I finished this book on our “baby-moon” before Vivienne’s birth, in a winter wonderland in Hasliberg. I’d borrowed it years ago, and never got around to reading it – a mistake, as the post-its bristling out of its side indicate.
Blamires convincingly contends in this short volume of 192 pages that we are living not in a state of normalcy, but a state of emergency, where only the notions of Fall and Redemption speak to and make sense of our lives. The book is organized into six chapters, which I’ll try to summarize in a sentence each, before going into greater detail and quoting Blamires liberally.
In brief, then, Blamires says we are fallen, powerless, and unworthy. Secularism prevents us from seeing our fallenness, which is why the secular sphere must be rescued from the secularists. Our fallenness requires redemption, which costs Christ his life and us our dignity. Permissiveness, not atheism, is the greatest challenge to the church. The Christian faith, with its vastness and coherence, makes sense of everything as a unified whole. It is a life of simple obedience.
Now, on to the chapters.
Chapter 1: Our Fallen State
Life on earth is an emergency situation. The gospel – and therefore theology – must address that. There is no time on earth for experiencing different worldviews and speculative weighing: the gospel has the urgency of a lifeline. Blamires spends some time showing evidence of the Fall and our powerlessness, mentioning in passing a few of the idols we repair to. (The idols have changed names since then.) The Fall is, in the final analysis, the reverse side of what we ought to be and do as children of God made in his image. Our confidence in earthly things must be shaken for the gospel to speak to us.
Chapter 2: Our Civilisation and the Fall
Ascribing blame to social factors is only shifting blame from present to past fallen people. Sin is woven into history and society. Neither nature nor mankind behave: nature – sin – is a “strong brown god” (T.S. Eliot) biding his time, ready to bring chaos, only temporarily tamed by civilization’s rules and frameworks. “Nurturing the young morally and socially means introducin them to a framework of moral principles and a network of restraints, inhibitions, and courtesies which ease social communication.” Shrugging off these artificial restraints does to our social life what getting rid of traffic lights does to New York traffic. “Our civilisation in its material aspects has been built by the imposition upon the natural order of the frameworks and networks which give us homes and cities, water-taps and telephones. Our civilisation in its moral, social, and cultural aspects has been built by the imposition upon natural forces of frameworks and networks which give us the family, the state, the nation, our system of justice, our culture, with its codes, its etiquettes, and its artistic achievements.” Art which is only self-expression is uncultured, but because the Fall is by and large forgotten, secular culture ignores the “strong brown god” and has no interest in the church’s emergency services. And by dint of denying on principle that god, secularism throws off the civilizing rules it considers fetters and imprisons the world in chaos. “Secularism by definition is so closed-minded that it is trying to shut off from the minds of contemporary men and women, boys and girls, the faith, the hope, and the vision that stabilised and enriched the lives of the generations who built our civilisation and gave us our culture. Secularism is an attempt to fetter, to limit, to prohibit. It is a new form of slavery.” Civilization becomes incapable of its saving grace: recognizing its own fallenness. Instead, “[e]ducation is the answer to all our problems. Education, however, if it is divested of all religious base and sanction, will merely intensify and prolong man’s blinkered confinement to this-worldly ends and aims which have so signally failed us in the past. (…) Education is a nurturing of human beings in humanity. The ultimate purpose of humanity is the service of God. Therefore totally secularised education is a contradiction in terms. (…) Our over-riding public problem today is that the control of the secular sphere is increasingly in the hands of secularists. And the secular sphere is far too precious, far too important, to be left in the hands of secularists.”
