evasions and approaches

Section of the Monastic Painted Chamber at The Commandery

Above is a painting on the wall of the Commandery, a building said to have been built as a hospital by Wulfstan, then Bishop of Worcester, later St. Wulfstan. The painting is damaged — the chief injuries having been inflicted on it by iconoclasts who erased the faces of the people represented — but the story is easy enough to read. The central figure in the scene is the Archangel Michael, holding scales with which sinners are weighed in the balance. On the left you see a small demon, trying with all his might to drag that pan down to enforce damnation; but on the right the Blessed Virgin Mary lowers rosary beads onto her pan to ensure that the sinner, who seems to be tucked in quite snugly, will indeed be saved. 

It is a vivid drama of our eternal destiny in which Jesus Christ plays no role whatsoever. 

I am of course tempted to say “And that’s why we needed the Reformation!” — and I would say it except that Jesus is just as irrelevant to much Protestant theology and spirituality as he was to the debased pseudo-theology that inspired that wall painting in Worcester. H. Richard Niebuhr famously described the message of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” — but what need had those sinless ones for a Christ, with or without a cross? After all, “The Kingdom of God is within you”! (As someone once said, or near enough.)

Jesus is, generally speaking, a distraction and an embarrassment both to religious people and to those who want to be spiritual-but-not-religious — people who check “Christian” when completing surveys but who more truly affirm the Inner Light, or Natural Law, or Judeo-Christian Values, or Holy Tradition, or Mindfulness, or A Christian Nation, or My Personal Relationship With God — basically, anything but Jesus, who is perceived to be … shall we say, unpredictable? More than a little wild. It’s better to evade him, or set him aside, or just look the other way. It’s certainly safer — it leaves us free to make a religion that suits our preferences and our understanding. 

Charles Williams’s book The Descent of the Dove is subtitled “A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” which is rather an ambitious description, and I have often thought of writing a companion book which I would call Evasions: A Short History of Jesus and the Church

As for me, Jesus is the only reason I am in this game, half-hearted and inconstant a Christian as I am. I hang on to this one figure with desperation. When all else fails to console, he consoles me. In his famous Divinity School address, Emerson described, with a fastidious moue of distaste, “Historical Christianity” as a movement that “has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” May all the Emersons of the world say that about me! God forbid that I should fail to give them cause to say it! 

I am drawn magnetically to the Jesus depicted in the canonical Gospels because it seems manifest to me that he is not someone any of us would have invented. (The contrast with the later narratives of his life, especially the Gnostic-inflected ones, is striking: The extravagantly thaumaturgic Jesus depicted therein is precisely the kind of figure a pinwheel-eyed enthusiast of mysteries would invent.) Given the uncompromising strangeness of the canonical Jesus — his oscillation between a prophetic fierceness that rattles us all and an infinite tenderness that may be in its own way even more disconcerting — I find myself warmly endorsing Auden’s statement: “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.” Which is followed by the real zinger:

Thus, if a Christian is asked: “Why Jesus and not Socrates or Buddha or Confucius or Mahomet?”  perhaps all he can say is: “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify Him’.” 

Even those not compelled, as Auden and I have been, to kneel before this man — those who, as one might say, perceive him merely as “this swell figure from the East” — can be affected by the compelling, and in the ancient Hellenistic context utterly unique, depiction of him in the Gospels. Iris Murdoch, pausing in a philosophical exposition to reflect on these strange texts, notes that they “are in a sense easy to read, can seem so (even I would think for a complete stranger to them), because they are the kind of great art where we feel: It is so.” But what they narrate — is it so? “What happened immediately after Christ’s death, how it all went on, how the Gospel writers and Paul became persuaded He had risen: this is one of the great mysteries of history. It is difficult to imagine any explanation in purely historical terms, though the unbeliever must assume there is one.” 

That is an assumption I have been unable to make. And so I cling to Jesus, and only to Jesus. And as I strive to do so, certain words have become touchstones for me, sources of strength and encouragement. Some of them are well-known, like a passage from one of George MacDonald’s novels, and the magnificent answer given by the Heidelberg Catechism to the question “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Others are perhaps less well-known: Reynolds Price’s wrestling with Jesus, in delight and terror, in his Three Gospels; many set-pieces from Romano Guardini’s The Lord; the entry on “Jesus” in Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures; the chapter called “Yeshua” in Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. All these draw me back towards the center of things, towards the One who is the heart and soul of all Creation. Every day I want to evade him, to look the other way, and when I do my faith wanes and weakens; but when I look, when I draw near, I remember what I’m all about, what the world is all about. When I look towards Jesus I am caught and held, even if sometimes shattered by what I see. 

Probably the most regular re-centering in my life comes when, in the middle of an Anglican Eucharistic service — for this is a distinctively Anglican thing — we hear what we call the Comfortable Words. I commend them to you all. 

Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (Matthew 11:28) 

God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15)

If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)