Recently an Iranian convert to Christianity appealed to the U.K. for religious asylum because he feared persecution. The Home Office, which handles such cases, questioned his story by quoting several verses from Exodus, Leviticus, and Revelations. “These examples,” he was told, “are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful religion’ as opposed to Islam, which contained violence and rage.”
When the incident became public, the Anglican Bishop of Durham slammed the statement for biblical illiteracy and remarked, “To use extracts from the Book of Revelation to argue that Christianity is a violent religion is like arguing that a Government report on the impact of Climate Change is advocating drought and flooding.”
True. But if I were a biblically illiterate Home Office official, I would want to know how I went wrong. Why shouldn’t I have said what I said? Being a Christian, I want biblically illiterate officials to know too. The U.K. Home Office backed down, but next time it might not. If our own illiterates have their way, the U.S. is next.
It would take a long time to cover all the ins and outs of biblical interpretation. Besides, Holy Scripture is interpreted by Sacred Tradition. So let us consider what the Church herself has taught from earliest times.
Contrary to secularist clichés, the Fathers of the Church pioneered the doctrine of religious toleration. And yes, they did this not only while the Roman Empire was persecuting them, but also afterward.
“There is no occasion for violence and injury, for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected. Let [the persecutors] unsheathe the weapon of their intellect; if their system is true, let it be asserted. We are prepared to hear, if they teach; while they are silent, we certainly pay no credit to them, as we do not yield to them even in their rage. Let them imitate us in setting forth the system of the whole matter: for we do not entice, as they say; but we teach, we prove, we show. And thus no one is detained by us against his will, for he is unserviceable to God who is destitute of faith and devotedness; and yet no one departs from us, since the truth itself detains him. ... Why then do they rage, so that while they wish to lessen their folly, they increase it? Torture and piety are widely different; nor is it possible for truth to be united with violence, or justice with cruelty.”
“But, they say, the public rites of religion must be defended. Oh with what an honorable inclination the wretched men go astray! For they are aware that there is nothing among men more excellent than religion, and that this ought to be defended with the whole of our power; but as they are deceived in the matter of religion itself, so also are they in the manner of its defense. For religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith: for the former belong to evils, but the latter to goods; and it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion, and not that which is evil. For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free‑will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist. The right method therefore is, that you defend religion by patient endurance or by death; in which the preservation of the faith is both pleasing to God Himself, and adds authority to religion.”
Hilary of Poitiers:
“God does not want unwilling worship, nor does He require a forced repentance.”
Isidore of Pelusium:
“Since it seems not good forcibly to draw over to the faith those who are gifted with a free will, employ at the proper time conviction and by your life enlighten those who are in darkness.”
Isidore of Pelusium again:
"Human salvation is procured not by force but by persuasion and gentleness."
“It is the law of mankind and the natural right of each individual to worship what he thinks proper, nor does the religion of one man either harm or help another. But, it is not proper for religion to compel men to religion, which should be accepted of one's own accord, not by force, since sacrifices also are required of a willing mind. So, even if you compel us to sacrifice, you will render no service to your gods. They will not desire sacrifices from the unwilling unless they are quarrelsome -- but a god is not quarrelsome.”
“For see that you do not give a further ground for the charge of irreligion, by taking away religious liberty, and forbidding free choice of deity, so that I may no longer worship according to my inclination, but am compelled to worship against it. Not even a human being would care to have unwilling homage rendered him.”
“Such is the character of our doctrine; what about yours? No one ever persecuted it, nor is it right for Christians to eradicate error by constraint and force, but to save humanity by persuasion and reason and gentleness. Hence no emperor of Christian persuasion enacted against you legislation such as was contrived against us by those who served demons. Just as a body given over to a long and wasting disease perishes of its own accord, without anyone injuring it, and gradually breaks down and is destroyed, so the error of Greek superstition, though it enjoyed so much tranquility and was never bothered by anyone, nevertheless was extinguished by itself and collapsed internally. Therefore, although this satanic farce has not been completely obliterated from the earth, what has already happened is able to convince you concerning its future.”
