Adam A.J. Deville October 01, 2021
Photo: iStockPhoto: iStock

In my ecclesiology class last fall, I told students our method would be that of an “ecumenical gift exchange,” to use a phrase of St. John Paul II. I did this not just because, as the pope made clear in 1995, the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism is “irrevocable” but also because the entire realm of ecclesiology has been ecumenical in its methods. It could not be otherwise. To define the church is at once to grapple with the problems of division and unity, and this forces us into conversation with other Christians.

Some of my students recoiled at all this “ecumenical stuff,” regarding it with undisguised disdain, but they grudgingly accepted the method for our course because, as one of them said with exquisite condescension, at least only Christians would be involved in this gift exchange.

After Nicaea, all the wise thinkers of Christian tradition have recognized that demonization and dismissal of opponents are uncatholic activities.

But I pushed my luck and said there are gifts to exchange with non-Christians as well. At this point their tolerance for my method virtually vanished. The most shocking example came from the quietest student in class, who announced, “As a Catholic I don’t see why I should have to read the works of anybody who doesn’t have the letters ‘St.’ in front of their name.” After 22 years of teaching in three countries, I was staggered by such a view.

Such a comment seems to be an exceptionally crude expression of the sort of tribalism whose increase in the church and world alike we have been hearing about for some time. We retreat to our favored canonizations—of popes or presidents or periods of history we regard as superior to our own, of so-called extraordinary rather than ordinary forms of liturgy, of certain philosophers and theologians—and discard all the others.

To make such a claim as my student did would come as a surprise to, well, everybodyfrom Jesus onward. He did not confine himself to talking only to the right people, those with correct beliefs and probity of life. Nor did St. Paul (see. Acts 17:16-34), nor presumably the rest of the apostolic band and their successors. And who was Irenaeus of Lyons (c. A.D. 130-202 ) reading when he was composing his work Against the Heretics?

Some of my students, pale imitators of Irenaeus, throw the word heretic around with astonishing carelessness.

Some of my students, pale imitators of Irenaeus, throw the word heretic around with astonishing carelessness, but at least they engage (however tendentiously and sloppily) with those whom they trash. Others can’t bestir themselves to do even that.

Were the later fathers of the church like this? Consider the Christologically crucial fourth century. Did the fathers at the Council of Nicaea close their eyes and ears to the arguments of the Arians, or did they engage them? The contemporary Melkite scholar and priest Khaled Anatolios shows in his splendid book Retrieving Nicaea just how much good there was in Arius and how many of his arguments were sophisticated and unobjectionable, which required the assembled council to discern carefully which Arian claims to keep and which to refute.

After Nicaea, all the wise thinkers of Christian tradition have recognized that demonization and dismissal of opponents are uncatholic activities. Discernment and dialogue are quintessentially Catholic methods.

Such methods were not invented by squishy modern ecumenists or Jesuit popes. They are found in every age, but let us focus on two prominent figures: Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo.

There is no virtue in turning someone into a grotesque, for that reveals nothing about them and everything about you.

As Marcus Plested shows in his invaluable book Orthodox Readings of Aquinas, and others have shown before and since, Thomas Aquinas was a man who read and lavishly quoted non-Christian writers. His doing so is proof of just how Christian he is, of just how Catholic his intellectual methods are, for to be a Catholic is to be seeking after the good wherever it is found. Catholics should never be sniffily anxious about, or dismissive of, certain ideas merely because of their provenance.

Though I am not a Thomist, I always tell my students to imitate his method: Take the arguments of your opponents so seriously, and lay them out so carefully (i.e., charitably) before responding to them, that those very opponents can unhesitatingly say, “Yes, this is exactly my argument.” There is no virtue in turning someone into a grotesque, for that reveals nothing about them and everything about you.

