Guy Dammann opens his review of Donizetti’s opera Polituo (in the TLS, 5 June 2015) with this startling paragraph:
In an age in which the greatest threat to Christianity comes, not from competing religions, but from apathetic acceptance of its basic values, it is interesting to reflect on how astonishing the beliefs of early Christians must have seemed to their sceptical contemporaries. How bizarre it must have seemed to the citizens of the Roman Empire, no less than to the Vikings nearly a century later, that these people chose to worship a god who allowed himself to be reviled, tortured and executed by his enemies. How profoundly different must have appeared the believers’ desire to supplant the martial and heroic modes so crucial to the extant order of society, with a world view based on the idea of self-sacrifice and universal forgiveness.
In comfortable Britain, are we living in an age where there is an ‘apathetic acceptance of the basic values’ of Christianity? Is that where the greatest threat comes from?
Could it even be that the unexamined substratum of the Church is ‘apathetic acceptance’?
Do we, in the church, or in this age, have any sense of Christianity as ‘bizarre’? Is our age as different as Dammann suggests from the Roman Empire and the Vikings? Aren’t the ‘modes’ that are now counted as ‘crucial to the extant order of society’ still martial and heroic? We still fight for security and success with weapons, and even more with money and propaganda and celebrity. Power and prestige go to the victors in various kinds of competition. The survival of the fittest not only explains how the world is as it is but forms our moral sense and drives us with fear and ambition.
So many people who are at home in this present age still find Christianity bizarre and impractical and laugh it away. Christianity won’t work in the ‘real world’.
To some, these hard-headed atheists seem too crude and strident. They don’t want to go so far. They are gentle friendly people, insulated from the martial and heroic world, so they have a sense that the ‘basic values’ of Christianity merge with common decency and with easy agnostic spirituality. The world they are can’t avoid in the working week is characterised by cut-throat skulduggery, profiteering and harsh inhumanity, but they can escape to find their own life in home and friends and leisure, where a different spirit reigns. And there, if they want, they can think themselves Christian in an imprecise and undemanding way.
‘Sceptical contemporaries’ look at this sort of people, and never see anything bizarre. There is nothing for them to make savage fun of, nothing like what an anonymous satirist found in poor Alexamenos, whom we know about because a cartoon (above left) dating from around 200 AD, was excavated in 1857 on a plastered wall, on the Palatine Hill, Rome.
The writing says: Alexamenos worships his god. Who is his god? A crucified man with an ass’s head. The sceptical contemporary quickly concludes: Alexamenos is a pathetic idiot.
Paul talked of ‘the foolishness of Christ crucified’ (I Cor. 1.23). He gloried in it, not ashamed of it. His was a paradoxically, counter-cultural, joyous faith in a strange power and wisdom of God played out in the life and death and raising of Jesus.
Does what we do and are in Church suggest that we choose ‘to worship a god who allowed himself to be reviled, tortured and executed by his enemies’?
How far does the age we live in base itself on ‘the idea of self-sacrifice’? Even Christians, who may give the idea a bit more than an apathetic, acceptance, try to keep self-sacrifice within reasonable limits. Or we find we are unable to rise to its challenge. And the idea of ‘universal forgiveness’ has seemed and still seems to many Christians, as well as to others, to go too far. Are there not some wrongs which are unforgivable? Wrongs which we find ourselves unable to forgive? We fear for morality if there is universal forgiveness. What do we really think about how far the love of God reaches? Will the God who went through the Cross get blocked by anything?
Are we called to have a world view based on the idea of self-sacrifice and universal forgiveness?