Archives For Civility

bennett

Some Christians are obnoxious. Well, okay, quite a few Christians are insufferable when they persistently “witness” to those who are deaf to their appeals. But, truth be told, many atheists are becoming increasingly obnoxious in their attitudes towards Christians as well. Let’s consider which group is worse.

First, some definitions. By Christians I don’t mean people who have some vague deistic notion that there is a God, and Jesus is somehow connected to this divinity because he was such a holy prophet.

By Christian I mean someone who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, the only begotten Son of God who declared he was the Way, the Truth and the Life… The Logos (Word) through whom the universe was created.

By Atheist, I don’t mean people who do not share that faith, but who consider it an unprovable thesis. Most people with this viewpoint are ambivalent about whether or not others “believe.” The majority of these folks, many of whom do not feel threatened by religious conversations, are better understood as Agnostics.

By Atheist I mean people who are so convinced that Christianity is fallacious that they feel they must do what they can to stamp it out. They are so emotionally engrossed in the matter that they are genuinely unable to recognize that their own belief is based on nothing other than faith itself.

I can respect the fact that Atheists have historically been mistreated by “Christendom.” By my definition, this institutional entity is not synonymous with actual Christianity. In fact, it’s persecuted far more Christians of different denominational allegiances, than it has unbelievers who simply kept their mouths closed. But that’s a subject for another day.

Christians do not hate agnostics, or even atheists. Their motivation for sharing the Gospel inclines them towards the opposite attitude. Certainly they do it in obedience to their Lord’s command. Most possess a genuine concern and compassion for those they consider to be lost and facing eternal separation from God.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Atheists are insultingly dismissive of Christians who they consider—as a group—to be ignorant and prejudiced.

An Atheist columnist acknowledged this fact, and the discomfort it causes him, in a recent essay. David Harsanyi wrote the following in “Political Idols,” an article about a broader subject.

Unlike many of my fellow non-believers, I don’t feel especially enlightened or rational for my apostasy; I feel kind of unlucky, actually.

The typical non-believer sees the strictures of Christianity or Judaism [the faith in which Harsanyi was raised] as a punishment—mythical limitations set to inconvenience him—but I see people who take profound comfort in a beautiful fate that awaits them as long as they treat people as they would want to be treated themselves.

As a man who believes his story ends in a pile of dirt rather than celestial salvation, I have many reasons to be envious.

Yet, for my entire atheistic life, I’ve been nudged to mock the believer. The unifying doctrine of atheism is a reflexive antagonism toward faith and all the ideas it has dragged along with it through the centuries.

If all Atheists recognized this, and all Christians acknowledged that they are no more deserving of God’s mercy than their neighbor, oh what wonderful conversations about matters of eternal significance we could have!

C.S. Lewis’ Comment about an Atheist Writer

In a 1916 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis comments on a book that Greeves had mentioned. He says the particular volume is of little value, without remarking on the author’s work in fiction, for which he as better known.

What is most significant about this particular letter is Lewis’ reference to the writer’s atheism, and the allusion to his own. It must be remembered that Lewis would not experience his conversion to Christianity for another fifteen years!

The book you refer to is ‘How to Form a Literary Taste’ by Arnold Benett: the edition is pretty but the book is not of any value. The very title—as if you set out to ‘learn’ literature the way you learn golf—shews that the author is not a real book-lover but only a priggish hack.

I never read any of his novels & don’t want to. Have you? By the way, he is a rather violent atheist, so I suppose I shall meet him by

‘The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon,’ as good old Spenser has it.

Before we look at Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), the author Lewis is describing, let us take a moment to consider the literary allusion Lewis includes in this passage.

“The fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” comes from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem which was the masterpiece of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Various editions of the fantasy poem are available.

In Spenser’s poem, the Phlegethon is a river found in Hell. The name itself means “flaming,” and it initially appears in Greek mythology as one of the Underworld’s five rivers. In The Faerie Queene, the terrible place where “the damned ghosts in torments fry.”

While his agnosticism assumes there is no afterlife, he acknowledges he may be wrong. And, if so, it is precisely to this tragic, fiery end that the unbelieving Lewis delivers Bennett . . . and himself.

So, who was Arnold Bennett?

Bennett was a versatile writer, and found success not only as a novelist, but also in theater and journalism. He even served as the Director of Propaganda for France during WWI, even though he was English. (He had resided in France since 1903.)

He was outspoken in his view that religious faith was not for the wise. Ironically, he died of typhoid after ignoring a French waiter’s counsel not to drink the “ordinary [tap] water from a carafe,” which was unsafe.

In 1932, Bennett’s widow began editing and publishing his journals. In a review that year, a literary magazine noted his antagonism towards Christianity.

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was.

There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. . . .

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. . . .

He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go.

Civil Atheism

It would be a good thing for us individually and as members of a pluralistic world, to treat one another with civility. As a Christian, I can confess for my brothers and sisters that we do not always do so. Let us strive to do better.

And, as for those who identify themselves as Atheists, perhaps there is some room for improvement in this area as well. If more people resisted atheism’s “reflexive antagonism toward faith,” the world would definitely become a more friendly place.

A final note for those who would read more about Bennett. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about morality and punishment, in which he responds to a proposal offered by Bennett that society should not “judge” criminals. You can read “The Mercy of Mr. Arnold Bennett” here.

Since it relates to our discussion here, I must share a portion of Chesterton’s witty introduction to his essay.

Mr. Arnold Bennett recently wrote one of his humorous and humane “causeries” pleading very properly for social imagination and the better understanding of our fellows. He carried it, however, to the point of affirming, as some fatalists do, that we should never judge anybody in the sense of condemning anybody, in connexion with his moral conduct.

