The spiritual danger of keeping bad company is a recurring theme in Scripture, and in the writings of the Saints. The Lord says we need vigilance, not openness . . .
A fundamental assumption of our modern discourse is that dialogue, openness, and a free exchange of ideas are intrinsic goods, without limit or qualification.
Closed-mindedness is one of the chief sins in this milieu, and any hint requires swift correction from the appropriate gatekeepers. You even find this same basic assumption in Christian higher learning and among writers who aspire to be viewed as–or at least like to consider themselves–“enlightened.”
You find this principle undergirding, for example, the call for Christians to “re-evaluate” the nature of homosexual relationships, wherein the principle of “listen[ing] to one another’s stories” takes center stage, and replaces listening to God.
You also find it in the call from some quarters for Orthodox Christians to maintain an ecumenical posture of interminable “openness” — despite St. Paul stating rather emphatically that “after admonishing [a heretic] once or twice, have nothing more to do with him; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:11). Helen Andrews recently encountered (and deftly countered) it in her engagement with anti-censorship absolutists.
As I’ve already suggested, this principle can’t withstand the slightest scrutiny from a Christian perspective.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that “he who walks righteously and speaks uprightly” is also he who “stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil” (Is. 33:15-16). In the Wisdom of Sirach we are told to “hedge in thy ears with thorns, hear not a wicked tongue” (Sir. 28:24). Advancing to the New Testament, St. Paul warns: “Do not be deceived: bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Cor. 15:33). When addressing the church at Thessalonika he exhorts to “keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). In his epistle to the Galatians he invites us to treat as accursed (ανάθεμα) anyone preaching a gospel contrary to that of the apostles (Gal. 1:8). Needless to say, this is someone whose openness to foreign or wicked ideas and conversation has definite, hard limitations.
The patristic witness follows the scriptural. Speaking of the heretical Novatians (ca. third century), St. Cyprian of Carthage writes:
Avoid, I beg of you, men of this kind, and keep distant from your flank and from your ears their destructive communications, as you would contact with a contagious death. [1. On the Church: Select Treatises, p. 170]
Striking a similar note over a millennium later, St. Mark of Ephesus writes:
[H]ow shall we regard those moderate Greco-Latins who, maintaining a middle ground, openly favor some of the Latin rites and dogmas—favor, but do not wish to accept others—and entirely disapprove of others? One must flee from them as one flees from a snake, as from the Latins themselves, or, it may be, from those who are even worse than they—as from buyers and sellers of Christ. [2. The Encyclical Letter of St. Mark of Ephesus]
When one turns to the monastic literature of the Church, the spiritual danger of keeping bad company is a recurring and common theme. Indeed, the inception and rise of monasticism itself was driven largely by the zeal of those seeking to flee the corrupting influence of a compromised and worldly Christianity. [3. Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, pp. 8–10]
None of this is to deny the good of dialogue and an open exchange of ideas—at least to a point.
The ancients, pagans as much as Christians, understood the value of dialogue and discourse, but they also understood their limits. Dialogue, discourse, and openness to different perspectives were not ends in themselves–as they have become–but a means for approaching and discerning truth. Much as she has done with “freedom,” the modern world has taken a good thing and hideously distorted it by attempting to transform it into an absolute.
Christians must be vigilant in discerning and distinguishing the Spirit of God from the spirit of this age, which is passing away (cf. 1 Cor. 2:12; 7:31). We must not take our default, inherited assumptions as normative for Christianity, as they could be entirely opposed to it. We must turn to the Holy Scriptures and Councils, to the Holy Fathers and our fathers in the faith, and ultimately to Christ himself in a spirit of prayer, humility, and obedience. This is what all must be judged and measured against.
As is often the case, what is so clear to “the wise, the scribe, the debater of this age” is viewed quite differently, if not contradicted, in the Church, whose Head has made “foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:20).
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