There is a Third Way

A while back, I had an exchange with a disheartened young man. He said that he keeps encountering 5 types: “(o)ld, rambling and cynical men; bored, cliquey housewives; clueless and hard-headed men; disinterested and troubled women; and unhelpful, indifferent men who use prayer as an excuse to avoid addressing the real question.” And that is inside the Church. I recall the words of Sheldon Vanauken (I believe in A Severe Mercy), that “the strongest argument against Christianity is.. Christians.” More fully, he writes:

“The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians–when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”

The strongest argument against Christianity is Christians. I must admit that I’ve encountered those five types as well, and it is demoralizing. I try, though, to remember that this is not a new occurrence. Among the very first priests, one betrayed Jesus to His face, another denied Him to save his own skin, and another doubted Him. Of the throngs of people that followed Him when there were miracles and meals and teaching, only three stayed at the foot of the cross. We have a track record of falling, failing, and lying when things get tough. At one point or another, we are nearly all an argument against Christianity.

What do we do with that? We are not mandated, as far as I’m aware, to have any particular fellowship other than attending Mass. We could simply avoid everyone – avoid all the living arguments against our faith (except for ourselves!). Yet, as God said, it is not good for us to be alone (c.f. Gen 2:18). We can turn inward too far — I’m saying this as a professed introvert — and become vulnerable to error, to anger, and to pride. We can be our own strongest argument against Christianity. We can pull ourselves down. It isn’t good to be alone.

Every truth has a sin on either side of it. Toxic people will “burn” us or, worse, make us toxic ourselves, if we’re constantly in their company. If we stay alone, we become cold and cynical, or lonely and lost. So I urged the young man to find and keep to a middle path – to seek out good fellowships, even if they are few and infrequent. Some of us tend naturally toward one extreme, others to the other extreme; both are dangerous. It is often the third way, the middle way, that saves us from the extremes that threaten our spiritual well-being. I urge you, too, to check your steps along that path, that you’re not caught up, in person or online, with too much negativity; but also that you’re not isolated from every other imperfect Christian. We need to walk that middle way.

Copyright 2018, Joe Wetterling

Image courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jakobsweg_-_Pilger_1568_-_Hurden_IMG_5664.JPG

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Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling

Joe Wetterling is a professional educator, homeschooling dad, and writer. He's appeared at national conferences, both secular and religious, speaking on education, technology, and philosophy. Joe writes online for New Evangelizers, as well as his own blogs. He's taught in the Holy Apostles MOOC program and currently teaches Natural Theology at the new Dominican Institute. He's a member of the Militia Immaculata and current President of the Catholic Writers Guild. Learn more about him at JoeWetterling.com.

  • sensiblycatholic says:

    But, if you’re saying it’s representatives rather than the religion itself which is the problem, then doesn’t the vitriolic and negative argument I hear all over the Catholic Blogsphere against Islam, fall by the same sword?: that Islam is (obviously) wrong because of the violence it engenders, so they argue. (‘By their fruits shall ye know them’.)

    In other words: ‘The more violent or aggressive the adherents, ergo the less true the religion is’.

    But that goes for ANY group, including Atheists, no? So, it’s as strong an argument to reject atheism, as to reject theism, it seems to me, if outward behaviour is the criterion.

    That is, in late-modernity, it could be argued that Islam is actually as true as Catholicism, but the problem is its representatives. ‘The proof of the pudding…’ Different Islamic sects teach, and behave, differently: or so they claim, and Catholics are no different. ‘It’s all relative’, as they say. ‘We’re “the good” Catholics/Muslims/Baptists, etc., and they’re the false ones …’

    The self-righteous in all religions, and none, constantly want to separate themselves from those they consider bad-eggs or ‘spoilt it’ for them (No True Scotsman Fallacy), considering their own flavour, sect, or tradition, ‘healthy’ and true. But, isn’t the doctrine of Original Sin, the great leveller to take the wind out of those sails?

    You can’t have your cake and eat it. Only Catholicism (not any other ecclesial community to the degree it rejects Original Sin) is true, and Islam false: representatives aside.

    Because, it seems to me, without a deep consciousness of the ineradicable nature of Original Sin – not merely one’s own personal sins – one can get trapped on a mission of self-perfection, ending up in self-righteousness and comparison, it seems to me. Jansenism being as much ‘New Age’ in that sense, as any of the other ‘Pelagian’ and Gnostic’ aspects of Catholicism, Pope Francis has been pointing out.

    In other words, doesn’t all of this debate fall into being Modernist, and especially Kantianism: judging the veracity of a religion and the reduction of it, to moral uprightness spawned from a successful moral programme? We all know of Joe Atheists ‘who put Christians to shame’, for example.

    Modernists are outwardly ‘church-of-nice’ as Michael Voris bemoans (although they’re pathologically passive-aggressive), whilst his flavour is simply an equal, and opposite, ‘church-of-nasty’. Both are not so much as bad as each other – both aggressive – but both lack a supernatural and kerygmatic foundation. They are both typically existentialist – exemplars of church-as-institutional-hierarchy (‘Monarchy’), church-as-political-movement (‘Marxism’) – and both lack any foundation in a worldview or church which goes back further than Descartes in its mindset or ontology. They are both pseudo-supernatural and humanist, as they both inherently deny grace, and favour moral, doctrinal, or ritualistic uprightness in behaviour.

    Either extreme – or the ‘third’ via media – are all full-blown expressions of self-righteousness, it seems to me. So there will be a fourth way, to reject the third, then a fifth to reject the fourth…

    When it’s put like that, isn’t it simply an expression of exactly what denominationalism is?

    Catholicism is riddled with denominations: it’s just that we refuse to name them as such and are in deep denial. But they are irreconcilable groups under Catholicism, just the same as the irreconcilable groups under Protestantism.

    I constantly meet zombie-like Vorisites, Weddellians, Hahnians, etc.who all hate the other ‘denominations’ or ‘personality cults’ (they refer to as heterodox) that spoil their pure church.

    In fact, if Catholicism wasn’t true, and the behaviour of adherents was the judge of it, I’d be back off to Evangelicalism as the lesser of two evils tomorrow considering how the pettiness, legalism, aggression, polarisation, and just sheer nastiness in Catholicism exceeds that of any Protestant group I’ve ever experienced…

    • There are many types of arguments. Neither Vanauken nor I are trying to make a logical argument for the truth of the Catholic faith. (Vanauken wasn’t a Catholic when he wrote those words, in fact; though he converted a few years later.)

      The young man I communicated with was describing the emotional effect that we have on each other — that those five types, in his enumeration, had on him. People in their goodness and beauty are lodestones, pulling others toward the truth, while in their wickedness and ugliness, push away. These few paragraphs were on dealing with those feelings and avoiding them temptation either to avoid people entirely or to succumb to depression in their company.

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