It is a curious fact that today, as I have found, one is called a pessimist if one ventures to express a certain contempt for the things of this world, and dares to entertain the truly extraordinary hopes about our human destiny which buoyed up the first Christians when, in earthly terms, their master had gone from them and their cause was lost. What a weird reversal, as I should have thought, of common sense! What a preposterous distortion of language! How, I ask myself, can it be pessimistic to call in question the transitory satisfactions available in our mortal existence, and to contrast them with the enduring ones offered us in the Gospels and Epistles? I wonder whether, in the history of all the civilisations that have ever been, a more insanely optimistic notion has ever been entertained than that you and I, mortal, puny creatures, may yet aspire, with God's grace and Christ's help, to be reborn into what St Paul calls the glorious liberty of the children of God. Or if there was ever a more abysmally pessimistic one than that we, who reach out with our minds and our aspirations to the stars and beyond, should be able so to arrange our lives, so to eat and drink and fornicate and learn and frolic, that our brief span in this world fulfils all our hopes and desires.
Is it to be supposed that the woman of Samaria after her encounter with Christso exquisitely recounted by St John didn't remember, every time she drew water at Jacob's Well, about that other living water she had been told of; that water which, once drunk, left one never thirsting againa well inside one, and springing up everlastingly? In the same way, how can one who has glimpsed, however fleetingly, what King Lear calls 'the mystery of things', that life of the soul to which Isaiah refershow can such a one ever again be wholly serious about mere worldly pursuits like fame and sensual pleasure and money, even though the colour supplements, all the different manifestations of this dreadful Frankenstein of mass-communication media that we have constructed, aim ceaselessly to persuade us that these pursuits alone make life worth while! I may,
I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streetsthat's fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenuethat's success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversionsthat's pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our timethat's fulfilment. Yet I say to you, and I beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothingless than nothing, a positive impedimentmeasured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are. What, I ask myself, does life hold, what is there in the works of time, in the past, now and to come, which could possibly be put in the balance against the refreshment of drinking that water?
I ventured to cite my own case. Let me cite another infinitely more impressive. I can never forget reading, when I was a young man, in Tolstoy's Confessions of how, working in his study, he had to hide away a rope that was there, for fear he should use it to hang himself. To me at that time it seemed extraordinary. Here was the greatest writer of modern times; someone of whom, as a young aspiring writer myself, I thought with the utmost veneration; whose work seemed (and seems) to me so marvellous that if in the course of my life I managed to write something even a hundredth part as good as the shortest and most desultory of his short stories, I should be well content. And here was this man, of whom Gorky said that as long as Tolstoy lived he could never feel an orphan in the world; here was this man of incomparable gifts and greatnessrich, courted, with a large family, a loving wife, every worldly blessing that anyone could possibly aspire tounable to endure the sight of a rope because it reminded him of how he might end a life which had grown insufferable. Why insufferable? Because he was assailed by the hopes and desires of the world even more desolating, as he well knew, in realisation than in aspiration. Because he seemed to be alone and afraid in an alien universe. Then, as he recounts, he lost himself in Christ's love, from which, St Paul tells us, nothing can separate us if we hold fastnot tribulation, not distress, not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, neither peril nor sword. Tolstoy, as we know, did hold fast, becoming not only the greatest writer, but also one of the greatest Christians, of modern times. He earned thereby, inevitably, the relentless hostility of his country's Church and its hierarchy, but he had the incomparable satisfaction of devoting his sublime genius, not just to diverting his contemporaries, enriching himself and feeding his own vanity, but to keeping alive the sweet truths Christ died to teach usof forgiveness, of brotherliness, of love of God and of our fellows, dying to this world and being reborn as new men with new values, new hopes and a new inexpressible joy in the destiny Christ came on earth to reveal to us. He could repeat with a steady voice St Augustine's prayerso infinitely touching to anyone who, however unworthily and inadequately, has tried to communicate in the spoken or the written word: Let me of er you in sacrifice the service of my thoughts and my tongue, but first give me what I may offer you.
We must look, it seems to me, for comedy in all things; the builders of our mediaeval cathedrals knew what they were doing when they stuck grinning gargoyles on their majestic edifices, and, as Chesterton pointed out, the Fall of Man is only the banana-skin joke carried to cosmic proportions. Now here's a funny thing! If I'd been talking in this sort of strain in this Scottish pulpit a century ago, there would have been nothing surprising or out-of-the-way in the sentiments I expressed, though some eyebrows might, admittedly, have been raised at such excessive praise of a Russian writer who, whatever other merits he might have, was emphatically not a Scottish Presbyterian. Today it is otherwise. Many of the leaders and clergy of the various Christian denominations are insistent that Christ s kingdom, contrary to what he said, is of this world, and that treasure laid up on earth to be distributed ever more lavishly to the citizens of an affluent consumer society is of the greatest possible moment. Anyone who suggests that the pursuit of happinessthat disastrous phrase written almost by chance into the American Declaration of Independence, and usually signifying in practice the pursuit of pleasure as expressed in the contemporary cult of eroticismruns directly contrary to the Christian way of life as conveyed in the New Testament, is sure to be condemned as a life-hater, one who blasphemously denigrates God's world and the creaturemanmade in his image.
