Recently I published a reflection which, following the intuition of some saints and mystics, hints that the final end of history might be the conversion of the devil himself and the emptying of hell. The column drew a spirited reaction from a variety of persons who, in all sincerity, felt that it bordered on heresy. For the most part, I appreciate the instinct behind their critique.
I was somewhat less appreciative though of the cover story in a Western Canadian magazine (published under two names, ‘The Western Report’ and ‘The Alberta Report’). They, in the name of defending Christian orthodoxy and true values, printed a most critical review, one which, besides missing the original point of my reflection, at crucial junctures, thoroughly distorted and misrepresented what I originally said.
My spontaneous temptation, of course, is to defend myself, to protest that I have been misrepresented. I have decided, however, on a different response, one which will address itself more to the wider issue of unhealthy criticism itself – of which this particular critique is just a symptom.
Simply put, far too much criticism today, especially in religious circles, lacks basic respect, charity, and honesty. This is true on both sides of the ideological spectrum, liberal and conservative. In this case, the criticism came from a conservative perspective. It could just have easily, given its basic tone, have come from a liberal camp. In virtually every way it was typical of the way we treat each other today.
In both tone and substance, it manifests, as does so much other criticism today, the following:
- It is devoid of self-criticism and any hint that it, itself, should perhaps struggle more deeply with the question it is considering.
- It is long on rhetoric and ideology and short on charity.
- It lacks essentially in respect for the persons and positions it attacks. It presupposes and suggests that these positions are born out of superficiality or ignorance.
- It relies very much on cliques, slogans, and ridicule which cheapen the position being criticized.
- It makes everything either/or and never both/and by creating illicit dichotomies which make us chose between two things which are not in themselves incompatible thus forcing us into the type of thinking and feeling which does not allow for sufficient distinctions, subtly, paradox, and the admission that sometimes there aren’t clear answers and the best we can do is to hold two positions in tension.
- It doesn’t seriously try to understand the other’s position.
- Finally, it takes itself too seriously, is pretentious, heavy, and lacks joy and humor.
The net effect of this is not a re-centering of people around truth and genuine values, but a destructive and unnecessary polarization within a community wherein, already, too many people are reading and analyzing through the microscope of neurosis, suspicion, and paranoia on the pretense that this is prophetic sensitivity to the truth.
We see too much of this in every kind of circle today “liberal, conservative, feminist, antifeminist, social justice, Yuppie, pro-life, pro-choice, environmentalist, traditionalist and radical alike. Underneath all this hypersensitivity for the truth too often lies a loss of basic respect and charity that works to divide the sincere from the sincere, the committed from the committed. Good people can no longer work together or even talk together.
If we were indeed in genuine pursuit of truth and value, if, like Christ, our real intent was to help forge on this earth a community of intimacy among all the sincere, then this would not be happening.
We would all do well to read the Desert Fathers’ account of the story of Abba Moses and Abba Arsenius. It’s the story of two men, both sincere, who viewed reality very differently. A searcher of truth prayed to God, asking: “Whom do you favour of these two, Abba Moses or Abba Arsenius?” God answered him in a vision: “Two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey and cakes.”