A Catholic friend once told me of a Protestant who said that he doubted Catholics actually believe the doctrine of transubstantiation. This Protestant said that if he were proceeding up the aisle to receive what he believed were the body and blood of Christ, he would do so on his knees, his eyes ablaze and his hands atremble. Perhaps this is true, but I doubt he would have done any such thing. I believe he would have shambled up the aisle, picking his nose and scratching his butt, just like everyone else.
I believe his counterfactual prediction was wrong because he is built of the same warped timber as the rest of us, but I do not believe he was wrong to wonder about this apparent incongruity between what Catholics say and what Catholics do. I believe he was right to ask, “Why don’t you act like you mean what you say?”
He was right to ask this question, provided it was a question and not a sarcastic accusation of hypocrisy. What I mean is that he must have asked the question with his mind open to the possibility that Catholics do believe what they say, and that they are acting in accordance with these beliefs, but that these beliefs and behaviors are connected by crooked ways.
Some of these ways may be crooked like a politician, but others may be crooked like a brook, or a path, or the branch of a tree.
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We have all been accosted by an atheist who accused us of hypocrisy with this sort of counterfactual argument. His counterfactual antecedent was, of course, that he was, arguendo, a Christian. It came out this way:
“If I believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God . . .
Having placed himself in Christian shoes as a “thought experiment,” the atheist then ratiocinated down a line of mechanical inferences to some behavior that was either absurd or already endorsed by the atheist on other grounds. For instance,
“ . . . I would give my worldly possessions to the poor and lead a life that would make John the Baptist look like a luxuriating gourmand.”
“ . . . I would support universal health care, pacifism, an increase in the minimum wage, and the construction of footbridges and welcome stations up and down the lower Rio Grande.”
Of course the point of this farce was to persuade you that a Christian must be a freak, a leftist, or a hypocrite. Take your choice! There is no fourth option! There is no crooked way!
No doubt every Christians is a hypocrite to one degree or another. I know that I am. And that is why it is good that I am periodically chastened by the question, “why don’t you act like you mean what you say?” But when this happens, I must not be surprised or embarrassed to say that my beliefs are connected to my behaviors by crooked ways. The only question is whether these ways are crooked like a politician or crooked like a river.
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It was the discussion following Thomas Bertonneau’s recent post that set me to thinking about hypocrisy, reaction, and the logic of crooked ways. For those who haven’t read the post, it has to do with a conservative college student who was officially reprimanded for complaining that, as a conservative college student, she labored under a tacit odium. Naturally, the ensuing furor demonstrated the truth of what she had said, while it at the same time called forth a vigorous denial from the college president.
This provoked some interesting comments, which I encourage you to read, all of them having to do with life under the odium theologicum of academic leftism.
This odium is real, but in my experience it is also fairly mild. Some of this mildness is due to the fact that witch hunting takes time that can be more profitably spent chasing the greased pig of academic celebrity. Some of it is due to the fact that this particular witch has never called down hail on anybody’s crops or soured the milk in anybody’s cow. I wouldn’t know how to begin! So, as an academic with a reputation for unsound opinions, I am certainly not clubbable, but as a toothless old coot I have never done anything that deserves clubbing to death.
I wonder if this is anything to be proud of. If I actually believed what my writings suggest I believe, would I not act up in ways that would cause the censors to reach for their clubs? If I actually believed that we are in the midst of der Untergang des Abendlandes, would I not be busily organizing underground cells and stocking the catacombs with sardines, bottled water, and the collected works of Thomas Carlyle?
Why don’t I act like I mean what I say?”
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One dispiriting answer is that I am hypocrite who scrounges admiration with genteel grumbling. This possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. Oliver Wendell Holmes told us that
“All generous companies of artists, authors, philanthropists, men of science, are, or ought to be, Societies of Mutual Admiration.” (Autocrat of the Breakfast Table )
Perhaps there are, likewise, ungenerous companies of artists, authors, misanthropists, and men of science, who form Societies of Mutual Desperation. If there are such ungenerous companies, Holmes has a deflating idea about their defining trait.
“I think a little extra talent does sometimes make people jealous. They become irritated by perpetual attempts and failures, and it hurts their tempers and dispositions.”
Or, as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed after visiting an obscure London art gallery,
“There is very little talent in this world, and what there is . . . is pretty well known and acknowledged. We don’t often stumble upon geniuses in obscure corners.” (London, 1855).
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What all of this means is that writing cantankerous blog posts may be very well in its way, but is by itself neither salubrious or redemptive unless connected in some crooked and and riverine way to deeds. One doesn’t wish to face Saint Peter in the condition of the wretched Tomlinson in Kipling’s immortal poem
“‘Ye have read, ye have heard, ye have though,’ he
said, ‘and the tale is yet to run:
‘By the worth of the body that once ye had, give
answer—what ha’ ye done?”
What ha’ ye done, indeed?