Every time christianity comes under public attack, something useful is happening, from the viewpoint of those who have set out, however haltingly, on what early Christians described as the Way.
Broadsides like Alan Ryan’s in last month’s Prospect force Christians to think harder about how their community looks to the rest of the world. Such icy showers are less insidious, from a Christian perspective, than the patronising tolerance which has become the standard response of secular-humanism to religious belief: the tolerance which implies that our faith is simply a paraphrase of modernist “common sense”-as opposed to a revolutionary message about relations between God and man.
For Christians, the question “how do we look?” comes in two parts. What would be the hallmarks of a community of Christians if they truly honoured the One whose name they profess; and how far, in practice, have Christians fallen short of that ideal? Perhaps the simplest answer is that Christians ought to be recognisable by a particular kind of joy. According to St Luke, the disciples who witnessed Christ’s ascension “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.”
Christian joy should be something more profound than the froth which can be whipped up by a certain kind of evangelical preacher. It is also something vastly greater than the “harmless pleasures” whose denial is held by Ryan to be the greatest obstacle to human happiness. Christians are called on to rejoice over every moment of the Divine revelation. They concur with the Creator who not only made the world but “saw that it was very good.” They give thanks for the “image and likeness of God” which they learn to see in every human being, including themselves.
So what can Ryan be saying if he sees in Christianity a faith “which has made enormous numbers of people pointlessly miserable” and has indeed “caused more pointless guilt and misery than any other moral doctrine”? Unfortunately, we all know what he is talking about. We have all encountered Christianity in its joyless-indeed kill-joy-variety. Once Christianity ceases to be a celebration, it rapidly becomes the opposite.
Nor is Ryan wrong to find fault with Augustine, whose over-emphasis on sinfulness prepared the way for the serious mistakes which theologians began to make from the 11th century onwards: the mistake of reducing God to a logical proposition (which is nothing to rejoice over);…