Escape, not Escapism

Building off this previous post, I should note that just because we can interact with all our natural desires in a God-honoring spirit of gratitude, humility and prayer, it is a profoundly unnatural desire that causes us to want to do so. Indeed, because Christians can tend to paint this life as idyllic–Lewis with his holiday at sea, and me with my key lime pie–Christianity can be seen as escapist. An objector might ask: Isn’t that taking all the tension out of life–the very tension that makes life so exciting, so vigorously livable? And how is it not a cop out on the part of the Christian to imagine their life in such a way, especially while there are real people dying all over the world or struggling to survive or just striving to become better people? How is the Christian story not a disengagement with reality? How is it not escapism of the worst sort–escapism that says,  ‘if you don’t join me in la-la land, I’m going to tell you you’re going to hell’?

A short excerpt of a conversation between Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens might make this point even clearer:

Sullivan: [speaking of a conversation with English philosopher Michael Oakeshott] And he said, Well, my problem with Christianity has always been salvation. After all, who would want to be saved?
Hitchens: Well, that’s very much like [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing.
Sullivan: Right. Yes, exactly.
Hitchens: It’s also like being of the devil’s party, all of these things. I mean, what puts one off is the thought that it could be true, which I think is, in a way, the final condemnation of religion. When people contemplate its victory, they can’t stand it; it’s much better as a private consolation or faith against the material world and its misery.
Sullivan: That is what Oakeshott’s understanding is.
Hitchens: It’s also what Daniel Dennett is effectively saying, is that it has its utility and can’t possibly die out, let alone be repressed. But that the real, the actual claims it makes as a church are not just false but sinister, really.

The actual claims of the church are false and sinister, as Hitchens and Oakeshott see them, because the bright future Christianity posits sucks the essence out of things. These men understand humanity and life in such a way that to remove the Streben inherent in each of our experiences–that is, our striving toward good and not evil, toward progress and not regress, toward cultivation and not decay–is to remove the words from a book or the face from a portrait. They don’t want to be saved from that striving in the same way a soldier doesn’t want to be spared from fighting in a war he feels is just. To “save” the soldier from the battle, then, would be a great injustice. To save someone like Hitchens from the striving he sees as essential to life with a perforce coping mechanism–religion–would be a sinister act indeed.

But the message of Christianity is not aimed at exempting anyone from the fight, rather it’s meant to tell us the nature of the fight and equip us for it. Here’s what the Holy Spirit says about reality:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Notice that humans aren’t presented here as ones to weigh whether a certain belief offers us, as Hitchens summarized above, “private consolation or faith against the material world and its misery.” By nature we’re weak, sinners and enemies of God according to this passage. But for Christians, God did not respect our boundaries or our rebellion and he reconciled us to him through Christ anyway. And that’s what God’s up to in the world at this very moment, reconciling the entire world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Rather than a strong man forging his own way, the man who wants goodness and progress on his own terms is a rebel against a kingdom that’s been established for two thousand years and gets stronger by the day. The one who reads “Lord Jesus Christ” without trembling has misunderstood what is meant by those words.

So what of the humanist’s striving? What of their fight for justice? Though it is done in rebellion, it is rebellion within God’s world and can only be fought on his terms. That is to say, eschewing God’s revealed morality and wisdom, they must create their own and the only tools and ingredients with which to create are those they borrow from the Creator. Needless to say, there are some overlapping conclusions. Just enough to blind the individual to the fact that he is a terrorist, not a freedom fighter. To such a one, Christ sends his ambassadors to make this appeal: Be reconciled to God.

And for the Christian? We live as citizens of our Lord now and for all eternity. And he is a good King. Having been enemies of that King, it’s only right that we delight in his joy in us because we see so clearly that this joy in us is not something appropriate to who we are, but something completely unnatural. Which is to say, supernatural. So it this interaction with the supernatural (being born again) that allows Christians to do good and not fear anything that is frightening. It is this engagement with God’s reality that marks our lives by escape, but not escapism.

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