I came across a sentence in Nishitani the other day which stopped me cold. It was something, glaringly obvious, which I should have seen ages ago. And to see it all that was necessary was to turn the question round. Nishitani asked, ‘We need to ask – at what point has Christianity became so problematic for the modern man as to make him advance in the direction of estrangement from it?’ From the Christian point of view it has always been those who rejected it, or those who failed to see that it was the one true religion, who were at fault. No fault, or blame, could possibly lie with the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit. True, there have been in the past, and still are, Christians and churchmen who fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel. But these are personal failings by individuals and they do not touch the essence of the church. Whatever the failings of individuals, however unworthy they be, the Good News of the Gospel is proclaimed daily for those who would hear; forgiveness and saving grace is dispensed through the Sacraments for those with the right dispositions. If people fail to respond the fault does not lie with the Church which proclaims the Gospel and celebrates the Liturgy. The fault lies in the blindness and the hardness of heart of those who refuse to hear.

Such has been the traditional attitude of Christians, secure in the knowledge that they are right. The searchlight of blame and accusation has been directed into the darkness of the outer world of unbelief and atheism. Rarely has it been turned within. When it has, when reformers have criticised attitudes, beliefs and practices they have always had a hard time of it. History is littered with reform movements. Some were brutally put down, others were forced to break away and form separate churches. Religious orders, when the original vision of the founder dimmed, found it almost impossible to reform themselves. Reformers had to break away and start again, hence the many varieties of monks, of friars, of nuns. It is as though the mould, once it has been formed, becomes so rigid and inflexible that it cannot change. New moulds have to be created. Even the so-called Counter Reformation was not a reform of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes but more a tightening of discipline.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of applying the original vision, as it is outlined in the New Testament, to the present. Approaches vary between two extremes. On the one hand the New Testament is seen as the literal word of God to be applied now as it was then, or rather, as people believe it was applied then. On the other, it is seen as an inspired and inspiring document to be read, to be contemplated, but which cannot be applied literally because society and culture are now so different. Rarely is it set into the context of this present society as a norm by which both society and our response to God are to be measured. When this does happen, as with Liberation Theology, it is not welcomed by the established Church – always ready to take on adversaries from without but hyper-sensitive to any criticism, implied or real, from within.

Reform is difficult, if not impossible, because the social climate we live in is seen as the norm. How could it be otherwise? We may dream of a different kind of society, one that is fair and just and where people live in harmony, but we do not believe, because we cannot see how, such a society can be brought about. The society we have now, it is felt, is the natural way of things, they cannot be otherwise, and so it is a question of trying to fit the Gospel into such a climate. But the Gospel is not directed towards social issues, towards questions of justice, law and order, or human rights. Injustice, exploitation and oppression were as much part of the social scene then as now. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, addressed them directly. They accepted them as the way things are. So they have always been; so they will always be. So how can we adapt the gospel for our society today?

It cannot be done. Our society and the Gospel are mutually incompatible and any attempt to make them compatible must be a fudge. It was this realisation that drove the first monks out into the desert. They felt that only in solitude could one truly and unambiguously live the Gospel. Unfortunately the hermitages became monasteries, the monasteries acquired land and property and those who started by possessing nothing were soon possessed by their possessions. Economics and politics entered the cloister to contend with the Gospel.

Not that the Gospel was ever intended to be just for those who live in the desert, but applying it to today is as difficult now as it has always been. Even those who profess to live by the literal Gospel do not do so. They are selective, choosing those parts which will fit into today and ignoring those which will not. No Christians today are prepared to tolerate slavery as was Paul. How many, I wonder, believe the government, any government, is an authority instituted by God? How many believe in turning the other cheek, in loving enemies, in not asking back from those who steal from them? How many really are prepared to die to self, or even know what that means? For Paul, as for Jesus before him, the socio-economic order is the way things are. It is not anything to do with religion, although religion may over time profoundly affect it. Religion transcends the mundane. The paradoxes of the gospel are not aimed at social improvement. They are, as the Buddhist phrase puts it, a finger pointing at the moon.

This is why Nishitani’s question is so apt. It turns the searchlight within. It reveals hidden assumptions and opens them to question. How can someone receive the Eucharist everyday and remain selfish and judgmental? Why does preaching so often alienate, or confirm those already alienated in their attitude? Why is sodomy (to give it its biblical term) seen by many as permissible now when previously it was a crime crying to Heaven for vengeance? How has the institution come to be more important than the message it enshrines; the celibacy of the priesthood more important than the availability of the Eucharist to all?

Jesus did not come to establish a Church, an institution. The gospel is as incompatible with the working of institutions as it is with society itself, although, paradoxically, the Gospel requires the continuity and stability they provide if it is to be passed from generation to generation. Jesus came to challenge our hidden assumptions; to point out something about our present existence of which we are unaware – that the Kingdom of heaven, God himself, is among us/within us. The Greek word entos is ambiguous and can mean either. The ambiguity is intentional. The flat plane of our mundane two-dimensional existence is pierced through, from above and below, by the presence of God, but we live, eyes fixed firmly on the importance of our daily activities, unaware of the heights above and the depths beneath. We know about God, and we know about this spiritual dimension, just as we know about utopias and promised lands but each is as unreal as the other when confronted by the unyielding demands of the present.

Unfortunately many people confuse church-going and church activity with religion. But is this really religion? To paraphrase Nisitani –

Religion is the real self-awareness of God, i.e. becoming aware of God and, at the same time, God realising himself in our awareness. Our ability to perceive God means that God realises (actualises) himself in us; that this in turn is the only way that we can realise (appropriate through understanding) the fact that God is so realising himself in us; and that in so doing the self-realisation of God takes himself place.

Prayer, worship, the liturgy, the Sacraments are all means to an end. They are not themselves the end. The Church is too often guilty of false-realisation. It gives the impression that once a person has been baptised, receives the sacraments with the proper dispositions and keeps the commandments, formal sanctity has been realised, nothing more needs to be done for salvation. That person is now a member of the Body of Christ, united with Christ in Holy Communion, filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The person is not usually aware of being any different. He has not noticed any great change within and, apart from occasional moments of fervour, his religion is a formal and external framework and not a transforming inner reality. This is the norm and it is accepted as such because it is propagated by clerics for whom it is the norm.

There are some few for whom this is not enough and who hunger for the reality of God. In the early days of the Church it drove people out into the desert. These days, more often than not, they become contemplative religious, considered an extraordinary vocation and lived apart from the normal hierarchical structures of the Church. However, more and more lay people, partly influenced by the writings and example of people like Thomas Merton and John Main and partly as a reaction to the dry formalism of the liturgy, are turning to meditation. They are searching for a way of being contemplatives in the day to day world. They are searching for a way of realising God in their lives.

Leave a Reply