Benefits and Baggage

In the winter I toyed with the seeds of a piece exploring the fact that so many of the people I interact with online are atheists — or, if not quite that, then ideologically antithetical in some important way to my own world view. I’ve pondered and written around this topic occasionally, but this was to be a head-on, measured categorization of the landscape, my personal beliefs, and a didactic conclusion about the benefits of having atheist buddies. I guess it would have been a feel-good article, in the end.

How good do you need to feel? Yes, my personal beliefs conflict with the zeitgeist, in this particular world. The secular humanist, “liberal” viewpoint is masterful at projecting the image of a valiant underdog, but really it has the hegemony of mass media, the online sphere, and the connected world in general. It’s not comfortable being Catholic — truly Catholic — in this arena.

Of course there are a million opportunities to digest vicious rhetoric attacking everything that you believe in, and labelling you a bigot. But there has never been a time when this was not the case. What makes it uncomfortable is not the opposition, but the subtler realities of the terrain. Casual misrepresentation of your beliefs without the vaguest effort to understand them. The condescending assumption that they’re born of illiterate prejudice. Taking Jesus’ name in vain without even considering that it might be offensive. Triumphantly espousing false victimhood.

These are infinitely more frustrating than a good, honest, misguided rant. You might describe these things as microaggressions, if you were that way inclined.

Contrary to the narrative, most Catholics — even the ones whose Catholicism is orthodox — are genuinely not violently intolerant
morons hell-bent on hate and the preservation of the Rule of the Patriarchy™. Really! But when almost everyone you talk to is starting from that assumption, it’s a little exhausting.

The role you get to play, if you’re lucky, is the Exception-To-The-Rule-Guy. “Well, I guess he’s all right, just misguided.” This is lukewarm milk, but auditioning for this role is what leads so many Christians and Churches to loudly herald the happy accidents when they are on message. Yeah, we believe in God (I know, I know, lame) but at least we’re in favor of contraception! Woman priests! We’re not all bad.

Why bother? As Dreher says:

if we believe that being winsome and likable and all that is going to earn us any points with the overculture, we are making a dangerous mistake.

Contorting oneself to snuggle up to a culture that at best might award you a “Not Bad” sticker isn’t attractive. And neither is the other end of the spectrum — being in a kind of perpetual running battle, trading insults and gibes in some bizarre attempt to defend your beliefs and convince others.

Nobody ever got insulted into believing in God, as far as I know.

So what is the point in hanging around? Why not retreat? There are still plenty of opportunities, in America, at least, to surround oneself with people who are all ideologically identical and mimetically homogenous.

Having to explain your beliefs forces you to examine them, and they grow stronger (or are refined by the excising of parts you find you can’t argue). And it’s hard to be a positive force in the world if you’re not an active part of it. This is why it’s worth keeping up the conversation, in a nutshell.

All well and good. But I’m starting to seriously wonder whether these benefits are really worth the elephantine baggage that come with them. The yawning chasm between the God-centric, traditional spiritual worldview and the contemporary secular humanist position is now so vast that even meaningful common ground is hard to come by.

Take, for example, this recent article in the NYT, with the oh-so-NYT title Catholicism Undervalues Women. It’s a murky soup of misinformation, concern-trolling, and a chip on the author’s shoulder that you could lose a pig in. The temptation I initially had was to do a Macalope-style piece pointing out everything that’s wrong here. It wouldn’t be hard.

But what is the point in critiquing the details of something that’s founded on such erroneous assumptions? It would be like quibbling over the safety rating and mpg of a car made of chocolate. The problem with this article isn’t that it gets the details wrong, it’s that it doesn’t understand the most fundamental truths about the Catholic Church.

If you don’t understand that the Church is an organization entirely based on God, a being who holds our universe in being with his will, whose mind is unimaginable to us — if, in fact, your closest reference point is a secular business — you are not going to have the faintest opportunity of even beginning to make sense of its policies.

The Pope is not a CEO. Priests are not middle-managers. Making money is not the ultimate fulfillment of the human person. In fact, the pursuit of happiness on earth is not the reason we’re even here! If you’re arguing with someone who isn’t at least open to these realities — you’re going to have a bad time.

It’s not that these things are hard to explain — although they are counterintuitive — it’s that I’m not sure many people are really interested in having them explained. Hashtags and NYT articles are just easier.

Is it time for even regular Christians to make a break with the culture completely? Time for the Benedict Option? Do the benefits of sticking around outweigh the many negatives?

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