Monday, May 31, 2010

Where has all the vitriol gone?

The Vatican is planning to open a "Court of the Gentiles" ministry to reach out to atheists -- but not, apparently, to atheists of the Dawkins/Hitchins stripe. (See article here)
The question that this raises, why are polemical atheists being excluded from the dialogue?
On the one hand, this makes a great deal of sense: there is the caution against casting your pearls before swine to consider, and Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has good reasons for refusing to give a platform to atheists who don't argue so much as sling abuse. (See the Intelligence Squared debate for an example of what happens when you put a polite, mild-mannered Churchman of good will up against Hitchins...we're talking a pretty literal "lambs to the slaughter" type scenario.) Basically what happens is that the nice Archbishop, or Monsignor, or other Vatican representative gets up and makes a pleasant speech in civilized Vaticanese, and Hitchins steps on their face. So far as the "Court of the Gentiles" idea goes, I assume that the Vatican is excluding the polemicists in order that their dialogue will remain a dialogue, and not turn into a three-ring mud-slinging tournament.
Yet there is undoubtedly a need for men like Dawkins and Hitchins to be addressed -- and to be addressed in terms that are appropriate to the way that they debate. The Vatican can't do it, because the Vatican must always be civil and rational in her discourse. The Church, however, has not generally lacked polemicists of its own. From St. Jerome roaring at Helvidius, to G. K. Chesterton's finely tuned lambasting of George Bernard Shaw, we have a strong record of high-class vitriol. And it is certainly high-class vitriol that is needed against the polemical atheists. The problem is that, for some reason, our apologists argue either with kid-gloves or with protractors. Straight, boring, rational apologetics are worse than useless against buck-shot polemics and false analogies. The logician will always lose against the rhetorician -- not because his arguments are worse, but because they take too long to deliver, and they are relatively dry and uninteresting.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Of Billboards and Alpacas

Hello. It's been a while that I've been away -- while I was finishing the Crisis of Passion manuscript, we decided that we were going to move, so I've spent the past three weeks running around trying to paint my entire house and get it ready to show to potential buyers. Moving is the pits, but what can you do?
This has nothing to do with homosexuality, but does have to do with the broader "culture wars" issue, so I'm going to talk about my decision to leave Toronto.
You see, I've written about the fact that Catholic people who are actually living the Catholic faith can't afford to be insular: if you form a sort of righteous archipelago and isolate yourself from mainstream culture and live in a sort of Catholic la la land where all of your friends are Catholic, and all of your children's contacts are Catholic, and you are too pure and holy to associate with the folks on Church St. (the centre of TOs "village," for those who aren't familiar with my local geography), then that's no good. My new book has, as one of its major premises, the idea that we should not be afraid to interact deeply and meaningfully with postmodern culture. Yet here I am, at the first possible opportunity, packing up my homeschooling family to run away from the big city and live in some small town with a well, and a septic tank, and (hopefully) some chickens. A town with a homeschool community, where I can grow organic tomatoes and engage in black market barter with local farmers.
Is this hypocritical? I don't think it is. I might be self-deluding -- there's always a risk of that -- but I don't think so. You see, the issue is not where you live, but what you fear. Am I afraid of the city? Well, admittedly, I'm afraid of city driving, and I don't like the pollution, and I'm going to be frank here, I am motivated, at least in part, by the desire to raise my children in a place without ubiquitous advertising. Fear, and particularly a fear of the culture, is not, however, a primary motivation. I'm going out into the country because I really, really, really want to raise goats. I want my kids to be able to go out everyday and play in their elfland forts. I want to be able to go down and sit by the water on my own land and see the stars in the sky at night. I want to tend heirloom tomato plants, and watch all of those wonderfully ugly, malformed calabashes ripening in the sun. These are the things that I dream of, and I think that's valid.
The difficulty, at least in my opinion, is when Catholics go out and do these things, either because they are afraid that their children will be contaminated by Britney Spears and Queer As Folk, or because they yearn in their hearts to nurture baby alpacas, and then think that everyone needs to live this way. That Catholicism/Christianity and rural life are somehow synonymous, that the true Christian eschews the worldly and evil city and rejects the culture utterly, shunning it as the Pharisees shunned the lepers.