Chrysostom considers the Christianization of the imperial government a decidedly mixed blessing:
“When a Christian ascends the imperial throne, far from being shored up by human honors, Christianity deteriorates. On the other hand, when rule is held by an impious man, who persecutes us in every way and subjects us to countless evils, then our cause acquires renown and becomes more brilliant, then is the time of valor and trophies, then is the opportunity to attain crowns, praises, and every distinction.”
Athanasius argues that by relying on coercion instead of persuasion, those who cling to the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ, prove that they have neither arguments, confidence, nor divine authority for their beliefs:
“Now if it was altogether unbecoming in any of the Bishops to change their opinions merely from fear of these things, yet it was much more so, and not the part of men who have confidence in what they believe, to force and compel the unwilling. In this manner it is that the Devil, when he has no truth on his side, attacks and breaks down the doors of them that admit him with axes and hammers. But our Savior is so gentle that he teaches thus, "If any man wills to come after Me, and, Whoever wills to be My disciple" [Matthew 16:24]; and coming to each He does not force them, but knocks at the door and says, "Open to Me, My sister, My spouse" [Song of Solomon 5:2]; and if they open to Him, He enters in, but if they delay and will not, He departs from them. For the truth is not preached with swords or with darts, nor by means of soldiers; but by persuasion and counsel. But what persuasion is there when the Emperor [Constantius] prevails [in favor of Arianism]? or what counsel is there, when he who withstands them receives at last banishment and death? Even David, although he was a king, and had his enemy in his power, prevented not the soldiers by an exercise of authority when they wished to kill his enemy, but, as the Scripture says, David persuaded his men by arguments, and suffered them not to rise up and put Saul to death. But [Constantius], being without arguments of reason, forces all men by his power, that it may be shown to all, that their wisdom is not according to God, but merely human, and that they who favor the Arian doctrines have indeed no king but Caesar; for by his means it is that these enemies of Christ accomplish whatsoever they wish to do.”
As in the previous passage, so in the following, Athanasius develops his doctrine not in spite of Holy Scripture but because of it:
“The other heresies also, when the very Truth has refuted them on the clearest evidence, are wont to be silent, being simply confounded by their conviction. But this modern and accursed heresy, when it is overthrown by argument, when it is cast down and covered with shame by the very Truth, forthwith endeavors to reduce by violence and stripes and imprisonment those whom it has been unable to persuade by argument, thereby acknowledging itself to be anything rather than godly. For it is the part of true godliness not to compel, but to persuade, as I said before. Thus our Lord Himself, not as employing force, but as offering to their free choice, has said to all, "If any man will follow after me"; and to His disciples, "Will you also go away?" [John 6:67.]”
Needless to say, Christians have not always practiced what these Fathers of the Church preached. But episodes of persecution reflect not the essence of Christianity, but reversions to sub‑Christian understandings of what it means to adhere to God – understandings that fall lower than "faith working through love" [Galatians 5:6].
It is not always obvious which episodes really did constitute intolerance of the sort reprobated by the Fathers. Consider the case of Augustine of Hippo, condemned by secularists for having changed his mind about the treatment of the fifth‑century heresy of Donatism. According to the conventional account, although at first Augustine favored converting the Donatists through persuasion, he later agreed to coercion because persuasion was not working. The critical question, omitted by this account, is what it is that persuasion was not working at. Although, with Augustine's support, the profession of Donatism was indeed made a criminal offense in A.D. 412, what changed Augustine's mind was not that the Donatists refused to accept the Catholic faith, but that in the promotion of their own views they resorted to violence:
“Catholics, and especially the bishops and clergy, have suffered many terrible hardships, which it would take too long to go through in detail, seeing that some of them had their eyes put out, and one bishop his hands and tongue cut off, while some were actually murdered. I say nothing of massacres of the most cruel description, and robberies of houses, committed in nocturnal burglaries, with the burning not only of private houses, but even of churches -- some being found abandoned enough to cast the sacred books into the flames.”
The point here is not that Augustine made the correct prudential judgments about how to deal with such violence, but that the question about the correctness of his judgments has been framed improperly. The issue before him what not what to do about false belief, but what to do about violence motivated by false belief. If a comparison with our own day is needed, we may say that from Augustine's point of view, the suppression of Donatism was less like, say, the suppression of Islam, than like suppression of an Islamic terrorist organization such as al‑Qaeda or ISIS.
