End Notes: Talking in Ranks

Kierkegaard tells the story of the raw recruit who is chattering in ranks after his platoon has come to silent attention. The sergeant repeats, “Silence in the ranks.” The recruit continues to babble. The irate sergeant confronts him. “I said, Silence in the ranks!” “Yes, yes, I understand you perfectly. Your point is that I, and these others, when lined up like this, should cease and desist from talking. An interesting requirement which—” “Shut up!”

The point of the story is to illustrate the way our understanding of something can amount to a misunderstanding. The proper response to an order is to obey it, not theorize about it, analyze it, or talk about it.

The single overall aim of Kierkegaard’s remarkable and ranging literature is to relieve us of the various ways in which we misunderstand what it is to be a Christian. Among the misunderstandings is that which sees Christianity as chiefly an invitation to scholarship, to learned reflection, to sophisticated expertise. But Christ did not become man in order that man might become a theologian. John Henry Cardinal Newman liked to cite St. Ambrose to this effect: Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum. We find this in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua as well as the motto on the title page of An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. lt is towering intellects like Kierkegaard and Newman who see the impediments that can arise from the abuse of intellect. Neither, of course, was advising obscurantism.

In the present mushiness, one can be almost nostalgic for the Enlightenment belief that human reason will encompass the universe and ourselves and display their inner workings like a watch. Philosophers for centuries succeeded one another on the stage offering some new method that would at last permit us to sweep away past error and advance into certified truth. The dashing of these hubristic hopes has a lot to do with our present plight.

A first casualty of rationalism is the realization that reason is a many-splendored thing. Not every use of our mind has the same purpose, and to think so will drive you out of your mind. When we take thought as to what we should do, our thinking is aimed at doing. And doing is not simply deducing something from something else. It is to choose, to decide, to love.

Both Kierkegaard and Newman may be said to stress the difference between changing our minds and changing our lives. Great deeds take time, Newman said, even as he recounted what would seem to be decisive reasons for his actions. More than historical research and theological reflection was required for his conversion: grace, of course. But as well the gradual affective identification with the good already recognized theoretically.

It is dangerous to think there is a decision technique that is independent of the moral quality of agents. Ethics is about the good, the good is the object of will, and unless it is loved with the habitual disposition of the virtues, our particular judgments are likely to go awry. This is because those particular judgments bear on means to the end we presumably love. But what if we don’t? Our judgments will then be guided by what we love instead. Only good people can act well.

Theologians have long been aware of the peculiar dangers of their vocation. It is a special case of the peril of academic life. So many of us who have the privilege of devoting our lives to the true and the good become petty and proud.

All this is relevant to the fraternal correction that has become the favorite indoor sport of Catholics, soon to become an Olympic event. Our clergy and nuns, even alas our bishops, have been exposed as far less than we had wished to think them. Boccaccio seems to have designed the curricula in some seminaries. Perversions appear to be pervasive. Among the legitimate criticisms is the truly pathetic confidence prelates placed in the voodoo of psychology. It is as if sin had become a mental aberration, to be corrected by some secular if not pagan treatment. We waited in vain to hear of prayer and fasting and punishment.

Ah well. We haven’t heard much of those things in the confessional either—or even the reconciliation room. Indignation comes too easily to the disillusioned layperson. And it is bracing to berate bishops. It is also dangerous. These scandals have a purpose. They are invitations to self-examination. Otherwise we shall simply be talking in ranks.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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