Sunday, November 22, 2009

It's Not All About You

I have spent the last few weeks reading C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity with my seniors. It's a remarkable little book: clearly written, engaging, with very short chapters. As my post from yesterday should indicate, my indebtedness to Lewis for giving me an imaginative tableau for my Christianity certainly predisposes me toward loving any of his works.

Book III of Mere Christianity takes as its overarching topic the issue of Christian Behavior. He begins by recounting "a story about a schoolboy who was asked what he thought God was like. He replied that, as far as he could make out, God was
"The sort of person who is always snooping round to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it."
Lewis writes that in his own era, just around 1943, this is the image of God that seems to have taken hold of popular imagination. If my experience with high school and college students is any indication, this image of God still holds sway.

If this distorted image of God still reigns, I believe it is because of our distorted notion of Christian morality. Lewis is right in noting that, for many, Christian morality is "something that interferes, something that stops you having a good time." In other words, morality is reduced to a bunch of proscriptions: Do not do this, You may not do that. Morality thus ceases to be about how faith affects and shapes our entire life, preparing us to live forever in the Kingdom of God, and is reduced to an obsessive focus on individual acts.

Lewis writes that Morality appears to be concerned with three things:
  • With fair play and harmony between individuals
  • With tidying up or harmonizing the things inside ourselves
  • With the general purpose of human life as a whole: what humans are for
Too often, he goes on to observe, Morality is reduced to a focus on the first of these and a complete neglect of the latter two. While ensuring right relations between people is certainly important, it is not enough.

At the risk of scandalizing readers, let me try to make this clear.

I have observed that, for many young men, "Christian Morality" is reduced to "What I do with my pelvic region." As long as I don't hurt anyone else, they reason, it's okay. This reasoning, they figure, permits the willy-nilly use of pornography. Applying this reasoning to the entire body, they ask, What difference does it make to anyone if I smoke pot? Drink under age? They want to have a good time, they don't see it as hurting anyone else, and if God doesn't like this....well, then, just get rid of God all together! Better to be a happy atheist or a wholly unbothered agnostic than a prudish theist.

If Christian morality is often reduced to negative proscriptions, modern morality is equally reduced: If it doesn't hurt anyone, then it's okay.

This, Lewis writes, is moonshine. What good is it to have right relations with other people if the individual is completely out of whack? We have to examine the moral standing of the individual - we need to look not only at what she does, but who she is. We need, in other words, to look at the individual's character. Christian morality begins, once we look at the person's character, to focus on the whole person, on who this Christian is as a disciple of Jesus, on how this person lives out this discipleship.

But why even be a disciple? Because, Lewis writes, the general purpose of Christian life is to live together forever in the Kingdom of God. Our human lives are training grounds for eternity in the New Jerusalem. To be sure, this is where Christianity and other traditions will conflict; one should not suspect that the Buddhist is angling for a seat at the Lamb's Table! Nevertheless, as Christians, this is the belief that we hold and we must live our lives in accordance with this belief, trying to make sense of it to others (and to ourselves) as we journey toward the Kingdom together.

Christian morality, understood as how faith in Christ shapes and molds our human lives, is the great and much-needed reminder to our own culture: It's not all about you. Yes, you are important - infinitely important! - but you are not alone in this great journey of discipleship.

The irony is that in order to combat the narcissism and self-obsession of our era, Christians often become equally self-obsessed and act-centered. I really think this is a reason why young people struggle so greatly with Christianity: they think it is nothing more than rules and regulations that keep them from having a good time. There are rules, and there certainly are regulations. But God is not a cosmic tally-keeper who watches to see how many times you do x or y. Better, perhaps, to see God as the great coach who encourages you to keep practicing, who corrects you when needed, who helps you to play well with your team mates, so that you are ready to play in the big game.

If today's pelvis-preoccupied culture reject Christianity, it is more often because we have failed to catechize properly. We need to affirm again and again that we like athletes who are in training. Let me be clear: we must not be permissive and say, "Oh well, it doesn't matter." If a pitcher isn't throwing the ball properly, it's a terrible coach who says, "Oh well, it doesn't matter at all." It matters a great deal! The coach realizes that there is more at stake than just the pitcher: there is the whole team that cannot win the game unless all individuals are playing well.

We do need, however, to remember one good pitch does not a pitcher make, nor one bad pitch necessitate that he be thrown off of the team. We need to focus on more than just individual acts and regain the robust image of the Body of Christ which is, like any team, far greater than the sum of its parts: it supports its players, it encourages them, it challenges them to continue to grown and develop, and it compensates when they falter. A group of of All-Stars won't be very successful if they can't learn to play as a team; a bunch of musicians can't play well together if they don't have a common beat to follow. It is the grace of Christianity that we have that coach and we have that beat: Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

We have now, more than ever, a chance to restate the great drama of Christianity and challenge people to take up again the great adventure of discipleship. In a sense, then, it is about you: only you can decide to accept the invitation to discipleship. But upon entrance, you realize that you don't occupy the central place: there are others who have been called along with you and we're all trying to figure out how to develop ourselves better and integrate ourselves further into this rag tag team with call the Church. We need to reclaim some excitement for being so drafted and go out and draft others into the "Spring Training" of our earthly discipleship so that we may all play as a team forever in the Eternal Summer of God's Kingdom.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the analogy with sports. I may have to pick up that book myself ("Mere Christianity"). I am sure you can see this with your students. As a young person I really enjoyed it, though you may already know this but you certainly do have a talent as far as writting/expressing thoughts in this manner. God Bless!

17 yr old gal in MO

Anonymous said...

Precisely so.

Anonymous said...

As always, you comments are very insightful. Your students are lucky to have a teacher of your caliber.