This is a question I mull over from time to time without finding a satisfactory or convincing answer. If I put it to myself after, say, reading one of the Archbishop of Canterbury's pronouncements in the House of Lords on contemporary mores or listening to some radio or television evangelist of Beveridgeanity, I feel profoundly thankful not to be, even in name, associated with such as they. If they are Christian, I reflect, then I emphatically am not. On the other hand books like Resurrection or The Brothers Karamazov give me an almost overpowering sense of how uniquely marvellous a Christian way of looking at life is, and a passionate desire to share it. Likewise, listening to Bach, reading Pascal, looking at Chartres Cathedral or any of the other masterpieces of Christian art and thought. As for the Gospels and Epistles, I find them (especially St John) irresistibly wonderful as they reduce the jostling egos of nowmy own among themto the feeble crackling flicker of burning sticks against a majestic noonday sun. Is it not extraordinary to the point of being a miracle, that so loose and ill-constructed a narrative in an antique translation of a dubious text should after so many centuries still have power to quell and dominate a restless, opinionated, over-exercised and under-nourished twentieth century mind?
I am well aware, of course, that just to be thus quelled and dominated is far from amounting to being a Christian. In any case, what is a Christian today? One may well ask. From the days when the Very Revd. Hewlett Johnson used to expatiate in Canterbury Cathedral upon the Christian excellence of the late Stalin, to even loftier heights of psychedelic piety, there is scarcely a contemporary absurdity which has not received some degree of clerical, if not episcopal, endorsement. Rebellious or randy fathers come to the microphone to tell us of the doubts which have assailed them and of the hazards of priestly celibacy; learned theologians bend their powerful minds to demonstrating that God is dead and his Church, therefore, becomes a useless excrescence. Holy discotheques, sanctified playmates, Bishop Pike of Californiadear God! how well I remember himBishop ('call me Jim') Pike, and his memorable observation as we made our way arm in arm to the hospitality room from the B.B.C. television studio where we had been doing our little stint of Soper opera. St Paul, he said, was wrong about sex. So he was, Bishop, so he was !
One may marvel that, when pretty well every item of Christian belief and of Christian ethics has been thus subjected to some degree of denigration and attack by those ostensibly responsible for upholding and propagating them, congregations of sorts none the less continue to assemble in parish churches on Sunday mornings, and ordinands and novices, though in dwindling numbers, continue to come forward with seemingly authentic vocations. The Church of Christ has to stagger on under the guidance of those who increasingly sympathise with, when they do not actually countenance, every attack on its doctrines, integrity and traditional practices. By one of our time's larger ironies, ecumenicalism is triumphant just when there is nothing to be ecumenical about; the various religious bodies are likely to find it easy to join together only because, believing little, they correspondingly differ about little. I look forward to the day when an Anglican bishop in full canonicals will attend a humanist rally on the South Downs, or a Salvation Army band lead a procession of Young Atheists to lay a wreath on Karl Marx's grave in Highgate Cemetery. It cannot be long delayed, if it has not happened already.
It would take a subtle ear indeed to catch out of all this confusion any consistent or coherent theme. Institutional Christianity, it seems to me, is now in total disarray, and visibly decomposing, to the point that, short of a miracle, it can never be put together again with any semblance of order or credibility. In their present state of decomposition the various Christian denominations are not even an impediment to Christian belief but just a joke. One notes the grimaces of sacerdotal faces as holding their noses, they try to swallow Humanae Vitae; the bizarre convolutions of Quakers when they venture out on the nursery-slopes of sex, with the same sort of wry satisfaction as one does the tergiversations of an Anglican bishop who recently undertook baptising a new Polaris submarine, or, for that matter, the tread of the sometime nuclear marchers through the division lobby in support of the Government which decreed its construction.
Yet curiously enough the very intensity of all this confusion, the very preposterousness of the effort to market dust and ashes as body-building, and a kingdom not of this world as profitable real estate, somehow for me clears the air for a consideration of what Christianity really is about. The surrender of institutional Christianity to the promoters of a kingdom of heaven on earth has been so abject, the assumptions of scientific materialism are so widely accepted and arrogantly stated, that an aspiring Christian today is left in a kind of catacomb of his own making, utterly remote from the debates and discussions going on around him, whether about 'permissive' morality (divorce, contraception and abortionthose three panaceas for all matrimonial ills), or about the basic dogma of the Christian faith.
In my copy of the New Testament I underline passages which take my fancy. Nearly all of them are about the deceitfulness of the cares of this world and of riches, about how concupiscence and vanity separate us from God, about glorying in tribulation which brings patience, experience and hope, about the flesh lusting against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, these being contrary to one another so that we cannot do the things that we would do, and so on. It is difficult to think of any sentiments which would be more intrinsically unsympathetic in most clerical circles. They are, I should say, about the most unpopular sentences it is possible to utter today; at religious gatherings they cause malaise and irritation; on radio and television panels derision and incredulity. When I use them I am often accused of insincerity or affectation, so rooted are the opposite assumptionsthat by caring about this world we shall make it better, that we must aim collectively to get richer in order to get happier and happier, that the unrestrained satisfaction of our earthly hopes and desires is the way to physical, mental and spiritual contentment.
However, I love these sentences, and often say them over to myself. I should like them to govern my every thought and activity for the rest of my life. They seem to me to be true, and the notion of making the world better by caring about it, and achieving happiness through material prosperity and sensual pleasure, quite nonsensical. In face of the otherworldliness which I still unfashionably find in the Gospels, as far as I am concerned the whole edifice of twentieth-century materialism and the utopian hopes that go therewithfalls flat on its face. One is delivered from the myth of progress. The terrible vision of a Scandinavian-American paradise, with longer lives, more and better aphrodisiacs and more leisure and amenities for all, dissolves into nightmare, awaking from which one advances gingerly upon the sublime truth that to live it is necessary to die, that a life can only be kept by being lostpropositions which strike contemporary minds as pessimistic, but which seem to me optimistic to the point of insanity, implying as they do, that it is possible for mere man, with his brief life and stunted vision, to aspire after a universal understanding and a universal love. Is this being a Christian ? Ask me another.
New Statesman, 10 March 1967
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