Are Christians Intolerant?MICHAEL D. O'BRIEN
How very difficult it is to resist an entire culture, and especially for children to do so, because it is a right"and good thing for children to grow into awareness of being members of a broader community.
Christmas is approaching as I write the final passages of this book. The stores are full of the very merchandise that these lines have examined. The malls are packed with shoppers. They are, like me, trying to beat the Christmas rush or tap into the pre-Christmas sales, or maybe just get into the spirit of things early. You may have noticed that life in the twentieth century is somewhat tense, and who can be blamed for rushing the season of peace just a little. There's a holiday feeling in the air; the potted pines and the shop windows are all decked out; the robot Santas and the synthetic jingle on the loudspeakers are jolly in about equal portions. As is usual at this time of year, people are more patient with one another, will allow complete strangers to enter elevators before them, will overlook the irritating behavior of the occasional aggressive bargain hunter, and will smile more easily at mothers with small, noisy children. It is the season of tolerance.
Perhaps, then, it would not hurt to be reminded that the Incarnation was, in fact, an act of colossal intolerance on the part of God, by which I mean to say that it was an act of immeasurable love. He loved us so much that he would not let us die in our sins. He was intolerant of our slavery and was born among us for the express purpose of doing something rather drastic about it.
I realize that to use the word intolerance is a risky business, for it cannot help but conjure up visions of religious and racial hatreds or the specter of grim moralizers judging their neighbors (and who has not felt the sting of those tongues?). Moreover, it may well be asked if such a tainted word can be properly used to describe a characteristic of God. He is, after all, rich in mercy and slow to anger. But it must be remembered that both the Old and New Testaments speak of times when the justice of God must act — for he will not permit evil to devour everything.
The early Christians were not squeamish about political incorrectness. They knew firsthand that sin meant death to the inner and the exterior life of man. Most of them were converts from paganism, for their world was almost entirely pagan. They had known the effects of falsehood at work in their own minds, hearts, and flesh. They knew that they had been rescued by God's intolerance of their bondage. They exulted in the glorious, shattering good news that Christ was real. He was not a mere theological abstraction or just another deity in an idol-crowded world. He was the one true God and he was life. That awareness has waned in our era, partly because most people no longer feel endangered by the world of evil, by the possibility of personal slavery to invisible forces or servility to their own fallen natures. Nor do they consider for a moment that a totally paganized society might one day reinstitute an external form of slavery (though, no doubt, it would call it by a more attractive name). But we must understand the lateness of the hour and the urgency of the crisis. My parents' generation struggled with a culture that was losing its spiritual sense; my generation had to struggle with a despiritualized world, and our children must now struggle with a radically dehumanized one. A society that systematically destroys millions of its children through abortion, and in which so many young people take their own lives and take each other's lives is already far gone. Modern man is struggling under a cloud of despair that “spreads and spreads”. He has lost the mystery and wonder of being that the eye of childhood knows so well. He has been cheated of the real adventure. He has not known joy. He is now cut loose to stagger about his landscape, his apparently “reaI” world, in search of his own lost face. Because it is impossible to sustain this unbearable world view for long, he must flee from it into the distractions of sexual immorality, distorted fantasy, the macabre, violence — and, in the worse cases, into cultic religion.
A society sliding back into paganism might try to reassure itself that it is in no worse condition than a society crawling out of paganism. Like two travellers going in opposite directions on a road, for a brief moment they share in passing a common point. But the end of the road for each is very different. The convert from paganism has known darkness and has turned toward the light. Our society has known the light and is turning back toward darkness. This is the crucial difference. It is into the core of this difference that we must speak if we wish to re-evangelize the world.
Travellers from the realm of darkness state loudly and clearly that the land which the lapsed or lapsing Christian is travelling toward is in fact a land of death and degradation. They have been there. They know. When they tell us that few leave that land, that none finds happiness there, and that it is a world of shifting illusory images, they can sound, yes, intolerant. But this intolerance is the intolerance of the physician who has seen an epidemic ravage a people. He is prejudiced against deadly viruses. This is the intolerance of a mother who fiercely protects her little ones from predators. She suffers from a bias against rattlesnakes and wolves. This apparent narrowness is the wisdom of those who have known many roads and have found only one sure route out of the regions of desolation. What such pilgrims have to tell us can sound hard. But their word is true. The Christian's task is now to rediscover a firm commitment to this truth and to show how it can be combined with an effective love of our neighbor.
