Two Errors: Privatizing & Collectivizing the Faith

“No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude,” began C. S. Lewis in his “Membership” essay. “It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Why is that? “The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”

Lewis continues by pointing out that modern society tries its best to confine religious beliefs and practices to the private life, and what he said in this essay decades ago is even more true today. He then notes the paradoxical nature of the “exaltation of the individual in the religious field . . . when collectivism is ruthlessly defeating the individual in every other field.”

The society of Lewis’s day, as he describes it, tried to denigrate any time for the individual as it pushed the idea of collectivism.

There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude exists. . . .

If a really good home . . . existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone when alone.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

One wonders how much more Lewis would emphasize this if he were to witness what takes place in our day with the barrage of entertainment and social media drowning out genuine solitude and friendship. We think we are reclaiming both through social media platforms, but we may be fooling ourselves.

Both in Lewis’s day and in ours, the world “says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,'” yet “it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.'”

Make Christianity a private affair and then banish all privacy is how Lewis explains that approach. Christians then fall into the trap of reacting against this “by simply transporting into our spiritual life that same collectivism which has already conquered our secular life.” He calls that “the enemy’s other stratagem.” Here’s what he means:

Like a good chess player, he is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.

In order to avoid the trap we must insist that though the private conception of Christianity is an error, it is a profoundly natural one and is clumsily attempting to guard a great truth.

Behind it is the obvious feeling that our modern collectivism is an outrage upon human nature and that from this, as from all other evils, God will be our shield and buckler.

So, we have a tendency to accept an error (collectivism) in our attempt to reject the privatization of our faith.

Collectivism is found primarily in politics. Lewis goes on to make this statement, one that I find quite appropriate to our current societal state:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

We are a society immersed in politics. For many, it is the be-all and end-all of life. Any society in that state remains sick.

Christian faith should be our focus, not politics. Yet this faith cannot be either a private thing or a copy of secular collectivism. We lose if we go in either of those two directions. The true Body of Christ as explained in Scripture is of another nature entirely.

What is that nature? I’ll deal with that as I conclude Lewis’s thoughts in this essay in a future post.

The Real Church of Jesus Christ

The Church of Jesus Christ consists of all those who have received the truth about themselves and their relationship with God. It consists of those who have seen the awfulness of their sins, who have come to the Cross in repentance and faith for the forgiveness of those sins, and who have thereafter dedicated their lives to serving the One who gave His life for them.

Those who have done so are the actual Church, and that Church has only one real purpose, as explained succinctly by C. S. Lewis:

The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.

God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

We, the Church, divide ourselves into different segments, which we call denominations. All too often, we look down on those not of our particular segment and miss the true spirit of the Holy Spirit. Yet, those who are truly His recognize the essential unity we all share regardless of where we choose to worship.

We may have different ideas on specific doctrines, but, as Lewis reminds us, we have a lot more in common than we may realize:

It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion [denomination] is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine.

And this suggests at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.

In my lifetime thus far, I have been associated with the following denominations: Lutheran, Assemblies of God, Mennonite, Wesleyan, Nazarene, Episcopal, and an assortment of independent fellowships that claimed no specific denominational ties. In all of them I found sincere Christians who desired with all their heart and soul to glorify God in Christ.

“The Church,” Lewis says, “will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share His immortality.”

All of these thoughts today lead me back to one of my favorite Lewis quotes, taken from his wonderful sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” Near the end of it, he tells us what our attitude should be toward one another, how we should view one another in the light of immortality.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

If that is true, as I believe it is, it should be the very guideline we follow as we interact with one another, and all our interactions should be aimed, ultimately, at helping others to become one of those everlasting splendors God wants to fashion. For the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs.