Friday, 2 September 2016
Confessions of an Armchair Christian
I have mentioned before how very difficult I find it to read the works of George MacDonald. After a lengthy rest from them and in a careless moment, I found myself dipping back into the Unspoken Sermons. It was a mistake. George MacDonald, a man writing in the north of Scotland over a hundred years ago nonetheless has a terrible ability to reach down through time and punch me right in the theology.
The particular sermon that I have been struck down by is The Truth in Jesus in Volume 2. In a few pages, he strikes straight at the things that have vaguely concerned me about my own faith, tearing them out and holding them up to the light so that I can see them properly. Frankly, they are not a wholly comforting sight.
I have said before, although possibly not in this blog, that I occasionally worry that my faith is too intellectual. I love the minutiae of theology, I love discussing and debating it. Recently a friend on Facebook shared the interview with Stephen Fry that I attempted to answer in a previous post, and it sparked an extremely lengthy debate that wandered over all sorts of theological territory. I manfully (as I supposed) stepped up to the plate and argued my side of it, explaining my own beliefs and attempting to defend Christianity from the criticisms and questions levelled at it. To what extent I have succeeded in that, I don’t know, but I have been reasonably satisfied with my own performance. I have spent a long time crafting an, in my opinion, rational, intellectually defensible, reasonable (in the truest sense of the word) theology, and then spent some time testing it by explaining and defending it in numerous debates.
Then that terrible mistake of reading George MacDonald. Here is the passage that threw iced water over my self-satisfaction:
“Whatever be your opinions on the greatest of all subjects, is it well that the impression with regard to Christianity made upon your generation should be that of your opinions, and not of something beyond opinion? Is Christianity capable of being represented by opinion, even the best? If it were, how many of us are such as God would choose to present his thoughts and intents by our opinions concerning them? Who is there of his friends whom any thoughtful man would depute to represent his thoughts to his fellows?
If you answer, ‘The opinions I hold and by which I represent Christianity are those of the Bible’, I reply that none can understand, still less represent the opinions of another, but such as are of the same mind with him- certainly none who mistake his whole scope and intent so far as in supposing opinion to be the object of any writer in the Bible. Is Christianity a system of articles of belief, let them be as correct as language can give them? Never.”
He then goes on to say that he would far rather have a person who held any number of obnoxious untruths but lived in the faith of the Son of God than one whose beliefs he agreed with totally, but who didn’t live their faith.
“To hold a thing with the intellect is not to believe it. A man’s real belief is that which he lives by and that which the man I mean lives by is the love of God and obedience to His law so far as he has recognised it. (…) What I come to and insist upon is, that, supposing your theories right, and containing all that is to be believed, yet those theories are not what make you Christians, if Christians indeed you are. On the contrary, they are, with not a few of you, just what keeps you from being Christians. (…) No opinion, I repeat, is Christianity, and no preaching of any plan of salvation is the preaching of the glorious gospel of the living God. (…) I do not say that this sad folly may not mingle a potent faith in the Lord himself; but I do say that the importance they place on theory is even more sadly obstructive to true faith than such theories themselves.”
As I’ve already said, I’ve occasionally wondered whether I don’t over-intellectualise my faith. G.K. Chesterton said that one’s religion should be less of a theory and more of a love affair, but I’m afraid that mine is definitely more of a theory, and I spend a lot of time pondering theological questions and points of apologetics. I hope that my specific beliefs are not too obnoxious, and I also hope that I live my faith at least occasionally (when I remember to), but nonetheless I am keenly aware that my Christianity is theoretical rather than visceral.
I am also aware that when I take up my Keyboard of Justice and attempt to defend Christianity from its detractors and critics, I am wholly failing to do so. Straw man arguments of the most ludicrous sort are a very common tool of angry online atheists who portray Christianity as a grotesque caricature of itself, and then wonder why anyone would believe it. I have realised that I myself have done something not entirely dissimilar. I end up not defending Christianity, but theology, and as a result end up portraying the theology as Christianity. “Is it well that the impression with regard to Christianity made upon your generation should be that of your opinions, and not of something beyond opinion?” It is not well at all, Mr. MacDonald.
Part of the problem is that we are born into a culture in which the ruling paradigm is scientific. The objections raised against Christianity tend to be scientific ones, or at least based on a scientific notion of rationalism, and therefore the arguments against these objections are couched in the same terms. Rational objections are raised, and therefore we feel that we must offer rational answers. I have said before in this blog that Christianity is not rational (or rather perhaps, not rationalistic; there is more to be said on this, probably elsewhere), but such an answer would not only not satisfy these detractors, it would make them think that there was no answer at all.
I think that this will probably bear a whole other blog post to chew over, but to return to my main point for this post, have I ended up crafting this splendid rational model, and then had the foolish temerity to make out that it is Christianity. Christianity isn’t thought or deduced or calculated, it is lived and breathed and acted. It is easy to forget this in the joys of mental gymnastics.
They (whoever they are) say that the first step towards solving a problem is to admit that it exists. Despite the overall tone of this post, I am not overly interested in self-flagellation, sack-cloth and ashes. I will always maintain that Christianity is not and has never been about making people feel bad about themselves, or afraid of either God or whatever might come hereafter. It is about self-awareness in the most empowering and optimistic way. I do not think that I am a terrible person, just not necessarily a very good Christian. I try to live by the teachings and tents of Christ, and I occasionally even succeed briefly, but I spend far more time pondering the theory (and with no guarantees that I’m even getting that right) than I do thinking of how I can set about the practice. It’s a struggle. When I see people online hurling vitriol at my faith, I feel duty-bound to defend it lest they assume that there is no defence, but in doing so I am forced onto a field and into a defence which do not suit the subject.
I find that I am mostly an armchair Christian, an amateur Christian theoretician, which is to say not a very good Christian at all. Well then, as long as I remember that, and aim upwards, things should come right. I won’t attempt to theorise about the how, I’ll just try and believe in the result.