Last week, in the aftermath of the horrible killings at the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, and while the French government was seeking a way to resolve two different hostage situations on the same day, an acquaintance of mine posted onto Facebook (what else?) a cartoon that I found deeply offensive. At the top, it bore the headline “Muslim extremist vs. Christian extremist.” Underneath, on the left, was a sketch of man dressed like a fighter for ISIS; he was saying, “I will convert you even if I have to kill you.” On the right was a different sketch: a man in chinos and a polo shirt, holding a Bible and saying, “I will convert you even if it costs me my life.”
The image offended me because it was not true. To be precise, the righthand panel was not true. At this point in time, most Christians would embrace the sentiment that was there: that the work of bringing others to Christ is sacrificial in nature; that it involves pouring ourselves out in loving acts towards others who do not know us, agree with us, or accept our beliefs. That is what Christ did, and it is how we are called to live.
Honesty, however, compels us to admit that eschewing forcible conversion is a rather late development in Christianity, one which happened sometime after the settling of the New World. Until that time, the sword and the flame were favored means of spreading the faith, incompatible though they were with the teachings of Christ. And so I began to wonder: how did we get from there to here? In other words, how did we learn to lay down the sword of steel and take up only the sword of the Spirit?
In 1644, John Milton (the poet), published an essay called Areopagitica; it is one of the first defenses in English of the principle of free speech. Milton drew his title from the Areopagus, which was the deliberative body that formed the government of Athens, the cradle of democracy.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul is invited to speak in the Areopagus, because “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17: 21) When he went there, he stood before this assembly of pagans and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23) In other words, he acknowledged their thirst to find what was true; suggested to them that their grasp of truth was, as yet, incomplete; and offered them what he believed would fill out the picture.
Milton’s argument, too, rested on the incompleteness of our understanding of what is true. He picked up on an image from Egyptian mythology, in which the God Osiris hacked the virgin Truth into little pieces and scattered them over the whole earth, and said, “ever since, the sad friends of Truth…went up and down gathering up limb by limb still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all,…nor ever shall do until her Master’s second coming…And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple…for who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty. She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious — those are the shifts [methods] that error uses against her power. Give her but room.”
These are remarkable words. They are remarkable both in themselves, and in him who spoke them. Five years after writing them, when Puritan military forces overthrew the government of King Charles I and imposed on England an austere theocracy for twenty years, Milton became a ranking member of that government. In other words, he was a religious extremist AND he believed that free speech and a free press were the means by which truth and God would ultimately defeat lies and the forces of darkness.
Think about that.
Milton’s words, which have been echoed time and again by other writers who grasped this idea and pushed Western culture in the direction of open and uninhibited discussion, rest upon a stance of deep humility. Historically, Milton was the last person in Western culture who knew “everything”: he lived during the beginning stirrings of the scientific revolution which expanded human knowledge beyond the grasp of any one person, and he followed new discoveries eagerly, mastering languages ancient and modern, history, classics, geology, mathematics, geometry, anthropology, astronomy, and the discoveries of the explorers. And yet, he staked his life and the intellectual life of his nation upon the premise that we don’t know everything yet.
Where did he find this idea? He found it in the Gospels, specifically, in the Gospel of John. There is a remarkable moment that John captures in the Last Supper. Jesus is spending his final moments with his friends before he is arrested and crucified, and says to them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13) Jesus himself, whom we proclaim to the full and definitive revelation of God, tells his disciples, “You don’t know everything yet.”
Those two verses shaped Christianity as an open rather than a closed system. Because Jesus pointed us toward truths that we have not yet seen, because God gave us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, we do not have the option of closing ourselves to what our lives, our culture, the discoveries of science, the richness of literature and art and music, and even other cultures and other faiths have to say. We are called at a fundamental level to grapple with the ideas of others, seeking whatever is in them that seems to be of God.
Is some of it wrong? Of course. Is some of it offensive? You bet. But do we have the option of closing ourselves off from it or shutting it down? We do not.
One feature of the deep humility of Milton’s and Jesus’ stance is this: it creates a dichotomy between how we believe we are called to live, and what we can impose on others who do not share our beliefs. We who follow Jesus have made a choice to put him at the center of our lives, but we understand and accept that there are others who have not yet made that choice, and also those who never will. We have the right to persuade them; we have an obligation to try to shape a culture steeped in the mercy he showed us; but if we turn to coercion, then we cut ourselves off from the very ideas and people who might lead us deeper into God’s truth.
A lot has been made, in recent weeks, of the fact that certain strains of Islam forbid depiction of the prophet. It’s touched off a set of debates about how to balance the right to free speech with respect for the beliefs of others. It is good to discuss how we show respect for others, and it has direct implications for each of us in terms of how we interact with those whose beliefs differ from our own. But it is not, legitimately, a question of free speech.
I was raised in Judaism, which prohibits its believers from making images of God. (It’s right in the Ten Commandments.) The synagogue in which I was worshiped had no figurative art at all, and our Bibles and storybooks and homes did not contain images of God. But we knew that this was our practice, and it did not bind those who were not Jewish. We did not go around defacing Christian art or breaking Hindu sculptures or blowing up ancient Egyptian tomb frescos. We followed the law we believed God had given us, and gave others space to follow God as they felt called. It all comes back to humility.
Know what you believe. Love the One who made you with everything that is in you. Love Christ fiercely, but hold yourself lightly. God is still speaking, and it is up to us to continue to listen, even when God speaks to us in the most unlikely places and the most despised people. After all, those are the people God has chosen all along.