The Speech and Practice of Christianity

Confession: I enjoying reading theology and am particularly persuaded by many of its profound arguments. On multiple occasions, however, I have sworn to myself that I’m going to go in other directions that would be more financially rewarding and less burdening but, try as I might, I have continued the dialogue. On the other hand, I consider myself quite the hypocrite when I attend church because, back in my study, I love theology but I abhor its incarnation. It’s not so much that I take myself to be inhabiting a contradiction but more that the speech and practice of Christianity do not align. I cannot admit that this is any original reflection, but even if the hypocritical pattern is universal its particular substantiation in any given time and place is unique. For me, specifically, I hoped in the promise that the church is an anticipation of an eschatological kingdom of perfect community; harmonizing and integrating the differences between individuals and society. As such, the church should be an alternative community in-itself and a witness to the surrounding society of what politics, economics, society could be. In this manner theology would out-narrate secular social theory and the church would out-perform neo-liberal society. But alas, it took a year of travel and withdrawal from intellectual pressure to admit that my own experience did not match how I had been trained to think.

Julia Kristeva makes a similar note on this form of discrepancy in the church’s history. While grace for sinners might be its motto, in practice the situation is much different. The de jure and de facto realities are reversals of each other. It is rare that confession in church will be answered with the glorious counterweight of grace. Grace seems to be in name only.

Little by little, acts of atonement, of contrition, of paying one’s debt to a pitiless, judging God, are eclipsed by the sole act of speech….Acknowledgment and absolution count for everything, sin has no need for actions in order to be remitted….not by virtue of merit….felix culpa is merely a phenomenon of enunciation. The whole black history of the Church shows that condemnation, the fiercest censorship, and punishment are nonetheless the common reality of this practice (Powers of Horror, p. 131)

This comment is apropos of the wisdom shared in recent book put out by ‘The Other Journal’: “God Is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.  Merold Westphal, one of the many contributing authors, notes that it is actually believers who are most responsible for the unbelief of non-Christians. His point is not so much that theologians don’t have good rational arguments for Christianity but that believers present “an unflattering presentation of God and [exhibit] actions that run contrary to the very God they affirm.” This is true of the church body just as much as it is of individual Christians.

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One response to “The Speech and Practice of Christianity”

  1. Matthew Martin says :

    “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains….Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial….

    “Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchmen. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of living together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspirations to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants–‘sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own’. And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

    “I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do–if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner–then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger b allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can,

    Your affectionate uncle

    Screwtape”

    C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, pg. 5-9

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