Gregory of Nazianzus might almost be taken to be speaking of certain U.K. Home Office officials when he explains that in the Age of the Church, the Old Testament passages about “stoning” those who misrepresent doctrine are to be taken in their spiritual meaning, not their literal meaning – for in the age of the Church, to be “stoned” is to suffer the logical refutation of one's arguments:
“But if any is an evil and savage beast, and altogether incapable to taking in the subject matter of contemplation and theology, let him not hurtfully and malignantly lurk in his den among the woods, to catch hold of some dogma or saying by a sudden spring, and to tear sound doctrine to pieces by his misrepresentations, but let him stand yet afar off and withdraw from the Mount, or he shall be stoned and crushed, and shall perish miserably in his wickedness. For to those who are like wild beasts true and sound discourses are stones.”
The common sense of the matter is that whether any particular religion favors toleration will depend on its other convictions. Some religions favor toleration, others do not. I am speaking not only of avowed religions, but also secularist ideologies such as the ones those Home Office officials seem to hold – for although they reject the God revealed in Scripture, they serve gods of their own devising.
You cannot know whether God loves or loathes persecution unless you have some idea who He is.
All quotations from J. Budziszewski, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction, Chapter 10. Details about the sources of the quotations are found there.
“It’s impossible to know anything about God.” You would have to know a great deal about God in order to know that you couldn’t know anything about God (I mean anything else about Him). At the least you would have to know either that He doesn’t exist, that even if He exists He doesn’t care whether you know about Him, or that even if He cares He is incompetent to tell us anything about Himself.
“I’m not saying there is no God. I’m just not religious.” How curious that the Lord of the Universe might exist, yet not be important enough to think about.
“Of course there might be a God. I just don’t know.” You are either living as though He did, or living as though He didn’t. If you don’t know anything at all, then how did you choose?
The psalmist famously wrote, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Did he call the man a fool for not knowing God is real? Or for knowing God is real, but pretending to himself that he didn’t?
Few people lose belief in God, and then do wrong. The more often traveled path is to do wrong, excuse it, then look for reasons to disbelieve in God.
Also on the topic:
Last month I posted a link to the video of my talk “What Makes Men Men?” delivered at the conference “Patriarchy: Fatherhood and the Restoration of Culture.” Here, slightly edited, is the text.
What Makes Men Men?
I am a little amused, because it may at first seem that one of the other speakers and I disagree about everything. He argues that manhood is not natural; I argue that it is. However, this is not a real disagreement, because the term “natural” is used in several different senses. Psychologists and sociologists generally use it to refer to what is spontaneous for creatures of our nature, and that comes easy. Ethical philosophers and theologians generally use it to refer to what reflects the flourishing or proper development of creatures of our nature, and that may come hard. I certainly don’t think males become men easily or spontaneously. But for their own good, I do think they need to become men. So manhood is natural in my sense, even though not in my colleague’s – and he and I agree about this.
So let us get on with our subject.
What is it to be a man?
And how can we know?
Some people say the best way to understand the nature of the human male is to consider the selection pressures which operated during his presumed rise from the apes. There are two problems with this strategy. The first is that on this hypothesis, the only genes that are consistently passed on are the ones for traits which have adaptive value. But obviously this isn’t so. Tell me the adaptive value in seeking to know the meaning of life, or in the ability to be awed, humbled, and transported by the music of J.S. Bach. One eminent sociobiologist claims that we have genes for believing in God, which are adaptive because belief in God unites the social group. Apparently no one told him that believing different things about God can tear the group apart. Besides -- why not just have genes for social unity?
The second problem is that even if we did develop entirely by natural selection, we don’t know what selection pressures were operating. Neo-Darwinian theory cannot say how human males had to come out. All it can do is observe how they did come out, and then spin tales of how it might have happened. After all, the primates all came out different ways. The chimpanzee is highly aggressive and dominated by males, the bonobo is less aggressive and dominated by females, and we are neither chimpanzees nor bonobos.
Other people say that the best way to understand the nature of the human male is simply to observe him. That’s better, but there are problems with this approach too. The first problem is simple variation, because men and women are not all the same. For every generalization about either sex, there are exceptions. From this, a naïve observer may conclude that there is no such thing as male and female nature. But this is a mistake.
