My friend Jon is an intelligent, thoughtful man who spent his career serving others. He reads seriously, listens to great music even more seriously; and yet finds Church irrelevant. (Maybe we should worry more about those who find it too comfortable.) At the end of a conversation I compared faith to a jackal that leaps onto a man’s back from a tree. Laater, I wrote to Jon as follows:
That image might be as misleading as any other description of faith, but it suggests several important truths. One: the thing comes from an unexpected direction. Two: we don’t necessarily like it. Three: it’s not our own doing. On the other hand, it doesn’t always arrive suddenly; looking back one can recognize stages of development, even if there is a single moment one sees as the turning point. Augustine’s Confessions are the locus classicus for this discussion.
There is a well known site on the internet where you can take a test to locate yourself along a spectrum of believers from conservative to liberal. The result is worthless, because the questions come from an impoverished notion of faith, in which modernity is supposedly an antagonist of belief, and belief—the having of opinions—is the substance of faith. Unhappily, most lay people and probably many clergy in the United States could not say what is wrong with that. Faith of some other kind is apparently not on their map.
That will earn me the opprobrious judgment, “judgmental.” But some kind of judgment—call is “discernment” if you like—is needed when the churches do such a shamefully poor job of presenting faith. They commonly speak of it as a spiritual decision, a choice, a commitment. It is as though we have all the control, the Church is only a booth at a fair, which performs the service of displaying God’s wares for him in a marketplace. This is fakery. Its consistent note is the relentless flattery of the customer.
Real God-talk sounds quite different. It does not lie along a spectrum, it does not conform to a recipe; for God engages each person uniquely. Accordingly, it is probably foolish to generalize at all, but there are some themes to it, which one hears repeated enough to grant them a kind of authority.
People say faith came to them when they stopped looking for it. They refer to the “quest” for it as paradoxical, neurotic avoidance. When they receive it, they testify to neither assurance nor pride, but foolishness, embarrassment, and the unaccountable urge to get on their knees. Events in the past and hopes for the future acquire unprecedented meanings. In due time,, there follows joy; joy of a very profound sort, capable of enduring trials and embracing death. Seekers after this strange humiliation deserve some warning of what they are getting into.
It is important to point out this difference, for the benefit of people like yourself: thoughtful, skeptical, modern, looking hesitantly for a way in. Such people are usually not unfamiliar with Church. When they hesitate, they do so for good reasons, based on their prior experience of religious believers. They rightly recoil from most of what is said about it in public. They see through the lens of the marketplace, which has nothing to offer when a man in real want shows up.
‘Want’ is a key word here. We reach a certain stage in life and find ourselves wanting in two senses. In the first place, we find ourselves wanting as human beings, not measuring up to what we had hoped to do and be. And in the second, we find ourselves desiring acceptance as we really are. We want love from someone who knows the unvarnished truth about ourselves and is prepared to embrace us anyway. The Church, when it does its job right, holds out God’s promise of that love.
Unfortunately, for all its talk of love and acceptance, the Church too often makes a botched job of it. This is because polite people (and Church people are all excruciatingly polite) are not willing to speak of personal want; it is considered indecorous, a negative emotion. Accordingly, the usual mode of acceptance is mere social acceptance, not much different from that of an Elks lodge, Kiwanis club, KOA campground, or a randomly chosen elevator full of the nicest people. A sensible man might prefer niceness to the jackal faith, but a wiser man hopes for what is not sensible.