Since both Don and I are under the weather this week, we will forgo our usual cultural criticism in favor of some straightforward thinking about the Christian life. I was rereading Mere Christianity the other day and came upon this passage:
The ordinary idea which we all have before we become Christians is this. We take as starting point our ordinary self with its various desires and interests. We then admit that something else call it
“morality” or “decent behaviour,” or “the good of society” has claims on this self: claims which interfere with its own desires. What we mean by “being good” is giving in to those claims. Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call “wrong”: well, we must give them up. Other things, which the self did not want to do, turn out to be what we call “right”: well, we shall have to do them. But we are hoping all the time that when all the demands have been met, the poor natural self will still have some chance, and some time, to get on with its own life and do what it likes. In fact, we are very like an honest man paying his taxes. He pays them all right, but he does hope that there will be enough left over for him to live on.
Ouch. That hurt. I do tend to think about my day this way. I get up and meet the demands of God for me. I pray. I “do my quiet time” reading the bible or some other devotional material–often looking at the clock all the while until I think I have expended enough time not to be impious but no so much time that I don’t get my “other” work done. Yet some how I don’t have that same attitude when I’m playing video games or reading the latest Marvel graphic novel. I really do pay my taxes to God and then hope there is more left over for me. But Lewis doesn’t stop there:
As long as we are thinking that way, one or other of two results is likely to follow. Either we give up trying to be good, or else we become very unhappy indeed. For, make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your
natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier.
Or sadder and sadder. Depending on whether we internalize or externalize that anger. I’m an ethics professor so those words are hard to hear. I spend my time examining the thoughts of largely white men who are trying to do ethics without God. I do believe that you can construct an ethical system without God but it is a poor, thin, tattered rag of a ethic. I am reminded of the words of John Finnis, the Natural Law philosopher:
But just as the fact that a good explanation of molecular motion can be provided, without adverting to the existence of an uncreated creator of the whole state of affairs . . . does not itself entail (i) that no further explanation of that state of affairs is required (ii) that no such further explanation is available or (iii) that the existence of an uncreated creator that explanation, so to the fact that natural law can be understood, assented to, applied, and reflectively analysed . . . does not entail that (i) no further explanation is required, (ii) that no such further explanation is available or (iii) that the existence and nature of God is not that explanation.
Can one be good without God? Yes. Can one have a good reason to be good without God? Yes. But can one be happy being good without God and can one found their life on reasoned goodness? Doubtful. I’ve said it before. Jesus’ ethics about how to treat people aren’t that radical. Follow Jesus’ teachings about loving your neighbor and you may be lionized by others, but you will be in the company of many a secular saint. However, the inner transformation of contentment, peace, and happiness. That’s a different story. Listen to Lewis:
The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to
torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. . .The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.”
Hard to hear. Believing in Christ is easy. Following him in a world of substitutes, counterfeits, and mirages is something totally different. I was reminded of that when I recently read a book called Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos. The story is wacky. The author begins with a scene in which he, the author, is eating vegetarian chili in a communist inspired cafe in the radical pacific northwest. What’s wacky is that Jesus is sitting next to him listening to an ipod when the Apostle Peter walks in and punches Jesus in the nose and Jesus takes off like a bat out of Hades. If you haven’t guessed Matt’s communist cafe Jesus isn’t the real one. Neither are Political Jesus, Hippie Jesus, Properity Jesus etc. But they all show up determined to pass themselves off as the Real Jesus. Mikalatos’ comedy is light and absurd but his point is something profound. We all manufacture our natural selves with God as another facet of that self. Sometimes when I look at my natural self its hard to tell the difference between it and what I think Jesus looks like. In other words, scratch an imaginary Jesus in someone’s mind and you will find a fractured attempt to keep something from God. Uggh. Something stinks in here. And Lewis thinks he knows what it is:
It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
Hatch or go bad. That too is hard to hear. The Christian life is like an egg. If it isn’t developing then its going bad. That is not something you will find in Aristotle or Immanuel Kant or any other secular ethic. The radical thing about Christian ethics, about Jesus, is not how we behave in public but rather how we understand the natural self. We are either being transformed or we are going rotten. It would be the height of arrogance for me to try to apply this truth to your Christian life and I won’t do it. I won’t “wrap this up” with some platitude about what “we” need to do. Every one of us is different and the Holy Spirit works on us in different ways. I will simply ask for prayer as I try to take this hard truth and apply to my life and I will do the same for you dear reader. One last quote from Lewis:
That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter
life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.
May God grant us all the grace to push back all our wishes and hopes and come in out of the wind.