Sunday, 19 February 2012

Musings on Christianity and Church

BBC Radio Jersey is asking the question: "Can you be a Christian without reading the Bible or going to Church?" The answer, of course, is obviously that you can be. The real question is: would you want to be?

If you are marooned on a Desert Island, and don't have the advantages of the delightful Kirsty Young to provide you with your favourite music, a luxury, the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, then you can't read the Bible or go to Church. You may be a Christian nonetheless. After all, the term "Christian" means a follower of Christ, and I would have thought that it would be possible to reflect on those parts of the Bible that you did know, and pray, even on a desert island.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is not in fact a Christian, or even religious, when he is stranded on a desert island, although in the world he came from he may have participated in religious observances as a matter of form. He does, however, have a Bible, which is more or less the only thing he has to read, and in reading it, he becomes a Christian who thanks God for saving him, and providing for him, where he has everything he needs but the society of other human beings. His spiritual journey comes about not through listening to sermons in a church but through spending time alone amongst nature with only a Bible to read.

But some men and women in the past have chosen a solitary lifestyle as hermits. They are Christians, but quite obviously did not go to church. One of the most well known is probably St Simeon Stylites (390 - 459 AD). He was a Christian hermit who achieved fame by living for 39 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria. He didn't go to church in that time, either. Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes Simeon's existence as follows:

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion. He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meagre skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty- four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account. The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column

But while this was a solitary existence, he was reading and writing; he had provisions and writing materials lifted up to him, and taken down. Some of those preached against profanity and usury; one imagines he would have sharp words to say to the bankers in today's society. So it is almost certain he would have read the Bible. He seems to have been very forceful in his words, and quite fanatical about his faith as well, and although the crowds came to see and listen to him as a holy man, I'm not sure that he was necessarily a good man. Crowds, after all, do listen to religious fanatics, as we have seen in recent history. The Ayatollah Khomeini was seen by many as a holy man, but he was harsh, fanatic, judgmental and quite willing to call for the assassination of Salman Rushdie. While Stylites never called for anyone to take up weapons, there is an anti-Semitic streak in his letters which is quite unpleasant:

Because in the pride of your heart you have forgotten the Lord your God, who gave you the crown of majesty and the royal throne, and have become a friend and comrade and abettor of the unbelieving Jews; know that of a sudden the righteous judgment of God will overtake you and all those 'who are of one mind with you in this matter. Then you will lift up your hands to heaven, and say in your distress, Of a truth because I dealt falsely with the Lord God this punishment has come upon me."

Other solitaries, however, have been less fanatic. Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich, for example, were English mystics whose existence was solitary, but who did not have quite the same kind of zeal as a Stylites. Nevertheless, because they had withdrawn from the world and the church, they could be critical of both. Rolle, for example, is quite severe in his strictures against the love of money, and the piling up of wealth, as a distraction which takes people away from God.

Truly turning from these goods that in this world deceive their lovers and defend them nought, stands in want of fleshly desire, and hatred of all wickedness; so that they savour not earthly things, nor desire to hold to worldly things beyond their strait need. For they truly that heap riches and know not for whom they gather, having their solace in them, are not worthy to be sometimes gladdened in the mirth of heavenly love; although they seem by devotion, not holy but simulated, to feel in their diseases something of that felicity which is to come. For truly for their foul presumption they have fallen from that sweetness with which God's lovers are softened and made sweet because they have unmannerly loved worldly money.

The wicked truly are alway greedy after vile delectations, and as dead unto ghostly exercises; or else cast down with full great feebleness: whose love is ever inordinate; for they love temporal goods more than eternal, and their bodies more than their souls.

Of course what modern people - who don't want the Bible or the Church, but want to call themselves Christians - are after is hardly the uncomfortable existence of a religious ascetic devoted to prayer and meditation, or even the weekly commitment of a churchgoer. They want the comfortable lifestyle, perhaps dropping the odd crumb into a charitable donation, but to all intents and purposes to lead a secular life. They want the church to be there for christenings, for weddings and for funerals, but for the rest of the time, they are not really that bothered.

