The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.4 (Fall 2014)
Faith & Cultural Meltdown
Is “Christian” the Latest Word to Mean Nothing at All?
John R. Harris and George Shirley
George Shirley had conceived and strung together the original sentiments of this piece–and then wished to withdraw his submission for fear that it would be misread. The editor prevailed upon him to let the work stand by volunteering to overhaul it and join his own name to Shirley’s, since the two are in significant accord on this subject. The result is offered below, without apology. He who hath ears, let him hear.
Does it make sense to practice the Christian faith? Is it right to do so?
These are two distinct questions, and the answers to both, in combination, would probably define so wide a range of beliefs within the group of those calling themselves Christians that an onlooking third party would be taxed to view them as co-religionists.
Does it make sense, when a man asks for your coat, to give him your shirt, as well? Not in worldly terms. Does it make sense, even, that you are expected to resist the natural impulse of self-defense and present your right cheek when a man strikes your left? Also not very realistic. The Pauline epistles are full of warnings (or celebrations) that the active Christian will appear a fool, a naïf, or a lunatic to all those who live by and for the things of this world. Impractical this regimen of behavior surely is: yet the believer attempts to stay the course because he is convinced of its rightness.
“Right” must necessarily mean “sustained by objective moral principle” and not “in conformity with received wisdom”, for the latter is a formula merely for adhering to cultural conditioning. An unclad islander who practices cannibalism may also be living in conformity with received wisdom. The willing surrender of one’s selfish promotion, then, must have a ground in human rationality which serves transcending and enduring interests; and these must be metaphysical, for in material terms there can be no interest greater than physical survival and pecuniary advancement.
If we surrender our possessions and even ourselves to abuse, it can only be because we anticipate a reward in an unearthly dimension. What constitutes merit in that dimension, furthermore, must be the disdain of these present dimensions—of their “every man for himself” creed. The concept of a higher truth and an unending life of blessedness requires that we picture a soul not constrained or defined by a body, its individuality expressed paradoxically by its eagerness to labor for harmony and unity over discord and contention. That soul is most itself, as soul, which best reflects the purity of God.
Well and good: now take a hammer, a crude saw, and a pair of pliers, and apply all of this elegant metaphysical reasoning to current social and political circumstances, as our most vocal “Christians” do. If a drunkard starts following you around the park in search of a handout, you are to empty your wallet to him. If he should pull a gun on you and demand credit cards, be sure to give him your Nike walking shoes, as well. If another man rushes in behind you as you open the door of your home, don’t protest or put up a fight: let him ransack the place and take your wife’s grandmother’s bracelet.
This is the new Christian doctrine, apparently, courtesy of a new pope and a host of new ministers reared on a new theology in old seminaries. Such an “empty your pockets” faith is of course insane, in that it is wholly unsustainable. One cannot be expected to carry a different, fully laden wallet into the park every morning. The glass that constantly refills itself as one drinks belongs to fairy tale. Yet since the first exemplars of the Christian life—including Christ himself—foresaw that their teaching would be thought folly, we cannot instantly dismiss the new orthodoxy on the ground of impracticality. There is such a thing as a “holy fool”; in fact, that’s a good working definition of a saint.
We don’t really know, by direct example, what Christ or his followers would have done if held up at gunpoint or ordered by government to share their house with an unscreened stranger. It seems certain, however, that the quietism of the complete pushover would radically differ from their conduct in at least two ways. First of all is the giver’s motive. In all biblical examples, the objective is a soul not attached to things of this world. We are also to give up vengeance, and even little vanities like being addressed by the proper title. Our hearts and minds are to be fixed on matters spiritual and eternal. In the new theology, faith appears to be all about “works”. Giving is important because the things given are important. Others who have less stuff must be given some of our stuff. By giving of our stuff, we prove that we are superior people; and if we do not give enough stuff, according to our stuff-earning potential, then we should get busy raking in more stuff so that it may be transferred to the stuff-deprived.
The authors of this piece cannot recognize their faith in the latter doctrines. We two believe that we recognize much that is antithetical to our faith. We see the motive of vainglory as one applauds oneself for writing a fat check: we do not see the “poverty of spirit” that is supposed to characterize true blessedness.
The second distinction has to do with logical consequences. If it is so preemptively urgent for me to give of my material possessions, then why is it urgent? Because so many have less? But wherein is that an urgency? Because having materially little is a great evil, apparently. It follows that the life of material abundance must be the good life. Ultimately, the reason we all must give full-throttle is to achieve a secular utopia where everyone swims in material plenty. The Christian faith in this new design, that is, becomes a blueprint for a perfect here-and-now of comfort and leisure.
The authors cannot recognize their faith in this revisionist doctrine, either. Again, what we two perceive is a belief-system diametrically opposed to ours in significant ways. We do not believe in the pure possibility of secular utopia, both because material resources are insufficient and—even more—because the perversity embedded in the human heart will always find a way to spin misery from abundance. Furthermore, we believe strongly in the value of self-denial. The good Christian of the old stamp does not struggle to make a higher wage so that he may wallow in more luxury, and he admires people who have little yet are quite happy with what they possess. This new system revolts the two of us viscerally: it is nauseating. We see simple folk being turned into a greedy rabble and wealthy people aping sainthood after parting with sums that they will never miss. What a noisome parody of faith!
