“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.
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.