Thursday, 3 July 2014

Comfort, Difficulty and Hope

A frequent criticism levelled at Christianity, or rather at Christians, is that religion is a ‘crutch’ or a ‘comfort blanket’ for the morally weak.  This suggests to me that the people making this claim have only a very basic, ‘Sunday School’ idea of what Christianity is; a ‘Don’t worry, God will sort it all out’ sort of concept of the claims Christianity makes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

For me, Christianity is not an easy thing.  It is very, very hard.  In fact, to live as we are asked to live is virtually impossible.  The things that are asked of us as Christians are so opposed to everything that nature has made us as to be practically unreachable.  John Wesley believed in the possibility of human perfection.  I do too, but I doubt that that possibility will ever be realised.  I certainly have no delusion that I myself will achieve it.  Not on this side of the grave in any case.

I occasionally think I’m doing ok, that I’m a pretty decent chap.  People seem to like me, I’m generally not unpleasant, I do small acts of good every so often, and have committed no great acts of evil.  Then I started reading a difficult book.  Some books, like Don Quixote, I’ve found difficult because they’re dense and rambling, and I’ve taken an approach of reading a few chapters, then going off and reading something much lighter for a bit before coming back to it.  Doing it like this, it took me about a year to read Don Quixote, but I very much enjoyed it.

Quite a while ago, I downloaded ‘Unspoken Sermons’ by George MacDonald to my Kindle.  I’ve read MacDonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblin’, and ‘Phantastes’, both of which are excellent allegorical stories, but ‘Unspoken Sermons’ is very different.  Like Don Quixote, I’ve had to read it in fits and starts, chipping away at it before retreating to read something a little easier, and although I’ve been going for months, I don’t think I’m even halfway through.  MacDonald, a Church of Scotland minister, obviously left a lot of his preaching unsaid!

But unlike with the ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, it is not because it is dense and rambling that I have found it such hard work.  It is dense, it’s true, but mostly it is revealing and challenging.  It outlines very starkly just how difficult, how demanding it is to be a Christian.  I am enjoying the book (gradually), and finding it very thought provoking and inspiring, but mostly I am finding it very hard to take. It reminds how very much further I have to go.

To quote C S Lewis, one of my very favourite authors (and someone who was himself very heavily influenced by MacDonald), “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy’.  I always knew that a bottle of port would do that.  If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

I am aware of the demands put upon me by my faith, and I am aware that I very rarely live up to them, through inertia, accident or (and not as rarely as I would like) deliberate choice.  However, I also very firmly reject the concept, likewise levelled as a criticism, of Christian (or occasionally specifically Catholic) guilt, the idea that Christianity demands that everyone go around thoroughly depressed and guilt-ridden at their wretched, sinful lives.  I do not and cannot believe that this is what God wants.  A sensibility of our short-comings yes, but after all, those shortcomings are merely a part of what makes us human, and there is nothing wrong with being human.

To me, what is wrong is being content to remain human, when there is so much more to be had.  To me, the knowledge of my shortcomings is enlivening and energising.  The very fact that I know I fall short means that I also know that there are heights to be reached and explored and gloried in.  Indeed, other people have reached the foothills of these mountains already, while I linger in the plains and dried-up river beds.  Christianity does not tell us “You are a miserable sinner!” but “You can be a Child of God.”  It does not dwell on the distance left to travel, but on the fact that you are capable of travelling it.  It is optimistic and empowering and strengthening.  As Oscar Wilde said, “We’re all lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

It is what I find somewhat restricting about the solely scientific worldview.  Science tells us “You are an ape.  A clever ape to be sure, an ape that can shape the world according to its whims and even leave the planet on which you live, but an ape you are, and an ape you will be.”  God tells us “You are an ape, but I will make you a man, and, if you let me, I will make you so much more.”

I know that I’m lying in the gutter.  I can see the stars above me, and that is something.  But I also know that I can, with help, reach those stars, and that is something more.  But it is hard, very hard indeed, but that’s alright, because very few things that are truly worth doing are easy.

A third quote for you, this time from G K Chesterton:  "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

Well I cannot honestly claim to have tried.  I’m not even sure that I’ve really tried to try, but I want to, and I hope that that is start enough.

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