Impossible Motives and the League of the Guilty

Can’t believe we haven’t posted anything from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic since we announced that he’d […]

David Zahl / 12.10.13

Can’t believe we haven’t posted anything from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic since we announced that he’d be the keynote at our 2014 Conference in NYC.  For yet another taste of why we felt it so incumbent upon us to get him “to the church on time”, here’s his unbelievably awesome and compassion-inducing articulation of one our favorite hobby-horses, what Bo Giertz refers to as “the Hammer of God”, aka the role of The Law. The excerpt bleeds into a section we’ve posted elsewhere on Spufford’s view of the church. Not sure it gets any better than this:

PJ-BK491_HEALTH_DV_20121029190619“[Christianity] makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles. It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow. These principles do not amount to a sustainable program. They deliberately ignore the question of how they could possibly be maintained. They ask you to manifest in your ordinary life a drastically uncalculating, unprotected generosity.

“And that’s not all. Christianity also makes what you mean by your behavior all-important. You could pauperize yourself, get slapped silly without fighting back, care for lepers and laugh all day long in the face of futures markets, and it still wouldn’t count, if you did it for the wrong reasons. Not only is Christianity insanely perfectionist in its few positive recommendations, it’s also insanely perfectionist about motive. It won’t accept generosity performed for the sake of self-interest as generosity. It says that unless altruism is altruism all the way down, it doesn’t count as altruism at all.

“So far, thrillingly impractical. But now notice the consequence of having an ideal of behavior not sized for human lives: everyone fails. Really everyone. No-one only means well, no one means well all of the time. Looked at from this perspective, human beings all exhibit different varieties of f&%–up. And suddenly in its utter lack of realism Christianity becomes very realistic indeed, intelligently resigned to our vast array of imperfections, and much more interested in what we can do to live with them than in laws designed to keep them segregated. Christianity maintains no register of clean and unclean. It doesn’t believe that laws can ever be fully adequate, or that goodness can reliably be achieved following an instruction book.

“The moral landscape Christianity sees — well, it’s essentially as described by Leonard Cohen. All due apologies offered to Mr. Golden Voice, who I’m sure thought he was satirizing religion in ‘Anthem’, and offering an atheistical Jewish Buddhist’s alternative to sanctimonious certainty. But instead ‘Anthem’ works, if you’re a Christian, as sympathetic reportage of our rueful orthodoxies. We do try to ring the bells that still can ring, though much of the carillion is corroded, or lost to metal fatigue, or otherwise spoiled. We do forget our perfect offering–tell ourselves to forget it, since perfection is forever unavailable. We do entirely agree that there’s a crack in everything (That’s how the light gets in? Oh yes; that most of all.) The vision is of an intrinsically imperfect cosmos, hairlined through and through with flaws, chipped and battered and patched.

“So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people. Not that can be securely designated as such. It can’t be about circling the wagons of virtue out in the suburbs and keeping the unruly inner city at bay. This, I realize, goes flat contrary to the present predominant image of it as something existing in prissy, fastidious little enclaves, far from life’s messier zones and inclined to get all ‘judgmental’ about them. Again, of course there are Christians like that: see under HPtFtU. The religion certainly can slip into being a club or a cozy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn’t supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty.” (pg. 45-48)

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3 responses to “Impossible Motives and the League of the Guilty”

  1. mark mcculley says:

    Hong, Bright Valley of Love, p-61—“It is true, Gunther, that there is a crack in everything. God sees the crack better than we do, and the crack is ever so much worse than we think it is. God sent His Son not to patch up the crack, but to make everything new.”

  2. Jim Ferguson says:

    We do have a perfect offering; it is perfect because God have Him, the beloved, to us and we participate in that one eternal sacrifice every time we commune in the Eucharist. But I take it that Mr. Cohen is referring to any religion’s claim that following all the rules results in salvation. Forget that he says; recognize that there are cracks. Mayne this is like The Gospel’s recognition that tares will always flourish among the wheat. The cracks, like the tares, are a sign….

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