Unspeakable clergymen twanging electric guitars denounce him; episcopal voices cast him into outer darkness; from without, and sometimes within, the churches comes insistence that to be carnally minded is life; that it is the flesh that quickeneth and the spirit that profiteth nothing. I speak here, I may add, about what in some small degree I have experienced myself. It was from the Roman Catholic chaplain of Edinburgh University and a number of his associates that there came the bitterest denunciation of myself as Rector and of my Assessor and friend, Allan Frazer, for having resigned rather than seem to countenance a demand for the indiscriminate distribution of contraceptives to the students. To the best of my knowledge no Church dignitary (with the honourable exception of the Free Church of Scotland) spoke up in public on our behalf, though one or two wrote to us privately in sympathetic terms. There are many other and much more important instances of the same sort. These induce me to say in all honesty that, in my opinion, the Church leaders and clergy have made such concession to prevailing permissive mores and materialism that, unless there is a quick and dramatic reversal of their present attitudes, I personally shall be very surprised if a decade or so from now anything remains of institutional Christianityan outcome which quite a number of them openly hope for. Here, at least, their hopes are likely to be realised.
If, indeed, the Christian religion rested upon the word of these leaders, and the ostensible Christian consensus they are struggling to achieve, I should long ago have abandoned all faith in its survival. In fact, of course, Christianity's validity lies in its own inherent and everlasting truth. What the living Christ signified and signifies to men will endure even though the Vatican is another ruin with the Coliseum, and tourists are poking about the debris of Lambeth Palace as now they do about Herod's. No doubt a racy foreword by the Emperor Tiberius would have helped to popularise St Paul's Epistles, and if the apostles had adjusted their teaching to current depravity they might have reached a larger audience. Their practice was the precise opposite; asking everything on Christ's behalfa total surrender of the ego, a putting aside of the preoccupations of this world, a death to be followed by a rebirth they were according everything. On the other hand, experience shows that those who ask little tend to be accorded nothinga saying which may well be the epitaph of twentieth-century institutional Christianity.
When one comes to the social application of this new-found sanguine attitude to man's earthly circumstances one enters upon a scene of pure fantasy, so outrageously ribald as to defy satire itself. If the directors of the vegetarian movement were to petition the Worshipful Company of Butchers for affiliation, it would not be nearly as funny as the spectacle of the Church's involvement in the notion of material progress, political liberation and the realisation through the exercise of power and the creation of wealth of a kingdom of heaven on earth. How I envy the historian who, like Gibbon, will look back across the centuries at the hilarious spectacle of Marxist-Christian dialogues attempting to find common ground between the brutal atheism of the Communist Manifesto and the Sermon on the Mount; of pious clergymen attaching themselves to enraged mobs shouting for Black Power or Student Power or some other crazed shibboleth; of an Anglican bishop in gaiters recommending Lady Chatterly's Lover. Such lunacy, I assure you, is the despair of professional comedians.
The trouble with earthly causes is that they, alas, are liable sooner or later to triumph. Turn your minds for a moment to the unhappy plight of those so-called Christian Socialists who identified the rise of the Labour Party with the coming of Christ's kingdom. What must be their feelings today? Or those others who saw in Soviet Communism the fulfilment of Christian hopeswhat must they feel as the full villainy of Stalin's regime becomes manifest? All purely human hopes are fraudulent, as their realisation in purely human terms must always prove deceptive. As the Magnificat so splendidly puts it, the mighty are put down from their seats and the humble and meek exalted; but never forget that these same humble and meek, once exalted, become mighty in their turn and fit to be put down.
Fantasies like these belong to the half-light before night falls. I have no w ish to luxuriate in apocalyptic prognostications, yet it would seem obvious enough that the last precarious foothold of law and order in our world is now being dislodged. We may expect the darkness. Such were precisely the circumstances in which the Christian religion was born; they may well provide for its rebirth. In the Holy Land today one is confronted on every hand with the debris of the great Roman Empire and world order which in Christ's time seemed so strong, widespread and dominant. Who could have foreseen in those days that the words of an obscure teacher in a remote outpost of the empire would provide the basis for a new and most glorious civilisationthe two thousand years of Christendom now drawing to a close; that his squalid death by execution would inspire the noblest thoughts, the most sublime art, the most disinterested dedication and exquisite love the world has yet known. Likewise, today who can tell what comes after uswho have made ourselves so strong and feel so weak and helpless, who have become so materially rich and spiritually impoverished, who know so much and understand so little! I think of a man, Paulinus, in the fourth century about whom I have read. Foreseeing the darkness ahead he decided to light a lamp and keep i. burning in a Christian shrine. I should dearly love to do just thisa little lamp to signify that whatever the darkness, however profound the sense of lostness, the light of Christ's love and the clarity of his enlightenment still shines, and will continue to shine, for those that have eyes to see, a heart to love and a soul to believe.
Delivered in Queen's Cross Church, Aberdeen,
26 May 1968
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