For the fact that most women are more nurturing than most men is much more than an accident. It arises from a genuine difference in the underlying reality, the difference between womanhood and manhood as such. This difference is so powerful that men and women are influenced by it even when they defy it. For example, we say women are more nurturing. Yet some young women conceal their pregnancies, give birth in secret, then do away with the babies. Nothing more opposed to nurturance could be imagined. But wait: Consider the ways in which these young women do away with their babies. How often they place them in trash cans and dumpsters, still alive! Why don't they just kill them? That is what a man usually does if he wants to do away with a child. Perhaps a young woman imagines her baby resting in the dumpster, quietly and painlessly slipping into a death that is something like sleep. Or perhaps she imagines a fairy tale ending in which some other woman finds her baby in the dumpster and brings him up as her own. No, the act is not nurturing, but even so, the inclination to nurture hasn't precisely been destroyed; under the influence of other strong motives, it has been perverted. I daresay that such data are not captured by our psychological instruments. It is not enough to count things with a survey. One must see with the eyes of the heart.
The second problem with the “just observe” strategy is that it cannot tell the difference between how we are meant to be and how we are. For example, some observers say that by nature human males are pretty nearly but not quite monogamous. Most men like the idea of having a mate, but many men wander. Now it may be true in a statistical sense that large numbers of men lapse from monogamy. It is also true in a statistical sense that most people are sick some of the time. Do we say then that by nature human beings are almost but not quite healthy? No. What we say is that nature intended them to be healthy, but sometimes they lapse from nature’s intention. Why then don’t we say that nature intended men to be monogamous, but that sometimes they lapse from this intention too? It is as though a physician who saw only broken arms assumed that if arms have no fractures there must be something wrong with them.
How could we correct such a misguided physician? By calling his attention to the purpose or function of the arms, to their proper work. Broken arms cannot do their work as well as intact ones; therefore, brokenness is not their natural state. The nature of a thing is not determined by how something happens to be, but by what it is for -- by what it is designed to do and to become, if everything goes well.
Very well, then: What are men and women for? In one respect they are for the same thing: Being rational, they are for the knowledge of the truth, especially the truth about God. But there is a difference. A man is a rational being of that sex whose members are potentially fathers, and a woman is a rational being of that sex whose members are potentiality mothers.
The idea of potentiality needs explanation, because potentiality is not the same thing as physical possibility. Consider a man who is infertile because of some disease. Although it is not physically possibility for him to be a father, we should not say that he lacks the potentiality for fatherhood; as a man, he has the potentiality, but the disease has blocked its realization. It is just because he is a man, just because he is endowed with the potentiality for fatherhood, that the block to its physical realization is such an occasion for sorrow.
Another reason why the expression "potentiality for fatherhood" requires explanation is that although siring children is the most characteristic expression of fatherhood, it is far from its only expression. A man might sire a child yet fail in the greater perspective of fatherhood, because he fails to protect the mother, or because he fails to protect the child, or because he fails to give the child that father's love which only he can give because it is different than a mother's love.
We can carry this line of reasoning still further. A potentiality is something like a calling. It wants, so to speak, to develop; it demands, so to speak, a response. It is like an arrow, notched in the string and aimed at the target, even if it never takes flight. It intimates an inbuilt meaning and expresses an inbuilt purpose, which cannot help but influence the mind and will of every person imbued with them. Alice von Hildebrand has remarked that although not every woman is called to marry and bear physical children, "every woman, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological or spiritual mother." I am saying that for men, the reality is parallel. Not every man is called to marry and bear physical children, but every man, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological or spiritual father.
Obviously I cannot speak from inside experience of womanhood, because I am a man. Yet even a man can see that it is a very different thing to be a woman than to be a man. A man may deeply love his child, but he does not have a womb with which to carry the child in his body for nine months, or milk with which to nourish the child from his breasts. These experiences connect the mother with her child in an intimate, physical bond which we men can easily recognize, but which we cannot experience. In subtle ways they condition her emotional responses not only toward the child, but also toward herself and even toward everyone else. They also make sense of certain other differences between men and women, differences for which each sex is sometimes wrongly criticized. For example, are women in general more protective of their bodies than men, and men less careful about their bodily safety than women? Of course they are. Women, who carry children, need to be more protective of their bodies. Men, to protect them, need to be less careful about their safety. It isn’t that men, by being men, are more virtuous, or that women, by being women, are more virtuous. However, their most typical temptations are somewhat different than those of the other sex, and although they can have all the same virtues, their virtues have different inflections. A man’s and a woman’s courage are not the same, but they are both courage.
