The main character was the usual tortured ex-CIA agent, already a cliché when the show aired twenty-five years ago, a man haunted by his past and trying to find peace by using his skills to help the weak being victimized by the strong. More likely to be found in real life than the lead of The Equalizer, I think, was the lead in a Schwarzenegger movie who, when his wife finds out he’s a spy and yells “You kill people!”, replies, “Yes, but dey were all verry bahd.”
In any case, in one episode, the doctor running a slum clinic asks the Equalizer to save the clinic from a particularly vicious gang, but to his frustration (and that of most viewers, I’m sure) will not let him remove the threat in his usual way. She expects his help but forbids him to use violence, and he clearly has no idea what to do. I’m pretty sure she tells him that violence begets violence, and never really solves anything.
Not knowing what to do, he visits an old man who turns out to have been a chief torturer for the Cuban secret police. He asks the man why he left the police and escaped to America, and the man tells the story of torturing a Christian who, no matter how badly he hurt him, never reviled him or betrayed his God. After torturing the man for days, he says, “I looked in his face and saw the love of God.” An extraordinary moment for television, that.
Convinced by the ex-torturer’s witness, the Equalizer returns to the clinic and rallies the people of the neighborhood to surround the clinic when the gang comes to destroy it. The people united drive away the brutes without violence or injury. And all because, if I understood the plot right, a man who showed the love of God changed another man’s life.
This is something very like the argument now often made against any kind of apologetic argument, whether offered in rebuttal of some counter-claim or outright assault or in defense of a Christian doctrine. Intellectual combat is bad, and not just bad, ineffective. Only the witness of a godly life does any good.
The claim is that argument only begets argument, and never changes anyone’s minds. Those of us who write apologetically (I write a column for our diocesan newspaper) can tell you how often some sophisticated Christian will explain how pointless and naïve is the exercise, because of course argument just begets arguments and . . . . It’s very trying.
Responding to last week’s column on the limits of apologetic writing, “The Atheist Gives Us Nothing,” a friend wrote that the argument reminded him of a book he’d just been reading, Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies, and Talks. Fr. Calciu was a Romanian Orthodox priest who suffered for 21 years in Ceausescu’s gulag. He was released in 1985 and deported to the United States. He died in 2006. My friend—who is not one of those trying people I just mentioned—explained that Fr. George
says that one should never put much work into making rational arguments for the faith, because few people are ever converted by mere reasoning. It’s far more important to assert faith in Christ, and in the Resurrection, and to live out that truth in concrete ways, especially by showing love to all, most of all to our enemies. He said that he found in prison, nobody was convinced by his constructing arguments for Christianity, but he saw people actually converted by him doing things like refusing anger, by his fidelity to saying the Liturgy, and praying.
”Having finished this book,” continued my friend, “I think I’m starting to understand why, in ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ the only response Christ gives to the Inquisitor is to kiss him. The idea here is that true conversion is conversion of the heart, not the mind—and that hearts are only really converted by love, not by reasoning.”
This is obviously true, but not, I think, the whole truth. John Henry Newman argued something like this, which was part of the significance of his famous motto “heart speaks to heart” (not, though he was a theologian, “mind speaks to mind”), partly by reflecting on how people came to believe what they believed and how they could feel so certain about matters, like Christian dogmas, they could not prove in the usual way.
But he also saw that a love of truth and therefore of argument was part of what characterized and formed the heart. The heart, let me emphasize, that speaks to other hearts. The man who loves something wants to know about it. He wants, as far as the subject allows, to think about it, to analyze it, to understand it deeply. He will use that knowledge to come to its defense when it is misunderstood or misinterpreted or publicly derided or denied. This is even truer when he loves someone. If he doesn’t want to know, he doesn’t truly love.
That is where the new anti-apologists go wrong. They are right that argument mostly begets argument, and that arguments by themselves rarely change anyone’s mind. But they are wrong to dismiss apologetics for that reason. They’re not thinking clearly about what people who believe do, and how people come to believe. People want answers, and for some, as far as we mortals can tell, the answers make or break the sale.
Look again at Father George. Perhaps the other prisoners in the Gulag were convinced by Father George’s life in part because he was ready and able to answer their questions when they asked him, and might have hesitated or refused were they not also convinced by him that the faith was rational and intellectually satisfying. Their overt conversions may have come in response to his life, but that doesn’t mean they would have come without his intellectual endeavors.
The life of a man like Father George says in visible and compelling ways, “I love Jesus, and I would like you to love Him too.” Some people will say, “If Jesus is good enough for Father George, He’s good enough for me.” But others will ask who Jesus is, and why anyone would believe that, and why he isn’t something else, and what is the answer to this famous skeptic and that learned agnostic and the latest National Geographic special on the newest newfound lost gospel.
He will have all sorts of questions, some of them better than others but all important to him, and he will want answers, no matter how compelling he finds the saintliest Christian’s witness. Indeed, he will expect answers, because if Jesus is who He seems to be, judging from the holy Christian’s life that has moved his heart, answers there will be, and at least some Christians ought to know them. That is what his heart tells him, and the way he discerns what is truly in others’ hearts.
Drawn to the door by seeing the love of God in a man’s life, he still needs argument, to open the door for him, or drag away all the rocks and trees that block the door, or reassure him that he is doing the right thing in entering the house. Witness will not be enough. He will need someone like the Schwarzenegger character, because many arguments are verry, verry bahd.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
David Mills’ The Atheist Gives Us Nothing.
Father George Calciu’s Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies, and Talks.
On Father Calciu, see his testimony after he was released from prison in Romania and came to the United States, and Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Remembering Father George Calciu.