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); and of reducing man’s relationship with God to a legal transaction. Seeing Christ’s self-sacrifice as a pay-off to a vengeful father (accurately caricatured by Ryan as a “vindictive orchard-owner”) is a very second-millennium way of looking at things.
Magazines, including The Economist, which were prompted by the change of millennium to dwell on the “death of God,” were right at least in the narrow sense that it was roughly 1,000 years ago that theologians started reversing the natural order of things and tried inventing a deity in man’s own image.
Perhaps we should not idealise the first millennium, either; even then, Christian joy was the exception rather than the rule. People who exude it have always been rare. But the proposition that Christianity “makes people pointlessly miserable” cannot survive the encounter with even one person who exemplifies the opposite. In Christian terms, such people are called saints.
As well as joyfulness, there is another characteristic one would expect to find among Christians: a willingness to lay down their lives for what they believe. Christianity’s founder baffled and disappointed his followers by refusing to lead a violent revolt against the occupiers of his land. Only when the God-man rose from the grave did they understand that He had done something far more revolutionary by freely undergoing death, in order to destroy it.
Within a century or so, Christians were causing further bafflement by rejoicing and singing hymns when they were thrown to the lions for public entertainment. If Christianity spread like wildfire through the Roman empire, it was not because it won an argument, or because it articulated some economic grievance. It was because people were prepared to die for it, and each generation of Christians walked in the footsteps of those who had laid down their lives, trusting in the martyrs’ prayers and building shrines over their bodies. When, after 300 years, Christianity was transformed from persecuted faith to state-religion, its wisest adherents realised that the faith would be corrupted by worldly power unless some Christians voluntarily underwent a different kind of martyrdom: the asceticism and self-discipline of monasticism.
If the bloodbaths of pagan Rome seem remote, it may be useful to reflect on the Christian martyrs of this century; the hundreds of thousands of priests, monks and ordinary believers who died at the hands of the Bolsheviks.
All kinds of martyrdom-violent death, the discipline of monasticism or the self-sacrifice of a life dedicated to God-are offensive to the sensibility of the modern, urban, prosperous world. This sensibility, expressed by Ryan, holds that the ability to endure pain was “useful in primitive societies” but can now be discarded. Because it has stopped believing in sin, it believes that pain can be organised out of human existence.
It is no surprise that concepts like martyrdom disturb the secular mind. Much more troubling, from a Christian view, is the fact that Christians have neglected their own martyrs. If the memory of the Christians who died in the Roman circus and the Siberian prison camps were kept, it would not be possible for a secular academic to write that Christianity had “brought religious intolerance into the world” and expect to be taken seriously. If Christians of the third millennium do a better job of remembering and venerating their own martyrs, they would be halfway towards recovering their joy.