Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Hypocrite and the Extremist: Poles apart?

I'm sure that I have made my friends, colleagues and readers cringe with some of the things that I say and write. I'm certainly not the most socially intelligent and perhaps it can be rightly said that there is a little of the Sheldon Cooper in me.

In England, Religion is not really something that should be discussed in polite company. There is an understanding that in England it is better not to rock the boat, so perhaps my somewhat forthright views have an American origin via my conversations with my friends. Certainly, my new Church (the Anglican Catholic Church) has inherited an American flavour. According to the Affirmation of St Louis, the normative BCP is the American BCP of 1928. I'm not going to quibble with that, save to remark that there are some odd changes in phraseology (particularly in the Venite) which I'm going to have to get used to.

I do have to admit to a certain "evangelical" bent and I'm not entirely sure where that came from unless it is something that wormed its way into me during my declining years in the CofE. By this, I mean that I think that a few friends wish they'd never mentioned to me any topic on the lines of, the Rapture, W"O", the "corruption" of the Church, et c.

One comment seems to run constant, "things are always black and white to you." To be honest, I've never understood why save possibly the force with which I say no to certain alterations to Christian Doctrine made by liberals. For holding a definite position, I get labelled as an extremist.

This rather does bring up the rather thorny issue of Extremism. If you think about it, every dichotomy (or trichotomy, or n-chotomy for a given value of n) has an extreme position, whether it be political, social, religious or even which end of the egg one cracks. The question is, is Extremism wrong?

We have to be very careful here, because the idea of Extremism has very negative connotations. The deaths of 11th September were attributed to "Islamic Extremists" whatever that means. It was a religious/political extremist (whose sanity is in doubt) who caused the deaths of about 80 people in Norway recently. Maybe you can think of many other examples of this sort of Extremism.

I've heard it said that the present Pope is a Catholic Extremist, but I wonder what this means. I suspect that those who call him thus have an objection to something that he has spoken out against:- Abortion, Islam, Relativism, Contraception.

While the Regensburg lecture and its controversial indictment of Islam was largely the result of too complicated a train of thought, nonetheless, in holding to Christian precepts the Pope is making a very definite statement that Islam is not the right path to God. Likewise, any Islamic leader, just by being Islamic, is making a very definite statement that Christianity is wrong. Just by accepting the doctrines of one's Faith immediately presents certain definite views which are potentially (and often necessarily) incompatible with another's. There is an extent to which there can be no middle ground - one cannot be both a Christian and a Moslem. Likewise it is very unlikely (and some might say logically impossible) that both Islam and Christianity cannot be true.

In being a Christian, I am putting myself into an extreme position that Islam is not the path to the Truth. The same is true for my Islamic friend in his proclamation that I am wrong. We're both extremist in the relativistic sense that there is no way we can worship God together, but does that mean I have to renounce him as a person?

The same is true of the Abortion and Contraception issues. The Commandment of God is that murder is wrong - murder of course being an unjust killing. If there is doubt that a few cells in the human body are growing in order to form another human body, then there is sufficient doubt, not only to question whether that bundle of cells is already a human being in the same way as we are, but also whether the deliberate impedance of a human being being born is morally objectionable. If Abortion and Contraception cause such a moral uproar, suddenly things become much simpler when bedroom activity is left to happily married couples who can control themselves!

Again, these ideas are quite logical consequences from believing in God. If God commands that X shouldn't be done, then the greatest care should be taken that X isn't done and this means that situations require great examination to ensure that X isn't done even when it isn't completely obvious. If one doesn't hold to the idea that God exists, then some of the believer's injunctions against X will appear arbitrary and oppressive. However, again, it is the initial belief that produces the polarisation, and polarisation in the eyes of some relativists is the same thing as extremism. How can one side convince the other of the truth if there can be no common ground between them?

One could try to be a Relativist and try to make common ground where there is none, but that only brings up another set of extremes and destroys common ground with the Absolutist such as the Pope.

Of course, the believer, particularly the Extremist, in both Absolutist and Relaticistic senses, is entirely open to hypocrisy, i.e. failing to practice the same principles that he preaches, and this will be utterly obvious. Too often Christians will focus on keeping one particular commandment (such as not murdering) and fail to keep another commandment (such as "Love thy neighbour") or even fail to keep the commandment in its principle (such as torching an abortion clinic). Does this negate the truth of the commandment that he holds so dear?