Some time ago the same distinguished writer showed that his mercy and magnanimity were indeed on a heroic scale by reviewing a book of mine, and even saying many kind things about it.

But to these he added a doubt about whether true intelligence could be consistent with the acceptance of any dogma. In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it. My only advantage over the gifted novelist lies in my belonging to the former class.

I suspect that his unconsciousness of his dogmas extends to an unconsciousness of what he means by a dogma. If it means merely the popular idea of being dogmatic, it might be suggested that saying that all dogmatism is unintelligent is itself somewhat dogmatic.

And something of what is true of his veto on dogma is also true of his veto on condemnation; which is really a veto on vetoes.


The photograph above is of a statue of Arnold Bennett unveiled this summer in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

babble.jpg

With civil discourse in such short supply today, it may be beneficial to consider some wisdom from the past about disagreeing calmly.

If you’re a thoughtful person, and you interact with other rational people, it’s inevitable that you will sometimes disagree. These differences of opinion are not bad things, in and of themselves. They help us sharpen our thinking and occasionally result in someone (from either side) recognizing the errors in their opinions.

There are times, however, when disagreements are not handled respectfully. In such situations, they seldom result in a positive end. In cases where quarrels arise, people don’t persuade others. They do the opposite—they motivate them to entrench themselves and hide behind mental and verbal barricades that reinforce their “errors.”

You can go all the way back to the Scriptures to find the recognition that this sort of debate is destructive. Here is the counsel of the apostle Paul to his protégée Timothy, a young pastor:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:14-17)

In the second century, Tertullian, a brilliant North African Christian scholar, penned one of my favorite passages in all of patristic literature.

I might be bringing forward this objection from a want of confidence, or from a wish to enter upon the case in dispute in a different manner from the heretics, were not a reason to be found at the outset in that our Faith owes obedience to the Apostle who forbids us to enter into questionings, or to lend our ears to novel sayings, or to associate with a heretic after one admonition—he does not say after discussion.

Indeed, he forbade discussion by fixing on admonition as the reason for meeting a heretic. And he mentions this one admonition, because a heretic is not a Christian, and . . . because argumentative contests about the Scriptures profit nothing, save of course to upset the stomach or the brain.

This or that heresy rejects certain of the Scriptures, and those which it receives it perverts both by additions and excisions to agree with its own teaching. For even when it receives them it does not receive them entire, and if it does in some cases receive them entire, it none the less perverts them by fabricating heterodox interpretations.

A spurious interpretation injures the Truth quite as much as a tampered text. Baseless presumptions naturally refuse to acknowledge the means of their own refutation. They rely on passages which they have fraudulently rearranged or received because of their obscurity.

What wilt thou effect, though thou art most skilled in the Scriptures, if what thou maintainest is rejected by the other side and what thou rejectest is maintained? Thou wilt indeed lose nothing—save thy voice in the dispute; and gain nothing—save indignation at the blasphemy. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 16-17)

If you would like to read a fascinating scholarly article on this passage you can download one here. In “Accusing Philosophy of Causing Headaches: Tertullian’s Use of a Comedic Topos,” J. Albert Harrill writes:

Among the most famous passages in Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum (ca. 203) is what appears to be nothing more than a throwaway line. After declaring that ‘heretics’ have no right to use Christian Scripture, he writes, ‘Besides, arguments over Scripture achieve nothing but a stomachache or a headache.’

Previous scholarship has assumed the protest to epitomize Tertullian’s fideism and general anti-intellectualism. However, I argue that the line evokes a comedic stereotype within a medical topos about ‘excessive’ mental activity causing disease in the body, going back to Plato and Aristophanes.

The passage is, therefore, not a throwaway line but an important part of Tertullian’s attempt to caricature his opponents with diseased superstitio (excessive care and ‘curiosity’).

More Recent Variations of this Theme

Those who have attempted serious, rational argument with someone who is unserious or irrational know very well what Tertullian was describing. If you are earnest and calm in your advocacy, only to have your counterpart act flippant or ignorantly obstinate, it really can make one feel nauseous.

G.K. Chesterton, who was an articulate defender of Christianity during the beginning of the twentieth century, described the frustration in a predictably entertaining manner.

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment.

He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections.

Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (Orthodoxy)

As Chesterton suggests, the madman has retained his ability to reason, but is no longer inhibited by reason itself. I would liken it to retaining the appearance of reasoning, bereft of its essence. It parallels what we read in 2 Timothy 3.

In the last days . . . people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (Italics added.)

C.S. Lewis also addresses the inability of many who are wrong to conduct rational conversations. Whenever they meet a reasoned argument, they are disarmed.

Unfortunately, their lack of logic does not prevent them from charging into the disputation. They assume their passion or their appeal to subjectivity (i.e. that “everyone” is right) will win the day.

Lewis grew so frustrated by the phenomenon that he coined a new word to identify it. He regrets the passing of the day when you persuade someone of their error before you could legitimately explain why your own position is correct on a given issue.

The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism.

Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – `Oh you say that because you are a man.’

“At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.

“Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable able parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see early enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it.

I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it gives no unfair privilege to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. . . . I see Bulverism at work in every political argument.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. (“‘Bulverism:’ Or the Foundation of Twentieth Century Thought”)

So, there we have it. We may derive some comfort from the fact that irrational arguing has frequently displaced civil discourse since the dawn of human communication.

As for me, I intend to avoid the Bulverites as much as possible. The last thing I need is a migraine or a serious case of indigestion.