I suspect that deep down, there is a kind of folk-faith, of half-remembered childhood Christianity from school days, and that is part and parcel of this taking upon themselves a label of Christian. Does it matter? Some Christians get extremely fervent about those who don't read the Bible or go to Church, and label them "nominal Christians".

But the hypocrisy can be on the other side. People who do read the Bible and go to church, can be unforgiving and judgmental, like the blacksmith in Chesterton's Father Brown story "The Hammer of God":

Is Colonel Bohun dead?' said the smith quite calmly. 'Then he's damned.'
'Don't say anything! Oh, don't say anything,' cried the atheist cobbler, dancing about in an ecstasy of admiration of the English legal system. For no man is such a legalist as the good Secularist.
The blacksmith turned on him over his shoulder the august face of a fanatic.
'It's well for you infidels to dodge like foxes because the world's law favours you,' he said; 'but God guards His own in His pocket, as you shall see this day.'
Then he pointed to the colonel and said: 'When did this dog die in his sins?'
'Moderate your language,' said the doctor.
'Moderate the Bible's language, and I'll moderate mine. When did he die?'
'I saw him alive at six o'clock this morning,' stammered Wilfred Bohun.
'God is good,' said the smith.
'There are two men standing outside this shop,' went on the blacksmith with ponderous lucidity, 'good tradesmen in Greenford whom you all know, who will swear that they saw me from before midnight till daybreak and long after in the committee room of our Revival Mission, which sits all night, we save souls so fast. In Greenford itself twenty people could swear to me for all that time. If I were a heathen, Mr. Inspector, I would let you walk on to your downfall. But as a Christian man I feel bound to give you your chance, and ask you whether you will hear my alibi now or in court.'

Father Brown later comments on this kind of Christianity:

Look at that blacksmith, for instance,' went on Father Brown calmly; 'a good man, but not a Christian -- hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.'

And a real case in point is in an autobiography I was reading of Dick Van Dyke, who was a Christian (although he didn't make a great show of it), and was for many years an elder in a Presbyterian Church. This is the kind of behaviour from Christians in Churches that drives people away:

One of the elders suggested inviting the congregation from a black church from the inner city to our church and, ideally, they would invite us to
theirs. I thought it was a great idea, right on target. It sounded like something that would have come from Charlie, who preached the best possible way, by example. The things he did the other six days of the week were far more inspirational than anything he said on the seventh day in church, which was also pretty good. "Black families, white families, people in general - we look at each other like strangers," I said. "But I think we have much more in common than any of us realize. We sit in our churches on Sundays, we read from the same book, we pray to the same God, we want the same thing, which is to feel loved, not hated. What if we got to know each other through an exchange program?" The idea did not go over well. One of the elders emphatically stated that he did not want any black people in the church. Appalled, I stood up, shared my disgust, grabbed my jacket, and walked out. I never went back there or to any other church. My relationship with God was solid, but the hypocrisy among the so-called faithful finished me for good.

Even where there is not this attitude, the Church can seem to be restrictive to outsiders, telling people that they can't share in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, Communion, Eucharist (the names vary) unless the participant is part of the holy circle, either as a baptised Christian, or a confirmed Christian, or only a member of that particular denomination.

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann takes issue with that practice, and suggests that the celebration should be open to all who want to come, with no artificial barriers put in their way:

Where does Jesus' feast belong? On the streets of the poor who follow Jesus, or in the church of the baptized, the confirmed and established? I decided for the feast that is open to all, and to which the weary and heavy-laden are invited. Baptism on the other hand, should be reserved for believers. That certainly contradicts the practice of our mainline churches, but it is in conformity with Jesus according to the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus' Supper is not a church meal for people who belong to one's own denomination. It is the feast of the crucified Christ, whose hands are stretched out to everyone.

1 comment:

Zoompad said...

Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.'

I love that!