In my ministry as a vagabond evangelist, I have encountered shocking resistance to the God whom the Bible defines as Love. The skeptics range from the oily, over-polite professionals who discreetly drop hints of the heresy of universalism, to the Bible thumper who sees only the dusty, robust war God of the Pentateuch, and who insists on restating the cold demands of rule-ridden perfectionism.
But the answer seems too easy, too glib. Yes, God saved us because he loved us. But he is God. He has infinite imagination. Couldn’t he have dreamed up a different redemption? Couldn’t he have saved us with a pang of hunger, a word of forgiveness, a single drop of blood? And if he had to die, then for God’s sake — for Christ’s sake — couldn’t he have died in bed, died with dignity? Why was he condemned like a criminal? Why was his back flayed with whips? Why was his head crowned with thorns? Why was he nailed to wood and allowed to die in frightful, lonely agony? Why was the last breath drawn in bloody disgrace, while the world for which he lay dying egged on his executioners with savage fury like some kind of gang rape by uncivilized brutes in Central Park? Why did they have to take the very best? One thing we know — we don’t comprehend the love of Jesus Christ. Oh, we see a movie and resonate to what a young man and woman will endure for romantic love. We know that when the chips are down, if we love wildly enough we’ll fling life and caution to the winds for the one we love. But when it comes to God’s love in the broken, blood-drenched body of Jesus Christ, we get antsy and start to talk about theology, divine justice, God’s wrath, and the heresy of universalism.
The scribes were treated with excessive deference in Jewish society because of their education and learning. Everyone honored them because of their wisdom and intelligence. The “mere children”(napioi in Greek, really meaning babes) were Jesus’ image for the uneducated and ignorant. He is saying that the gospel of grace has been disclosed to and grasped by the uneducated and ignorant instead of the learned and wise. For this Jesus thanks God… The babes (napioi) are in the same state as the children (paidia). God’s grace falls on them because they are negligible creatures, not because of their good qualities. They may be aware of their worthlessness, but this is not the reason revelations are given to them. Jesus expressly attributes their good fortune to the Father’s good pleasure, the divine eudokia. The gifts are not determined by the slightest personal quality or virtue. They were pure liberality. Once and for all, Jesus deals the death blow to any distinction between the elite and the ordinary in the Christian community.
The Kingdom belongs to people who aren’t trying to look good impress anybody, even themselves. They are not plotting how they can call attention to themselves, worrying about how their actions will be interpreted or wondering if they will get gold stars for their behavior. Twenty centuries later, Jesus speaks pointedly to the preening ascetic trapped in the fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism, to those of us caught up in boasting about our victories in the vineyard, to those of us fretting and flapping about our human weaknesses and character defects. The child doesn’t have to struggle to get himself in a good position for having a relationship with God; he doesn’t have to craft ingenious ways of explaining his position Jesus; he doesn’t have to create a pretty face for himself; he doesn’t have to achieve any state of spiritual feeling or intellectual understanding. All he has to do is happily accept the cookies: the gift of the Kingdom.
The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness.
Perhaps the real dichotomy in the Christian community today is not between conservatives and liberals or creationist and evolutionists but between the awake and the asleep. The Christian ragamuffin acknowledges with MacBeth: “Life is but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” Just as a smart man knows he is stupid, so the awake Christian knows he/she is a ragamuffin. Although truth is not always humility, humility is always truth: the blunt acknowledgment that I owe my life, being, and salvation to Another. This fundamental act lies at the core of our response to grace. The beauty of the ragamuffin gospel lies in the insight it offers into Jesus: the essential tenderness of his heart, his way of looking at the world, his mode of relating to you and me.
It seems to me that elsewhere in America liberty is far more a matter of law than practice. The Bill of Rights is still on the books and they’d have a hell of a time putting you in jail for just saying something, but how free are we? Whatever the guarantees, I believe liberty resides in its exercise. Liberty is really about the ability to feel free and behave accordingly. You are only as free as you act. Free people must be willing to speak up … and listen. They can’t merely consume the fruits of freedom, they have to produce them. This exercise of liberty requires that people trust one another and the institutions they make together. They have to feel at home in their society. Well, Americans don’t appear to trust each other much these days. Why else would we employ three times more lawyers per capita than we did in 1970? Why else would our universities be so determined to impose tolerance that they’ll expel you for saying what you think and never notice the irony? Why else would we teach our kids to fear all strangers? Why else have we become so afraid to look one another in the eye? We have come to regard trust as foolishness and fear as necessary. We live in terror that the people around us might figure out what we’re actually thinking. Frankly, this America doesn’t feel very free to me at all. What has happened to our liberty? I think much of the answer lies in the critical difference between information and experience. These days we view most of our world through a television screen. Most of our knowledge comes from information about things, not experience with them.
