Apologetical Weapons: Benison

Anyone who has spent time at one of the more established Christian or theist blogs will have experienced the angry atheist troll, who makes his first appearance in any comment thread spitting bitter bile and frothing at the mouth with rage, hurling contemptuous insults and heaping scorn on the other participants. Nothing can so quickly cause an edifying thread to devolve to a wrestling match in the gutter, with lots of hissing and scratching. It’s unseemly. 

This happened a fair bit over at Throne & Altar, bonald’s site (which, if you are interested in the Orthospherical weltanschauung, you should definitely check out – he has a precious trove of writings posted over there, many of which have been formative for Christian Reaction). Not that bonald attracted a lot of trolls because he deserved it; on the contrary, it seems to me that there is a direct relation between the importance and seriousness of a theist site and the number of trolls it must suffer (which, if right, must mean either that Orthosphere is neither serious nor important enough to bother with, or that we are just too new to have been noticed yet; or probably both). A couple months ago I suggested over there that we should always respond to such folks with blessings:

After the devolution of the Why Worship God thread at fafsa’s instigation, I was thinking of suggesting that all such trolleries be met with a simple, “Bless you, sir.” So as to heap coals, you see.

All of us – even such lovely, open-hearted people as fafsa – are subject now and then to the temptation to troll …

In all seriousness, we ought to pray for fafsa, whose hateful comments are the outward manifestation of an inner life of what must at some level be horrible torment.

“Heaping coals” refers of course to Proverbs 25:21-22:

21  If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:
22  for thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.

Paul discussed this proverb in Romans 12:20:

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

As with so many hard sayings of Scripture, atheists love to jump on these passages and crow over how cruel is our God. But as usual, they forget to consult the meaning of Scripture. Fire throughout the Bible is a symbol of God’s immense power, which is coterminous with his very being, and that appears under different aspects to different people: as love, which is balm to the sanctified, and as wrath, which is torment to the impure. To wit:

  • The LORD is like a refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2).
  • The Holy Spirit settled on the disciples at Pentecost, or Weeks, in tongues or halos of flame (Acts 2:1-6).
  • The tongues of flame that flower on the branches of the world tree, the Menorah, that stands in apostolic sanctuaries (if only in the form of the six candles on the altar, three on either side of the central light, which is the cross or crucifix), are the six seraphim, burning dragons who stand forever about the throne of their King, the Great Angel and Light of all lights, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, LORD, God of the Angel Host of Heaven,” (Isaiah 6:1-3) to YHWH the Logos who is the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai on the day commemorated at the Festival of Weeks – an experience so glorious that it caused Moses to glow with a halo of uncreate light, so that he had to wear a veil (Exodus 34:29-35). [Sorry this bullet ran on so long, but there is a lot of symbolism packed into the Menorah – this isn’t a tenth part of it.]
  • When Isaiah the Merkavah mystic ascended to Heaven, a seraph took a live coal from the altar and touched it to his lips, healing his iniquity and purging his sin (Isaiah 6:6-7).

Many more examples could be adduced.

So we see two things: First, that Christianity and Judaism are deeply spooky religions – odd, terrifying, aweful, and glorious, all at the same time. Second, that when Solomon and Paul speak of heaping burning coals on the heads of our adversaries by returning good for evil, they mean to indicate that in our charity toward our adversaries we ourselves effectually perform an office of the seraphim, and that our charity will work to their ultimate, palmary good – to, i.e., their sanctification, and their salvation. As the Amplified Bible noted of this passage from Proverbs:

This is not to be understood as a revengeful act intended to embarrass its victim, but just the opposite. The picture is that of the High Priest (Leviticus 16:12) who, on the Day of Atonement, took his censer and filled it with ‘coals of fire’ from off of the altar of burning offering, and then put incense on the coals to create a pleasing, sweet-smelling fragrance. The cloud or smoke of the incense covered the mercy seat and was acceptable to God for atonement. Samuel Wesley wrote – ‘So artist melt the sullen ore of lead / By heaping coals of fire upon its head / In the kind warmth the metal learns to glow / And pure from dross the silver runs below.’

