Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The unrespectability of our religion

I was transcribing some of my old journals this morning, and came across what I had written when I was 19 in response to reading about Leon Bloy.

When I got home I finished reading Leon Bloy and marvelled at his faith and devotion. He had been prepared to live nearly all his life in poverty — nay, in destitution — for the sake of Jesus.

Like Clement of Alexandria, like St Francis of Assisi, he gave up all for love. “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God.” The beatniks are looking for what St Francis was looking for; they are after the absolute values of God rather than the relative values of this world. “A saintly clergy means a virtuous people; a virtuous clergy means a respectable people; a respectable clergy means a godless people.”

Christians must never become respectable. Respectability is the curse of true religion. The slavish following of convention and the mediocrity it leads to, or springs from, are the enemy of all true Christianity. People become indistinguishable, they merge into the mass of the respectable, conventional mass of unthinking semi-morons that people this globe; they have no variety, and variety is the spice of life. They are tasteless, “and if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” Most Christians do not take their faith at all seriously — in one sense — they are prepared to live with it, but only just. They will not live for their faith, and certainly will not die for it. Saints were too unconventional, too unrespectable, to be imitated. People pay lip service to the examples of the saints, But if anyone should try to follow their example he is denounced, and they say, “Religion is a good thing, but that is taking it too far.” The person against whom such an accusation is levelled has probably just begun to take religion at all seriously. Christians are a lot of hypocrites people say, but if they try not to be hypocrites, then they are fanatics. The unrespectability of our religion! (Journal entry: 17 August 1960)

That was over 40 years ago. I had been introduced to Leon Bloy by Brother Roger, of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection. Bloy’s ideas were more than 60 years old then, and yet they seemed equally relevant to the 1960s. And now I keep reading about similar ideas in emerging church circles, including such things as urban monasticism. I look back at and cringe a little at the teenage arrogance, and wonder if our generation turned out any better than those we so self-righteously denounced.

Things have not changed much since then, it seems. A recent survey shows that most Christians in many countries see themselves first of all as citizens of this world rather than as citizens of the kingdom of God. Our citizenship is in heaven, says St Paul, but most have other gods. This is perhaps not so surprising in Russia, where atheism was the official state-sponsored religion for two generations, but it is a little more disturbing in other countries.

There also seems to be an anomaly in the case of the USA, where a higher proportion said that they saw themselves as Christians first, and citizens of their country second. But I wonder — I suspect that many of those who said that would respond to their country’s recent wars of aggression in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq by saying “My country, right or wrong”.

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3 thoughts on “The unrespectability of our religion

  1. John on said:

    Christians became “respectable” when the “church” was coopted by the Roman state.Ever since then Christianity has been an integral part of the western imperial project with its drive to total power and control.
    The recent circus involving the funeral of the late Pope and the installation of the current one was a brazen “celebration” of IMPERIAL power.All the “respectable” benighted ghouls that think they run this world were there.

    Please check out these related references on the origins & consequences of the “respectable” Christian.

  2. Anonymous on said:

    As a skeptical Christian, going to church is a drag: everyone in suit and tie, and the conversations about who got married, who got what kind of car, who is buying a new house. Reality: all religious congregations are places to produce conformity and social obedience, in a word, “respectability.”
    Not much about encouraging love, compassion for others. Instead, gossip festers about those who fit in and those who don’t.
    As an Orthodox Christian, this has ALWAYS been one of my major beefs with our congregational life. I profoundly wish that everyone acknowledged that everyone is in a different position on the path of discovery, and that we guide one another, not judge how rigidly we fit on the path. It is more attitudinal, not having to do with doctrine.

  3. Steve Hayes on said:

    I once went with some friends, casually dressed, to one of the top society churches in Johannesburg. The churchwardens debated whether to toss us out. The Sunday morning service was like a fashion parade, and we obviously didn’t fit in.

    But I sometimes wonder if it isn’t worse today. People often wear “casual” clothes to church nowadays, but they are not really casual at all. Others look at the brand, and if you aren’t wearing the “in” brand of jeans, or tackies or whatever, you are out, but out.

    Back then it was cool to be casual, but now I think it is uncool to be cool.

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