There are a number of things that draw people to St. Augustine: the power of his prose, the clarity of his faith, his humanizing struggles, and his centrality to Christian doctrine. No other saint (or, indeed, any single figure of the ancient world) left us so many words, and in these words we find an immensely appealing and brilliant man.
Spend a significant amount of time with him, however, and there’s one delightful sideline of his prose: his frequent eruptions of irritation. One of his quips seems ready-made for the combox troll, but there’s also the opening of City of God Book 2, which includes this extended diatribe against answering endless question from people determined not to believe [emphasis added]:
If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith, effected a cure! In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussion in order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.
But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible. Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see. The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with their eyes shut.
And yet, will we ever come to an end of discussion and talk if we think we must always reply to replies? For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentious that they refuse to give in even if they do understand In fact, the Bible says “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly.” [Ps 94.4] You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments. [from City of God, 2.1]
That’s some eloquent irritation right there, and I thought of it today after reading the patient and charitable explanations from some of the Patheos writers to the latest face-palm post from a blogger on the atheist channel. Augustine is addressing what writer Daniel J. Flynn called Intellectual Morons, and the kind of people brilliantly lampooned by Paul Johnson in Intellectuals: people who may well be intelligent, but are so blinded by their own bias that they sometimes fail to grasp basic logic. They refuse to understand simple points because it disrupts a carefully constructed worldview.
It’s a good approach to take. We need to engage the faith and evangelize, but we also need to know when our efforts are wasted on people who are so intransigent in their disbelief that they insist on repeating the same errors even when corrected. It’s still worthwhile to give witness, but we need to also recognize “how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer.” Some fields will never be fertile, and you just need to move on and work the ground the Lord has prepared for you: good ground that will produce a crop thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.
Or, as the old quote (sometimes attributed to George Bernard Shaw) goes: Don’t wrestle with a pig. You both end up dirty, and the pig likes it.
This post is continued here.