In my jaundiced way, I often suspect the coiners of fashionable phrases of having taken perfectly unexceptional ideas and given them a twist that empties them of all real meaning. Many are plundered from religion, and when they find their way back into the Church they act as a substitute for genuine thought. Take, for example, that wonderful phrase ‘unconditional love’. It sounds splendid, and the idea behind it is splendid, but the more I think about the actual phrase, the less sure I am what it means. God loves us infinitely, tenderly, forgivingly, but unconditionally? Isn’t part of his love for us to want us to respond, to want us to behave in ways that reflect his goodness? We may not think of these as conditions, because clearly we are loved by him no matter how badly we behave, but spreading the notion of God’s unconditional love can come close to implying that we can do what we like. I am loved unconditionally by God, so how can the Church or anyone else demand that I conform to their ideas of right and wrong? I am an autonomous being, and my own ideas are what count if I am to be authentic (another buzz word).
One of the troubling aspects of our online engagement is that we are frequently confronted with the problem of what to say to those who have constructed their own version of Christianity. I’m tempted to call it Christianity Lite, a Christianity with all the difficult and painful bits taken out. Words like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘suffering’ seem to have no place, and the notion of authority and obedience is very circumscribed. It is love without asceticism, and regular readers will know what I think about that.
I believe I can truthfully claim that the community to which I belong is a compassionate and generous one, so I don’t think it’s simply a case of my being an old curmudgeon or religious martinet, with a sour outlook on life and immune to every new idea. It goes deeper than that. A wise friend once remarked that many of the difficulties Christians experience boil down to conflicting understandings of the Church. I think there is a lot of truth in that. People routinely talk about ‘the Church’ as something other, something vaguely opposed to everything good and beautiful in their lives. Very few seem to have grasped that she is a mother. Maybe what we all need is a better understanding of ecclesiology. Now there’s a thought to conjure with!