Chapter 3: Redemption in Christ
“Reader, I found him.” Our joys are measured by the miseries we have escaped from. “The difference between ingratitude and gratitude is (…) the difference between thinking about ourselves, whether miserably or smugly, and thinking about someone else, in this case God the Giver in recognition of our unworthiness.” We are involved in our fallen state by compulsion, but voluntarily involved with the redeeming Christ. Only focusing on joy is unhealthy, distracting from our susceptibility to corruption and tempting us to pride in our worthiness. “The redemption offered in Christ is not an ultimate achievement, setting the crown on all other earthly achievements. It is the end of achieving and the beginning of being used. (…) [That] means that advertising your own salvation to the world may not after all be essentially different in its moral category from advertising your own sinfulness to the world. The opposite of humble penitence is not pride in salvation: it is forgiveness. (…) If the doctrine of the Fall explains what kind of a world we live in, the doctrine of redemption tells us how to cope with that situation. (…) In a sense there can never be any other Christian duty than that, to set the divine life in the human neighbourhood.” Zacchaeus illustrates the danger of getting to close to Christ, of inviting him into our homes and hearts: “a middle-class professional man of means took our Lord into his house and promptly reversed the habits of a lifetime.” Yet that is what is expected of us. And God continues to visit us: “For the Christian, life is littered with minor epiphanies which ever so slightly lift the corner of the curtain veiling the Creator at his work. Many of them seem to slight to record, yet the strands they weave into life’s pattern are particularly colourful. (…) Cheerful, or disturbing, the event reminds us briefly how we stand under God’s oversight.” Blamires closes with an observation of the contemporary effect of the gospel message: “The message is a message of love and a call to penitence. To be confronted with it is to be chased by a lamb, and that hurts one’s dignity. (…) The Christian’s lot is to be chased by a Lamb and to be overtaken by a Lamb. It is also to have his pride and self-centredness savaged by a Lamb.”
Chapter 4: Counter-Christianity and the Alternative Ethic
Because Christianity is revealed, its moral keynote is obedience. Its call is to surrender to the divine will – in direct opposition to the popular “myth of Escalating Emancipation.” Because some liberations have been desirable, the idea has taken hold that “progress consists in getting rid of restrictions. (…) It is based on the assumption that mankind has progressed, not by disciplining the unregenerate ego, but by giving it its fling. (…) There is a breaking-point which makes nonsense of the notion that human beings can go on casting off fetters, inhibitions, and restraints indefinitely. Sooner or later there will not be enough inhibitions to go round. (…) It is nonsense to pretend that in the modern world regulation, discipline, and obedience to authority are outmoded. (…) [T]he antithesis lies between the ethic of discipline governing the life and determining the smooth functioning of our technological civilisation and the ethic of self-determination which is widely canvassed in our age.” The image of the Christian church as a body instructs us to be very careful before we assign obedience to the scrap heap: “ought it not to be equally evident that relationship by membership of a common body requires us to be sensitive to those of our forebears who not only shared in that membership but also by their witness made possible the continuity of linkage which gives the Body its extension through time as well as through space? (…) [Liberal theologians] clearly do not conceive of the Christian Church as a body living through history, increasing its strength by addition and enrichment. (…) They seem scarcely to treat seriously the Christian presupposition that the past is alive still in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Atheism attacks God; Counter-Christianity attacks obedience. “Frank atheism will not corrupt Christians. Counter-Christianity contents itself with implying by its judgements that God is not the centre of things, that, though he exists, jdugements need not be based on any prior recognition either of his existence or of his revealed word. (…) Judgements about God can never take the form, ‘He must be like this because that is what I feel he ought to be’. John Donne once remarked that you must have a very mean and unworthy estimate of God if you stipulate that he ought to behave as you yourself would behave if you were God.” We are quite susceptible to the arguments of Counter-Christianity because they appeal to the heart and our supposed finer feelings, and make it easy to forget “the irrelevance of current ideals of independence, self-actualisation, and creative activity to human beings who are face to face with suffering or frustration, disease or death.” Blamires proposes five questions to help us spot heretical advice, the last of which stands our for me: “Does this advice or teaching allow for the need for penitence, forgiveness, and restitution to others, or