It goes without saying (although in these confused times it may need repeating) that the urgent need for truth does not mandate us to go rushing about, tearing into our neighbor or our enemy, delivering harsh lectures to this or that erring soul. In the true Christian meaning of the word charity, we are to love the personhood of each and every individual human being. This does not mean, however, that we should remain paralyzed and silent regarding acts and ideas that are killing us (and are killing the perpetrators as well). That is not Christian charity. We have a right and a duty to speak the truth with simplicity and calmness, clearly and fearlessly, without rancor or personal condemnation, wherever untruth invades the life of our family.
If modern man is starved for love, he is equally starved for truth. Would it be too much of an exaggeration to say that almost everyone is infected to a degree by the atmospheric lie? The remedy, of course, is exactly what it has always been: Open the doors of our hearts to Jesus Christ, live the Gospels without compromise, love the Church which is the Mystical Body of Christ, and pray for the flowering of love and the renewal of truth within our communities, churches, families, and oneself — yes, especially oneself.
If I had to choose an image to sum up our times, I would not choose from among the usual ones, such as the Nuclear Age, the Technological Society, the Age of Anxiety, the Computer Generation, the Affluent Society, or the Space Era. I would call it the Age of Noise. In the entire history of mankind, there has never been such a continuous battering of the human brain. The ever-present background throb of machinery, the roar of traffic, the high-pitched buzz of fluorescent lights and computers, Musak in elevators and supermarkets, herds of joggers wearing Walkmans, a gaggle of talk shows. A world drowning in chatter! Words, words, words! A thousand voices competing for our attention every day: the communications media, junk mail, candidates for political office, telephone solicitations, and so on and so on. . . the long, sustained roar (and sometimes screech) of our century. Exterior noise and interior noise. The clamor of our anxieties and our skirmishes with the seven deadly sins and a host of lesser evils. The endless inner debates we conduct against real or imagined enemies; and the sweet, rotten allure of the soap operas of the fallen imagination. And of course there is the voice of the accuser, whispering in our ears about our sins and faults. We turn quickly away from that voice, unable to endure more feelings of guilt in an already guilt-ridden society — a society that tells us (again through the media) that Christians are abusers, backward, judgmental, patriarchal, overpopulating, and a menace to the ecology.
Burdened with such an array of exterior and interior pressures, we can find it extremely difficult to face the objective guilt of our fallen natures and open ourselves to the saving power of Jesus Christ. Yet the mere thought of resisting the power of an entire culture with our own strength is utterly exhausting. Overwhelmed, we can be deluded into choosing a less demanding form of faith, a seemingly more “compassionate” kind of religion. We can become the creatures of a powerful conditioning mechanism and, like well-fed slaves, accept a sort of comfortable bondage as our lot in life. We can gradually come to think that the torrent of noise is normal. And when the pressures become intolerable, we might even begin to agree with what the noise is saying.
Saint Paul writes in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” But how can the mind be renewed if it is continually reeling under a bombardment of false words and images? The mind is not renewed simply by packing more and more into it; rather it is renewed by grace and by habits of discernment and by a sincere search for what is good and beautiful and true. Silence is the natural habitat of truth. Prayer is the dwelling place of right seeing. That is why we must reduce the noise in our lives and open the ears of the heart to real listening. We parents especially need moments of complete stillness. We must take great care to make these moments for ourselves and for each other and for our children. We cannot assume that we will be immune to the massive apostasy that is taking place in the Western world. Never in human history has there been such a wholesale loss of faith, nor one that has come about with such startling speed. Much of its momentum is due to the unprecedented power of television, film and video — of the image — to recreate our understanding of the very shape of reality. Thus, large numbers of Christians simply do not realize that they are apostacizing, and still larger numbers do not understand that they are being prepared mentally to follow. This is the power of impressionism; it is also “peer pressure” on a colossal scale. How very difficult it is to resist an entire culture, and especially for children to do so, because it is a right and good thing for children to grow into awareness of being members of a broader community. They need culture in order to grow properly. It is one of their primary means of learning what it is to be a fully human person in a community of fellow human beings. That is why the solution will never be simply a matter of criticizing the false culture surrounding us. The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.
O'Brien, Michael. “Are Christians Intolerant?” In Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 161-166.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind - ISBN 0-89870-678-5.
Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.
© 1998 Ignatius Press
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.