I see that I've been billed to speak to you about Christianity and world problems. Let me explain straight away that I don't believe there are such things as world problems, but only a problem of man and his existence in this world. Furthermore, that if there were world problems, I am extremely sceptical as to whether there is, or can be, a specifically Christian answer to them. The relevant incident in the New Testament here is, of course, the putting of the question to Christ whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar. His replyhighly ingenious and, I should suppose, partly ironicalto the effect that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's, neatly evaded the point at issue Jewish nationalism. There is, I know, a school of thought, by no means without clerical support, which sees Christ as a sort of Che Guevara, and I fully expect yet another translation of the New Testament to be produced soon in which it is made clear that previous ones have erred in not indicating that Christ was a militant Jewish nationalist. The caesars to whom Christ said tribute was due have long ago disappeared, and today, two thousand years later, Jewish nationalism is at last triumphant in Jerusalem. Neither circumstance, as far as I'm concerned, has the slightest bearing on the message Christ came to deliver, the life he came to live and the death he came to die.
What, then, is our brief existence here on earth about? The mediaI mean television, the colour supplements, the magazines, the newspapers; all the different organs of this immense apparatus of persuasion which has been developed in our time answer the question with the utmost clarity and gusto. It's about being successful in terms of money, sex and fame, with violence thrown in for kicks. As trendy, sexy, affuent children of our time we may consider ourselves as living to the full. By the same token, if we are out of the swing, physically unattractive and poor, we must consider ourselves as outcasts and deprived. Anyone who has lived at all in the real world must have understood that this fantasy of the media is a total absurdity. This is not a happy age, evenperhaps particularlyfor its greatest ostensible beneficiaries. The parts of the world where the means of happiness in material and sensual terms, are most plentiful like California and Scandinaviaare also the places where despair, mental sickness and other twentieth-century ills are most in evidence. Sex, fanned by public erotica, under-pinned by the birth pill and legalised abortion, is a primrose path leading to satiety and disgust; the rich are usually either wretched or mad, the successful plod relentlessly on to prove to the world and to themselves that their success is worth having; violence, collective and individual, bids fair to destroy us all and what remains of our civilisation.
These judgments are not, I assure you, theoretical ones. I have worked in the media for the last forty years; I know how they function, the men who operate them and the motives which govern them. I have even held in my hands some of their prizes. If I say to you that these prizes are worthless, that far from enriching life they impoverish it, I am speaking from direct, personal experience. You will, of course, not believe me; as Pascal points out, it is part of the irony of our human situation that we ardently pursue ends which we know to be worthless. Why, even at my age, and utterly convinced of the truth of what I have just said to you, I can still aspire after applause and public recognition, when it has been demonstrated to me again and again in the most emphatic and unmistakable manner that such satisfactions only create a deeper, more agonising hunger than the one they are meant to allay. Even the great Augustine, with years of sanctity behind him, with one of the finest minds of his own or any other time, so passionately enrolled in the service of his God and his Savioureven he could still be dragged with a silken thread into the blind alleyways of the senses. I think of him looking out of his window at Hippo on the Mediterranean, marvelling at its grandeur, atas he puts itthe changing colours it slips on and off like robes, and reflecting that if such beauty as this is for us unhappy, punished men, what will the rewards of the blessed be like? It is so vivid, so human, so splendid.
Is there an escape route? Many are recommended today. For instance, what is called Protest, an escape through mere destructiveness and lawlessnessDown with everything and everyone, including us! Then again, escape on the plastic wings of narcotics and erotica. Or escape through inertiajust refusing to join in; Iying inert in the bottom of the boat with the bilgewater, indifferent as to where it's going and who holds the tiller. I feel a certain sympathy with, or at any rate understanding of, all of these escape routes, but I have to say to you that they're all cur-de-sacs. They lead nowhere. When the lawlessness and destruction have been achieved, the choice is between chaos and tyranny, and, faced with such a choice, the great majority of human beings will always choose tyranny, or have it imposed upon them. The plastic wings soon break, and those who relied on them to be lifted into the sky fall a dead weight on to the ground; the drop-out in the end becomes a bore to himself and to everyone else.
A more seemingly promising escape route is through the notion of social or collective regeneration. We are to agitate for a juster, more equitable, more brotherly society in which the wicked things like war, racialism, economic exploitation, all forms of unnecessary human suffering, are eliminated. This is where the world problems come in. We march through the streets chanting in unison 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi-minh!', thereby, as we fondly suppose, helping to promote his victory in the Vietnam war and the defeat of American imperialism. We barrack Mr Enoch Powell when he tries to explain what he is getting at, thereby striking a blow against apartheid and segregationists everywhere. And so on. This sort of virtue has the great advantage, from the point of view of many clerics and secular evangelists, that it is a soft sell. How difficult, how desperately difficult, to curb one's so insistent ego, to put aside pride and vanity and follow the way of the cross! How easy, how really almost fatuously easy, to support Ho Chi-Minh and be against Mr Powell!