The other sexual differences make sense in this light too. As Edith Stein reminds us, men are more prone to abstraction, and women more prone to focus on the concrete. Men don't mind what is impersonal, but women are more attuned to the nuances of relationships. A man tends to be a specialist and single-tasker; he develops certain qualities to an unusually high pitch, using them to do things in the world. A woman tends to be a generalist and multitasker; she inclines to a more rounded development of her abilities, using them to nurture the life around her. The woman's potentiality for motherhood ties all her qualities together and makes sense of her contrast with men. Consider just that multitasking capacity. In view of what it takes to run a home, doesn't it make sense for her to have it? A woman must be a center of peace for her family, even though a hundred things are happening at once. But a man is designed more for the protection of the hearth and the people who surround it than for their nurture.
In speaking of the hearth it may sound as though I am saying that women should never leave the kitchen. No. Although men gravitate to careers and women to motherhood, not all women will pursue an exclusively domestic life. Even so, the potentiality for motherhood explains why women who do pursue a career, and who have free choice of career, tend to choose careers that allow them to give first place to caring for their children. It also explains why they tend to choose careers that give greater scope to maternal qualities. In fact, even when a well-balanced woman chooses a traditionally masculine career, she also tends to perform it in ways that give scope to maternal qualities. A male lawyer tends to focus on the properties of the task itself. This is worthy, but it is all too easy for him to lose sight of the humanity of his clients. Can he learn to remember their humanity? Of course he can, but he is more likely to need the reminder in the first place. A female lawyer may find the abstract quality of the law somewhat alienating, even though it is necessary. On the other hand, she is much less likely to forget that she is dealing with human beings.
It is much more difficult to speak about fatherhood than motherhood. Perhaps because the father's connection with his children is not mediated by his body in the way that the mother's is -- or perhaps because paternal absenteeism and other forms of masculine failure are so conspicuous in our day -- most of us have a dimmer idea of fatherhood than motherhood. Open mockery of fathers has become a fixture of popular culture.
The difference between fatherhood and motherhood, hence between manhood and womanhood, involves a difference in the male and female modes of love for their children, but there is much more to it than that. The difference is both greater and deeper. Manhood in general is outward-directed, and womanhood inward-directed. This is no cliché; the distinction is quite subtle. Outward-directedness, for example, is not the same as other-directedness, for many men prefer dealing with things. Inward-directedness is not same as self-directedness, for the genius of women includes caring for the local circle.
If the contrast between outward- and inward-directedness sounds like a dig at male vanity or sexual promiscuity, or a gibe at female narcissism or emotional dependency, it isn't that either. Characteristics of those sorts are not the essence of the sexual difference; they are merely vices that result from the indulgence of temptations to which the two sexes are unequally susceptible. In speaking of outward- and inward-directedness, my intention is not to call attention to the corruptions, but to the good things that are sometimes corrupted. It is a good thing that an unmarried man pursues the beloved, whereas an unmarried woman makes herself attractive to pursuit; it is a good thing that a husband protects the home, whereas a wife establishes it on the hearth; it is a good thing that a father represents the family and oversees it, whereas a mother conducts the family and manages it.
Although the directive geniuses of the father and the mother are not the same, both of them truly rule the home. We may compare the father with a king reigning over a commonwealth, the mother with a queen. These potent archetypes express different inflections of glory, nobility, and self-command. Men joke about their wives telling them what to do. The joke would have no point unless two things were true: On one hand, they would not want their wives to be kings; on the other hand, they know they are really queens.
