It is with the utmost trepidation and diffidence that I have collected together these miscellaneous pieces all directly or indirectly concerned with my attitude towards, and feelings about, the Christian religion. They do not set out to present a coherent, or even consistent, statement of faith. I am well aware that they are often contradictory, repetitive and imprecise; I have deliberately refrained from trying to trim and prune them into conveying an impression of coherence and consistency which would falsify my own actual mental state. All they representand it's little enoughis the effort of one ageing twentieth-century mind to give expression to a deep dissatisfaction with prevailing twentieth-century values and assumptions, and a sense that there is an alternativean alternative propounded two thousand years ago by the Sea of Galilee and on the hill called Golgotha.
The theological implications of this position, I should explain, are quite beyond me. Theology is one of those subjects, like algebra and thermodynamics, in which I have never been able to interest myself. I am a theological ignoramus, and likely to remain one to the end of my days. Saintly and lion-hearted men, I know, have died heroically for concepts like the Trinity and the Virgin Birth which stir no more partisanship in me, one way or the other, than, say, the enchanting story of the creation in the Book of Genesis. All I can find to say for the Genesis version is that it strikes me as more plausible than Professor Hoyle's, and I certainly find the Virgin Birth as a notion more sympathetic than, say, family planning. Otherwise, St Thomas Aquinas and the Fathers must, I fear, remain for ever beyond my reach. My own masters (as readers will soon discover, I trust not to the point of tedium, from the frequency with which I quote them) have been a cherished fewthe Gospels, of course, and the Epistles, especially St Paul's, the ever-beloved St Augustine and St Francis, Bunyan and Blake, Pascal and Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Bonhoeffer and, to me, the most luminous intelligence of our time, Simone Weil. These have taught me all I knowsuch as it is of what I believe is called Christian apologetics.
It was while I was in the Holy Land for thc purpose of making three B.B.C. television programmes on the New Testament that a curious, almost magical, certainty seized me about Jesus' birth, ministry and Crucifixion. I realised, in the first place, that the many shrines, and the legends associated with them, were for the most part, from my point of view, as fraudulent as the bones of St Peter, the fragments of the True Cross and other relics revered by the pious. Then, seeing a party of Christian pilgrims at one of these shrines, their faces bright with faith, their voices as they sang so evidently and joyously aware of their Saviour's near-ness, I understood that for them the shrine was authentic. Their faith made it so. Similarly, I, too, became aware that there really had been a man, Jesus, who was also GodI was conscious of his presence. He really had spoken those sublime wordsI heard them. He really had died on a cross and risen from the dead. Otherwise, how was it possible for me to meet him, as I didin the desert wrestling with the Devil, on that hillside preaching of how the meek inherit the earth and the pure of heart see God, falling in step along the road to Emmaus? As I tried to explain in my commentary (included in this volume), the words Jesus spoke are living words, as relevant today as when they were first spoken; the light he shone continues to shine as brightly as ever. Thus he is alive, as for instance Socrateswho also chose to lay down his life for truth's sakeisn't. Let the dead, as Jesus himself said, bury their deadin other words, relate themselves to history. Socrates is historical, the shrines and the legends are historical, the Resurrection is historical; Jesus is alive and very truth. The Cross is where history and life, legend and reality, time and eternity, intersect. There, Jesus is nailed for ever to show us how God could become a man and a man become God.
That, at least, is how I have come to see it. The old pagan gods were all represented in terms of earthly power and wealth and pulchritudegleaming and mighty and lascivious. The Cross for the first time revealed God in terms of weakness and lowliness and suffering; even, humanly speaking, of absurdity. He was seen thenceforth in the image of the most timid, most gentle and most vulnerable of all living creaturesa lamb. Agnus Dei!so they have been joyously singing through the centuries. Agnus Dei !
Through the accident of television all this, which would normally be a private mattereven, in contemporary terms, a private eccentricity or follyhas in some degree taken place in public, and been the subject of public comment. Every so often I get asked whether it is true that I have been received into the Roman Catholic Church. It is very difficult for me to explain that the more enchanted I become with the person and teaching of Christ the farther away I feel from all institutional Christianity especially this particular institution, which, as I consider, is now racing at breakneck speed to reproduce all the follies and fatuities of Protestantism, and will surely before long arrive at the same plight, with crazed clergy, empty churches and total doctrinal confusion. Clerical criticism, one way and another, has been pretty withering; the Archbishop of York took me to task for daring to suggest that there might be Christian objections to Dr Christian Barnard's heart transplant experiments, and the Roman Catholic chaplain of Edinburgh University rebuked me for suggesting that the free distribution of contraceptives to students was conducive to sexual promiscuity. 'The plain fact is,' the Rev'd. Fr. wrote, 'that we do not find elderly journalists with a gift of invective useful allies in presenting Christian standards.'
Secular criticism has been more predictable. Old friends shake their heads, and speak of me with kindly compassion, as they would if I had been run in for indecent exposure in Hyde Park; old enemies dwell on the obscenity of ageing lechers who lash out resentfully at sensual pleasures which they can no longer enjoy. My successor as Rector of Edinburgh University felicitously described me as a 'crazed flagellant'; Peter Cooksomeone I like very muchmore tolerantly contented himself with just saying I was mad. The commonest opinion is that with
advancing years I have gone soft and became a boretwo perfectly plausible judgments; a more implausible one is that I have succumbed to the lures of the Establishment. Would it were so, and I had been endlessly rejecting offers of life peerages, O.B.E.s, honorary degrees and invitations to dine with the Fellows of All Souls. Alas, far from it; I have to disclose that since I began to try to be a Christian and endlessly talk about it, the chilliness with which I have long been regarded in Estabishment circlesthe full range, from Lord Ritchie-Calder to Lord Thomson of Fleethas turned into a positive ice age.
