I occasionally, then, reread books that were written thirty, forty, fifty or sixty years ago, when they're up for a new cover or a new edition or approaching a milestone anniversary. Most recently this was the case with Basic Christianity, fifty years old in 2009. John Stott wrote this book while he was rector of a church in post-WWII London; he went on to become one of the most influential people in the world. If you've not heard of him, that's not our fault.
Anyway, Basic Christianity is what it claims to be--a simple, straightforward presentation of what is, in the mind of Stott and the evangelicals of his era, basic to Christianity. As his later career proved, Stott has remarkable clarity, enabling him to transcend the cultural quirks of his era to declare something timeless that nonetheless speaks prophetically to his times. No wonder it continues to sell like hotcakes.
But I'm not writing today about Stott. I'm writing about Thomas Merton, Stott's Roman Catholic contemporary whose books leave Stott's in the dust in terms of sales and whose name you are even more responsible for not knowing. Merton entered monastic life in roughly the same time period that Stott entered pastoral ministry and went on to publish numerous books of theology and social commentary before his death in 1968. One late entry in his corpus, which I'm currently reading, is titled Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. (Let me here acknowledge that his publisher has more fun titling books than mine does.)
In this book, mostly sketchy thoughts and commentary on the "interesting times" we inhabit and our inherent responsibility to such times (and our all-too-common failure to live up to that responsibility), Merton devotes a couple of pages to "the basic Christian faith." I find myself wondering whether he's responding to Stott here; perhaps he glanced at Stott's little book on a shelf in the library at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and thought, Hmmm, maybe I should do something like that. Such a plainspoken, presentational book is not his cup of tea, however, so he journaled about it and moved on. Here, digested from its already digested state, is Merton's perspective on basic Christianity--and, perhaps more interestingly, its corrupted form as experienced today:
The basic Christian faith is that he who renounces his delusive, individual autonomy in order to receive his true being and freedom in and by Christ is "justified" by the mercy of God in the Cross of Christ. His "sins are forgiven" in so far as the root of guilt is torn up in the surrender which faith makes to Christ. . . .
The Church is the place in which this surrender of individual autonomy becomes real, guaranteed by the truth of the Spirit and by His love, and by the pardon of sins: for the Church herself takes upon herself all man's sin. The Church at once confesses the sins of all men as her own, and receives in herself the mercy that is offered to all men.
But now, supposing that, instead of confessing the sins of the world which she has taken upon herself, the Church--or a group of Christians who arrogate to themselves the name of "Church"--becomes a social mechanism for self-justification? . . . Suppose that she becomes a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty? . . . SUpposing that, instead of conscience, she provides men with the support of unanimous group approval or disapproval? . . . The "Church" becomes simply a place where men gather to decree that others are guilty and they themselves are innocent. . . .
It is characteristic of pseudo-Christianity that, while claiming to be justified by God, by faith, or by the works of faith and love, it merely operates a machine for excusing sin instead of confessing and pardoning it--a machine for producing the feeling that one is right and everyone else is wrong. . . . Thus gradually the determination to pervert the Christian conscience becomes a function of the "Church"--perhaps even its prime function. And this becomes, inevitably, the sign of God's judgment upon that "Church."
So here's my confession: I don't want to go to that kind of "Church"--except that I kinda do. And assuming that the church is portable--that it's a "we" embedded in every Christian's "I"--to the extent that I nurse and nurture this "Church" in me I threaten the vitality of every church I visit. God help us all.