Monday, January 02, 2012

What are Christians for?

Yasmin Alibai-Brown is quite right: Christianity truly does deserve better worshippers. I'm sure that the late Christopher Hitchens would disagree with this statement. He would see Christianity as being the problem and not the solution. In his eyes, God is not great because of the wicked things his disciples do. Perhaps this doesn't do justice to Hitchens' rather colourful objections to religion. Certainly the whole problem of evil is something that humanity in its entirety has been struggling with since the time it was able to decide between Good and Evil. There are no answers to the problem of Evil. The Bible certainly doesn't offer anything to answer why Evil should exist -the book of Job asks more questions than it actually answers.

However, that's the point of the book of Job! It gives this wonderful language which allows humanity to discuss the problem. We have here the framework of at least discussing the problem meaningfully. That much of the book is poetry helps us to explore meaning with the four ways of interpreting Holy Scripture : literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. I suspect that some people think that poetry is just pretty words put together to wrench feelings from the beleaguered heart! I know that my poet friend Ed Pacht would disagree with that outlook! Poetry tells the truth not just by the words by the structure of how the words are put together.

Theodicy demands a turning away from the glib. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar do present standard but intellectually glib answers for why Job is suffering. This is why they are heavily criticised at the end of the book. While the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God and the existence of evil are not mutually contradictory, there are still questions to be answered, indeed there are still questions that need to be asked. Further, the language for these questions needs to be found and used.

It seems to me to be part of the high esteem that God has for His Children that He stands back n order for us to become what He intended us to be. But this way? Why? I've got ideas but they are far from incomplete. What will help me to complete them? Well I suspect that this is why God permits atheism and agnosticism, because it is in entering into this dialogue that the questions get hammered out. Neither side will let the other off the hook - this is a good thing! One ought, however, to be very careful.

The trouble with this is that, if this dialogue is done aggressively with harsh ridicule, straw men and ad hominem attacks, then the defensive reflex is engaged. Intellectual pride and triumphalism infect the dialogue badly and cause ill-feeling on both sides. Yes we can be "absolutely right", but if our manner of being "absolutely right" belittles those who are "absolutely wrong" then any perceived "victory" is Pyrrhic. Disagreements between Christians are inevitable, but it is how those disagreements are handled that can either reveal the Christian nature or for the fallen-ness of its practitioners. What begins with different viewpoints becomes a brawl.

There are two senses of the question "What are Christians for?" I had intended to ask the question in the sense of "what are Christians for?" as opposed to "what are Christians against?" I seem to have strayed into the teleological question for the existence of Christians - what purpose do Christians serve?

The two senses are not unrelated. All Christians are for humanity and for God, and they are called to mediate and communicate these sympathies. It's how we present our sympathy for each other and for God that makes the difference to our raison d'ĂȘtre. Our fallen nature makes this difficult. Hitchens loathed Blessed Theresa of Calcutta on the grounds that he believed her to be a fanatic a fundamentalist and a fraud, more keen on opening convents than caring for the sick. There may well be some truth in this and Mother Theresa will have to answer for any inadequacies before God, but this also raises the question whether less religious organisations are any different from this.

It seems that there is a competitive nature to dialogue and that this nature is escalating into a desire to obliterate the opposition. All humanity works for the eradication of Evil. This is a vain enterprise since each of us possesses some fallibility. The eradication can only come with the Kingdom of God - as I believe as a Christian. I don't understand how the atheist or agnostic see the end of evil, principally because I do not yet understand how an atheist or agnostic views morality beyond what amounts to subjective decisions. If it is Religion that gives humanity the language for what Evil is and to find the questions that address the suffering of innocent human beings, then its eradication is not a good thing. History shows that the Western society is based on Abrahamic morality. One may question where the Decalogue came from and how its articles evolved socially, but that Decalogue was expressed in a religious framework first and foremost, not in a manner intrinsic to human thought.

With Christianity subdivided into Catholic and non-Catholic, "Catholic" and "Protestant", et c, it seems that these divisions take us out of the realm of dialogue and into competition for souls. This is natural: if we believe that we are right, then we publish our findings even as good scientists do. If we convince people of our rectitude then all well and good, but if we start coercing people to believe, then we have lost the nature of God which allows dissent. In the U.K. proselyting does not work and seeks only to drive people further away. The more that it becomes apparent that this battle is taking place within Christianity then all the more that those outside will remember the words of the Lord which have permeated even their understanding - "a house divided against itself cannot stand".

Each individual needs to examine his walk with other Christians. There is often a great deal more of what we are for than what we are against. While there is a necessity for a walking apart, that doesn't mean that we should exempt ourselves from opportunities to spend some time walking together, nor to exclude others from opportunities for which we are responsible. A "Churches Together" initiative is always worth supporting even if it puts us into the same arena as those whose expressions of Christianity are markedly different from what we know. One can take the attitude that we are in dialogue with "heretics". The word may be apposite and completely appropriate, but it is often used without just cause and too frequently in a pejorative sense whether or not it is justified. Again, we need to see what we are both for, rather than spend all our time on our conflicts.

What to do? We may have a clear idea of our identity in Christ, but that identity is only ever crystallised in the lens of what others make for us. As St Thomas Aquinas would see it, all our desires have their end in God and all matter has goodness in its very substance. We therefore have a duty to be grateful for the interaction that we have with our detractors, dissenters and our "heretics" - this will not destroy who we are provided that we hold tight to the Faith of Christ - such interaction provides us with a framework for conversation with God. If we are strong enough, we could take St Thomas' view of theodicy and see even our sufferings as drawing us nearer to God and be thankful for them. This may also be just as glib as Job's comforters, but how else are we going to find the language to ask God that question?


edpacht1 said...

If I am right, I do need to hold to what I believe to be right -- but if my rightness turns into a reason to think myself better than any other person, no matter how wrong that person may be, then, at that very moment my rightness, no matter how beautiful or true, becomes the occasion of a grievous sin. St. Paul spoke strongly on many issues, confident that he did indeed have God's truth -- but he was able to say, and mean, "...sinners, of whom I am chief."

To be puffed up with delusions of righteousness is to become no better than a whitewashed sepulchre, full of dead men's bones. To allow the truth to show me that I am as bad as the worst, but that Jesus loves me anyhow, is to be put into the place where I can receive His forgiveness and go on.


Fr Anthony said...

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