On the Need to State the Obvious
One of the most subversive, dangerous, thankless, and necessary tasks is to state the obvious. Our mental filing systems tend to push things labeled as “obvious” into the back of our minds, leaving room in the front for more important and pressing matters. But things tend to get misplaced in that dark attic of our memories, and before we know it, “the obvious” has disappeared into that mysterious void along with our high school French classes and the combination to the safe. Then when it comes time to access that information again and our brain tells us “file not found,” we retreat behind the rampart of “that’s obvious, everyone knows that” and hide our forgetfulness. But no one likes to be reminded that they have forgotten something they ought to know, so the job becomes thankless.
The chore is also subversive because it works against the interests of those who would use our forgetfulness against us. Often a cause begins with purpose and energy, but in the course of events the purpose is lost, or twisted, or hijacked, and the energy is harnessed for a new end. A vague gesture is made toward the original impetus behind the cause—just specific enough to maintain momentum, but ambiguous enough to hide the fact that a bait and switch has taken place. Examples abound, from politicians who appeal to “American ideals” not found in the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution, to Catholics who advocate for spurious ideas but attempt to legitimize them under the authority of the “spirit of Vatican II.” (It is a nearly iron-clad law that any idea proposed under the aegis of the “spirit of Vatican II” will either be absent from or directly contradicted by the actual documents of Vatican II.) Thus nothing is more revolutionary than proclaiming aloud against established interests what any person could read in a book should they choose to go looking for it.
The task of any Old Testament prophet could well be summed up by the phrase “stating the obvious.” The kings and people of Israel had been given the Law of Moses and knew full well what their obligations were, yet, as we all do, they routinely fell short of them, and even worked against them. The prophets were called upon by God to state the obvious to Israel, and they were usually thanked for their efforts by being murdered. Few occupations are as dangerous as the prophetic, precisely because they tell people what they already know but don’t want to hear.
A small mistake at the beginning will lead to a large problem farther on, as Aristotle noted. A deviation of one degree at the start will create an obtuse angle after a while, leading us in the opposite direction of where we ought to be going. Course corrections can still be made, but it sometimes requires stopping our momentum, turning around, and back tracking. Stubborn creatures that we are, most of us would rather keep going in the wrong direction than have to tear up all of our work and start over—which is not a bad definition of the modern notion of “progress.” To state the obvious, to state the principle that set us on our way in the first place, is necessary if we are to turn away from the shiny objects that distract us and reach our intended destination.
With this all having been said, it can be hoped that the following words will not be summarily dismissed as “obvious,” but can serve as a reminder of what we are about in the midst of all of our battles—in other words, what we are fighting for.
God created human beings to enter into loving communion with him, to be incorporated into Christ and transformed by the grace merited by his passion, death, and resurrection into adopted sons and daughters of God, that we might become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That is our end, our purpose, our reason for being.
To aid us in reaching that end, Christ gave us the Church, founded on the pillars of the apostles, who charged their successors the bishops to carry on the task appointed to them by Christ: to teach, govern, and sanctify his people—to lead them into the truth and protect them from error, to order the affairs of the community, and to dispense the sacraments, the means of grace—the gift of God’s own life.
We need this because we are fallen creatures, with a tendency to sin, to put ourselves before God, our own desires before God’s desires for us, our own thoughts before God’s thoughts. Our wills, intellects, and passions are disordered, and need the help of God’s grace to be brought back into harmony. Ideally, we would know the truth of things, desire the good, and choose the means to achieve it, thus living out God’s love. This is the task of our everyday lives.
This is the outline of our situation—all points that are or should be “obvious” to us. These are the stakes over which we fight our internecine quarrels. We battle over doctrinal formulations because words matter: they shape our thoughts which guide our actions. The truth sets us free, and error enslaves us to a false view of the world. We battle over Church discipline because the rules we set for ourselves are a reflection of what we understand to be true about reality and good for human beings, so that some disciplinary changes could in fact be reflective of a false view of the world, and thus would not be in accord with the love of God. We battle over the celebration and reception of the sacraments because they are our sources of divine life, the medicine that heals our souls. And like any medicine, if taken incorrectly, they can actually do us harm—if taken while not in the state of grace, if celebrated in inappropriate ways that drive people away from the Church rather than drawing them to it, and so on.
Let this serve as a reminder to all. To those who roll their eyes at the “liturgy wars,” or eschew doctrinal discussions as needless hair-splitting, or are all too willing to throw virtuous babies out with disciplinary bathwater, remember the stakes involved: nothing less than the salvation of souls. Watering down the truth and relaxing certain disciplines will have the same effect on our spiritual health that a crash diet and no exercise will on our physical health: it will leave us malnourished and atrophied. Likewise, let those whose fight for truth and virtue remember that pride is at the root of all sin and a danger to us all, and that they must take care not to put their own self-satisfaction in their position overwhelm their regard for their neighbor’s well-being and salvation, that truth expressed without charity will bear no fruit in another’s life, that rituals and disciplines practiced without form or devotion really can become vain repetitions—in short, that while “Pharisee” can be a lazy charge, it can also be an accurate one.
This may seem obvious, but someone has to say it.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Sermon on the Mount” painted by Carl Bloch in 1876.