The Impossibility of Christianity

Christianity does not work as a sustainable program for life. How’s that for a defense of the faith? Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from someone claiming to follow Jesus. In this second post on Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, I’d like to explore this line of thinking and see why it’s actually an incredibly hopeful view of the Christian faith.

First, a bit from Spufford: 

Christianity does something different [from the other monotheistic religions]. It makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles. It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow. These principles do not amount to a sustainable program. They deliberately ignore the question of how they could possibly be maintained. They ask you to manifest in your ordinary life a drastically uncalculating, unprotected generosity. And that’s not all. Christianity also makes what you mean by your behavior all-important…Not only is Christianity insanely perfectionist in its few positive recommendations, it’s also insanely perfectionist about motive…

Wow, sign me up now. But really, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has listened to what Jesus had to say. Things like: ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,’ and ‘anyone who hates his brother is guilty of murder,’ and ‘you must be perfect.’ Sure, we can try to explain and hedge our way around, but at the end of the day it’s hard to miss the crushingly impossible nature of these demands. But wait, there’s more…

So far, so thrillingly impractical. But now notice the consequence of having an ideal of behavior not sized for human lives: everyone fails. Really everyone…Christianity maintains no register of clean and unclean. It doesn’t believe in the possibility of clean, just as it doesn’t believe that laws can ever be fully adequate, or that goodness can reliably be achieved by following an instruction book…

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people…and excluding the bad people…for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.

Do you see the hopefulness in what Spufford is saying? Far from leaving us without a way forward, the crushing weight of impossibility built into the Christian program points toward the only hopeful path. One that, first, says: ‘We’re all in this together’ (yes, my kids have been re-watching High School Musical recently), and second: points to the possibility that hope lies, not inside of us (because if we’re honest, we know it’s not in there) but outside of us, in the one who makes the demands in the first place.

Let’s leave it there for now, rather than wrap it up nice and tidy…that’s another thing I’ve appreciated about Spufford’s book – our emotions are not cleanly wrapped packages, and neither is his story of Christian faith. There is hope, and we are going there. But for now, what do you think? It is a relief that Christianity ‘maintains no record of clean and unclean’? Is there freedom in knowing that failure is kind of baked in from the beginning, and that maybe the point is bigger than knowing whether you’ve been bad or good (for goodness sake)?

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