Every year I enjoy receiving Christmas greetings in the mail, but this year an atheist friend sent me something new: an Anti-Christmas card in which he gave us felicitations of the winter solstice, inviting us to join our pre-Christian forebears in celebrating its prospects. He takes a Nietzschean view of Christianity: it is a myth in which the spiritually and mentally weak take refuge, a platform from which to make cowardly and self-righteous assaults on those who have the courage to deny the truth of these fairy-stories and live in a demystified reality.
I am sympathetic to his charges, since I find them true from a perspective I understand, and do not find unreasonable, but have chosen not to adopt because I do not myself wish to be judged on my worst points. It is by no means difficult, however, to find representatives of Christianity against whom they are perfectly plausible. If someone concentrates his sight on these, defining the faith by its worst professors–who loom exceedingly large in the view of many through no fault of their own–then it is indeed every bad thing that so many wounded freethinkers accuse it of being.
I rarely find these people unlovely–in fact, the contrary has usually been true. Many of them seem full of love, not only for people, but for God’s other handiwork–and they are lovers of truth so far as they are able to perceive it as unconnected to orthodox religion. Are they really atheists? God knows, but I am not willing to affirm it. What does one say of someone whose encounters with professing Christians and their churches have left him cold or hostile, but who rejoices in justice, truth, goodness, and beauty so far as his prejudices allow him to perceive it?
St. Augustine said he would never have believed the gospel if the authority of the catholic Church had not influenced him to do so, but for many this authority has been obscured, the power, glory, beauty, and authority of the Church having been eclipsed by the flocks of mendicants, hucksters, and holy shows in its outer courts. Becoming atheists to their gospels is a necessary step to finding one’s way to God. While we cannot deny the fool the privilege of saying “No God” in his heart, the atheist as we can know him may not be a fool; indeed, we who profess Christ need to be especially careful that we do not become fools ourselves in our profession to know God, inclined as we are to make him over after our own images and worship what is in fact an idol.
For me the authority of the catholic Church has only been discoverable behind the churches. What has made it discoverable is my love of, and strong desire to play a part in, the Great Story from which all stories worth hearing come, of which I have written elsewhere. The Church is the Beautiful Princess whom the Handsome Prince went through death and fire to win. This story is not told only by the Bible–although that is the authoritative version which gives the central detail–but in variation (and sometimes only in part) by all the storytellers whose stories simple people such as I want to hear. The Prince returns to Ithaca, or Minas Tirith, or Hogwarts, or heaven, ruining his enemies and claiming his bride. This is the only story I want, and, like a little child on Mother’s knee, insist absolutely it be told right–with no “creative” work on the part of the storyteller, whose sole task is to pass it down accurately and uncorrupted.
Now, there are certain requirements involved in being a Christian which are obnoxious to us worldly people naturally inclined to sin. But I hardly see how one could desire to do what is necessary to know Christ without loving him first (even when his name is not known), as the object of what Lewis called Sweet Desire–a mysterious and overwhelming longing, rooted in the Self by Grace, that goes far beyond and is far deeper than fear or respect or religious devotion or even much that is regarded as love. It is much more like strong sexual desire, its loss what is felt, and meant to be felt, at the end of every carnal exultation. It is what is found when a special gift of God allows us to consider, even for a brief moment, what our hearts desire–of what the place will be like where we want our pilgrimage to end. We cannot summon this of our own will; it comes as when a chime awakens the vision of “a far green country under a swift sunrise,” which then quickly recedes–and so it should, for it is not of this world, but a visitation from another.
There are “church” formulations of this understanding which are absolutely and formally correct: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” is one of the best. These generally leave me as cold as they do my atheist (or angry heretic) friends. But I have no problem whatever seeing the Lord Jesus Christ as the handsome Prince, the Church as his Bride, and wishing myself to be among his friends. For me, as well as perhaps for them, he needs translating out of church language before he can be translated back in, but once the translation has been made, then one can see it was the ancient voice of Mother Kirk in all her hidden glory that was speaking to us all along–yes, even in Homer.