Telling the Christian Story


The idea that the universe is ultimately without meaning—an idea advanced by many of the new atheists—has often struck me, and other believers, as nihilistic and even antihuman. I’ve heard atheist scientists rhapsodize about the feeling of awe, even reverence, they feel in the presence of the beauty everywhere and at every level of the cosmos; but its beauty is something only we can see and feel, and promises nothing. If beauty and such experiences as love and deep joy ultimately mean nothing and have nothing to do with the being of the universe itself, it seems a profound cheat.

Recently, however, I heard a radio interview with a naturalist who spoke with great joy about the evolution of flightless birds, and I began to understand more sympathetically how an atheist or agnostic might delight in the varied and wonderful things that surround us, and still feel that even if the universe ultimately has nothing to do with what we value, what we value is nevertheless precious. As a Christian, I believe that love and beauty have to do with the meaning of matter and energy and all that exists—but finally this is an act of faith.

Such an act of faith probably comes more easily if you grow up surrounded by a culture that reinforces the belief in a meaning that goes deep down into the heart of existence, and if it is presented in a sympathetic way and manifested in admirable lives. My own perceptions of the way things finally are were formed in the context of a family and church and stories, many of them stories of saints, and not a few myths (especially Norse ones), all of them pointing, though not always clearly, in a direction that made sense: We are here for a reason, and we are meant to learn what it is, and live it out honorably. I saw it in the lives of some saints, and also the lives of people who were not necessarily religious but were noble and brave and compassionate. King Arthur mattered a lot more to me than St. Jerome.

The point is that this sort of shared overarching culture once influenced the way we look at life to a much greater degree than it does now and (more to the point) ever will again. There is now no prevailing mythos, no Christendom or Byzantium or Holy Roman Empire, no felt necessity to accept in any way a surrounding story that gives meaning to life. Once you move away from parental authority there is no social or moral pressure to accept such an overarching point of view. These “surrounds” did provide a sense of identity and meaning for the majority (Grimm’s fairy tales show the dark side of this, for Jews in particular); and in countries that still insist on ethnic and religious identity as a sign of belonging, it continues in an attenuated way. But our distracted, media-saturated environment and loss of any serious common culture or collective memory means that even in traditional societies the surrounds operate less effectively, and people experience a sense of choice about belief, whether the belief has to do with faith, politics, ethics, or aesthetics.

The experience of choice has expanded, and some would claim its freedom as a morally good thing. I don’t think so: I think it’s morally neutral, depending on the choice. But I reflect on the fact that my own decision to become an Orthodox Christian was clarified when I realized I was remaining Roman Catholic only because of what other people thought and expected, when I believed what the Orthodox Church believes and felt I had no moral alternative. In another time, another culture, could I have made this decision? Maybe, at certain points during the Reformation period, or when princes were changing their own religious allegiances for reasons of state and whole regions moved with them—but those were communal moves, and I was making my decision in a solely personal way. This is in some ways a postmodern phenomenon. Many more Americans than ever before have shifted from the confession of their birth to another, or to none at all.

All of which is to say that the church of the future must understand that the status quo ante can’t be restored. Pace Pope Benedict, Christian Europe is gone forever, and pace Patriarch Bartholomew, no one cares about Constantinople’s jurisdiction over the Barbarian lands and the diaspora. These are dead categories. We are on new ground, with no recourse to any common surrounding story; nor, given the scandals in all our churches, to any institutional moral authority. The argument now must be humble and persuasive, and the message must be the basic story itself. Does the church remember what that is? Can it tell the story as a matter of life and death, and make it mean something to people who have no reason to believe that bishops or priests have anything to offer? The positive and moving reception given to movies like Of Gods and Men and Into Great Silence might offer a clue about how to get people to pay attention to what Christianity can mean in particular lives. It’s a hopeful beginning.

Published in the 2011-05-06 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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