Yet perhaps the most repellent behavior of the “new Christian” has nothing to do with writing checks (or voting to force others to write checks): it is the new demureness in speech habits. Christians must say nothing that offends. They must not be confrontational. They must be peacemakers—they must corrupt their own principles rather than leave others feeling awkward or alienated. God is love! The purpose of faith is to draw the world into one great laughing, weeping, weaving embrace. Another utopia: but its core value this time is not so much that everyone should share everything as that no one should ever “feel bad”. The emphasis is even less practical than before, even more delirious and puerile.
The two of us agree in hating liars. The PC formula, of course, insists that one hate lies instead of the liar; yet at the moment when a deliberate and malicious falsehood is uttered, how not to hate the mouth that says it? If someone should call you a bigot or a racist because you happen not to endorse that person’s political opinions, you surely grow angry. You have been called a vile name with the preconceived intent of discrediting your entire position: such a response to your considered views is, in its entirety, a wicked fraud. The person who practices this kind of deception is a liar and richly deserves to be called so. He must be called so: the truth demands it, and to sigh and smile is to collaborate in the lie.
But the “Christian” wants you to answer in love and humility. You are to ask forgiveness if you have offended in any way; if your opinions were perceived as those of a bigot, then—heaven forbid!—you must have expressed them poorly. If certain words such as “illegal” or “literacy” are viewed as some kind of racist code, then you are to abstain from ever using those words again. Though you most certainly were not speaking in any code at all, you don’t want another human being to believe mistakenly that you did so. Out come the scissors, and away falls page after page of the standard dictionary adapted specially to you.
If the new definition of “Christian behavior” is “conduct repugnant in its invertebrate cowardice and its wanton infidelity to the truth as it skirts confrontation”, then the good person must renounce “Christian behavior”. The true God stands for truth and is intolerant of falsehood. The initial stage of any right action is securing enough information to chart a responsible course. This information is useless if one does not or cannot ascertain its truth value. One cannot simply restore a disputed object to one party when two parties lay claim to it—not without first researching the merits of their claims.
Yet seekers after the truth are now routinely persecuted, and the “Christian upgrade” seems to feel that goodness lies along the path of not stirring the persecutor up. We shouldn’t inflict on others the torment of making them bully us! And the bullies are everywhere. The advance of rigid ideology and irrational fanaticism has accelerated in our time to the point that one dare not even state the most transparent realities of the daily world. Take the following (which one of this piece’s authors lately wrote in another venue): “Heterosexual couples have held marriage in increasing contempt for five decades, claiming that formality strangles love; the homosexual claim that marriage is necessary to gay couples as a fulfillment of their love stands in stark and suspicious contrast.” And so it does. Any reasonable person would want to know why the institution of marriage is despised for its coarse venality by one community and revered for its mystical symbolism by the other, both claiming that love has motivated their verdict. The situation involves deep contradiction—yet one is not to delve into it, to look for its truth. The new Christian smiles, and shrugs, and explains that while neither position was proper within his own belief system’s tradition, he understands that traditions evolve, and that other people have other belief systems, and he respects various beliefs and all beliefs… and on and on he pules.
If this is a coherent expression of any belief at all, it is an expression of relativism. It is an assertion either that no truth exists, or that whatever truth does exist is unknowable. The original articles of our faith don’t read this way.
One of us two has a son who is attending a Franciscan college at the moment (and who will not be asked by his parents to return there after this school year). We both admire much about the Franciscan tradition; but, as with all of these matters, yesterday’s St. Francis is not today’s. A comment made by a security official to the assembled parents of incoming freshmen left a deep impression. It cannot be recalled verbatim, unfortunately, but the gist was that all security guards carried only pepper spray, that guns were not allowed on campus, and that… something rather prideful followed, intended more seriously than humorously, to the effect that campus officers had eliminated the evil of firearms.
Here, then, is another “Christian” sentiment that makes our blood boil. We do not question the right of the Franciscans to lay down their lives willingly before an armed madman. We applaud them for their readiness to die. But in opening up their grounds to young people, they incurred an obligation to protect those young people’s lives. There was no form circulated for signing to the effect that every student accepted a holy obligation to die rather than to resist deadly force with deadly force. On the contrary, the impression given by the fatuous chief of security was that the campus was now somehow more secure than ever—now that he had successfully broadcast to every lunatic in the area the presence of nothing but pepper spray to halt a killing spree.
Idiot: maybe that’s the synonym for “Christian” for which we have searched. We two, and a few others like us, have had enough of idiots for one lifetime; and if the new Christianity is nothing more than this garden-variety idiocy, then we’ve had enough of name-brand, publicly marketed Christianity, as well. Our idiot culture has already deprived words like “racism” and “compassion” and “tolerance” of all useful meaning: now it seems that “God” and “Christ” may be added to the list. Perhaps one should begin saying “Deus” and “Christus” in one’s heart and thoughts, where all true worship takes place, in order to retain one’s sanity as well as one’s faith. For there are fools and then fools, lunatics and then lunatics: our God has no use for fools who fool themselves.
John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin. George Shirley has published poetry frequently in these pages, and resides near Clemson, South Carolina. His seminarian studies were permanently interrupted by such reflections as are reproduced above.