Wednesday, November 23, 2005

C. S. Lewis "Quote of the Week"

“For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process [trying again after failure] trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.”

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


JR said...

Hmmmm....I wonder what this would look like played out in the church community. I mean, I like the individual aspect to which I identify fully, but how would this concept shape our church communities if fully embraced and practiced. Or have we settled for less than perfection? Or are we not interested in being around "try again" type people. Or do we do a good job of this and I have just missed it?

John said...

Good point, JR. While these truths are important to us individually, the church community is the only place this really can be played out. Lewis certainly did not ascribe to this “just me and Jesus” silliness that often typifies American Christianity. So, I believe that the church community was indeed the context in which his statement was framed.

I think the answer to both your questions is often, unfortunately “yes.” We do settle. And being around those “try-again” folks is off-putting to the confident, secure false self image we often try to portray to our church family.

But the real issue is Lewis’ last statement, “the only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.” The problem lies in our view of perfection. We know that perfection is what we are to be about in this life; scripture speaks to it too many times (Matthew 5:48, Ephesians 4:13 for starters.) Yet, due to our view of perfection, we are on the horns of a dilemma. For we also know that we are in no way capable of attaining that perfection. We resolve the crisis in a number of ways. We explain away perfection, saying that it really means “being complete.” We lower the standards, become content with what we can do--as Lewis observed--and rationalize that God, who knows our frailties will be content with that. Some simply give up trying. Others comfort themselves with the notion that they will do as much as they can and that God will be there “to pick up the slack,” so to speak, and get them the rest of the way to heaven. This is the classical Protestant heresy. The problem is not with God’s standards. The problem is not even with our feeble abilities. The problem lies, frankly, with the Reformation, which has skewed our views on this and any number of subjects (Now where did I put my soapbox? No, I will save that lecture for another day).

So, how should we view perfection? Well, in John 17:21-23, Jesus prays, “…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that they world may know that you have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” So, perfection is all about being one in Christ, having Christ in us as the Father is in Him.

Rather than describe our role here in some context of “doing,” we should view the process primarily as one of “emptying.” It seems to me that being made perfect is all about emptying oneself to make room for Christ—as Paul told the Corinthians; “do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you” (2 Cor. 13:5).

Now, let’s be clear here: viewing perfection thusly does not preclude the “doing,” the “running of the race set before us,” if you will. Like the story told of the old monk in the monastery when he was asked how he spent his time, and he replied, “I fall down. And I get up. I fall down. And I get up.” The struggle, the striving, the repentance, the confession are all essential to attaining perfection. But all of this is within the context of the emptying of oneself of self and being filled with Him, having through the Holy Spirit, Christ in us as the Father is in Him. If we could understand that, we would not be troubled by the concept of perfection. We would never be self-satisfied and content with where we were in our spiritual journey (dare I say “assured”?). We would never view Christ as someone who would “help” us get the rest of the way to heaven—He would be our all in all.

In Matthew 19:21, Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” The Kingdom of God belongs to those who desire to be perfect. But first and foremost, it requires that we empty our hearts of that which we have put in the place where Christ should be.

The following passage from Thomas Merton’s "New Seeds of Contemplation" says it well:

"To enter into His sanctity I must become holy as He is holy, perfect as He is perfect. How can I entertain such a thought? Is it not madness? It is certainly madness if I think I know what the holiness and perfection of God really are in themselves and if I think that there is some way in which I can apply myself to imitating them. I must begin, then, by realizing that the holiness of God is something that is to me, and to all men, utterly mysterious, inscrutable, beyond the highest notion of any kind of perfection, beyond any relevant human statement whatever. If I am to be “holy” I must therefore be something that I do not understand, something mysterious and hidden, something apparently self-contradictory: for God, in Christ, “emptied Himself.” He became a man, and dwelt among sinners….If, then, we want to seek some way of being holy, we must first of all renounce our own way and our own wisdom. We must “empty ourselves” as He did. We must “deny ourselves” and in some sense make ourselves “nothing” in order that we may live not so much in ourselves as in Him. We must live by a power and a light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and yet never fails to support us at every moment. This is holiness. None of this can be achieved by any effort of my own, by any striving of my own, by any competition with other men. It means leaving all the ways than men can follow or understand. I who am without love cannot become love unless Love identifies me with Himself. But if He sends His own Love, Himself to act, and love in me and in all that I do, then I shall be transformed, I shall discover who I am and shall possess my true identity by losing myself in Him. And that is what is called sanctity."

Finally, from St. Mark the Ascetic (early 5th century):

"When we are compelled by our conscience to accomplish all the commandments of God, then we shall understand that the law of the Lord is faultless. It is performed through our good actions, but cannot be perfected by man without God’s mercy."

Anonymous said...

Terry, grant here. Sorry, but i'm going to do the anonymous thing because i'm to lazy to sign up here. Okay. Well, here's where i'm at right now on the perfection thing. WE aren't. But we are created so. So what? Well, we don't really have to do anything but not be who we are being to not be these imperfect beings. And then the paradox comes that when we die to our present selves, we become who were really ARE, which is who we were meant to be--mere christianity. But in groups? Whew, i don't know. People in groups are more unethical at best, and evil at worst. I think what we'd have to do is for everyone to forget that we're part of any kind of group. I think the church would literally have to die to it's own identity to paradoxically gain it's true mystical identity, and that would have to be done by each individual person that identifies themself part of this group. Sure that's an answer, but I think we'd need someone else to help us get that done. Jesus maybe. But more than that, we've got to learn how to start dying before we can learn to start living. Me, you, the church, everyone. And this is no small matter because it seems to me only a few in history have learned how to do it. And most of them weren't christian, Jesus included. Take it easy... or don't in light of all this. Either way, peace.

John said...

Grant, I'm with you--up to a point. I agree wholeheartedly that dying to our present selves we become who we really are, who we were meant to be, and the part about how we have got to learn to start dying before we can start living. Of course, there is an individual aspect of this, and I agree that many churches would have to die to the identity they have fashioned--a lot to unlearn, so to speak. Yet, I still contend that this process has to play itself out in the community of faith. Obviously we don't do this in groups, but the body is the context in which it has to occur. That's all I was saying. And I don't know if being part of a group necessarily makes us more unethical--sometimes it acts as a curb to the outlandish behavior we would otherwise express. But by and large I agree with your observations. Good to hear from you. I've finished Merton, by the way. Have started on another!