I once watched as two housecleaners disagreed about vacuum cleaners. One said Miele was better but the other said Dyson was better. They went back and forth, each bringing forth an anecdote to prove that her own vacuum was superior, but neither convinced the other. Then the Miele advocate stopped, because she knew that if it went any further, it would get ugly.
Nowadays, you can kind of get away with saying that one product is better than another, or that such-and-such a band or reality television show is better than another.
But when it comes to the really important things, like religion and belief systems, well, you can’t even get started. These topics are off limits, verboten. It’s an unstated rule that anybody who knows anything must not speak of such things, and we cordon them off: beyond this line, you must not go. We can discuss anything else under the sun except the things that really matter. So long as it doesn’t matter, we can talk about it. That’s why nowadays we can talk in a casual manner about every aspect of human sexuality, because we’ve pushed it into the category of things that don’t matter. The only things you’re allowed to be earnest about are the trivial things. About the serious things, you can only joke.
But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere condemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day . . . we will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: ‘The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.’ We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters – except everything.
– G.K. Chesteron, Heretics, Chapter 1
It’s partly because of relativism. The dominant assumption is that truth depends on your point of view, and that, in general, all religions and belief systems are pretty much equal. It’s a flattening out of everything, in a false equality. You can’t say that one idea or set of ideas is better than another. Use the word ‘better’ at your own risk! After all, those who utter this word prove that they are judgmental, arrogant and, of course, wrong.
And then this spills over into other areas, where we are afraid to say that one student is better than another student (hence the assigning of grades is now considered damaging and outdated), and we of course can’t say that one person is more talented than another person, except in the context of a TV contest. If you were to say that, then you’d be quickly corrected. Someone will point out: “Ah, but everyone’s good at something; everyone has their special talent!”
Is everyone good at something? Does everyone have that special talent? Are we all kind of the same that way? You’ve got your thing, and I’ve got my thing?
I don’t really think so (even though I think that many people are a lot more talented than they realize) and for a long time, I’ve disagreed – secretly of course – that things are so neat and tidy like that.
The whole issue of talents seems to me way more messy and complicated. Indeed, from what I can tell, talents are like almost anything else on this side of heaven: distributed very unevenly, like fresh water or any other natural thing. Some people have a lot, and others don’t.
I mean, you don’t have to know much history to know that there were some people who were head-and-shoulders above their contemporaries. And when we consider the people that we’ve met in our own lives, it’s easy to bring to mind individuals who are incredibly gifted. These individuals could barely choose a profession because their gifts were so diverse. Shall I pursue a career as a physician or as a concert pianist? Physical engineering or ballet? Go to any medical school or law school and you’ll find that many of the students are also athletic, attractive and really likeable. And JustOne and I have on occasion talked about how, on the whole, the stereotype about the unintelligent athlete is inaccurate (after all, outward health, beauty and ability can signal inward health and mental balance). But in any case, these talented people have so much of everything, they’re almost unbelievable – except, they are real, and we’ve met them.
Turning to the other end of the spectrum, to those who, from birth or from later in life, have suffered with various disabilities or who seem generally less talented, it is futile for me to argue that they do not have at least one special talent (it’s always impossible to argue definitively against the existence of something; I don’t know how atheists can be so sure). After all, we can redefine ‘talent’ to include latent talent, hidden talent, unused talent, undeveloped talent, compromised talent, damaged talent, area of strength, area of interest, so that the statement continues to be true, but my point is that the saying emphasizes and suggests sameness, when the reality is difference. The reality is that the distribution looks pretty much haphazard, and, to be frank, unfair: one person can do so much so well, and another person can barely do one thing to the level of his peers.
