Yes It’s Personal
The Greek word for “repentance” or “penance,” metanoia, famously signifies, in its literal sense, “change of mind.” Our sacramental life in the Church, from initial baptism to extreme unction, consists of so many ritual actions designed to make our “change of mind” concrete and tangible. Our apologetical life is similar: “But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you” (I Ptr. iii. 15). How does this occur?
Two cautionary examples from my own life stand out in my mind.
When I was still an undergraduate, I attempted to convert a fellow student who was then my best friend. He was, and is, hands-down, the most brilliant person I have ever known (in the marvelous way that only mathematically- and scientifically-brilliant people can be brilliant). He was also, when I met him, relatively unacquainted with and open to the historic Christian faith—despite some skepticism owing to the historical specificity of Christianity to first-century Palestine, whereas he was a twenty-first-century Chinese. Naturally I saw an opportunity for evangelization; less naturally perhaps, I also thought I saw an opportunity to manipulate another person into agreeing with what I thought, and into enjoying what I found beautiful. So I heaped on him heavy tomes of Aquinas and Dostoevsky.
The attempt back-fired. I believe my friend was too sensitive not to see through the actual shallowness of my own conservative religious commitments, as they then were. He subsequently became a serious atheist, and so far as I know remains such. Our friendship completely dissolved.
The lesson I took from this experience, personally a costly one, was that actions really do speak louder than words. Words ungrounded in a mature and active love, though the words be formally correct, cannot ultimately be persuasive.
The other cautionary incident occurred when the gay friend to whom for a period of time I was closest in undergrad, also an atheist, but of the existentialist variety, came out to me. (I of course was still profoundly closeted.) After a pleasant evening dining out with other acquaintances, he and I had retired to his apartment. We were seated on his futon, embroiled in an abstract discussion of whether it was or was not absurd to say that human desires could be wrongly oriented. At some point in the discussion the blond divinity seated beside me called a spade a spade, and named what it was we were actually talking about. His speech left me completely speechless. The shell encasing was revealed for what it was, and I could only cry, which I did.
The lesson I took from that experience was that what restrained me from reciprocating and coming out to him in turn, was not that I actually believed what I said I believed (the official teaching of the Church), but that I was simply afraid.
Love, and fear. If you would be persuasive, to yourself and to others, you must first love, and not fear.
If that sounds too sentimental, let’s remind ourselves that “love” has many senses. The relation of political-programmatic trust which subsists, say, between Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rupert Murdoch’s FOX News, is one kind of love or social affection (however impure it may be). Ditto for all the self-interested leagues of labor leaders and military aristocrats, Populares and Optimates, from the beginning of political time until now. Even when the arguments advanced are logically fallacious, they nevertheless carry the day because of the social affection, authentic or forged, which the parties bear toward each other.
Truth, after all, is not a proposition, but a person. That is our own orthodox insight.