Thomas’ methods are, of course, not original to him but are to be found in the church fathers whom he read so assiduously (especially the Greek fathers, as Plested shows in such detail, and as another recent book, Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers, also reveals). For the fathers, this method is often called “despoiling the Egyptians.” In his excellent and very useful book Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage, Augustine Casiday reminds us that “despoiling the Egyptians” is grounded in Ex 3:22, at the end of a chapter devoted to preparing the people to flee from captivity and slavery. Prior to leaving, the Israelites—especially the women—are told to take what they will need for a long journey and not to be stingy, but to take the best “jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing” from their Egyptian mistresses.

If we can treat others and their ideas with humility and gratitude, the only thing we will ever want to cancel will be our pride.

The church fathers saw this verse as providing a method for Christian intellectual work. They saw in the Lord’s literal instruction to the Hebrews in Egypt a figurative means by which churchmen like Basil and Gregory, as well as Augustine and Ambrose, could ransack the works of “pagan” philosophers like Aristotle and Plato (as Aquinas would do with such abandon later).

This is perhaps given its most memorable articulation in Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana. In Book II, Chapter 40, we read:

if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian…must take and turn to a Christian use [italics added].

This is not an ambivalent or grudging admission, either, as I have emphasized in this passage. Rather, Augustine counsels that we make “liberal”use of what we find, for in our findings there will be things “better”adaptedto Christian use, including some “excellent”precepts of moralityand even certain liturgical practices. These should be humbling reminders to us, and should keep us from smugness, which Flannery O’Connor once identified as the Catholic sin.

Augustine makes it clear that this method antedates both him and all the other fathers, tracing it all the way back to “that most faithful servant of God, Moses…for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.”

Think about that last line. Moses was learned in all the wisdom of...whom, exactly? Of slave owners and tyrants who had kept him and the people of Israel in chains! That should provide pause for any of us (and Catholics are as guilty as anybody here) wanting to “cancel” the views or platform of others, inside the church or out.

The despoiling of Egyptians means both that one takes what is good and that one leaves behind what is not.

None of this is to say that one must mindlessly agree with everything and everyone, that there is no room for judgment, for declaring something bad or dismissing it from use. There are still some things the church unambiguously calls disordered and evil (including slavery, as the long list of such things in the 1993 encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,”No. 80, makes clear).

In sum, the despoiling of Egyptians means both that one takes what is good and that one leaves behind what is not, perhaps even planting a sign (“Beware of Mines!”) for those coming after whose discernment skills may not be so sharp. It also means that one’s discernment should be open to the critique of others, for one may well discern incompletely or unfairly; one may leave behind what is in fact good, or take up what is less so.

We need others to show us this, which is why I make my students carefully read—and not quickly skip over, as they are inclined to do—the prefaces to nearly every one of his books over the last 60 years in which the great Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre records genuine gratitude to his critics: “I owe at least as much and probably a good deal more to those with whom I disagree as to those with whom I agree…. One’s severest critics are often those to whom one is most in debt.” This is from his first book, The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis (1958), which, not incidentally, is an exercise in discerning what MacIntyre ultimately concluded was “Freud’s essential and unassailable greatness” (at a time when the church, under Pope Pius XIII, was only just starting to move from hostility to grudging regard for Freud).

Why do all this? Why discern the spirits, dialogue with non-Catholics and critics like Freud, and even those who hate us? Catholics do all this not merely to show how cultured and cosmopolitan we are but to show (without bragging in the least) how “we have the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16). Christ, the pre-eternal Logos of the Father, created everything in goodness and seeks that goodness still amid our darkness and disordered desires and manifold and myriad sins, forgiving and foregoing all our dross if we but ask. If we want him to do that to and with us, then we must do that with each other. He cancels nobody and nothing that is good. And we must not do it either.

Instead, the Christian intellectual task, as Augustine shows, is to recognize with generosity and especially “humility”where others have “excellent” ideas, “better” manifesting the life of truth and goodness than what we have hitherto managed. If we can treat others and their ideas with such humility and gratitude, the only thing we will ever want to cancel will be our pride, which pushily promotes our own specks of goodness while refusing to see it in the beams of others.

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