does it tend to play down any sense of guilt and to explain all difficulties in terms of external causes?” Blamires shows the altruistic pretext for sin that allows it to gain a foothold is soon dropped for the bare ethic of self-fulfilment. “An act is good according to this code in so far as it contributes to the development of the personality. It is everyone’s responsibility to maximise his own human potential, to turn himself into a complete, mature, integrated person. The total absence of reference to objective standards here is symptomatic of a code utterly subjective and relative in its evaluations. (…) Feelings are as crucial to the alternative code as they are peripheral to genuine Christian morality.” Blamires reminds us of the “crucial first principles of Christian morality – the Word of God, the will of God, and the overriding demand to give them precedence.” Although it may appeal to our vanity to think we know better thatn previous generations, it is an exercise in self-deception: “whatever else we may claim to be masters of in twentieth-century Western Europe, understanding of the secret of ordered harmonious personal life is not our strong point. (…) Wherever ‘new’ thinking relies for its validity on the assumption that on crucial moral issues the best wisdom of law-makers and the common sense of the man in the street have been for centuries dead wrong, the onus of proof lies firmly on the innovators.” Blamires moves on to discuss the disintegration of public morality. He quotes John Rae, who argues that “‘self-indulgent behaviour and easy credit’ are ‘two aspects of the same permissive value system.’” Blamires continues: “All emphasis is ostensibly laid on individual choice and responsibility, while, in fact, true choice and responsibility are often lifted from the shoulders of those who make a mess of things. Consider the way in which we now talk of marriage as something which two people possess and share but which may turn sour like some foodstuff that is kept too long. ‘Their marriage has irretrievably broken down’, we says as though the thing were a car which had finally cracked up. (…) [E]ven in the extreme case, logic requires us to insist that what fails is not ‘a marriage’ but human beings, perhaps a human being no longer responsible for his or her actions, perhaps a human being tested beyond endurance. (…) [T]he actual practical application of permissiveness is to shift responsibility from human beings, not on to other human beings, but on to an imaginary thing, a ‘marriage’ or a ‘relationship’. (…) Shifting personal responsibility from men and women is a crucial process in thoroughly de-Christianising our society. (…) It follows that secularism, by recognising no authority in deference to which the ‘strong brown god’ can be tamed and the lure of the deadly tree resisted, is philosophically speaking irreconcilable with civilisation. (…) Anyone who thinks that the destruction of the environment by acid rain or nuclear fall-out is unrelated to the destruction of the family by divorce and promiscuity is living in a dream world.” Blamires moves on to discuss briefly the problem of pain, where he makes a statement that curprised me: “All [evils] are aspects of what happens in a divinely created universe when men and women are disobedient. The fact that the innocent suffer alongside the guilty troubles the mind. But a world in which only the guilty suffered would be a world deprived of freedom.” I think he means that if immediate just punishment followed every guilty act, guilty acts might soon be eradicated by force. Blamires returns to the ethic of permissiveness and disintegration of public morality and points out that private permissiveness has corrupted the public atmosphere: “If you want to measure how far the supposedly private sins of individuals infect the public mental climate of the day, reflect what would happen if Jesus Christ sat on the lakeside of Derwentwater or of the Serpentine in 1987 and said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’. Honest, God-fearing parents would have to call their little ones away from him, reminding them sternly never, never to speak to a strange man, but always, always to run away from him.” The same people who argue that our neighbor’s morals are none of our business are those who berate free-range parents for leaving their children unsupervised. You can’t have it both ways. If my neighbor’s morals impact society, then surely it is my business; if they don’t, then what do the unsupervised children have to fear? Blamires ends the chapter with a note of hope in his observations of students in the late eighties, “who are questioning the fundamental assumptions which have produced a world of such violent contrasts bewteen ease and suffering, wealth and privation, where a moral free-for-all is rotting the social fabric of the nations in the materially prosperous West.” More than two decades later, his hope sounds premature. Permissiveness still reigns, AIDS didn’t end the sexual revolution, and our love affair with technology has continued despite Chernobyl. Will Fukushima and the Lehman Brothers change anything? And: what did the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution look like in terms of those violent contrasts?
