Finding God Among the Ruins of Christianity
While I often quote from things I’ve read, I don’t very often quote something whole cloth. But today I am. This essay is from Francis Spufford, a novelist of great gifts, who also wrote one of my all time favorite books, UnApologetic: How Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.
This piece was published at Mockingbird.com. It is titled, “Where’s the Next Brick: Finding God Among the Ruins of Christianity.” I know it’s longish for this space, but it will reward your reading . . . I promise. ABR
“Once there was a great building. Mighty with towers, spiky with spires, a-bubble with domes. Inside it opened into gallery after gallery, vault after echoing vault, so high that human beings who set off across its marble pavements sometimes mistook its roof for the sky and the building for the world itself. And though it showed signs of many styles, and had been built by many different architects over many centuries, it had been standing so long than no one could remember when it wasn’t there, or suspected that it could ever fall. But it did. Whether it was the rain that got in and dissolved the mortar, or whether the foundations had been questionable all along, or whether the maintenance had been neglected, people are arguing still: but in any case, down it came with shocking speed, the collapse of one part setting off the tumbling of the next, and the next, and the next, until all of it lay in rubble. Some of the rubble was gathered up by those who had particularly loved the building and assembled back into a much smaller structure — somewhere in size, say, between a cottage and a garden shed. The rest, however, lay where it had fallen; and the grass grew over it, and creepers disguised the biggest pieces of the ruin till they looked almost like outcrops of rock; and with a speed just as astonishing as the collapse had been, those who walked there forgot there had ever been a building, and took the bumpy hill beneath them for the plain and natural ground.
“Only, now and then, they stubbed their toe on something sticking up from the turf, and picking it up, they found themselves holding a single brick, incised with a phrase or two they often found surprisingly striking. Helpful, even. Wise, almost. LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR, said one. DON’T JUDGE, said another. It was relatively easy to apply these. ‘Be kind,’ said the people who’d read the first one to each other, warmly. ‘I’m only human after all/don’t put the blame on me,’ said a singer-songwriter who’d come across the second. But many broke off mysteriously. TAKE UP YOUR CR-, said one of these. Your crayfish? Your Christmas cracker? Your crêpe suzette? Or, on another, CAST YOUR BREAD UPON THE W-. Washboard? Waiting area? Wipe-clean surface? More inscrutably still, LOVE YOUR EN-. N-dimensional solid? Enigmatic smile? Love your enigmatic smile, babe. No. If only the next brick had been available: but as the building fell, everything inscribed upon it, easy and difficult, consoling and alarming, gentle and terrible, had been scrambled.
So much for metaphor. (This one is getting out of hand.) In any case, when we switch to talking about Christianity literally, rather than metaphorically, it’s clear that my metaphor here gets things the wrong way round. When it comes to buildings, the Christian inheritance is remarkably intact. Spires and domes, we have. It’s the invisible structure of understandings, of ideas, that came tumbling suddenly down in Western Europe a few decades ago, leaving those of us who still believe in a dinky potting-shed of faith rather than a vast basilica, and everyone else walking over the ruins and mistaking them for the ordinary state of the landscape, while wondering now and again over individual bricks they notice.
It ought to be the case that when someone comes across one of the stray ideas left littered about by the ruin of Christianity, and wants to know more about it, they would go to the church. After all, the church is the licensed interpreter. It does have a chart of what went where, in the great structure. It can tell you what the next brick says. But that hardly ever happens. It happens sometimes, mind you. My wife was a parish priest, and a steady trickle of people came to her saying, in effect, ‘I want to take myself seriously, I want to try to be good in my life, I understand you have some accumulated wisdom on this, how do I set about it?’ That happens, I’m glad to say. But not often. Why not?
Here are two reasons. First, we tend now to think that a philosophy of life (or a set of ideals, or a rule to live by) has to be personal for it to be authentic. You have to have found it yourself, put it together yourself, to make it properly yours. From this point of view, it’s okay to incorporate a bit of Christian stuff you stubbed your toe on, because it was your discovery, and your decision to pick it up and use it. If, on the other hand, you decided you wanted the next brick, and the next — the whole set of bricks — you’d be signing up to something less and less individual, the more of it you agreed to. It doesn’t seem to shift this perception much, to point out that the whole idea of a DIY ethic is, in the context of our present society, a deeply conformist one; and that most people’s kit of post-Christian understandings are very similar, except for a few bright feathers of individual experience, and a few unpredictable song lyrics woven in; and that — you’d think, worst of all — this kind of pick ’n mix turns out to be extraordinarily vulnerable to manipulation, by marketeers and advertisers who work hard, like a conjurer forcing a card, to make sure that almost everyone’s supposedly individual pack of meanings actually contains the one that says, you’re not worth much if you aren’t thin stroke beautiful stroke charismatic stroke rich. Arguments like these don’t have much traction with people who haven’t yet discovered for themselves — experience being the proof that matters — that incorporating something ancient like Christianity into your life, something that lay outside the range of what you could have invented for yourself, actually makes you more your own, more solidly individual and self-possessed, than you are if all you get to choose from are chance-found fragments.
So that’s one reason. Second one, and it’s related. People fear that when unbroken, the great building of Christianity stood for something which, in its grandeur and its completeness, was tyrannical. That it was a structure of authoritarian certainty, built to rule out doubt, curiosity, novelty, creativity, nuance, half-tones, shades of grey, with an answer for everything, and punishments for questioning those answers. In which case, if you accepted the next brick, and another, and one more after that, you might before you knew it be consenting to oppression. Rumour has it at the moment that only a few bricks along from LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR you’re going to find one inscribed GOD HATES FAGS or a promise of hellfire. Safer to leave the fragments as fragments; to pick up the good bits and leave what is reputed to be dangerous about the rest.
Those of us who, despite everything, think there’s something precious in the words jumbled-up now among the rubble, do not do so because we are pro-tyranny or anti-self discovery. We do so because we know that what was written on those towering walls wasn’t the credo of an authoritarian certainty at all. But instead — mixed up, yeah, with some heterogenous other stuff over the centuries, some questionable — a song of liberation, a startling declaration that power, that love, that justice, that order, that God the creator of all things, weren’t what we thought they were, but came closest to us in paradoxes.
Wisdom, in foolishness; strength, in weakness; sovereignty over the immense empire of matter, in helpless self-sacrifice, in a choking man brought to death by a shrugging government. What’s written on the bricks still has the power to shock, when you join them together. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS turns out to lead to, THAN THAT HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIEND. Not very positive, is it? LOVE YOUR EN- continues, -EMY, AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU. What’s that about? How will that help me to be thinner, richer, stronger, more sexually successful? It won’t. It will only help you to be kinder, braver, more tolerant of our inevitable imperfections, and more hopeful; more convinced that the worst than can happen to us, as humans, is not the last word, because there is a love we should try to copy in our small ways, which never rests, never gives up, is never defeated.
But brothers and sisters, the building fell. And now the work that went into it is all to do again — the work of persuading people to hear our song of redemption, of cruelty overthrown and even death laid low. Maybe there are some advantages in managing without all that impressive architecture. Perhaps the best place to write LOVE YOUR ENEMY wasn’t on a ring of gold around the base of an immense dome. Perhaps we shouldn’t have tried to express Christian thoughts in the vocabulary of might. Perhaps we should leave the majesty of God to God. Here we are, anyway, wandering on the rubble with everyone else. If you meet someone who’s found one of the bricks, and wants to know what the next one says — tell them.