Updated: Nov 23, 2021
The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is its outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.
~ G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
I had coffee with one of my favorite human beings yesterday, Jerry Sittser, who, among other things, has written a number of wonderful books, the most recent being the 25th anniversary edition of his classic meditation on profound grief and loss, A Grace Disguised, with two new chapters. For those of you who haven’t read it, I suggest you go out immediately and get yourself a copy. Many times over the years, I have either purchased it for—or recommended it to—people who have experienced tragic loss. It’s the best meditation on the subject and an act of sheer bravery and generosity for Jerry to have written. I pray fervently that I’ll never have the occasion to take up such an ominous and solemn and sacred task.
In any case, yesterday during our kinetic and Gatling gun-like conversation (perhaps an ill-timed metaphor in these violent times of ours) of over two hours, with nary a rest to catch our breath, the subject of tension was brought up. Not tension in the sense of feeling tense about something, but tension in the sense of holding on to symbiotic or apparent opposites, of committing one’s way to walking a fine line of opposing forces, much like Philippe Petit walking the tight wire between the World Trade Centers in the mid-70s (much to the consternation of the NYPD, and the utter amazement of the crowd 1,000 feet below). It is the way of the Christian pilgrim, who seeks to follow in the “bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus,” to use the words of Flannery O’Connor, as we attempt to be faithful to the paradox of living out what I call the “prophetic gospel.” The first word, prophetic, sets the terms, the limits, and the urgency of the way of Christian pilgrimage, and the second word, gospel, establishes the depth and beauty and promised freedom of that way. Both are present, and in necessary tension with each other, in an authentic Christian pilgrimage.
As often happens to me, my talk with Jerry coincided with my re-reading (more accurately, my re-listening) of my book, A Subversive Gospel, about the writer Flannery O’Connor and her blistering vision of the world. The fact that I am once again re-reading my own book (something I try to do once a year) is either a sign of my deep-seated narcissism or, what I prefer to believe, my ongoing attempt to figure out what I wrote those years ago, which felt at the time—and continues to feel—over my head. I wrote it in a prolonged fever dream of sorts, and if I’m being honest, I get more out of it with each subsequent re-reading. You can be the judge of what that tells you about me.
The section I had just gone through in the book, as it happens, was on the importance of tension in the Christian life, a tension exemplified in O’Connor’s writing and which was inspired by her main influence and de facto mentor, the Baron Friedrich von Hügel, who talks about the crucial tension of the Christian life among the material, rational, and spiritual planes of existence, or what he called the “Three Elements of Religion.” The lament that von Hügel had, and that O’Connor shared -- and that I feel -- is that the tension inherent in the Christian pilgrimage is often abandoned by well-meaning folk who've mistaken the narrow way of salvation for the highway of cultural relevance or political expediency or religious sentimentalism, all the while co-opting the language of the Christian pilgrimage but not accepting the sacrifice (or what von Hügel called the “costingness”) required to walk in it.
The most recent example of this was in a video recommended to us by our good pastor, in which an earnest young man extols his viewers to support the “historic Christian sexual ethic” while, at the same time, celebrating same-sex marriage. There is a difference, mind you, between the attempt to hold apparent opposites together, which is the whole paradox of the Christian life, and the attempt to hold actual opposites together, which is a grammatical (if not existential) tautology and that never results in tension but ends up in either giving in to one side or another or in watering down both sides so that any tension finally melts away. The young man engages in a little of both, giving into the cultural side of this debate while watering down the “historic Christian sexual ethic.” I took seven pages of single-spaced notes in response to this half hour video, largely because I hate to hold the view I do about this issue and because I am always looking for a good argument to wrest me from it. This video, unfortunately, only left me with an even greater sunken realization that the actual “historic Christian sexual ethic” is correct: that sex was intended by God exclusively as a gift to be experienced between a man and woman in marriage. Whether there are exceptions to this regula is up for thoughtful debate, but that we should never legislate the exceptions is absolutely clear. And in my opinion, that is the signal problem of “Affirming Christians”: they attempt to legislate the exception (if indeed there is one), and in doing so, make quick work of Christ’s admonition to walk in the tension of the narrow way. Needless to say, I will continue to look for compelling arguments against my position. I hope I can find one.
At the end of the day, whether the tension is relinquished by the Left in its attempt to be everything to everyone (the moniker LGBTQQIP2SAA pretty much says it all) or by the Right in its completely transparent attempt to mask its xenophobia and hateful prejudice under the moniker of “patriotism,” the effect is the same: the tension inherent in the Christian pilgrimage is done away with in favor of the rush of being a part of a group that requires nothing more than our instinctive and deep-seated desire as a species to be part of a group. The primal urges that are satisfied in identifying with such groups – with any group, really, but particularly with those that don’t require much in the way of thoughtful and self-critical awareness – is not unlike a spell cast by a wizard upon some unsuspecting traveler. Or as St. Cyril of Jerusalem put it, in a phrase Flannery O’Connor often cited and that sat on her bedside table, “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”
Or to end where I began this short reflection, as my homeboy G. K. Chesterton puts it in his magisterial Orthodoxy:
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.