If we can conquer everything except ourselves, the result is that we do not hold the power. More and more power over nature is placed in hands that are weaker and weaker. Heredity, environment, the spirit of the times, “the inevitable dialectic of history,” the media, something is always in the driver’s seat instead of ourselves.
The church is safe from vicious persecution at the hand of the secularist, as educated people have finished with stake-burning circuses and torture racks. No martyr’s blood is shed in the secular west. So long as the church knows her place and remains quietly at peace on her modern reservation. Let the babes pray and sin and read their Bibles, continuing steadfastly in their intellectual retardation; the church’s extinction will not come by sword or pillory, but by the
quiet death of irrelevance. But let the church step off the reservation, let her penetrate once more the culture of the day and the … face of secularism will change from a benign smile to a savage snarl.
More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, “Lo, I will be with you.” When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power.
Precisely at the same hour in which [the Jews] were being done to death, the overwhelming plurality of human beings, two miles away on the Polish farms, five thousand miles away in New York, were sleeping or eating or going to a film or making love or worrying about the dentist. The two orders of simultaneous experience are so different, so irreconcilable to any common norm of human value, their coexistence is so hideous a paradox… Are there, as science fiction and Gnostic speculation imply, different species of time in the same world, “good time” and enveloping fold of inhuman time, in which men fall into the slow hand of the living damnation?… What had old Stingo been up to while Jozef (and Sophie and Wanda) had been writhing in Warsaw’s unspeakable Gehenna? Listening to Glenn Miller, swilling beer, horsing around in bars, whacking off. God, what an iniquitous world!
The debunkers stigmatise as slush and sentimentality a very great deal of what their fathers said in praise of love. They are always pulling up and exposing the grubby roots of our natural loves. But I take it we must listen neither “to the over-wise nor to the over-foolish giant.” The highest does not stand without the lowest. A plant must have roots below as well as sunlight above and roots must be grubby. Much of the grubbiness is clean dirt if only you will leave it in the garden and not keep on sprinkling it over the library table. The human loves can be glorious images of Divine love.
That era is as long dead as the time when Indiana barbers kept the Police Gazette at the bottom of their towel drawers. We live in an age so compulsively permissive that I sometimes wonder whether anyone under 21 would know a forbidden thrill if he felt one. Norman Mailer was on the right track in “The Armies of the Night” when he protested against those who would remove the guilt from sex: Without guilt, he wrote, sex would lose half the fun.
Christianity is realistic because it says that if there is no truth, there is also no hope.
We do not need to bear our guilt, nor do we even have to merit the merit of Christ. He does it all. So in one way it is the easiest religion in the world. But now we can turn that over because it is the hardest religion in the world for the same reason. The heart of the rebellion of Satan and man was the desire to be autonomous; and accepting the Christian faith robs us not of our existence, not of our worth (it give us our worth), but it robs us completely of being autonomous. We did not make ourselves, we are not a product of chance, we are none of these things; we stand there before a Creator plus nothing, we stand before the Savior plus nothing — it is a complete denial of being autonomous. Whether it is conscious or unconscious (and in them most brilliant people it is occasionally conscious), when they see the sufficiency of the answers on their own level, they suddenly are up against their innermost humanness — not humanness as they were created to be human but human in the bad sense since the Fall. That is the reason that people do not accept the sufficient answers and why they are counted by God as disobedient and guilty when they do not bow.
A man like Sir Julian Huxley has clarified the dilemma by acknowledging, though he is an atheist, that somehow or other, against all that one might expect, man functions better if he acts as though God is there. This sounds like a feasible solution for a moment, the kind of answer a computer might give if you fed the sociological data into it. God is dead, but act as if he were alive. However, a moment’s reflection will show what a terrible solution this is. Ibsen, the Norwegian, put it like this: if you take away a man’s lie, you take away his hope. These thinkers are saying in effect that man can function as man for an extended period of time only if he acts on the assumption that a lie (that the personal God of Christianity is there) is true. You cannot find any deeper despair than this for a sensitive person. This is not an optimistic, happy, reasonable or brilliant answer. It is darkness and death.
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair… Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the green herb. When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the surging sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man. But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.
There is only one situation I can think of in which men and women make an effort to read better than they usually do. When they are in love and reading a love letter, they read for all they are worth. They read every word three ways; they read between the lines and in the margins. They may even take the punctuation into account. Then, if never before or after, they read.
St. John’s saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougement) that “love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god”; which of course can be re-stated in the form “begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.” This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God. I suppose that everyone who has thought about the matter will see what M. de Rougemont meant. Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious. That erotic love and love of one’s country may thus attempt to “become gods” is generally recognised. But family affection may do the same.
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles [Williams] is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien] reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, “Here comes one who will augment our loves.” For in this love “to divide is not to take away”. Of course the scarcity of kindred souls — not to mention the practical consideration about the size of rooms and the audibility of voices — sets limits to the enlargement of the circle; but within those limits we possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.
We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he “wants a woman”. Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).