This is the second of a three part review of this book. I won’t recap Part One. I will just leap into it.
The book is really an essay on spiritual ethics. What is good and what must be done? This of course raises the question, why is there evil in the world at all, if God is good? To my mind, the highlight of chapter 6, “Diabolical Vanishing Act,” is Matt Walsh’s insight that “to prevent all bad things from happening – in order to rule evil out in principle – He (God) would have to either wipe humanity from the face of the earth or convert us all into automatons. There would be no pain, no evil, no suffering. But there would be no love, either, and no joy” (90). It is not a new thought, but it is a much-overlooked one, and it is well retold here. The chapter as a whole contends that the devil has been wrongly excluded from modern consciousness, and that the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church announces to the world that “The Devil Exists” (87). I might add that anyone who suspects that this is an overstatement has only to listen to this recording: “Disturbing audio recordings of Fr. Robert DeLand preying on a victim” (enter that title in a search engine). Suffice to say, it is evil made audible. As Walsh states, there is a tendency to explain evil away, and this tendency undermines Christianity.
In chapter 7, Walsh makes the perfectly reasonable observation that if the Bible contains moral error, then it has no authority on any subject, and if so, then why is our faith true? “If morality is relative,” says Walsh, “then God is either imperfect and changeable – or non-existent” (100). There is some impressive research in this chapter, in the treatment of an experiment by Solomon Asch. I have checked Walsh’s references, and he is correct: some people were shown one line, then asked which of three adjacent lines was the same length. The correct answer was unmistakeable. However, all the other members of the group were actors who pretended to believe that one of the wrong answers was correct. That is, peer pressure was put on people to provide a wrong answer despite the evidence of their own senses.
Before I note the results, why not ask yourself, how many people do you think would allow themselves to be persuaded by other people to say something they knew to be wrong, in despite of the truth? And more to the point, on what side would you fall?
Well, this is what happened: only 25% of the people always refused to be swayed. The other 75% would furnish the wrong but fashionable answer at least once (102). It is sobering to think that only 25% of the people in the experiment would stick to their guns. Surely we would like to think that we would be one of the 25%. We, at least, would hold fast to the truth.
Alright. Then will we join the 35% of Protestants and 46% of Catholics who now believe that a person’s sex can be different from their sex at birth? (102-103). We probably all know people who would become aggressive if we did not. So if we think about how we would hold our ground in the face of opposition, would we maybe say publicly that we agree with them, but internally believe they were wrong? That is what the people in Asch’s experiment probably did. And if we compromise ourselves by saying one thing and thinking another, how can we stand up for the truth should we ever be called to do so? Could we stand with someone else who was being attacked for refusing to even publicly deny the truth?
This is why the conclusion of Walsh’s chapter is so strong: “But Christ calls us out of that relativistic fog – all the way out. not to mere acceptability or decency, but to holiness, to sainthood. He will settle for nothing less, so neither can we” (109). It is frightening to think that the truth will be denied, and people will be attacked for defending it, while many of the mob who either attack them or do not stand up for them, know what the truth really is, but lack the courage of their convictions.
“The False Virtues” is the subject of chapter 8, and it is vital. There are stalwart virtues such as “courage, chastity, fidelity, temperance, and modesty. But there are also “cheap and shallow” ones, what Walsh calls the “turnip virtues” of being “welcoming, accepting, and tolerant” (111-112). It is hard to formulate the idea in an exact and balanced way. St John Henry Newman said that in really important matters it is often impossible: all we can do is err in one direction, and then correct ourselves in another direction, and so on.
There are occasions when both sets of qualities, the turnip and the stalwart, are needed, yet they can all be too rigidly applied. Furthermore, Walsh’s analysis should never be taken as an excuse for being intolerant, and neither would he want that. The real issue, I think, is that – as he says – all virtues need to be practised together, without denying those virtues which have become unpopular.
Wisdom and prudence are needed to know which virtue to apply and to which degree. Even mercy can be unseasonable: release all prisoners and there will be mayhem. Recently, I had to do with some people who came across as being so tolerant, so very accepting, so very welcoming – but with better acquaintance, some were accepting only of those positions with which they agreed or at least had sympathy. And may high heaven help you if you didn’t share their opinion. In that case, their tolerance disappeared, you were criticised, and even roundly declare “you cannot say that!” Now, there are some things one should not say. I agree. My point is that intolerance cannot be hidden behind protestations, and that bigotry goes in all directions – the fact that I might criticise you as prejudiced does not mean I am therefore free of any prejudice. I would much rather deal with someone who does not pretend to be being all-welcoming, and is upfront about what they will or will not accept.
To return to the text of Church of Cowards, Walsh hits the nail on the head when he writes: “We cannot welcome (people) to the Truth by forfeiting or hiding the Truth” (113). If we change the Church and its teaching into a copy of what is in the world, we “are welcoming the world back into itself” (114). This ties in with what he said earlier in the book about the tendency in some circles to a secularisation of the Church. And, I would add, why would people attend a church to hear their opinions flashed back at them? Some will, they like the ambience and the Gospel readings, the feeling of being part of a community. But not many. One of the points of going to Church must be that there is something to be obtained by going there which one would not want to miss. But if the Church’s teaching is assimilated to secular ideologies, and the liturgies are as ordinary as possible, what might that special something be? Felt banners?
The highlight of this chapter, is for me, the section on “judgment.” As Walsh points out, we have to look at the words “Do not judge” in context. If we do so, then we will conclude that: “The point here is that we must judge rightly and fairly, as Jesus says specifically in John 7:24: “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (119)
This is quite critical. I have been in two memorable conversations where people said to me: “You’re judging, you’re judging.” And I was judging, but I felt it was a fair judgment. However I also felt hamstrung by the Lord’s statements about not judging, and wondering, how can I explain to this angry person that the Lord meant “do not judge AND condemn”? He cannot have meant “never judge,” after all, it is impossible to get through life without making judgments. We must. I had a problem expressing that, but I doubt I will have that problem again: Walsh sets the true position out better than I could. As he says: “The whole Bible is chock-full of judgments and things and situations. Of course Jesus is not warning against judgment per se. He is warning, instead, against hypocritical and self-serving judgments” (119).
I will close part two of this review with Walsh’s well-turned lines: “Judgment is good. We are commanded to judge. But our judgments themselves must be good, and made out of love and concern for our brother” (120).
To be continued