I have also received a very large number of letters, many of them of quite overwhelming sweetness and charity. I venture to quote from one which I opened as I was writing these words. The writer is a monk who had done me the high honour of reading some words of mine, which, he was kind enough to say in his letter, 'the gentle Saviour used to give me a better understanding and appreciation of our Christian heritage, and a more fervent determination to stand loyal come what may.' He goes on:
'Every morning at 5 a.m. before I go to offer the Holy Sacrifice, as a small token of my gratitude to you, I ask our beloved Saviour to be good to you and to those dear to you. I will continue to do that for whatever short time remains before I meet Him face to face.'
No one human being could possibly do another a more precious favour than this; such gestures flood the whole universe with light. I have put all these letterssome thousands of them in a large metal box in the hope that after I am dead someone may go through them. They reveal, I think more fully than any public opinion poll or other so-called scientific investigation, the extraordinary spiritual hunger which prevails today among all classes and conditions of people, from the most illiterate to the most educated, from the most lowly to the most eminent. The various moral and theological and sociological disputes of the day, however progressively resolved with ecclesiastical connivance, have nothing to say to this spiritual hunger, which is not assuaged by legalised abortion and homosexuality, solaced by contraception, or relieved by majority rule. Nor will it take comfort in the thought that God is dead, or that mankind has come of age, or even in ecumenical negotiations for writing off Papal Infallibility against the validity of Anglican Orders. The only means of satisfying it remains that bread of life which Jesus offered, with the promise that those who ate of it should never hunger again. The promise stands.
To many of the writers of these letters it seems obvious that my life has dramatically altered its direction of recent years. This, in fact, is not so. For me the course has been from the beginning, and will be, I am sure, till the end, a series of hazards, stumblings, wrong turnings and false destinations, as it was for Bunyan's Pilgrimwhich is perhaps why I love this book so dearly. Again like the Pilgrim, on picking myself up, the impulse has always been to hurry on, with some notion, however indistinct, that at last one will see the Holy City set on a hill. I have never felt much inclination to lingernot even in Vanity Fair with a view to raising the school age, extending the franchise to teenagers, nationalising the banks and otherwise improving conditions there. In the Valley of Humiliationthat green valley which is also beautified with lilies, with a very fruitful soil which cloth bring forth by handfuls'some also have wished that the next way to their father's house were here, that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over; but the way is the way, and there's an end.' Yes, the way is the way.
Perhaps the silliest criticism of the way Jesus told us to live and for that very reason, no doubt, the one most frequently voicedis that it amounts to a kind of escapism, an evasion of the ardours and responsibilities of reality. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Let me give an example. The time is April 1945; the place is the East German village of Schonberg. In the little schoolhouse there is a party of prisoners, among them a Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a Sunday morning, and the others press him to conduct a service. Most of the prisoners are Roman Catholics, and one of thema Russian named Kokorinis a Communist, but when Bonhoeffer mentions this they all with one accord press him to proceed, which he does. Ecumenicalism indeed! He takes as his text 'With his stripes we are healed, (Isaiah 53: 5) and 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.' (I Peter I: 3). An English prisoner who found 'just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment, and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought.' Together with Bonhoeffer, all looked forward hopefully into the future.'
I find this scene (for an account of which, incidentally, I am indebted to Mary Bosanquet's excellent study of Bonhoeffera spiritual experience in itself) infinitely touching. As the service concludes the door is flung open, and two men, standing in the doorway, tell prisoner Bonhoeffer to take his things and come with them. Before leaving he sends via Payne Best a message to his friend Dr Bell, the Bishop of Chichester'Tell him that . . . with him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.'
He is then taken to Flossenburg where he is given the death sentence. After it has been delivered the prison doctor catches a glimpse of him through the half opened door of one of the huts, still in his prison clothes, and kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. 'The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man', the doctor was subsequently to recall, 'moved me to the depths.' The next morning, naked under the scaffold in the sweet spring woods, Bonhoeffer kneels for the last time to pray. Five minutes later his life is ended.
As this happens, five years of the monstrous buffooneries of war are drawing to a close. Hitler's Reich that was to last for a thousand years will soon reach its ignominious and ruinous end; the liberators are moving in from the east and the west with bombs and tanks and guns and cigarettes and Spam; the air is thick with rhetoric and cant. Looking back now after twentyfour years, I ask myself where in that murky darkness any light shines. Not among the Nazis, certainly, nor among the liberators, who, as we know, were to liberate no one and nothing. The rhetoric and the cant have mercifully been forgotten; what lives on is the memory of a man who died, not on behalf of freedom or democracy or a steadily rising Gross National Product, not for any of the twentieth century's counterfeit hopes and desires, but on behalf of a cross on which another man died two thousand years before. As on that previous occasion, on Golgotha, so amidst the rubble and desolation of 'liberated' Europe, the only victor is the man who died, as the only hope for the future lies in his triumph over death. There never can be any other victory or any other hope. This is what I am trying, so inadequately, to say.
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