It's quite interesting that of all the things English society loathes, it's the hypocrite. Perhaps this is a vestige of the time when England was a Christian country and the KJV roared out the Lord Christ's woes against the hypocrites. It's true that the behaviour of the hypocrite (particularly the Extremist hypocrite) renders his doctrine questionable, but the fact is that it doesn't make his doctrine false.

The Lord Jesus, when speaking against the Pharisaic hypocrisy tells His disciples, "what they say, do, but what they do, do not." The teaching of God is not rendered invalid by the behaviour of the hypocrite and the extremist. It still requires acting upon. Of course, if one is serious about keeping the Christian Faith, then it is important to recognise that every sin that we commit is an act of hypocrisy too on top of the act of sinning per se. Perhaps, then, one argument on the side of miracles is for the continued existence of Christianity in the hands of hypocrites and sinners!

It is however very interesting that of all the commandments to be extremist about, it is never the doctrines of forgiveness or of unconditional love. Perhaps this failure to be extreme about these marks out the nature of the Extremist from the necessary extreme positions that our belief naturally gives us. The saints are all Extremists: they held nothing dearer than the will of God even to death - always theirs. St Therese of Lisieux is certainly an Extremist of the more wonderful kind in that she aimed at nothing but perfection in all of her little daily chores, yet one cannot put her into the same bracket as the nominal Christians who will blow up other nominal Christians as does happen in various parts of the world. However, no saint scrimped on the doctrines of forgiveness and love because they saw themselves in need of both as well as other people.

There is much good in reflecting on the consequences of one's belief system and examining whether we are entirely committed to what we hold to be true. If we have an extreme faith which is cognisant of the fact that there is no middle ground, how can we nonetheless give true respect to those on the other side of the gulf? Perhaps it's time to stop speaking and to start doing.


edpacht1 said...

I have to question your concept of what is extremism. One is not being extreme simply by the holding of a definite opinion. One who has no definite opinions is indeed a pathetic human being. One is not extreme because one is convinced of a proposition. If one is sane one does accept and act in accordance with what one is convinced is true. Every sane human being (and also most of those who are not sane) does precisely that.

An extremist is one who takes any view (whether true or false) to what he sees as its its logical extreme, as if his understanding of the logic were beyond question and justified whatever behavior he determined it to require. To believe that an embryo or fetus is a human being (either in actuality or potentiality) and therefore should not be destroyed is not an extreme position, but a statement of what one sees as fact. However, to take that view to where it brands those performing abortion as murderers worthy of summary execution without trial, is an extreme, carrying the implications as far as mere logic can lead, but without considering the effect of other firm beliefs, such as love of the sinner. This is merely one example. In theology, God is one, yet God is three, and to take either of those true propositions to the logical extreme produces heresy - as does a "consistent" commitment to either predestination or free will. The genius of Anglicanism is in the concept of via media - not a compromise between views, but a weighing of the logical implications of seemingly contradictory views in order to find the truth to which they both point.

I have firm opinions, but among them is the strong rejection of any and all extreme views as distortions of a truth not quote so easily identified.

Warwickensis said...

Is this my concept of extremism? Actually, I was taking the concept of extremism as seems apparent in my locale where a definite opinion is seen as extremist. In fact, I believe it is the Relativist's concept of extremism. After all, to give a definite "yes" or "no" to a Relativist usually results in being called extremist or fundamentalist precisely because there is no give in the system. Because there is no give, the Relativist automatically assumes that one is at the furthest point imaginable.

edpacht1 said...

By that definition, the relativist is, himself, the most extreme of extremists as he permits no definite opinion. My point is that most people make extraordinarily sloppy use of terms and rob their own words of meaning.

In actuality, the consistent relativist holds to as irrational an opinion as the most bizarre extremist he has ever criticized. If there are no fixed standards, there are no grounds on which to discuss anything. On the other hand, as I said, if any fixed standard be carried to its apparently logical end point, then other fixed standards must be ignored and a genuine extremism results.

A relativist has no standing on which to judge what is extreme, and I'm not sure that I care what he labels me. His label is irrelevant.

Warwickensis said...

Precisely right, Ed. The Relativist is often less tolerant than the Absolutist.
If anything, they are more black and white than someone who forms a definite opinion. I find that quite strange but it is true.