In talking to many respectable people from the United Kingdom, admitting one is happy is not believable. In a recent interview, I was called happy. I am, even though I am definitely prone to bouts of unhappiness. In my recent writings about authenticity, I have definitely been open to longer and more sustained periods of happiness. But deep down, I am aware of the trap of certain attitudes that claim to be authentic. And my Christian faith calls me to deeply name what can trap us. Being authentic assists a substantial claim to long bouts of a sustained feeling of happiness. But being authentically Christian claims to a joy that transcends moments of both happiness and unhappiness. Being authentically Christian is to acknowledge the fundamental relationship with what is sacred in the very reality we partake in. To replace reality with vague notions of what is feasible, permissible, or what utility something has, in other words, with a pragmatic orientation to the world, is to do life a disservice.
In “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” Thomas Merton quotes Gandhi: “The business of the God-fearing man… is to dissociate himself from evil in total disregard of the consequences. He must have faith in a good deed producing only a good result… He follows the truth, [and] through the following of it may endanger his very life. He knows it is better to die in the way of God than to live in the way of Satan.” (p. 113) Are our lives more meaningful because of our death? Or does death reveal the meaninglessness of our lives?
When we no longer comprehend ourselves in the narrative of individual fulfillment and satisfaction, but in the light of what God has done for us and gifted to us – a Christian faith takes hold of us. A change will occur if we are within the framework of a Christian faith: we renounce an attitude toward sin and death. We can newly understand this reality.
A so-called “authentic” person implicitly accepts death as an inevitable and incomprehensible fact. The so-called authentic individual resolutely turns away in order to make use of time in the best way and to live as if one was never going to die. The so-called authentic possess a firm will to ignore death, and an equally firm conviction to ignore sin and guilt. The so-called authentic comes to terms with life and with one’s society. One makes the most effective possible use of the means which are offered, here and now, to achieve relative happiness, a relative sense that one is both real and meaningful.
On the other hand, a Christian faith demands a recognition that this view of the life of time management and resources maximization is a delusional form of wilfulness and of despair since it cannot make the moral effort to confront the most important and inscrutable realities of life. Being Christian is to recognize the ambiguity of these realities which are not accessible by reason alone. Instead, it accepts from God, on faith, a revelation of their true importance. Death and sin are inextricably involved in one another; we are separated from God by willfully asserting our own ultimate individuality. Our individuality as ultimate is confirmed with great determination, and in the end, asserts the complete autonomy of the individual who is no longer responsible to anyone. This completely autonomous one is able to choose for herself any one of an unlimited number and quality of possibilities, and who is free to do exactly as she pleases without having to consider any moral or physical consequences of her acts. Complete autonomy for the individual, dressed in complex mythical traps, is the constitution of mass social attempts to explain existence.
A Christian faith admits that this claim to ultimate autonomy finds its roots in despair and death. Autonomy seems to affirm life and hope, but the created meaning that occurs will be resolutely meaningless by death. Under the perspective of a Christian faith, one can see that a mass social phenomenon of justifying behavior and basing existence on this supposed autonomy devotes to destruction and death the very energies it claims to be using for the affirmation and the improvement of life.
The sickly and decaying symptoms of societies that house this contradiction historically and sociologically have been regarded, by Christianity, as silent expressions of the “judgment of God”; they are a form of quiet and definitive comment upon the real nature of society and upon the validity of its ethical claims. For instance, it was the task of the prophets to discover this kind of meaning in the history of Israel. It remains our prophetic task as a church to do so in our time.
But what happens if the Christians themselves that have abandoned the faith that acknowledges that what they have, and who they are, receive their constitution from what God has done (redemption) and what God has gifted us (Creation)?
A Christian faith is held by one who receives her true being and freedom in and by Christ, founded and modeled on the Cross. She renounces individual autonomy in the awareness that her sins are forgiven because the root of guilt is destroyed in the surrender which faith makes to Christ. Instead of my own delusional autonomy, I surrender to Christ all claim over my life knowing that the Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of Life, Christ will live and act in me. Having become one with Christ and found my true identity in Christ, I will act as a member of Christ’s body and a faithful citizen of God’s kingdom.
Surrendering autonomy becomes real in a community of refinement and love, what the historic and universal Church was meant to be. It guarantees the truth of the Spirit by God’s love.
But now, supposing that instead of confessing the sins of the world, a group of Christians take the place of the historic Church and substitute a social mechanism for self-justification? Suppose this “Church,” which is, in reality, no church at all, takes to herself the function of declaring that everyone else is guilty and rationalizes the sins of her members as acts of virtue. One could imagine the many churches that cooperated with governmental authorities to commit genocide on the indigenous populations of what is now Canada. This “Church” became a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty. This Church provides its members a convenient method of deciding when they do or do not need to accuse themselves of anything before God. Supposing that, instead of conscience, she provides persons with unanimous group approval or disapproval?
This is what explains the fact that some commit murder in the name of Christ and believe themselves guiltless; indeed, they congratulate themselves on having served Christ well. For these people, the function of “the Church” is to provide a milieu in which one can decide what is or is not guilty, what is or is not sinful. Such a “Church” becomes simply a place where individuals gather together to decree that others are guilty and they themselves are innocent. This is an instinct one could have around “social justice” and “evangelical” churches. The fact that others then accuse them of infidelity to truth only confirms for them their own self-assured righteousness. Instead of being a mechanism of peace, the “Church” operationally sets the unquiet conscience to the side. It efficiently manufactures self-complacency and a so-called “inner peace.”
It is characteristic of pseudo-Christianity that, while claiming to be justified by God, by faith, or by the works of faith and love, it merely operates as a machine for excusing sin instead of confessing and pardoning it. In other words, the pseudo-Church has become a tool for producing a feeling that one is right and everyone else is wrong – a claim with which we are all-too-familiar in the debased culture of ultimate individual autonomy. If it becomes expedient to commit murder and rape, then murder and rape become a holy act of justice. To oppress and persecute others becomes an affirmation of one’s own religious freedom and courage before God or self, a mark of Christian or autonomous strength.
And how does one confirm the brothers and sisters in their witness? By repetition of these thrilling, violent, and monumental acts of guilt. Proving oneself is virtuous and not an enemy of the church or state is to renew the act over and over, and if necessary, to be tried and acquitted by a jury of one’s peers – proving that the act was not criminal, but right and holy. Perhaps the prime function of the “social” church is to pervert the Christian conscience. And this, inevitably, becomes the sign of God’s judgment upon that “Church.” The just persons wear their horrible innocence on their foreheads like the mark of the beast – the one no person can touch because she is set apart for hell.