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Confusing one sort of conversion experience for the Christian Life

A few days ago I wrote a post criticising a homily given by a local priest. The priest had argued that Mary was not favoured because she was special but because she was a poor confused peasant girl and that God favours the poor, broken down and marginalised. The equivalent of Mary in the modern world, continued the priest, are the likes of the Sri Lankan refugees and the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

I agreed with the priest that it is sometimes when we are at our lowest that the egoistic self gives way and we become more receptive to God. But I wrote too that:

I find it difficult to believe that we should automatically side with whoever seems to be most powerless, as if being powerless defines you as good.

In the comments I added some further thoughts, which several readers have urged me to include in a post. The gist of it is that focusing always on being weak or powerless can be one factor in alienating men from Christianity:

I know people whose fathers have died and it sometimes affects them very deeply. Not just in the sense of mourning a lost one, but in the sense of their existential stability. The father brought a sense of assurance and stability to their lives.

And this is an aspect of men attempting to be strong for the benefit of those around them, those they are responsible for.

The interpretation of Christianity made by my local priest suggests that a man who is successfully strong in this way is separating himself from the good. He should instead focus on and identify with being powerless, broken down, marginalised etc.

If this is true it sets up an irresolvable contradiction in the lives of men. Our worldly role would be to be strong; our religious role would be to be weak.

I don't think this is how Christianity was understood by previous generations of Christians. I think instead the idea that we should treat well "the least amongst you" meant that those who were strong should not abuse those less fortunate.

You can see this is in the ethos of the Christian knight; you can see it in Western literature (as when in a Jane Austen novel the heroine is chastised for mocking a poor widow).

Is it not true that men should be morally strong and self-disciplined? That men should be strong in wisdom and prudence? That men should be strong in discharging their duties to family and community? Whilst at the same time serving God in a spirit of humility? (i.e. not adopting a stance of arrogant, closed off self-sufficiency).

Cannot the Church sometimes encourage men to be strong? (For instance, in their role as husbands and fathers within a family?)

Maybe this is part of the reason why many men don't feel as connected to Christianity as they might. They know that they have to develop their masculine strengths as best they can, but when they sit in a church they hear a message that identifies the good with being broken down, weak and marginalised.

It's not that churches shouldn't challenge the way people ordinarily think, but in this case the churches are challenging genuine duties held by men. It makes the message heard by men in the churches feel alien to their deeper conscience.

I'd like to hear a sermon which praises men for a strength of perseverance in working to support their families. Or for a strength in maintaining composure when there is stress within their families. Or for exercising a masculine protectiveness in stepping in when their wives need support. And so on.

And rather than charity meaning supporting Palestinians against Israelis, maybe it could be an encouragement to do something practical and local, for instance, helping an elderly person maintain their home, or doing some maintenance work for the local kindergarten.

I wrote this several days ago, but the significance of it has been confirmed by the Christmas Day sermon of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby. In this sermon, you get the same theme that Christians should aim to be vulnerable and weak as this is what makes a man receptive to God's transforming love. I can't reproduce the whole sermon but here are some snippets:

This is the true triumph, of utter vulnerability that in weakness overthrows every apparent strength.

Glorifying God, leaking into the world the love that he leaks into us through the wounds and breaches and gaps of our own lives

we do in the world what God does in us. We receive His love where we are vulnerable and weak, and lose sight of it when we claim strength and power. Christians reach to the jagged edges of our society, and of the world in general.

we must begin with weakness and vulnerability

God comes to us through the breaches and wounds of our lives because He comes in utter vulnerability. We are to be those who allow Him to make us vulnerable, welcome the weakness we have

It's not that I think this is entirely false. There are people who on hearing this kind of message might let go of their egoistic defences and become more receptive to the Christian message.

But think of the logic of what is being proposed in Bishop Welby's sermon. If it's true that we receive God's love when we are vulnerable and weak, then presumably we are to aim at being vulnerable and weak (we are to welcome our weaknesses, rather than trying to overcome them). And mere powerlessness, rather than goodness or faithfulness, becomes the deciding factor in who is most blessed. The Palestinians get to be defined as the good guys not because their cause is deemed just or because their acts are deemed more moral, but simply because they don't as yet have the upper hand. And if they do get the upper hand, then they won't be the good guys anymore - they'll drop back in moral status.

Nor is it true, in my opinion, that we are only open to God "in extremity". It could be claimed equally that the religious experience is often a "peak experience" - one that comes to us most forcefully when we are physically and mentally at our best. And when this happens, we have a sense not of powerlessness but of our powers being held in their proper place. It is a feeling of being completed or fulfilled in who we are, and it is that feeling which brings us a sense of peace, of a natural sense of humility before God, of the Biblical virtue of "prautes" (a measured, deliberate, self-possessed response to things) and of a desire to serve God's will. But it is definitely not an experience of weakness or powerlessness.

Finally, I don't think it's true either that the only way for a church to encourage people to be open to the religious experience is by emphasising our weakness as a way of dissolving an excessive egoism. Churches might also encourage time for contemplation and prayer; inspiring forms of architecture, music and art; a form of the mass that imparts a sense of the sacred; and a striving toward moral virtue.

And many people are led toward a religious outlook by what they experience as beautiful, good and true and which then inspires their particular loves. They might be inspired in this way by an ideal of manhood or womanhood, by the love they feel for their spouse or children, by the higher forms of art and culture, by the beauty of nature or by the goodness they discern within a communal life and tradition.

