A hermit advised, “If someone speaks to you about a controversy, do not argue with him. If what he says makes sense, say, ‘Yes,’ If his comments are misguided, say, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ If you refuse to dispute with his ideas, your mind will be at peace.”
There is an element of this story which makes many want to cry out, “Yes, but!” It is a story similar to Christ’s admonition to “turn the other cheek.” And like the instruction to give the cheek – this suggestion of ‘I don’t know anything about that,’ feels like a guaranteed way to allow those who have false ideas to win. And the anxiety it creates, I believe, is the same anxiety. To a degree it is the anxiety of ‘Christian atheism.’
We have an option: either we believe that God is alive and working for our salvation or we believe that God, though alive, is removed from our lives and that we must do all in our power to advance His cause (for it seems He will do little of that Himself).
I am overstating the option on purpose. The second option is overstated to the point of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. An anxiety besets us in which we feel that the success or failure of the truth of the faith is dependent upon our actions. We can cite very active saints such as St. Athanasius who tirelessly sought to defend the Orthodox faith and to counter the arguments of the heretic Arius. Or we can even think of St. Nicholas of Myra (today known as ‘Santa Claus’) who at the Council of Nicaea even smote Arius on the cheek for his impious statements (St. Nicholas was disciplined for this but restored at the miraculous intercession of the Mother of God.
I should therefore state that I believe some are called to be like St. Athanasius and some are perhaps even to be like St. Nicholas. But Athanasius is known for his lonely persecutions and exiles – which things we should seek to imitate if we plan to take up his great defenses as well. And St. Nicholas was known primarily for his wonder-working miracles and his extreme charity towards children and even towards convicted felons. Such extreme charity should also mark our lives if we feel called to follow in the apologetic footprints of the kindly saint.
But for many, I fear, it is neither saint that is the model for their vigorous defense of the faith, but rather a certain anxiety, that heresy and ideas opposed to the Orthodox faith will somehow go uncorrected. It is here that we must stop and ask ourselves, “Is the Orthodox faith a set of ideas or a divine reality?” If it is a set of ideas then we’d better get our arguments together and do it soon.
Christ himself said, “…if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight…” But His kingdom is not of this world – it is not among the things that are passing away. It is that which is coming and it will never pass away. Many accompanying aspects of the Kingdom have come and gone and come and gone (I think of the outward trappings of empire and the like). Those things which have come and gone are of this world and should be of no concern to us.
The ability to remain silent even in the face of an invitation to argue is not weakness, but confidence in the truth.
My father-in-law, a wonderful man of God, often met my many arguments with, “Well…I don’t know about that.” It was frustrating for me but also a great learning over time.
The faith has never failed because we lacked good arguments and the will to carry them forward. The faith has failed at points because we failed to believe it. If the Orthodox faith flourishes in this world, at this time, it will be because it flourishes in the lives of those who have embraced it.
We live in a 24/7 news cycle – marked mostly by talking-heads and interminable arguments. Does anyone actually believe that another argument, even when brought by a Christian, will matter?
An argument won’t matter. But a Christian will – precisely because an authentic Christian is so hard to find.