motives, often egoistic, hidden under pseudonyms and superficial analysis. But real education (to say nothing of wisdom) is not like that. Real thought, we are taught, is most critical of one's own possible prejudices, and examines them constantly to find errors, mistaken notions, wrong roads taken. It sympathetically looks at opposing ideas (because it is real flesh and blood persons who hold them after all), grants what appears true and leaves off only the errors. Real education (academic or not) is always aware of the weaknesses of one's own thinking and distinguishes these from what is lastingly true. Anyone should be able to conceive, even sympathetically, the opposite of truths one embraces. If "A" is conceivable, then what is not "A" (or non-"A") is too.
St. Thomas Aquinas was a genius in this approach it seems to me. With complete abandonment to the truth wherever it led, he always began by examining what was the strongest argument(1) against his own positions and then proceeded---not ever to mock the opposition but --- to examine. He gladly accepted many "pagan" thoughts as true because he knew that all truth is one. But before he (without any ad hominem attacks) embraced such ancient or otherwise "foreign" propositions he put them through the rigors of critical examination. He conceded doubts when some fathers opposed his own thinking. He was friends with those who opposed him at university and beyond. He was no relativist or syncretist. Far from it. But he was the gentleman and model of dialog in the very best, most Catholic sense.
His approach has meant an increasing lot to me (not that I accept every conclusion he drew), precisley because I too have been through the rigors of true self-examination which, while seldom pleasant, always promises to make one a better person and Christian.
One last thought here. I am so grateful for the real teachers I had when teachers and professors were the real thing, completely unhampered by that terrified reality we know today as political correctness. They walked me sympathetically but critically through Kafka's castle, Tolstoy's contradictions, Bertand Russell's positivism, Sartre's attempt to turn Thomas on his head, Camus' hand-wringing courage and doubt, the non sequiturs of radical Feminism, the implications of thought on route to nihilism and the implications. And to a man and woman these teachers always wanted me to A.) understand the author, understand the author sympathetically, before B.) daring to critique him or her. If you flunked A you were not allowed to proceed to B.
I am still stupid today, but I am less stupid and less attached to my own mistakes because of them. (If bishops or popes can do stupid ill-advised things, I am above stupidity?) And, interestingly, not one of those teachers or professors was Catholic. They only wanted me to understand Catholicism on its own terms. These teachers were, I see now more than ever, the treasure of my life.
(1) Always to examine the premier, strongest spokesman of any position. That has always seemed to me the only route. Once you have read someone like Nietzsche (click) who understood and did not shrink from the implications of his atheism / nihilism---he sought no refuge in sentimental Enlightenment pieties---there is no need to dwell on the bubblegum atheists (Hitchens Dawkins, et al) who are mass-marketed today and who deceive the Freshman-in-analysis through slipshod 'thought' and mindless repetition.