What use is Christianity?

 “But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?” asked Drinian.   “Use?” replied Reepicheep. “Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be of no use at all. But as far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures.”
C.S.Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

One criticism that’s often levelled at Christianity is that it’s just concerned with ‘spiritual’ and non-practical things – with life after death, and theories of salvation, and mysticism. In this sense, the argument goes, it’s not a practical, real-world, real-life faith.

But it seems to me that Christianity is very much concerned with real life, and with the whole of life. It’s by no means only interested in the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ aspects but also with eating and sleeping, work, sex, relationships, leisure time and so forth.

I love the Message paraphrase of Romans 12:1 ‘Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering’. This is an intensely practical, physical, even earthy, understanding of worship.

Yes, praying and singing songs of praise can also be worship. But where the rubber hits the road is in the moment-to-moment details of our daily lives – that’s where we’re really becoming Christian, becoming Christlike, or really not. It’s where we make the little decisions and choices that over time form our characters. Christian salvation doesn’t happen only in heaven or in our ‘spiritual’ lives, but is enacted and embodied and worked out in the nitty-gritty of the daily grind.

Way of life

So Christianity is very much about the here and now of our practical lives. It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily prescribe exactly how we should do all these everyday things. It doesn’t give us practical, step-by-step instructions for every aspect of life, because that’s not the point.

I once met a Muslim convert from Catholicism who said that he’d been attracted to Islam by the rules. ‘There’s a rule for everything!’ he enthused. ‘Even for how you go to the loo and wipe your bottom’. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is I can sort of understand the appeal – though personally I’d find it deeply restrictive.

The most ‘practical’ religion is arguably Witchcraft, or at least the forms of witchcraft which seek to control and manipulate supernatural forces in order to achieve practical goals – e.g. cursing enemies or healing friends, making crops grow, assuring fertility or victory in battle and so forth. In some ways, it’s a very technological approach to religion – essentially using it as a mechanism to get what you need. (Of course, quite a few people do approach Christianity this way, but I think they miss the point by doing so.)

For Christianity certainly doesn’t have rules for everything; nor does it offer specific techniques which you can follow to achieve particular desired ends. Rather it’s a broad framework in which to place all of life’s practical situations. It’s a ‘Way’ to follow – but we each have to find the specifics of the way for ourselves.

Rather than giving us specific rules and techniques for everything we’ll ever encounter, Christianity is concerned with transforming our hearts and renewing our minds. For then the right way will be ‘written on our hearts’. Then we’ll approach all aspects of life with the right attitude and in the right spirit. We don’t need to be told exactly how to do the washing up; rather we need the Christ-renewed heart that will do it with a good grace, as an act of worship or service and not under compulsion.

What use is Christian faith?

So to go back to the original question, what actual use is Christianity?

For many people, if Christianity can’t guarantee you happiness, or health, or victory over enemies, or security, or freedom from trouble, then it’s not worth bothering with – it’s of no practical use. I can sympathise with this view; sometimes it feels like Christianity makes a huge set of near-impossible demands but (in the short term) gives little in return. But again, I think that’s to miss the point.

I quoted C.S. Lewis’s Narnian mouse Reepicheep at the start, reminding the Dawn Treader’s crew that adventures and heroic quests are not undertaken for their practical value, but for their spiritual. Their purpose is not to prolong life nor to make it comfortable, but to enhance and fulfil it. There’s no practical ‘use’ in the adventure they’ve embarked upon – it won’t bring them food or wealth. It’s possible that it may even cost them their lives; yet it will (paradoxically) make them more alive. It will make them more whole, more real – and more human; more themselves.

We could similarly ask what ‘use’ is love, or music and art, or story and poetry, or sport, or conversation with a friend? What use is climbing a mountain or running a marathon or swimming the Channel? Or what use is writing a song, or watching a sunset? No use whatsoever – yet these are precisely the kinds of things that make life worth living. They don’t keep you alive physically, but they keep your spirit alive. They feed your soul, not your stomach.

We could also ask what use is prayer, especially if we don’t get answers (or not the ones we want). It’s all too easy to treat prayer as merely a practical exercise to get what we want from God, but as I said before I believe that’s to miss the point. Prayer is, in a sense, a waste of time – but it’s a glorious waste of time. Prayer may often change nothing practically, but in another way it can change everything.

Love divine

It’s a bit like romantic love. When we fall in love, the world doesn’t objectively change one iota. But for us it changes beyond recognition. Suddenly everything is full of colour and beauty. Our senses are sharpened; we see and hear afresh. Life has new meaning and purpose.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I think Christianity is very like falling in love. It’s something that makes no sense from outside. But to those caught up in the divine love, it changes everything; it changes us. Nothing’s changed, yet everything has changed.

That’s why I don’t think we should ever seek to completely eradicate the ‘magical’ element in Christianity, however embarrassing or awkward that is for sensible, scientifically-minded modern people. Without its strange, supernatural, numinous core, Christianity just becomes yet one more moral and ethical system for living a decent life. Which is frankly a bit dull.

And the greatest and most numinous and most central mystery of all is the mystery of divine love. It is the mysterious love we cannot earn or explain but only experience; the love which welcomes and transforms and redeems us.

What’s the use?

So how practical is Christianity? It depends what you mean by that. As I’ve said, in one sense it’s entirely practical, focusing on the details of our everyday bodily lives and relationships as the locus of redemption.

And what use is Christianity? Again it depends on what you mean. It is of very little use in many of the senses that we humans value – filling our bellies and purses, guaranteeing us health and wealth, happiness and security. The ‘use’ of Christian faith is simply that it is the way of reality, of redemption, of healing, of life, of love, of becoming real and whole and human and alive. And there are no rule-books or technique-manuals for that.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Incarnation, Salvation, Spirituality and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What use is Christianity?

