Leaving the Curmudgeon Behind
“The Constructive Curmudgeon” was the name of a blog I had for a number of years, starting in 2005. (It is still accessible online, although dormant.) I had called myself a curmudgeon for years, but I wanted to avoid being a mere nay-sayer or pestering pessimist. Thus, a constructive curmudgeon, I thought, would sound out idols, dismantle pretense, and say what others knew but would not say, as in “The emperor has no clothes.” A constructive curmudgeon is something of a prophet, discerning hidden irrationality and self-interest in the name of truth. I enjoyed the book, The Portable Curmudgeon for this reason.
Further, a curmudgeon would summon us to a higher standard and try (when possible) to re-construct what he was called to de-construct (not in the Jacque Derrida sense). So, if I critiqued a contemporary practice in the church (such as multi-site churches) I offered something better (on-site pastors). I hope I usually kept a good sense of humor and didn’t take myself too seriously. However, I was sometimes (or often) bitter and peevish, being annoyed at too many things that did not matter that much. In this, there was no room for Christian love.
Why would I even own the title curmudgeon? I care about precision on thought and language. I am not an aesthetic relativist; some music, painting, poetry, and literature are better than others—and I wasn’t afraid to say so and why. Some arguments—even when used by Christians—are bad and need to be refuted. Better arguments need to be given. Lazy thinking and speaking needs reform, and I am a reformer (I hope).
Curmudgeons may use ridicule, sarcasm, and overstatement in their complaints and condemnations. These have a place in the virtuous soul, but may incline one to be acerbic and acrimonious. Grammarians can easily become so high-minded that they become highfaluting and haughty. One book of grammatical rebuke is called The Dimwit’s Dictionary. Little charity is found therein.
I’ll keep my old blog on line with its original name, The Constructive Curmudgeon, but I am resigning the title of curmudgeon, since it doesn’t fit who I am becoming as a Christian. I will continue to be a stickler on spoken and written language, especially with my students, who pay my school to learn to be better commutators. I will continue to check footnotes for accuracy of style. (The record so far is seven mistakes in one footnote.) I am a philosopher, so I will continue to seek out and try to refute bad arguments—especially bad arguments about what matters most, such as God, salvation, and morality. However, I sense myself changing, and want to change more.
Cultivating and practicing love, as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13, does not leave much room for curmudgeonly habits. If love is “patient and kind” it is not impatient or cruel. I have often said, “I have no patience for this garbage,” before ridiculing the garbage-producer. I should be gentle instead. A good curmudgeonly insult can also produce pride, which is antithetical to love. Curmudgeonly critique can easily become “arrogant and rude,” two more traits incompatible with love. Rather, I must “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Love does not “insist on its own way” and is, thus, not irritable.
Curmudgeons pride themselves on their taste, not merely their knowledge. As T. S. Eliot put it, “educated taste” is an apt goal (since there are objective aesthetic values), but it need not be worn on the sleeve or used as a weapon. If you like the music of Kenny G or John Tesh, or Yanni (and/or their more contemporary analogues), then I should let that go and be more concerned about your spiritual life (and my pride at being a jazz snob). Curmudgeons may delight in what is wrong, since it gives them a chance to show off their exquisite insults. A powerful insult, such as Churchill’s best, may deflate pride, pretense, or outright lies. Jesus insulted the Scribes and Pharisees, as recorded in Mathew 23. But Jesus was sinless. We are not. Paul writes that love does not delight in what is wrong, but rejoices with the truth. Of course, Jesus did not delight his fiery words.
Being filled with love through the Holy Spirit is better than exercising mere wit, something the devil himself possesses. (Consider how he used Scripture to entice Jesus.) Some of the wittiest put downs are best kept quiet—for the sake of love. Love goes the second mile and blesses its enemies, even those who offend our impeccable tastes. Love covers a multitude of sins—and grievances of taste.
Suffering with my wife through her long and horrible disease made me more sensitive to the suffering of others and made me hungrier to love in the power of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace. . . .” I want to hold my peace more often, build up more than tear down, encourage more than discourage, edify more than criticize. I want to exchange my acids for balm and my sharp tongue for a warm heart. However, I am still planning to write more installments of “How to be an Idiot” but only if it can be done in love.
Gramarians, Dim Wit dictionary. Not a misanthrope. Wit, over statement, peevish