Monday, March 12, 2012

To whose shame?

I was bored and reading some interesting-looking Washington Post articles today, when I stumbled upon one calling out a candidate for a "phony" catholic theology. It looked interesting, but I was immediately sidetracked by a quote very early on in the article. The author bashes certain theological attacks on President Obama, then says something quite strange: "To the shame of believers, wars have been waged over theology throughout the ages." Such an odd statement immediately caught my attention; and it was only very slightly less immediately that I knew I disagreed with it. Right then and there I knew I wanted to write on it, so I opened up blogger and wrote most of this intro paragraph, then I went back to read the whole thing.

"To the shame of believers, wars have been waged over theology throughout the ages." The author does not qualify this statement in any way. It is not explained before the statement, nor is it referenced afterwards. It stands on its own... and it's actually quite puzzling.

First off: what kind of wars is he talking about? Literal wars? Figurative wars? If he really means to speak about literal physical battles, then yes, there have been many wars that were motivated partly by theology (but largely by politics) that the Church should be ashamed to be associated with. BUT if, as I suspect, he meant figurative wars, wars of ideas and debates and worldviews with theology at the center... then I have to disagree.

And I have to wonder... How many believers did the author talk to? Was there some poll that I missed? Was I sick the day that they came to the churches and passed out the confidential questionnaire(1. Are you a believer? 2. If you answered 'yes' to question #1, are you ashamed of the wars that have been waged over theology?)? Which believers are ashamed of the theological wars that the church has fought since its very creation? Because I, for one, am not ashamed.

Now, I am ashamed of some things that men have done in the name of God. Hanging people accused of being witches? Yes. Using doctrinal issues for political power? Yes. Picketing funerals and spewing hate? Most definitely. But that is not the point at issue here. None of these things are theological conflicts. And when we speak about the endless war of orthodoxy against heresies new and old... of that I am not ashamed.  When I think about the bitter conflict between Paul and the party of the circumcision, I am not ashamed. When I think of the war fought on one front against those who said that Jesus was not God, and on another front against those who said that Jesus was not man, with the Church firmly in the middle insisting that it must be both, I am not ashamed. And when I think about those under fire for insisting that babies are people and abortion is murder, I am proud to call myself a Christian.

Many people make much of the fact that theology is only words, after all, and what's the point of arguing about words? This is a common complaint: You argue about "words," while the rest of us adults will be over here doing things that actually matter. Now I grant that we are arguing about words: In some cases, we are only arguing about one word. But still I am not ashamed of the Church's theological wars. I am proud that the Church recognizes that one word can make all the difference: the difference between God and man, the difference between a person and a mere bundle of tissue, the difference between bloody murder and a sort of sterile termination... the difference, in some cases, between Christianity and something else entirely. As Chesterton notes, if words are important at all, they must be important enough to fight over.
"What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn't there be a quarrel about a word? If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears?"
'Chimpanzee' is but a word, yet many a liberal blogger would object to being called one. Many a liberal blogger would eventually argue about a word... and, indeed, they would use words to do so, as opposed to wiggling their ears in what would doubtless prove to be a most amusing fashion. So I am not ashamed of the Church's theological wars. I am not ashamed of wars waged over theology.  I am not ashamed of wars fought over mere words... because if words are not worth fighting over, then they are not worth anything. The right word in the right place makes the difference between maturity and immaturity, blasphemy and praise, and yes, in many (but not all) cases, between life and death.

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