  1. Chas says:

    My first response comes in regard to the first paragraph, as it brought to mind a phrase that i have heard more than once: ‘too spiritual to be of any earthly use.’ My reaction on first hearing this was: how is that possible? as God is willing to give us guidance on every aspect of everyday living, if we are willing to seek and accept it. He has given me guidance on all sorts of projects, including fence building, car repair and various cupboards and shelves etc. not to mention where to buy the parts and other hardware. He has also guided me on how to respond to emotional crises in others: who needs a hug, who needs encouragement, who needs advice, etc.

    • Yes, absolutely. I don’t tend to sense God’s guidance quite as directly and specifically as you seem to, but I’m certainly aware of his presence (and interest) in the small mundane details of my everyday life.

      I was thinking of that phrase too – the version I’ve heard is ‘too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use’. I’ve certainly met Christians who could fit that description, but I don’t think that’s what Christ calls us to.

      • I might add that it is not just Evangelical or “Bible-believing” Christians who experience such “divine guidance” (or however one may term it). They often declare that others “don’t know the Lord” or are “lost”. They can’t conceive how unbelievers can make it through loss or grief “without the Lord”.

        Such Christians fail to realize that others experience God in very similar ways, sometimes consciously recognizing and thanking God, sometimes not…. that God’s grace is accessed in a multitude of ways, largely apart from conscious belief-systems. The “theology” of non-Christians or “liberal” (often thought apostate) Christians may not include the same importance placed on a cosmic Christ. Thus, narrow-thinking, presumptuous people conclude they have no meaningful connection to God…. Big mistake. It works against sharing in spiritual joys, in pain, and building larger community circles. (I speak from direct experience, as this is somewhat the case in my own family.)

        • Thanks Howard – yes, I completely agree with you. I’m convinced that God’s Spirit is at work everywhere and in everyone, and is by no means limited to the church or the Bible. Which is not to denigrate the church or Bible, both of which I still view as important, but they’re not the be-all-and-end-all.

  2. Harvey, I resonate with so many themes in your post: Reepicheep’s statement on the purpose of adventure; that following Jesus is not for ‘practical’ benefit; and that following Jesus is not about rules but about a way of life. We seem to understand Jesus in very similar ways.

    By the way, I liked your subtitles.

  3. johnm55 says:

    For Christianity certainly doesn’t have rules for everything;

    You obviously have never come across the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
    I see where you are coming from and where you are trying to get to with the post. I used to feel something along the same lines, but ultimately came to the conclusion, that it was mainly me talking to myself. It’s a bit like the guidance that Chas speaks of was in reality stuff that I already knew, or knew where to get the information from, that moved from the subconscious to the conscious as I sought ‘guidance’. and when people could do with a hug they usually give signs
    As you say Christianity is not much use for filling our bellies or our purses, but can give a sense of purpose to life, but then so can almost anything, political involvement,walking, even sitting in the garden on a summers evening with a cold beer.

    • Fair point! When I said that Christianity doesn’t have rules for everything, I’m talking of course of my own reading of what Christianity is primarily about. I’m well aware that some branches of the church do have rules for everything… but to the extent that they do, I submit that they’re spectacularly missing the point. (Of course, in all likelihood I too am missing the point in some other way, which I’ll need someone to point out to me!).

      I know what you mean about ‘mainly talking to myself’. There are plenty of times when I feel the same, and when I doubt if there’s any real meaning that I’m not just inventing for myself. Yet for me there’s still a nagging sense that there’s more than that. There are still ‘thin’ places and times for me when I glimpse something, well, beyond myself.

      I agree that almost anything can give us a sense of purpose – and I think that all of those things you mention can be very good. But again for me they’re part of something bigger – call it the universal, or God, or whatever. I don’t necessarily feel any need to engage in specifically ‘Christian’ things – mission, church services, Bible studies etc. Listening to music or walking are all part of the same bigger thing…

  4. Chas says:

    This response has come as the result of today’s events in Egypt. I have put it under this heading because there is a shorter response chain here, but it could equally have been put under ‘What use is the Bible.’ The sentencing of three journalists in Egypt to prison sentences of seven years or more, following a trial in which they were not allowed to speak, highlights the use that God has made of Christianity/the Bible in bringing a worldwide message of free speech and fair trial, in the latter days (by contrast to the Inquisition). These are shown in the Bible through Nicodemus, who questioned the Jewish authorities on whether they shouldn’t have allowed somebody to speak in their own defence. We also see the right to remain silent in your own trial, in Jesus’ staying silent when the high priest was questioning him. We see Peter and John replying spiritedly, during their trial in front of the Sanhedrin, and in effect questioning the authority of the Sanhedrin in their role as the Jewish religion’s leaders. We also see the need to submit to the authority of the state, when it is legitimate and being fairly administered, in Paul’s letter that touches on this.

    • I think that’s an excellent and important point. For all the undeniable bad that has regrettably been done in the name of God and the Bible over the centuries, much and great good has also been brought about. Many of the better principles enshrined in our society and in our legal codes have their roots in Christianity and the Bible. The abolition and civil rights movements owed much to Christianity (though sadly the slave traders and proponents of Apartheid also used the Bible to justify their positions). Much education and healthcare were originally provided by religious groups. Modern western science arguably has its roots in the theism which led thinkers like Newton and Kepler to study ‘God’s book of nature’. And so on…

      Of course the picture is always mixed, for humans have a habit of messing up even the best things. But there is much genuine good alongside the rubbish.

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