Can we all admit that we are often far less smart than we think we are? It’s not as much a matter pride or arrogance—although perhaps that’s part of it—but we often lack perspective and wisdom. Surely, we’ve had the experience of discovering that one of our deepest convictions, something we always thought was true, was gravely mistaken. We never have it all figured out, and the better we can accept and embrace this reality, the better able we will be to empathize with others who have different levels of understanding or different perspectives. The hope is that this facilitates kindness. As Pope Francis put it in Fratelli Tutti, “Kindness facilitates the quest for consensus; it opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges” (FT 224).
As limited as we are, there are social incentives to present ourselves as wise and well-informed when interacting with others. This can be especially tempting on social media. When we come across as “in-the-know”, when we share insights or thoughts that we think are especially profound, or when we believe we’ve had a deep epiphany that will surely settle some debate, we often have the impulse to convert others to our worldview. At the very least, we share our ideas within our carefully cultivated circle of like-minded circles of friends and followers. On social media, we also publicly shame those whose opinions differ. Why do we do this? Ultimately, we do it because we want to look good to some people. We do it because, perhaps with the best of intentions, we want to tell others how to live and think.
This reminds me of Francis’s descriptions of modern-day gnosticism in Gaudete et Exultate. He describes this “superficial conceit” as placing knowledge, information, and experiences above charity. We often become enraptured by our own cleverness or how much better we understand an issue or topic than another. And we can be imprisoned by this mindset while our souls decay. Francis explains that in this approach,
There is much movement on the surface, but the mind is neither deeply moved nor affected. Still, gnosticism exercises a deceptive attraction for some people, since the gnostic approach is strict and allegedly pure, and can appear to possess a certain harmony or order that encompasses everything. (GE 38)
I can see it in myself. I become complacent when everything I observe can be neatly categorized, labeled, and explained. Francis calls it “modern-day” gnosticism but he wasn’t describing out anything particularly novel. The desire to “domesticate the mystery” of Christianity—to define it as something the mind can fully grasp—has been a problem in every age.
That being said, the Enlightenment has exacerbated the problem. Our optimism about the sciences and the pursuit of knowledge causes us to neglect the impact of sin or to reduce the faith to a strictly intellectual pursuit—to study, debate, categorizing, and systemizing. As to the former, St. Paul described our experience of “seeing thoroughly a mirror dimly”; our minds and hearts are clouded by the darkness of sin and confusion. As to the latter, we can become inattentive to evil lurking beneath the surface of our seemingly unassailable arguments and conclusions, neglectful of Francis’s words in Misericordiae Vultus, “The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ” (12) and “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life” (10).
The gnostic approach removes the wonder and awe in the mystery of Christianity that might temper our trust in our own intellectual powers. It also reduces faith to just another aspect of our lives. Conversely, to be a Christian is to enter a world of limitless horizons because we have been given a remarkable gift in the infinite love and mercy of Jesus Christ. In his boundless mercy, Jesus, who is Truth, encounters us in our limitations. As St. Augustine taught, “If you understand, it is not God” (Sermon 117, 5).
This isn’t a debate between mysticism and scholasticism or cataphatic and apophatic theology. Simply, if our goal is to help each other on the path to God, we must recognize our human limitations. The primary goal of our interactions as evangelists is not to convince others that our religious views are correct but to share God’s love. When winning the debate is our purpose, we miss the point. Francis explains this in the next paragraph of Gaudete et Exultalte,
Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible. They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking. A healthy and humble use of reason in order to reflect on the theological and moral teaching of the Gospel is one thing. It is another to reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything. (GE 39)
It can be fruitful to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments of those with whom we disagree. Logic and reason are useful inasmuch as they help us increase in understanding, but the Christian faith is not reducible to a specific system of thought.
Importantly, we must regularly and humbly examine ourselves. When we lack charity in our arguments and discourse, our attitude is far from the Gospel. We must always be alert to the possibility that we might fall prey to the gnostic sin of believing our way of thinking about the faith is always correct. When we are conscious of our sinfulness and our imperfections, we learn to rely on God’s grace, love, and mercy, leading us to treat others with greater kindness and charity.
Castigating another for holding an incorrect view very often hinders evangelization, while patiently bearing the errors of another—and even setting them aside from time to time in search of common ground—can be a way two people can evangelize one another. Acknowledging our shortcomings is a prerequisite for humility in our interactions and appreciation for the perspective of others. Most of all, for a Christian, it is important to see the other the way Christ sees them—with love. As Francis wrote in Lumen Fidei, “The Christian can see with the eyes of Jesus and share in his mind, his filial disposition, because he or she shares in his love, which is the Spirit” (LF 21).
Kindness is not always easy, but it is essential to overcoming divisiveness and bitterness, whether on social media or in our communities. Kindness is a grace, nurtured by God through prayer. In encountering the Risen Christ in our daily conversations with him, he will transform our hearts and give us new horizons, so that we might see those with whom we disagree with the eyes of the crucified Christ.