Enthusiasm and Indifference

‘If Christianity be exterminated, it will be by enthusiasm.’ Thus Benjamin Whichcote, the Cambridge Platonist. Of course, he used ‘enthusiasm’ with a rather different meaning from the one we give it nowadays. In fact, I think we would be more likely to say that if Christianity is exterminated, it will be by indifference. How often have we seen someone’s faith begin to weaken and wobble little by little? First, the reading goes. It is simply too much effort! After all, I know the scriptures, and the theology I read x years ago is quite sufficient to last a lifetime. Then, why bother to go to church? It’s boring, the liturgy has no beauty, the music is dull, and priest and parishioners are so commonplace. I can worship God just as well at home — only, of course, I don’t. Prayer gets skipped for days, weeks, months altogether; and I wake up one morning with a vague sense that I am a post-Christian. I couldn’t care less. I might just possibly cling to the idea of calling on God in a situation of extreme danger or difficulty, but he won’t answer, he never does. I’ve ended up in a hell of my own making, but I don’t think of it as such. I’m free at last from all the old aburdities.

I have met many people who have proclaimed their freedom from the shackles of belief and practice, but I have noticed how few of them are actually prepared to abandon everything. Deep down — and sometimes just below the surface — there is still a desire that love and mercy should prevail over selfishness and cruelty, that people should be kind to one another and speak the truth. There is even the notion of self-sacrifice, of protecting others at the expense of one’s own comfort and ease. Is this the anonymous Christianity of general goodwill towards others, a mere remnant, or is it something more?

I think myself that we tend to underestimate the effect of baptism, of sanctifying grace. Unless someone specifically, intentionally and knowingly abjures Christianity or commits mortal sin, the grace of baptism remains alive and active in them. That doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to become lazy about our own faith, but it does mean we might reflect rather more before condemning the faith of others, especially those we think of as having fallen away.

This week there will be lots of challenges to our faith, at both the personal and the institutional level. How we deal with them will be the result of how we have lived hitherto, how we have cultivated our faith by prayer and service. We may not feel much enthusiasm for what is to come, but let us not meet it with indifference.