We sometimes say that fathers and mothers share and divide the different aspects of sovereignty between themselves in much the same way as the directive functions are divided in corporations. Is this a new idea? Far from it. In one of the letters of St. Paul to Timothy, we find him using a curious pair of words -- a verb, proistemi, for what a husband characteristically does, and a noun, oikodespotes, for what a wife characteristically is. Both words indicate authority, but with a difference. The term used for the husband has a range of meanings that include standing before, presiding, superintending, protecting, maintaining, helping, succoring, and acting in the capacity of a patron -- very much like a chairman of the board. But the term used for the woman means "ruler of the house" – literally, “despot of the house” -- very much like the chief executive officer. So the idea is really very ancient.
When all goes well, fathers and mothers also exemplify and specialize in different aspects of wisdom. A wise father teaches his wife and family that in order to love you must be strong; a wise mother teaches her husband and family that in order to be strong you must love. She knows that even boldness needs humility; he knows that even humility needs to be bold. He is an animate symbol to his children of that justice which is tempered by mercy, she a living emblem of that mercy which is tempered by justice. A wise father knows when to say, "ask your mother," a wise mother when to say, "ask your father." When they do this, they are not passing the buck, but sharing sovereignty. Each of them refracts a different hue from the glowing light of royalty.
Today it is almost embarrassing to have to hear things like I have been saying. Comparisons of fathers and mothers with kings and queens seems naïve, nostalgic, sentimental, and exaggerated. They make us squirm. There are strong reasons for this reaction, but they are bad ones.
For how many parents, especially fathers, have lost their regal dignity, disbelieve in their authority, and confuse the proper humility of their office with being self-mocking and ironic? We have turned husbands and wives into androgynous "spouses," fathers and mothers into interchangeable "parent figures." We approach having a child like acquiring a pool table or wide-screen TV. Would it be fun? Would it be tedious? Would it be worth the expense? Fathers and mothers have need of recovering their sense of regal calling, taking up their ball and scepter, and ruling their dominions with love for their precious subjects. It is not for nothing that the king of a commonwealth is called "Sire"; humanly speaking, of the callings of fatherhood and kingship, the deeper and more primordial is fatherhood.
May it be needless to say that mothers and fathers must also recover the conviction of their need for each other. They must do this not only for their own sakes, but for their young. Every child needs both kinds of love. It is not enough to provide an intermediate love that is half motherly and half fatherly, or an inconsistent love that is motherly at some times, fatherly at others. Nor is it enough to give one kind of love for real, while giving only a pretense or simulacrum of the other kind. Even though the two loves resemble each other, they are distinct, and neither can be imitated by anything else. Yes, it may be true heroism when through no fault of one's own, a father or a mother raises a child all alone; yet it is better not to be alone. No woman can fully take the place of a father, any more than any man can substitute for a mother.
These differences reach even further. For men, growing up is like joining a brotherhood. Today, our grasp of this fact is attenuated by the fact that we have lost our rites and customs of apprenticeship and coming of age. Yet men naturally desire to be something like knights, who not only do hard things, but in firm and fatherly manner train squires who attend them so that these young men can learn to do hard things, too. As I was in earnest before, about the calling of all men to extended fatherhood, so I am in earnest now, about the chivalric element in this calling. A man will more readily aspire to manhood if he can taste it; his life must have the flavor of valor. This is true of how he carries himself not only toward other men, but toward women.
The fashion of the day is to think of medieval knights not as valiant but as cruel. Many were, yet even in that day, knighthood was more than a veneer for oppression. It was a great and noble ideal that did much to civilize a society still governed by a warrior caste and too often running with blood. Like the members of our own ruling class, different as it is, the members of that caste sometimes fought for the wrong things, fought in the wrong ways, or committed atrocities. All such perversions should be condemned. Yet let us not abuse the members of that caste just because they liked to fight. Are there not plenty of things to fight for in this world, and plenty of evils to oppose? Do we not even speak of the Church Militant?
After all, most men do not simply like to fight; they are too lazy for that. They like to fight when there is something worth fighting for. True, they sometimes make up things worth fighting for just to be able to fight for them, and one of the tasks of becoming a man is learning to resist that temptation. There are plenty of noble things to fight for without making them up. A woman may resist temptation, but a man thinks of making war against it. A woman may seek to reside in the citadel of virtue, but a man thinks of capturing it. In the same martial spirit, a virtuous man desires to contend for just laws, defend and protect sound traditions, attack lies and fallacies with the weapons of frankness and reason, and yes, even to make gentle war for courtesy.