Chapter 5: The Christian World
Blamires begins by quoting Eric Mascall’s “essential characteristics of Christian life and Christian understanding: (…) ‘intensity’, ‘vastness’, and ‘permanence’.” According to Blamires, these stand in stark contradiction to today’s pervasive compartmentalization and fragmentation. We tend not to relate what happens at work with what happens in our love life with what happens at church or at the stock market. “Is human life,” Blamires asks, “like a picaresque novel in which the only principle of unity is in the experiencing self? Or is it more like a play, planned and shaped by a dramatist who locks characters together in a pattern of action? (…) If the role of a human being is inevitably played out in an environment which is a random aggregate of fragmentarinesses, he or she will clearly have to find meaning and pattern within his or her own being.” This is a fairly recent phenomenon: “[T]he medieval notions of the ordered universe which the Elizabethan age inherited certainly gave men and women a sense of participating in something more coherent than a succession of fragmentary experiences.” But even today, “the good things of life (…) do belong together. That is what the Christian doctrine of creation is all about. (…) The Christian world is a world in which things fit together, in which things belong together. (…) No child of God needs to go around looking for an identity. No inhabitant of his created world needs to talk of not belonging.” But this coherent worldview stupefies our contemporaries. “It is not just that the overwhelming comprehensiveness of the Christian message eludes them, or repels them. It is that the comprehensive thing, the all-explaining thing is alien to the modern mind.” To us, raised in modern times, struggling with the apparent self-evidence of compartmentalization, Blamires holds up this vision: “Christian insight allows the intensity and coherence proper to the truly beatific state to permeate the most humdrum experiences and draw them into a single pattern. (…) If we Christians sometimes feel lonely, few, and alien in our world, it may be partly because we have allowed our historical sense to atrophy. For on the cultural scene our environment is alive with the rich products of our Christian inheritance, our Christian cathedrals, our Christian literature, our Christian art, and so much else.” If the atheist sees and enjoys this, he is bound to think the artist’s faith doesn’t even matter. “God forgive him, he thinks that the great works of Christian culture are great in spite of their Christian substance and inspiration and in no degree because of their Christian substance and inspiration.” Instead of acknowledging its source, “[i]n the academic world especially our Christian inheritance is being filched from under our eyes. (…) Indeed, there is an attempt to isolate us from the very culture which is pre-eminently ours as Christians by playing down the Christian content of a work of are or literature as something which, if emphasised, would somehow vulgarise response to that work by sullying the purity of a supposed aesthetic substance loftily superior to creed or ideology. (…) [P]ersonal spiritual disciplines need to be supplemented by cultivation of an alert Christian cultural consciousness. We must take note of where the Christian impress lies upon our culture (…) and we must take care that it is known for what it is, and not allow the enemies of the Church to squeeze the juice of supernatural faith from its substance, so that what was once a genuine fruit of Christian inspiration is left looking like a dried-out skin. (…) A true awareness of the all-salvaging character of Christ’s redemptive work will not stop short of seeing whatever is good in the earth God made as hallowed, or hallowable, when properly used. (…) Christian teaching caters for a real and not for an imaginary world. Christianity can never be simply a matter of personal conversion determining the character of moral life. It is also a matter of intellectual enlightenment transforming the whole mental life. It is not only a matter of entering upon the life of spiritual regeneration, but of entering upon a total revaluation of all interests – intellectual, cultural, social, and personal – in the light of the Gospel revelation. And more than that, for much has happened since Christ rose from the dead. It is a matter of entering upon a vast inheritance of understanding and illumination shed over the whole created world and civilised life by generations of believers.”
Chapter 6: The Christian Life
Our relationship with God, Blamires contends, ought to be marked by simplicity and directness. “If praye r is made in absolute trust, there will be no need for a personal public visitation making clear to all the neighbours that God has paid us a call and granted our request.” However, “[w]e tend to look for something more in response to our prayers than the fulfilment of our wish. We tend to look for some compulsive evidence that the fulfilment is the direct result of prayer.” Blamires explains how we tend to “agonise too much over motives instead of getting on with the task in hand. (…) God’s instructions are never hard to swallow because they are complicated. They are hard to swallow because they are so terrifyingly simple, so blindingly direct.”
And now, I can return the book. I recommend reading the longer of the two Amazon reviews, which points out some of the (few) statements that will stick in many a Christian’s craw – nearly all of them in my opinion incidental, but nevertheless such that they might distract from the deeper truths in Blamires’s book.