On being polite

Christianity is not a religion of the sword. Or rather, it is. Jesus said that he brings not peace but a sword; that he sets son against father, daughter against mother. But He could not possibly have meant “sword” in the worldly sense, which now includes machine guns and ballistic missiles. There is a time and a place for stuff like that, very arguably; there have been Christian soldiers called to arms in monastic chastity and devotion; but the sword of which Christ speaks strikes to the heart in a different way from a metal pike. The Christian is not required to conquer by arms, but neither is he excused from evangelism. We seek to save, not destroy our enemies.

Saint Michael is depicted with a sword that bespeaks the good, the true, the beautiful — and in the highest divine sense, freedom. There is civic freedom, there are “human rights” so far as they are in accord with human duties, but there is also something larger than the human, in which human freedom is subsumed. God is free and above us. His ways may often be inscrutable to us, and yet He has revealed so much of Himself that we can know to serve Him, in our freedom.

One of the things I have admired in the few serious Calvinists I have known is their appreciation of the cosmic order. God is central, man is peripheral. (This does not mean that man is unimportant, or why would Christ come down to us?) Our orientation in religion must be to God, and we must do our best to comprehend His requirements.

His, not ours.

We may disagree, critically, on questions of interpretation, but there can be respect for the man who, though working from premisses we find skewed, is diligent and honest in his labours. The good Calvinist is seeking the original Scripture, not lazing in popular translations. He is rightly curious about the writings of the earliest Fathers, and about the life and language of biblical times. He wants the truth, from source, unadulterated, which includes the original context. We should honour his intentions, and debate his conclusions in a respectful way, the more effectively by listening for what we must reply to. He might well teach me a thing or two, from his oblique angle. He may be a better man than I am. Upon conversion, he will make a better Catholic.

So, too, the Jew, whom we (in the received Catholic and Orthodox traditions) believe to be apostate in his denial of the Messiah present and implicit through the “Old Testament.” We are obliged to debate, and to pray for his conversion. It hardly follows that we are obliged to persecute him; and we can hardly expect to convert a Jew or anyone through brutish, arbitrary acts. Without acknowledging the sincerity and intelligence of our “rival,” we do a disservice — to him, but also to ourself. He might well teach me a thing or two, from his oblique angle. He may be a better man than I am. Upon conversion, he will make a better Catholic.

Gentle reader will perhaps see the trend of this argument.

There is a season for argument, although in the end, by our own argument, all argument will prove vain. This is because not we, but God will be vindicated, not on our terms but on His. And we ourselves will be called to account, not for our cleverness but for our sanctity.