In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape educates a lesser demon on using a new Christian’s pride: “He must be made to feel (he’d better not put it in to words) ‘how different we Christians are’; and by ‘we Christians’ he must really, but unknowingly, mean ‘my set’… ‘The people with whom I associate by right’… What you want is to keep a sly self-congratulation mixing with all his thoughts and never allow him to raise the question ‘What, precisely, am I congratulating myself about?'”
If Screwtape doesn’t want us asking a question, that seems a wonderful reason to ask it. When I am… not “proud” (oh no, I’d never say proud!) but… “pleased” with being a Christian, what am I pleased about? When I am glad (not proud! never!) to be in this particular very-good Church, what am I congratulating myself about? When I am fortunate to be in this Facebook group of true believers, what am I congratulating myself about?
I am congratulating myself for my good sense and good taste in picking this faith. Mohammad could have had me. Buddha could have had me. But Jesus is the lucky winner. Jesus gets to have me. Jesus made a nice enough product to attract my attention.
This Church has the right sort of music and liturgy and people to attract my attention. Another parish could have me, but this lucky one gets my family front-row every Sunday (even if we’re a few minutes late). This Church is the lucky winner that gets my donations (when I have money to spare). This parenting group gets to underappreciate me, to waste my diverse talents, when I could be lurking in the back and judging any other number of people. What a blessing I am.
No, I am in this Church because my mother raised me in the Catholic faith. If I were a convert, I’d be in this Church by the work of someone else–some talk, some book, some work of art, some graced moment–that opened me more to the Holy Spirit. As a revert, I am active in my faith–in whatever limping ways I am–because the right person crossed my path many years ago. The right place and the right time put someone in my way. God, the maker of places and times, put someone in my way. I am in this particular church because someone suggested it. I am in this parents group because of encounters with members in our church. I did none of it.
Every bit of it could easily have gone differently. Behind the stage, when we’re looking back with the hindsight of eternity, I’m sure we’ll see a host of angels moving the scenery.
Contingency and Pride
St. Thomas Aquinas argued that there must be a “first cause” to have started all of the cause-and-effect in the universe. There must be a finger, so to speak, to push over the first domino in the long and complex pattern that are falling over. And there is, and we call Him God. Where are we in that picture? We are the dominoes. I am a domino: one domino being knocked over by many long rows of them stretching back further than I can see. I am the product of my parents, of my place, of my time, of billions of individual choices made by millions of people before me. I am one big “might not be”. I am, to choose a word Aquinas might favor, contingent.
Does this mean I should “check my privilege” and ignore the good in my faith, my church, or my parents group? Certainly not. Ignoring my circumstances is as ignorant (literally) and as ungracious as taking credit for them. We are all privileged, every one of us. We are all privileged because we are all contingent. We all might not have been. Where I have been fortunate is not fortune at all — it is grace. It is a gift.
The Facebook group is a gift and, like any gift, it can be misused. It is up to me, and up to everyone in it, to resist the whispers of Screwtape’s many apprentices, to turn away from pride in being among the “right sort” of people: the truly faithful and wise who really know what’s going on. I was given this gift not because I am so great or the group is so great, but because I am — and all of us are — called to be a little Christ there.
My church is a gift, not because I am worthy of this fine of a place, but because I am sick and the church is a hospital. If I have been graced with a particularly pretty hospital, or a particular wealthy hospital, or a hospital in line with my liturgical preferences, it is still a hospital. We’re all still in need of healing. We all need to worship not our taste or our right-mindedness but our God.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t truth, but truth exists without us; it is no source of pride. Right would be right whether we were in line with it or not. The Catholic faith is a gift. Whether we received it early or late, it is a grace. We are not given it because we’re especially good but because we’re in need of it–and because we’re called to share it with others and to invite everyone home.
Copyright 2018, Joe Wetterling