Are we playing at religion?

I’ve started reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again. It is a dated book, but only in ways that are not terribly important. I find it a wonderful book. To the extent I can, I am going to share some reflections from reading through it, perhaps as a way to restore life to this moribund blog.

To begin, a quotation from the first section of the book:

God is the only comfort. He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. … Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing at religion.

One thing that strikes me about so much religiosity I encounter is how little it regards the “terror” side of the above equation. In the church, we seem unaware of the the fact that if God is ultimate goodness, and expects us to be good, we are in a bad way.

In his book, Lewis begins with two foundational claims. First, that we as human beings believe that there is such as thing as right and wrong. We have the sense that there is a way that other people ought to behave toward us — not out of mere social convention but because it is “the right thing to do” — and we are upset when people do what is wrong. Lewis’ second point is that we ourselves often fail to act toward others in the very ways we believe they ought to act toward us. In other words, we believe in right and wrong, and we often do what is wrong.

Of course, we often justify our wrong acts. We come up with lots of reasons why it is okay to cheat a particular person or institution, why it is okay to lie, even why it is okay to commit violence against someone else, but we do not rest easy in our justifications. Indeed, the fact that we feel the need to justify such actions is often all the proof we need that we know we have done wrong. You do not need to offer excuses for why you do the right thing, after all.

Lewis argues that the source of this sense of right and wrong  is God and this sense is itself evidence of God. (You can read the book to get the full argument. I am not doing it justice in this short summary.) At this point in the book, Lewis is not arguing for a Christian conception of God. He is merely arguing that we bear within us testimony to existence of a right and wrong that is beyond human creation and above our control. The vast majority of human beings throughout time have shared the conviction that there is a moral order, that a god or gods expect humans to live in accord with it, and that there are consequences for failing to do so. We long for those consequences for other people. We often reject the notion that they should apply to us. We imagine standing before God and inexplicably are not the least bit weak in the knees.

All of this leads me to ask, “How many of us in the church today are still merely playing at religion?”

How many of us have ever seriously contemplated the fact that if God stands resolutely against the wicked, he stands resolutely against us?

Sure, we have all our excuses. My wickedness, my selfishness, my sinfulness is not as bad as someone else. It’s not like I am Adolph Hitler. Or the wrongs I do are justified by some harm I have suffered or some defect that I cannot control. In the end, we tell ourselves, if God is good then that means he will ignore my sins even as he punishes the sins of others, the ones who really deserve it.

We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of God and refuse to the possibility that there might be some terror involved in coming face-to-face with a holy and good God.

We who remember what it felt like to dread having to confess to our parents some petty childhood wrong we had done think we will stand at ease in the light of God’s goodness without the least bit of worry or fear.

As Lewis says, we are playing at religion.

It is for good reason that the Bible tells us that the beginning of all wisdom is the fear of God. We should be afraid. We know our own hearts. Only if we have known the grace of holy fear of God can we truly know the grace of the relief and comfort from those fears. Yes, I am paraphrasing John Newton. I hope next time I sing his hymn, I do not gloss too lightly over that line: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved.”

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The folly of Christianity

If we have lost our concepts we have done so because we are living lives that make sense even if Jesus was not raised from the dead. But he was raised. (Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology)

Like so many things Stanley Hauerwas has written, the quote above strikes me as true and leaves me puzzled about how to apply what he has written to Christian ministry in actual churches with the people we find there. What does it mean, after all, to live a life that makes sense only if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead? Hauerwas seems to think the answer to questions like that are so obvious that they do not need to be explained.

My hunch is this. I suspect that what he is advocating is a life that could only be called a “good” life if Jesus Christ is Lord and the promises of Christianity are true. In other words, it cannot be a life that you would call good by the standards of contemporary American culture or ancient Roman pagan culture or any other culture that does not take as its center point Jesus Christ.

What Hauerwas is calling for, I think, and what gets so many people uncomfortable with him, is a life fundamentally at odds with what most Americans would describe as living the good life. The dream of many Americans is to live a life centered on what gives them pleasure, including the pleasure of feeling like they are being a good person when they share some of their time and their money helping those who are “less fortunate.”

Hauerwas argues that such hedonism — even if it is a soft hedonism that we feel slightly awkward about at times — is at odds with Christianity on a fundamental level. Christian life is about serving a Lord who said, “Deny yourself and follow me” and “turn the other cheek” and “do not lay up treasures on earth.” Those commands make no sense to us and they are foolish to follow unless, it turns out, that the one who said them really is Lord of Lord and King of Kings.

 

Plucking souls from the fire

This morning, I was reading part of John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” In this work, he includes plea to sinners who rush headlong and continuously away from God and into sin.

Think a little for once. What is it you are doing? Why should you destroy yourself? I could not use the worst enemy I have in the world as you use yourself. Why should you murder yourself inch by inch? Why should you burn yourself alive? O spare your own body at least, if you will not have pity for your soul! But have you a soul then? Do you really believe it? What, a soul that must live for ever! O spare thy soul! Do not destroy thy own soul with an everlasting destruction! It was made for God. Do not give it into the hands of that old murderer of men! Thou canst not stupify it long. When it leaves the body, it will awake and sleep no more. Yet a little while, and it launches out into the great deep, to live, and think, and feel for ever. And what will cheer thy spirit there, if thou hast not a drop of water to cool thy tongue? But the die is not yet cast: Now cry to God, and iniquity shall not be thy ruin.

I am reminded in reading this that Wesley’s ministry and passion was stirred by a clear and specific theology, one that is not in favor in many Christian gatherings in the United States today. Wesley, in short, believed in eternal torment of the damned.

Now, an NT Wright would point out to us that Wesley’s picture of souls disembodied misses the good news of resurrection. A Rob Bell will attempt to drive us with beautiful questions to doubt that anyone would ever be condemned for eternity. More than a few United Methodist pastors I know would point out that Wesley had bad relationships with women and was a dictator in the Methodist movement.

All these are worthy of note, but they also all seem to miss an important point.

When we look at Wesley’s ministry, we cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer intensity and energy with which he set about his task. Here was a man driven by the conviction that men and women all around him were leaping into eternal torment, and he must do everything he could to pull as many back from the pit as he possibly could.

Many among us these days might make fine arguments about his theological or psychological faults, but I wonder how many of us would dare compare our energy and passion with his.