When we deny the differences, when we flatten them out and pretend they’re insignificant, we do not tell the truth about those people who have been blessed with superabundant talent. And conversely, when we deny the differences, we do not tell the truth about those people who started out with very few, or no, visible talents. Does every biography begin the same way? Does every story of a saint’s life begin by identifying the person’s primary talent and then build from there? Of course not. There are those saints like Pope John Paul II who were multi-talented, but then there are saints like St. Joseph Cupertino who were not. Everyone is given very different internal and external components from conception. God’s talent, so to speak, is in raising up saints from every starting point. The apostles’ ordinariness, for example, is an essential part of the New Testament narrative for many reasons, including the fact that it shows how we can be completely transformed when we follow God’s plan for our lives. A genuine relationship with God will always involve “total regeneration. His spirit is too new, too vigorous, to be forced into old moulds, which are ceasing to be the proper ones.” (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 9:14-17)
But the other thing that I dislike about this idea of equality of talent is that it seems to carry within it the notion that people should have (at least) one talent. I think it over-values talent, and it’s a way of saying that everybody is special because they’re equally talented. You have a special talent, and I have one, therefore you’re special and I’m special. The idea is that everyone brings something to the table, everyone is contributing something. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a negative, but I think it’s an unfortunate mix-up.
It’s a mix-up that our modern society would tend to make, because we do value people based on their abilities and usefulness. It’s becoming dangerous in our society to be seen as not productive. The disabled, the elderly, the unborn, the unemployed, are vulnerable in a society that measures you by what you can do and by what you have, materially and otherwise, instead of by what you are. And this is becoming increasingly the case. (Hence it’s not considered a bad thing to be busy, because that means you’re part of the game.) People are more and more being evaluated for their functionality and features, as if they were vacuum cleaners. It’s no wonder then that we rush to say everyone’s got their gift.
And furthermore, it’s a mix-up that our modern society tends to make, which is to say something false because we so badly want to say something good and true. We say something stupid, like men and women are the same, because we want to say men and women are equal. It’s true that they are equal, but it’s not because they are the same. There is equality even where there is difference.
After all, if two things are not different, then it’s a piece of cake, to say that they are equal. Being somewhat lazy, then, we keep looking at things that are obviously different and saying, ‘these are the same’ because then we can just move to the desired conclusion, and say they’re of equal value or worth. It’s back to the fear of saying that something is better than something else.
That’s why the teaching of the church is startling. The church teaches that the equality of persons persists despite the differences. A slave is equal to his master. A woman is equal to a man. A child is equal to an adult. An unborn child is equal to a born child.
If there were no differences, then it wouldn’t be so shocking to say these different people are equal. And it is shocking. The Church always sounds shocking in what she teaches, because the teachings are not in accord with the current fashions of thought. In one era of human history, people did not see that a slave was equal to a master, and so we scorn the blindness of that era. Do we acknowledge how Christianity enabled that thought process to take place? Meanwhile, in our current age, it seems outrageous to claim, as the Church does, that the unborn child over here is equal to that child prodigy over there. It seems outrageous to claim, as the Church does, that the old woman with a feeding tube over here is equal to the Hollywood darling over there. We have our modern blindness.
The Church’s claim brings our attention to something deeper. How can these people be equal if they are superficially so different? How can that promising, well-rounded Rhodes Scholar be considered of the same worth as the unemployed beggar who sits near the bank machines? Aside from the fact that life can amazingly change the one into the other, the Church will answer that it’s because their equality arises from something more profound than their external circumstances or even their different internal qualities.
And here’s the crux of it. Our abilities are, at the end of the day, just something that we have, not who we are. Our talents are always in flux, waxing and waning as we journey through life. They are subject to all the limitations of our human bodies and can be irreversibly lost to us when we cross the street at the wrong moment. No, this is not the source of our value. These things can be as different as day and night, and we remain utterly equal to each other.
It doesn’t matter that there is incredible disparity and inequality in the raw materials of our lives, because our equality arises from our equal dignity as human beings. That’s what we are: human, with body and soul, no more, no less, and that’s enough. It’s nothing shocking or scandalous to point out all the ways that we’re different, and we can even celebrate these differences, provided that we keep in mind that we are nevertheless completely equal because we have equal dignity.
The biblical parable about the talents illustrates how different we are in what we’ve been given, but it also shows that the call or invitation is the same to each of us: to serve our master with purity of intention and to the best of our ability. This call does not depend on how ‘good’ or ‘great’ we are. “When God calls us, he does not expect us to have great qualities; he wants us to listen carefully, and to be prompt in our response” (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matthew 9:9-13