By the way, if it is right at times to fight, then it is also right in some ways to enjoy fighting, even though it is also right to grieve the evils incidental to the struggle and try to minimize them. A certain militancy and a certain vigilance are an essential part of manhood, and a man's great project is not to do away with his impulse to fight, but to learn to fight nobly and generously -- to refine the raw ore, burn away its dross, and make it into purified steel.
This is an ideal to which any man may aspire. It is wholly independent of what he does for a living, of how much education he has had, or of whether he is muscular or athletic. Medieval knights engaged their enemies physically, and there is always some need for that; that is why we have armies and police. Yet there are many ways to fight besides the physical. One may fight through a word in season, a clap on the shoulder, a quiet admonishment or commendation. One may wage war by bearing witness, by lifting the fallen, by refusing to countenance evil. One may do battle by admonishing idlers, by encouraging the faint-hearted, by helping the weak.
All this makes the achievement of manhood hard work, labor that requires a firm hand with the desires and devices of the heart. The best instance of a human male is not a glorified, walking packet of urges, but a man, who, for the sake of the highest and greatest goods, commands himself, strengthens his brothers, and defends his sisters, regarding even the meanest of women as a lady. You may say this is not natural. I say it is natural, in the sense that only in this way does a being of his nature flourish.
Once upon a time the differences between men and women were not thought so strange. We have a long quest and a difficult journey before we can speak of them again with ease and gaiety. There are so many sweet and lovely things that our ears can no longer hear without odium, so many blameless things that can hardly be discussed without scandal. Just imagine the din that would erupt in the world if I were to praise and extol that great activity that comes so much more readily to the woman, and is slandered under the false name of being passive: Be it unto me as you have said! And if I were to compound the offense by pointing out that every last one of us, both man and woman, is feminine with respect to God – there would be an earthquake.
The journey back to the commonwealth of sense will be long and difficult, and we will meet trolls and enchanters on the way. I say: Laugh at them. They will obstruct passage, demand tribute, and try to lure us into byways and bogs. But since we cannot become any more begrimed and bewitched than we already are in our day, why should that discourage us? A smile on our lips, a song in our throats, a sword in our hands, and a prayer in our hearts, we may as well fight with good cheer.
Book: On the Meaning of Sex
A mail from Sweden. I recently read your excellent commentary to the Treatise on Law by St. Thomas. A work of that kind was long overdue, and to my humble mind you made it brilliantly. A small thing bugged me though: I think the Latin word you render ultrum should in fact be utrum. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe worth checking. Thank you once again for your important work.
You're absolutely right. Utrum and ultrum are both Latin words, but the “whether,” or query, is called the utrum. I asked for this embarrassing error to be corrected when the book went into a paperback edition, but someone in the system decided that the correction wouldn't be worth the cost! Thank you for your letter and your kind words. I've now published a second commentary, on St. Thomas's virtue ethics. My third, on his treatise on happiness and ultimate purpose, is about to go to press, and I’m working on the fourth, which is just on divine law.
Companion to the Commentary (free download)
The other day some young people argued to me that there is nothing wrong with sniffing glue. The premises of their argument seemed to be that (1) each of us owns himself, and (2) owners may do whatever they want with their own property. One student’s version of the argument included another premise, that (3) what each person deems good for him is good for him just because he deems it to be. We can call these premises self-ownership, absolute control of property, and value subjectivism. I think all three premises are mistaken, but at the moment I am concerned only with self-ownership.
Today, self-ownership is often taken for granted. When I press people to justify the claim that they own themselves, they often express doubt about the existence of God. If God exists, they say, then perhaps in some sense God would own us, but how do we know that God exists? It is fair to ask how they know that He does not exist -- but never mind, because something else about this argument is even more problematic.
For suppose their doubts were right, and God did not exist. Certainly, then, they would not be God’s property. But it still wouldn’t follow that they are their own property. To put it another way, I think that given its premise, the following argument works:
But I think that the following argument is a non sequitur:
If I were an atheist (and I used to be a sort of atheist), then instead I would argue like this (and in those days I did argue something like this):
For if there is no First Cause, then among other things there is no First Cause of moral rights, goods, or duties, and so, among other things, there are no rights, goods, or duties of ownership. So in this case so-called ownership is really about nothing more than who has the power to take. What is to stop us from taking and using other people?