Bishop Welby's Christianity doesn't and can't speak to any of this, as it defines the good narrowly in terms of weakness, vulnerability and powerlessness. I don't think this is a form of Christianity that is likely to stand in the longer term. It leaves too much out and, as I argued in my comment, it establishes a particular difficulty for men who are called on to be strong for the benefit of those around them.


Of course, knowing and accepting one's vulnerabilities and weaknesses is the true strength (for all are afflicted with weakness): it is not that the weak and marginalised are loved by God (all are loved by God equally), but that those who can stand tall and love God in turn despite personal inadequacy or harsh circumstances are known to be stronger even than those who have all worldly power but fear Death.  The cripple who, cursing no-one, strives to improve the lot of others is a greater man than the King who prizes power more than people.  Kant would say that the poor man who supports another is, in this instance, (morally) better than the rich man who does the same, as the former's sacrifice is greater.  That said, Kant's a wanker.

Edit: is it not true that focusing so much on one's weakness and powerlessness is ego-boosting, rather than ego-limiting?  Anything that seeks to ascribe constant traits to the self is seeking to construct an identity, despite the fact that identity ought be derived from circumstance!  Accepting one's body and mind as they are now and as they might be is a far better option.

Edit: is it not true that focusing so much on one's weakness and powerlessness is ego-boosting, rather than ego-limiting?  Anything that seeks to ascribe constant traits to the self is seeking to construct an identity, despite the fact that identity ought be derived from circumstance!  Accepting one's body and mind as they are now and as they might be is a far better option.
Yes, it is true. This is why depression was considered sinful in medieval Europe - it was a manifestation of sloth, among the most vile of the seven deadly sins. Willfully and chronically living in sadness was considered a sin because 1) it required a rejection of all that is good within the world, 2) because it is a refusal to engage with and be active in the rest of the world, and 3) because it is entirely self-focused. "I am weak, I am ugly, I am wicked, I am pathetic" - these thoughts, and the behaviors which they then produce, bear the mask of humility. But in the end, they all begin with "I," and so demonstrate a distancing of the self from that which surrounds the self, a desire to live within one's own world instead of that which God has provided.

And then there are those who feign such "humility" intentionally. But this problem is far less dangerous because it is much easier to identify.

For the longest time I was anti-Christian, because the liberal message therein.

After some more extensive research, I think the truth is that Christianity is too complex for most people. They try to turn a large and subtle religion which contains within it hidden and deep truths into a measly soundbite supporting leftist agendas. They take Biblical references out of context and lack the context or intelligence to fully understand it, of course naturally trying to twist anything they find in favor of leftist causes.

I think the Catholics may have been right to a large degree, with Martin Luther doing a disservice to many. The intelligent would have been able to learn Latin and do the research, read the great theologians and understand the full implications and meanings. The illiterate were capable of knowing the core message and what was necessary from priests, icons, and a message which was communicated frequently and part of daily life for the medieval peasant.

One example: after reading the mass-printed translations, the proles went on a chimp-out, destroying a great deal of beautiful religious artwork because they misunderstood a commandment regarding idols. They read something apparently straight-forward, misinterpreted it and inverted the meaning, and went around destroying works of great beauty that had previously served to education them on higher meanings.  The mistakes continue to this day.

Some say despite this, the core message is simple enough: try to do good, realize you make mistakes, seek to know God and repent your sins. The left has decided that the most important part of this is "do good" with "good" meaning "support a leftist agenda" and then decided the God part isn't so important and sin doesn't really exist, except where it means anything anti-left, because all leftist choices are equally good: like sodomizing your neighbors dog or sodomizing your neighbor - it's all free choice yo!

La Fin du Monde, my abbreviated, condensed stance on Christianity is this:

A:  I have no personal beef with Christianity
B:  After reading Nietzsche, especially Genealogy of Morals, his critique is more or less undeniable and simply logical, so it's hard to look the other way.
C:  The metaphors, especially the crucifixion, is too complex and hard to understand for most people, especially children.  It's taken too literally.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's the crucifixion, specifically, that is so bizarre and masochistic.  Take the Christ out of Christianity.  A retarded idea, you say?  So retarded it just might work!
D:  All this being said, I think one has to "earn" their rejection of Christianity.  Nietzsche earned it.  Paul Ledney earned it.  People that reject Christianity because it "cramps their style" are weaklings.  Part-time nihilists and weekend blasphemers should be shunned, ridiculed and mocked.


In reply to the original post, I don't know what "strength" and "weakness" is in this context. Is it "weak" to surrender to a higher power, if you are dealt unfortunate circumstances and it gives you comfort and rejuvenation to do so? Does "strong" mean to be able to deal with situations in a wise manner, with clarity, or does it also mean to be able to recognize to follow your heart and follow your path? Does the concept of "strength" somehow defend the notion of individual liberty, as if one's "power" is anything tangible that can be taken away in the first place? Perhaps it is simply a matter of innate predisposition - some prefer the left-hand path of individuality, logic and knowledge, while others prefer the right-hand path of wholeness (togetherness), faith and service - coupled with the fact that chance and circumstance sometimes makes the right-hand path a more favorable (benevolent) option when one finds themselves in dire straits.