OK: but do blessings ameliorate angry atheists? I tried it out a few days later on the aforementioned fafsa, and sure enough it did. He weighed in with a series of angry, sarcastic, extremely intelligent and quite funny comments. Bonald responded courteously, and they went back and forth for a while in that vein: bonald irenic and responsive, fafsa derisive and responsive. Eventually, I commented, “My God bless and keep fafsa.”  Fafsa responded:

Well, He wasn’t planning on it, but now that Kristor has typed the magic incantation on an obscure blog, I’m sure God has no choice but to obey. Whew. Thanks Kris. I dodged a close one. … BTW, bonald, I think it’s pretty clear that while I try to offer logical, productive critiques, it is your fan boys who turn to ad hominem and to patronizing tripe on the dime. That does not speak well of your following. Again.

Bonald replied:

Hello fafsa,

Hanging around Christians does entail the danger that people will try to bless you. Just remember that we’re trying to wish you well in our own way, even if – as you believe – that way is thoroughly misguided.

And then I replied:

@ fafsa: no snarkiness intended, honest. I’m praying for you, and wish you well. It seems to me that you are trying your hardest, in the way that seems best to you.

My prayer was not meant to change God’s mind about anything. Christians don’t believe that’s really possible, as you must know, remembering your education. We believe God is *already* blessing and keeping you. If he wasn’t, you would not exist.

[I went on with some of my wonted theological talk, and then closed by saying:]

So, when I pray to God that he bless and keep you, my hope is that the benison of my prayer – having been delivered to you in just the right way through the mediation of the Field of all fields, who knows your heart better than you do – might, by subtly salving your wound at the margin of your suffering, allow you to understand your life as a gratuitous blessing. I intend, i.e., myself to love you. If this all works – there are any number of reasons why it might not – you might then also find the emotional wherewithal to understand us your interlocutors as fellow seekers after truth, however misguided. Then, you might want to share with us some of your own hard-won insights.

If that should happen, we could all learn from each other, instead of hurting each other more and more.

I hope you are happy, and feel yourself at bottom a welcome, well-beloved son.

Thanks for your intelligent comments. However hurtful they have often been, they are also generally quite funny.

And this totally changed the tenor of things for fafsa. It was as if a veil of bitter anger had been lifted from before his eyes, and he replied in a quite courteous, indeed friendly tone. He apologized to me most graciously, engaged with my theological points in an open minded way, and closed by saying, “Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for blessing me, regardless of my own feelings about the efficacy of the latter.” He opened up. We talked to each other, rather than yelling at each other. It became pleasant. I found that I liked him. 

I have to tell you, this made me feel great. Not because I vanquished fafsa – I didn’t, nor did I want to – or because I was all virtuous and Christian – how I wish I were! – but because my honest blessing seems really to have blessed him with some surcease from torment, at least for a while. Can there be anything better, than to feel that you might have been the occasion for a suffering fellow creature of some small salve?

Give it a shot. What do you have to lose? And, how much might you and your adversary both gain?

But, NB: you have to mean it. Before you utter your blessing online, you have to prayerfully intend it. Your prayer must be real. And you must offer it up to God with a whole heart, before you begin to type it out. The online record of your prayer must be like an echo resounding in a vast nave. And for any of this to happen, you must first love your enemy.

********************

Post Scriptum: fafsa, if you are reading this, I earnestly hope you don’t mind my using this episode as evidence of the power of charity. I greatly enjoyed our short colloquy, and would be glad to take it up again, on any subject you choose to discuss.

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One thought on “Apologetical Weapons: Benison

  1. But, NB: you have to mean it. Before you utter your blessing online, you have to prayerfully intend it. Your prayer must be real. And you must offer it up to God with a whole heart, before you begin to type it out. The online record of your prayer must be like an echo resounding in a vast nave. And for any of this to happen, you must first love your enemy.

    Exactly. Otherwise, your opponent would reasonably read it as, “I’ll pray for you and the horse you rode in on.”

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