By contrast, if there is a First Cause, then He may have given us into the hand of our own counsel, as the Old Testament book of Sirach claims. In this case, to the extent that I do have rights over myself, they come from Him.
Of course if there is no First Cause, then moral rights, goods, and duties are not the only difficult things to account for. It is difficult to account for anything, even the existence of the selves we claim to own. For we are contingent beings; we didn’t have to exist. If we are contingent, then something else caused us to exist. And something must have caused that cause to exist. The sensible thing is to trace all the causes to a First Cause that isn’t contingent – one that has to exist.
And that is what we call God.
See here, though, nobody is forcing you to be sensible. So if you would rather, you can suppose that everything about existence is arbitrary, a brute fact, something unintelligible. You can even doubt that we really do exist.
Premises like that won’t get you to self-ownership either -- but you can hold them if you want to.
Where they will get you to – well, as Aristotle said in another context, “That is another story.”
For all you audiophiles, the audiofiles of the talks at the colloquium on “Aquinas and the Development of Law,” which took place last week at Blackfriars, Oxford University, are already posted online. The four talks were by Richard Conrad, O.P, Ryan D. Meade, Jonathan Price, and me. My own, which is also posted on this website’s Talks page, posed the question “Of Course Human Law Develops. Can Natural and Divine Law Develop?”
The colloquium was enjoyable, the brothers most hospitable, and Oxford, beautiful. I shot the image of the Blackfriars chapel, above, with my cellphone. The light was poor, but I rather like the effect.
Oxford is composed of 38 Colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls. The Permanent Private Halls, of which Blackfriars is one, are every bit as much a part of Oxford as the Colleges are, but they were founded by religious organizations – in the case of Blackfriars and two others, Catholic -- which take a share in their administration. Blackfriars was founded at Oxford in 1221, suppressed under Henry VIII when he dissolved and plundered the monasteries and religious houses, and refounded – a momentous event -- in 1921. It was recognized as a Permanent Private Hall in 1994.
I have tried to imagine the University of Texas having constituent units which are explicitly Christian, but I can’t do it. It is a fascinating arrangement.
The First Commandment’s prohibition of worshipping false gods concludes with the warning that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” Notwithstanding the fact that Deuteronomy also declares that He “keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations,” generational consequences are often held to impugn His justice and deny the principle of responsibility, for they imply that some will suffer for the sins of others.
But don’t some always suffer for the sins of others? The natural consequence of sin is that damage ripples not only through me, the sinner, but outward in every direction. God could have made a world in which nothing had consequences, nothing had meaning: A world in which, among other things, children turned out the same no matter how their parents raised them. In that case, why bother with parents at all?
He bothers with parents because He chose to make a world in which finite rational creatures are given the astounding privilege of imitating His Fatherhood and participating in the wisdom by which He governs the universe. By the fact of raising my children, for good or ill I am also helping raise my children’s children’s children, the privilege is not taken away, but intensified.
With the privilege comes responsibility, for failure to live up to it causes real hurt to others; the obverse of the power to do good is the power to do harm. If I am a bad father, my children may find it more difficult to trust the Fatherhood of God. If I adore that which is not, I pave a path that they may walk on too. So the generational penalty is real – but it is the other side of a blessing: We are placed in a universe in which what we does matters.
Yet God’s providential care may also mitigate some of the temporal consequences of forgiven sin. In view of the repeated sins of the people, Moses implores God,
“Now, I pray thee, let the power of the Lord be great as thou hast promised, saying, 'The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation.' Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray thee, according to the greatness of thy steadfast love, and according as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
God replies that although He will grant the pardon for which Moses has asked, there will still be a penalty for those who saw His glory and signs and yet despised Him. Yes, their children will enter into the Promised Land, but they will not.
And would it have been better for them if they had been allowed to enter it along with their children? If it is true that temporal punishment is necessary for the correction of our souls, probably not. Besides, if they had accompanied their children, would it have been better for their children?