The Other “N” Word

The Other “N” Word November 26, 2016


Years ago, when I moved in more traditionalist Catholic circles, I recall often encountering the idea that there’s a fairly simple, straightforward way of telling whether a person is speaking the mind of God, or whether they are whispering the seductions of the evil one:


God, so the theory went, is always perfectly crystal clear. He utters direct, straight-forward pronouncements. His light is so strong that there is no room for gray, for muddiness: by its illumination, you can clearly tell what is white, and what is in the shadow. God does not need to obfuscate; He never hems or haws or talks around and issue. He knows what’s what, and He says it without hesitation, complication or deviation.

Satan, on the other hand, is the Father not only of lies but also of confusion. He never gives straight answers. He’s always trying to muddy the waters of truth with exceptions, uncertainties and excuses. His favourite tool – and one which is a sure sign that people are doing his work and not Our Lord’s – is “nuance.”

Before I talk about the problems with this theory of truth, I’d first like to acknowledge why people who subscribe to it find it convincing. If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Yes, Minister,” you’ll probably remember Sir Humphrey’s long, circuitous speeches – speeches which parody a certain type of answer commonly given by politicians and bureaucrats. It’s a form of speech that is deliberately constructed to use a lot of verbiage without giving anything away.

We’ve all encountered people who use this trick. Many of us may have used it ourselves. Children use it all the time when asked simple questions like “Did you hit your sister?” or “What happened to the chocolate cake?” Adults use it as well when asked questions like “Did you have sex with the intern?”

Basically, these are situations where person A wants to know the truth, person B knows exactly what the truth is – and also knows that it will not be to their advantage to share it with person A. So they waffle. They confuse the issues. They split hairs. They obfuscate.

It really is true that in situations where the truth is simple, and it is known, a direct answer is more likely to be true than a complicated answer. The problem is, not all situations are simple, and not all answers are known.

Nor is God Himself always simple and straightforward in His own utterances.

Consider, for example, Matthew 5:29-30. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

What does this passage mean? Well, there’s a really clear, direct, uncomplicated, unnuanced, and obvious answer – which is that we should all be walking around looking like we belong in a horror movie. Have you been looking at porn? Yeah? Okay, then those eyes gotta go. Have you been doing anything while looking at it? Uh huh. Better take the hand as well. You been coveting stuff on e-bay this Christmas? Okay, it’s Oedipus time. How about gossip, doing any of that? Hey – the extension of this principle is obvious. If we’re gouging out eyes, we gotta be consistent. Out with that tongue.

Obviously nobody accepts this interpretation, because it would be both insane and suicidal. But it is simpler. In order to give a less demented explanation for Christ’s words we have to start invoking concepts like metaphor, and context, and we have to acknowledge that Christ spoke in parables.

In other words, we have to take a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to the text in order to understand the truth that Christ is trying to communicate.

Most people understand this intuitively. We know that sometimes the true answer to “Did you hit your sister?” is “Yes…I’m sorry,” but sometimes it really and actually is more true to say, “Kind of, but I didn’t mean to. It happened by accident because I was trying to defend myself because she was hitting me repeatedly in the head with a pillow and even though I asked her to she wouldn’t stop. And when I tried to get up to go and get help, she pinned me down and laughed at me.”

Life would be easier, and parenting would definitely be a lot easier, if the simplest answers were always the best. But that’s not how it actually is. Reality is an incredibly complex system of interlocking relationships that are constantly in flux. It’s just as easy for a clear answer to be dangerously oversimplistic as it is for a nuanced answer to mislead and obfuscate. Several times in the course of His ministry, Christ comes up against cartoonishly simplified applications of the Law and rejects them – as, for example, in the case of the man who is healed on the Sabbath and the case of the woman caught in adultery. In place of clear, ringing condemnation He presents a sophisticated response to human realities.

This is why, if you look at the writings that come out of the Vatican, you’ll notice that there’s a balance of clear teaching and nuanced application. For example, if we look at the teaching of the Catechism on masturbation we find both clarity, “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose,” and also nuance, “To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.” (CCC 2352)

There is clarity surrounding the nature of the act, there is nuance concerning the messy realities of human life.

Clarity and nuance are not opposites that annul one another, but opposites that complement each other. Both are necessary in the approach to truth. I would, therefore, like to suggest that Satan is not only the Father of Confusion, but also the Father of Hubris. It is very pleasing to our pride to think that we are capable of having all of the answers to life’s problems, and there are few things quite so diabolically pleasurable as the certainty that we are absolutely and unassailably right. So yes, the enemy does try to complicate what is simple, but equally he tries to oversimplify what is complex.

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