Perhaps because it is so easy, the pursuit of collective virtue, ardently pursued over the last half century, has been singularly disappointing in its results. Two world wars, numerous revolutions, much political endeavour directed towards humanising our economic and social arrangements, have not resulted in a kinder way of life for Western man; still less for mankind as a whole. Who that is honest surveying the happenings of recent decades-the millions and miIlions who have been killed or uprooted from their homes, the wanton destruction, the almost inconceivable cruelties of a Hitler and a Stalin, the crazed quest for wealth and excitement - can seriously maintain that we are moving forwards spiritually, morally or even materially? This has been the century of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth; many and varied have been its prophets and its guises-the American Way of Life, The Welfare State, the New Civilisation which people like Shaw and the Webbs detected in the monstrosities of Stalin-but what has come to pass, I fear, is better described as the Kingdom of Hell on Earth, soon, I should suppose, to pass into oblivion, its piled-up radioactive dust one more monument to the foIIy of man when he supposes that his destiny is in his own hands
Utopianism, I am glad to note, Is decidedly on the wane though some dons and half-baked students continue to traffic in it. Thus, few any longer suggest, as the flower of our lntelligentzia did up to quite a short time ago, that paradise has been regained in the U S S R Immigrants to the United States there nowadays in search of a more affuent, not a better life; our own Welfare State finds its only heralds-such as they are among sociologists and statisticians Even the protesting young feel constrained to fix their hopes on Mao Tse-tung because he is a long way away and little is known about him, rather than on more vulnerable saviours nearer at hand Thc trouble with all earthly causes, however admirable they may be in intent, however earnestly promoted by their advocates, is that they are liable to triumph Hugh Kingsmill, a writer whom I greatly admire puts it like this:
What is divine in man is elusive and impalpable, and he is easily tempted to embody it in a collective from-a church, a country, a social system, a leader-so that he may realise it with less effort and serve it with more profit. Yet the attempt to externalise the. kingdom of heaven in a temporal shape must end in disaster It cannot be created by charters or constitutions, nor established by arms. Those who set out for it alone will reach it together and those who seek it in company will perish by themselves.
Turning aside, then, from delusive prizes and utopias which have been found wanting, what are we left with? Only our Christian faith. Let me conclude by trying to tell you, as briefly and simply as I can, what this means to me I speak as someone unlearned in theology and philosophy The various dogmas of institutlonal Christianity-like, for instance, the doctrine of thc Trinity, or of the Immaculate Conception just do not impinge; I neither believe nor disbelieve them, and feel no inclination to defend or denounce them. I find them perfectly comprehensible, perfectly harmless, and-as far as I'm concerned, totally without significance. Nor does the hlstorlclty of the Gospels' account of Christ's birth, life and death worry me at all. If, tomorrow, someone were to unearth another Dead Sea Scroll proving that, in earthly terms, the traditional Christian story just didn't happen in that way at that time, it wouldn't disturb my attitude to Christianity at all. Legends, in any case, seem to me more relevant to our human situation, and in that sense more 'factual', than history, which is really only the propaganda of the victor Thus by way of example; I find the Book of Genesis, considered as legend, infinitely more prescient on the subject of the origins and subsequent unfolding of our human story than, say, the theory of evolution, considered as fact
I see Christianity as a very bright light; particularly bright now because the surrounding darkness is so deep and dense; a brightness that holds my gaze inexorably, so that even if I want to-and I do sometimes want to- I can't detach it. Christ said he was the light of the world, and told us to let our light shine before men. To partake of this light, to keep it in one's eye as the Evangelist told Bunyan's Pilgrim to do, is Heaven; to be cut off from it is Hell - two experiences as recallable and describable as was getting up this morning and driving to Oxford. Away from the light, one is imprisoned in the tiny, desolate dungeon of one's ego; when the light breaks in, suddenly one is liberated, reborn. The shining vistas of eternity open before one, with all mankind for brothers and sisters, a single family with a father in heaven, all, in the truest sense, equal, and deserving of one another's abiding love and consideration.
Words, just words! I can hear you saying. Well, yes, words; but there's something elsea man, who was born and lived like us; whose presence and teaching have continued to shine for generation after generation, just as they did for his disciples and for all who knew and listened to him in Galilee all those centuries ago. A man who died, but who none the less, in some quite unique way, remained, and remains, alive. A man who offered us the mysterious prospect of dying in order to live; who turned all the world's values upside down, telling us that it was the weak, not the strong, who mattered, the simple, not the learned, who understood, the poor, not the rich, who were blessed. A man whose cross, on which he died in agony, became the symbol of the wildest, sweetest hopes ever to be entertained, and the inspiration of the noblest and most joyous lives ever to be lived.
And now? Well, all I can say is, as one ageing and singularly unimportant fellow-man, that I have conscientiously looked far and wide, inside and outside my own head and heart, and I have found nothing other than this man and his words which offers any answer to the dilemmas of this tragic, troubled time. If his light has gone out, then, as far as I am concerned, there is no light.
Delivered in the Chapel of Hertford College, Oxford,
3 November 1968
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