We are not Christians because being Christian makes us prosperous, happy, and free of suffering; if we think this, it is because we forget that though God may love us and have a wonderful plan for our lives, his definition of “wonderful” may be a bit more slanted than ours. God loved Job and had a wonderful plan for his life too.
Christians rediscover this from time to time – there was a reason Boethius’s Consolation was a spiritual staple of the Middle Ages – and I take it for granted that such is the case: some people have horrible, miserable lives, and some have glorious lives – and this will be the case whether we are Christian or not.
This though raises the question of why we are Christian at all. On the bald surface of it, Christianity would seem to promise a better life and not deliver. What is the good of speaking of all the riches in Christ if at the end of the day they merely dissipate into some always already deferred hope at the end of time? What is it that keeps us going as Christians? It is certainly not immediate success.
In many ways, I might suggest that my life itself is an experiment dedicated to discovering this. The poem that drew me inevitably into a love affair with Old English poetry, The Wanderer, articulates how I feel well: “Why should my thoughts not grow dark, when I think on this mortal life…” And why indeed should they not? There are darknesses and ruins all about us. Camus put it well when he said that there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide – by which he meant the problem of knowing why people don’t commit suicide. There is a riddle deeper than the riddle of the Sphinx, and it is this: a man or woman walking – and not stopping – though his or her road is paved with despair. What is this about? What kind of offense is it that leads one to prolong suffering in a world that would rather see him and his suffering buried and out of sight? What kind of scandal leads him – even wishing to die – to live? What kind of monster is he that will remain and inflicts the burden of his life on others? I cannot speak for all humans, but I can speak for one at least. He is this kind of monster: he is a Christian. St. Paul knew this; he wrote the letter to the Ephesians.
Part of the brilliance of this letter is Paul’s recognition that it is not, contrary to popular assumption, desire that leads us to sin, or at least not directly so. It is despair. Christ, he tells us, saves us from the way of the Gentiles, “who despairing have given themselves up to lasciviousness, unto the working of all uncleanness, unto covetousness” (4:19). There are some debates here over what precisely the Greek means; depending on which manuscript one goes with, the Greek can either mean despair or numbness. Jerome opts for despair in the Vulgate. But both meanings are of a piece. For despair is simply spiritual and emotional leprosy. It is the increasing loss of feeling as hope dies – with less and less awareness of things out there to touch, we begin to lose our sense of touch. And so we try to touch harder and more violently. We cut ourselves like the priests of Baal facing off against Elijah. We turn to dark fantasies. No one ever wants sin. Rather, one sins because one wants love and fears he has lost the capacity to feel it. We seek harm – our own and that of others – because we fear it is the only way we will be able to feel touch. There is a world of moral difference between embrace and strangulation. But the desire behind both is the same, to touch and be touched; the difference depends on the choice all desire must make: to hope, or to despair. And so the Gentiles, despairing, have given themselves up to lasciviousness etc.. But Paul notes that we, however, did not come to know Christ this way.
Certainly not, but the question is, how did we, and how does it avoid this position of the Gentiles? For it is indeed a powerful position. The world is a wreck. And we don’t have the energy or time to feel it all – all its pain, all its suffering. And so we begin to cut corners in the way we live – we can’t after all be responsible for it all, and we have to focus on our own survival. We start with things that won’t hurt others – or things we think won’t hurt others. A little bit of selfishness here. A little lust there. A little greediness here. But a little is never enough. Our hunger runs deep – and it will run deep as hell if it will not run to Christ. What feels like a fresh and honest pushing of the boundaries today will be felt as prudish romanticism tomorrow, and so on. What starts as an innocent desire for the other will turn to possession, manipulation, and control. Desire will not be satisfied till it has destroyed its object: “All men kill the thing they love.” And it is all related, this destructive desire. We love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Suicide – whether our own or the assisted suicide of the rest of the world – is the manner of our love. Suicide is the manner of our desire. And unless we Christians realize this – the deep power behind the modern narrative of despair – we will have little to say. We will be naïve romantics in a world gone to hell.
But what then is the Christian response? Too often it has been to deny the deep dissatisfaction and longing behind such despair. Too often it has been the counsel that things are maybe not quite so bad as that – that if we were good perhaps we would not be so unhappy – if we were normal, well adjusted people, perhaps we would not be making such a fuss all the time. Too often, Christians presume to deal with the despair of the pagans by denying its validity – too often, what distinguishes us from those pagans who mourn like there’s no hope is not (as it should be) the fact that there is hope – ontologically so – but that we think there’s no reason to mourn. And that is precisely where Saint Paul understands what the Job’s comforters and Pollyannas of the world do not.
What is brilliant about St. Pauls’s response – and I interpret the entirety of Ephesians to be this response – is that the primary thing he gives us instead of idealism or despair is the mystery of Christ. For modern readers, his precise use of this term may itself seem like a bit of a mystery – trying to imagine the gospel as a great whodunnit – which strictly speaking isn’t wrong, given Chesterton’s perennial observations concerning the overlap of faith and detective fiction. Nonetheless, “mystery” here means something more. It heartens back to Greek mystery religions, with the idea of something that contains the plenitude of something sacred that cannot be fully plummed, but in Christian tradition it comes to mean sacrament – indeed, the Latin of the Vulgate uses sacrament where the Greek has “mystery.” Paul is revealing to the Gentiles the sacrament of Christ.
Now, at this point in theological history, he is probably not within his own context referring to sacrament in the way we might talk about the Eucharist – though such an interpretation is obviously well within the bounds of retrospective theological exegesis. But there is a sense in which his use of the word here indicates a grace at once both partially veiled and plenitudinous in its abundance. Plenitudinous, since the riches of Christ are unmappable and never exhausted. Yet partially veiled insofar as the metaphysical reality he describes is not necessarily obviously evident from the things immediately seen. Paul tells the Ephesians not to mourn his tribulations, and he describes himself as a prisoner of Christ – here, more than a mere metaphor. To use the transubstantial language of St. Thomas, the accidents of Paul’s life look like anything but the dazzling and freeing mystery he describes. What he sees and describes in his life is the substance of Christ, but it looks no less poor on the outside for all that – the Eucharist still looks like a bit of bread, and the blood still tastes like mere wine. And so it is that this – the mystery of Christ – not even always seen – not even always felt – but substantially and ontologically the content of our faith; so it is that this is what sustains us. It sustains us against the shallowness of idealism, for there really always is more we need; the hunger is real and we can always go further into Christ. Yet it is not an unsatisfied and hopeless hunger like that of the pagans. It does not begin with meaninglessness, turn to self pleasuring, and finally to the destruction of the other and ultimately ourselves. No, it does not do this because with the mystery of Christ there is faith. Even when our senses tell us contrary – when the bread tastes stale and the wine cheap – when we feel we cannot taste and see that the Lord is good – when our lives and experiences look like anything but the mystery of Christ – even then – and maybe even especially then – do we feed on the mystery of Christ by faith and thereby resist the despair of the pagans. For faith is the substance of things hoped for. And it is in this substance – Christ in us, the hope of glory – that we put our faith.