Literary Witness 6

Spiritual But Unbelieving

By David Mills

“Did you ever meet, or hear of, anyone who was converted from skepticism to a ‘liberal’ or ‘demythologized’ Christianity?” C. S. Lewis asked a friend. “I think that when believers come in at all, they come in a good deal further.”

That seems to be true, in my observation, but with the crucial qualification that many people want some kind of spiritual experience and religious community but do not want to meet the demands of real Christianity. Most of these are formerly religious people on their way out of the Faith but unable to leave it entirely, but at least a few are truly unreligious people who have come part way in.

Liberal Christianity offers just the amount of the supernatural they want. Hence the perhaps surprisingly mixture of religion and even superstition everywhere we look with a general disregard for the Church and the moral law — of people who say “I’m a very spiritual person” while living with their fifth consecutive girlfriend or who wear magic crystals but proclaim their disbelief in God on the back bumper of their car.

We want the spiritual-ish, because God made us to want him but we don’t want to want him. “We live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual,” observed Flannery O’Connor.

“There is something in us. . . that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored,” she wrote. “The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.”

He wants the pleasures of religion without costs. Thinking of her own calling as a writer, she noted that “When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.” This reader, “if he believes in grace at all, sees it as something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as Instant Uplift.”

Looking at a nineteenth century book that “humanized” Jesus, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that the author “understood perfectly, indeed shared, the current craving for a Christianity without tears; for an idyll rather than a drama, with a happy ending instead of that gaunt Cross rising so inexorably into the sky.”

“At its worst,” O’Connor concluded, ours is “an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily,” but at least some modern people — those most likely to “come in a good deal further” — cannot accept the world as the final answer and satisfaction of all their desires. Lewis did not, nor did G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, or Malcolm Muggeridge among the writers we are using, all of whom tried the alternatives to Christianity and found them failures on their own terms.

Muggeridge reported on the follies of the worldly (and him among them), with glee when he was young and proud, with regret when he was older and wiser. Waugh unsparingly satirized the world in books like Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies while he was in it, and in Brideshead Revisited when he’d left it (though no fallen man ever really leaves the world and the flesh, as Waugh knew).

Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is essentially the inside story of a demonic con job, in which the demons try to convince a man that the world can give him everything he wants and after he becomes a Christian try to trick him into combining worldliness with his faith. Chesterton, in a characteristically gentler way, left in logical ruins the attempts of the great men of his day to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth (a dream he’d once held himself) in books like Heretics and What’s Wrong With the World.

All of them saw that the world does not make man happy, and the vanity of human attempts to make themselves happy. “The Gadarene swine were doubtless in pursuit of happiness when they hurled themselves to destruction over the cliff,” wrote Muggeridge, a man who had pursued worldly pleasures with rare energy and success. In the wealthy countries of the West, “The pursuit of happiness . . . soon resolved itself into the pursuit of pleasure — something quite different. Pleasure is but the mirage of happiness — a false vision of shade and refreshment seen across parched sand.”

This helps explain why these men, mostly unlikely converts, become Christians. People who know as sharply as they did that the world does not satisfy look carefully and critically for something that does. Fooled once, or twice, or three times, they were not going to be fooled again. They looked for something that survived their skeptical scrutiny, their satirical reading, their exacting analysis.

And they found him. As Muggeridge, who had led by far the most rackety moral life of them all, wrote after he came to know Jesus as the savior: When God became man, “He set a window in the tiny dark dungeon of the ego in which we all languish, letting in a light, providing a vista, and offering a way of release from the servitude of the flesh and the fury of the will into what St Paul called the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

Maybe because they knew the world so well, and had enjoyed its pleasures and power, they came eventually to accept the incarnate religion the lopsidedly spiritual world denies. Its reality shown out to them. That we see in the Christmas we are soon to celebrate: “When we want to adulate men, we say they are godlike,” Muggeridge wrote. “but when God became Man, it was in the lineaments of the least among men.”

They saw salvation in the last place the world would think to find it: in a manger in a shed with animals and animal products, the least “spiritual” place imaginable.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Spiritual But Unbelieving” appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Lay Witness.

The quotations appeared in: Lewis, Letters to Malcolm; O’Connor, “Novelist and Believer” and “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” from Mystery and Manners; Muggeridge, “Pleasure,” in Muggeridge Through the Microphone; Muggeridge,Jesus: The Man Who Lives.