Recently, on my Instagram account (catholic thinker), I posted a quote by George Orwell that went something like this,
“There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”
The quote seemed apropos for an issue of the day and it generated an expected number of “likes” before one honest (and earnest) Catholic observer noted, “Strange to see such an anti-Catholic writer being quoted here.” This didn’t seem to be a snarky comment so common to the subterranean trollers on social media. Rather, it seemed a sincere point this gentleman simply thought should be raised. And it got me thinking. But before I discuss my response, let me give two similar examples (among many).
Winston Churchill is unbelievably witty and insightful (it is no secret that I am a big fan of Churchill and give numerous lectures on him every year). One friend has rightly noted that Churchill was “two-for-two” on naming the greatest threats in the twentieth century: Communism and National Socialism. And he diagnosed these evils earlier than nearly everybody else. Churchill is deliciously satisfying since he could employ acerbic wit when confronted by the threatening Lady Astor,
“If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!”
Whereupon, Winston would retort,
“And if I were your husband I would drink it.”
And yet, he could rally his nation to defiance during its darkest hour under the bombing barrage by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). Churchill’s incomparably keen assessment helped him articulate not only who Adolf Hitler was, but more importantly strengthened him to remind the British people who they were,
“Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us now. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
Churchill was not Catholic. Heck, it is arguable if he was much more than agnostic. One story recalls when he was blushingly described as a “pillar of the church”. He quickly and politely begged off, claiming,
“Well, I don’t think that can be said of me. But I do like to think of myself as a flying buttress. [I support it from the outside].”
Bruce Springsteen has produced music that has a deep poetry to it. More importantly, it is difficult to escape his music’s considerable Catholic sensibility which wrestles with sin, suffering, redemption and grace channeling the spirit of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. His works can range from a fun-loving lark (Frankie Fell In Love) to the Triduum-spirited post-9/11 tribute (The Rising). Just consider,
“I see you Mary in the garden In the garden of a thousand sighs There’s holy pictures of our children Dancin’ in a sky filled with light May I feel your arms around me May I feel your blood mix with mine A dream of life comes to me Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line.”
And yet, Bruce Springsteen has had no qualms about voicing his disagreements with Catholicism and embracing views antithetical to Catholic teaching. At one point, I wrote, “A Lullaby From God: My Lunch With Bruce Springsteen” and received criticism that I found virtue in his song, “Dream Baby Dream” without considering the vices of the songwriter.
So what is a Catholic to do with an Orwell, a Churchill, & a Springsteen? How can one reasonably praise or give credence to an atheist, an agnostic and a disaffected Catholic without seeming to overlook those things which separate them from the truth of Christianity?
For this, we are well-served to turn to St. Basil.
St. Basil was a Greek Bishop and Doctor of the Church recognized for his great theological wisdom and deep charity. But here is how St. Basil helped me. In his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Literature, St. Basil gave sound advice to his students about how to approach Greek (aka pagan) literature. He didn’t tell them to avoid it (unless it was grossly debased). He didn’t tell them to immerse themselves in it and become a creature of pagan culture. First, they were called to understand Christian virtue and to be formed in it. He quotes the Greek poet, Hesiod, to make his point,
“Rough is the start and hard, and the way steep, and full of labor and pain, that leads toward virtue. Wherefore, on account of the steepness, it is not granted to every man to set out, nor, to the one having set out, easily to reach the summit. But when he has reached the top, he sees that the way is smooth and fair, easy and light to the foot, and more pleasing than the other, which leads to wickedness.”
It is a little reminiscent of Dante’s walk through Hell and Purgatory to arrive at Paradise. What St. Basil next effectively told his students was to:
But how should they do this? St. Basil continues,
“Now this is my counsel, that you should not unqualifiedly give over your minds to these men, as a ship is surrendered to the rudder, to follow whither they list, but that, while receiving whatever of value they have to offer, you yet recognize what it is wise to ignore.”
“We shall receive gladly those [written] passages in which [the pagans] praise virtue or condemn vice. For just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls. Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go.”
Or as St. Paul said to the Philippians (4:8),
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
If we have been earnest in our formation through prayer, study and giving alms, we should not fear the modern world. In fact, it is possible for us to be “in the world, but not of it”. If we are all part of God’s creation, then it seems inescapable that even the least likely person can at one point or another apprehend truth. After all, Christ founded his church on the wayward, the confused and the dishonest knowing that even they were capable of apprehending truth. All that I know is that I am fallen. And yet, sometimes in my best moments, I can almost get it right. Perhaps, just perhaps, others can too.
So how did I answer this earnest gentleman’s comment on an anti-Catholic Orwell offering a wise and witty quote on Instagram?
“Read St. Basil and let me know what you think.”