Those who regard Christianity as ‘simple’are subscribing to a watered-down and insipid version of the real thing. Digby Anderson calls for a return to full-bodied religion

One prominent supermarket has threatened that it will soon be selling wine with less alcohol. One may guess that it will be called ‘new’ and ‘light’ – or rather, ‘lite’. Lite products are growing in number. Supermarkets offer lite biscuits, lite olive oil, lite cigarettes, lite beer, lite fizzy drinks and lite bread. Restaurants and airlines offer lite menus.

The modern church has yet to use the term, but the religion it offers and the religion that many of its members espouse might well be called lite. Sometimes ‘lite’ means next to nothing. When it does mean something, it is that these lite products all have something missing. It may be several things: Cola without sugar and without caffeine; biscuits with less sugar and fat. With lite goods, you pay more for less. The effect on taste is usually insipidity, weakness, less Oomph. Thus lite religion is religion with the best bits removed and a lot of water added.

Two forms of religion

A proper religion, a full-bodied religion, has depth. The church member, feels his faith deeply. But proper religion also has width. The sociologists distinguish between thick and thin religions. A pukka religion is thick, wide. It affects all aspects of the believer’s life. It may prescribe rules of diet (abstinence, fasting and feasting) or dress (veils and soutanes), determine forms of special sacred music (plainsong) or painting (iconography). It will certainly have a special holy language – Latin, Old Slavonic, seventeenth-century English. It will provide a specific religious outlook on work and social order so that what the religious person does and those he does it with are seen by him to be very different activities and people from the same’ activities and people viewed by the non-religious person. Though subjective ‘views’ are part of this, the religious person’s world is objectively different. Centrally the religion will determine forms of family relations and prohibit various sexual behaviours such as polygamy and homosexuality.

To see the sheer width of full-bodied religion, consider its opposite. It has been alleged that today the life of the typical, white, American Roman Catholic, apart from one hour at Mass on Sunday, is no different from that of his non-Catholic countrymen. Conventional indices seem to show that he does the same jobs as them with the same work ethic, divorces as they do, has the same number of children (and, implicitly, uses the same contraception), eats the same burgers and drinks the same drinks; indeed worships the same secular gods as they do.

Far from simple

This thin religion does not call itself thin. Instead it appeals to another term, simplicity. ‘You know’, it folksily proclaims, smiling in a friendly fashion, T think Christianity is really a very simple religion. When you remove the trappings, all you really have to do is love God and your neighbour. That about sums it up.’ Indeed, and its founder said that much the same thing was the sum of the law. But he said lots of other things too, and they explain what this sum means. The proof of loving God is keeping his commandments, and they are neither simple nor narrow. They will affect every part of your life. He devoted the evening before his death to establishing and empowering his Church. Those who love God will submit themselves to the rules and customs of this Church, his continuing presence on earth. This Church used to teach that the faith is rich. St Ephraem talked of it brimming over. While entry into it is a simple matter, growing in it thereafter is to discover a whole world. It is a journey from baptism to heaven, learning more, and subjecting more and more aspects of life to the Christian way as each year passes – the reverse of simple religion.

The lite church and the lite Christian may not say so, but that friendly smile says for them that they believe their simple religion to be a happy one, a sunny one. Full-bodied religion is a vale of tears. Of course, Christians have the joy of the Incarnation and resurrection, the comfort that God loves them, the means of grace and the hope of glory and everlasting felicity. But when they look at themselves, they know that it was while they were yet sinners that God loved them, that they crucified the God who saved them and still do so. Their sin means that despite his sacramental presence, they are parted from him. From baptism they live with one foot is this world, one in the next. And this world is fallen. We have to live out our lives here but it is not our home. We do not belong here. We are exiles. Our true native land is elsewhere. Grins are out of place.

Becoming full members

The lite Christian has a lite and simple theology. He thinks that God is his friend. So he is, but he is also God, the Almighty, the Creator of the world, all holy, who will come to judge the world by fire. The full-bodied Christian, because he knows this, when he enters a church with the sacramental presence, recognizes it as a terrible place, its doors as the gates of heaven. He approaches the altar rail with fear and trembling lest he eat and drink condemnation. The Lite Christian treats church much as he does his friend’s house. He makes himself at home, relaxes, chats to his companions, makes no preparation for communion, grabs the host in his hand and eats it much as he would one of his lite biscuits at home.

Those who talk of the need for mission and evangelization today think largely of numbers; they look for more members -quantity. But the matter of quality is an even more important mission. Its task is to help those already in the Church to grow into full members, to learn full-bodied religion. It may also be that quality is the key to the quantity problem. Those who have travelled in lands where the great faiths compete may see an interesting phenomenon. In India, for example, there are several religions such as Hinduism which are unmistakably full-bodied and ‘thick’. All too often the Christianity on offer (the Orthodox excepted) is thin. Why would anyone looking to save his soul chose the thin, diluted, lite option, when he can have what looks like the real McCoy? |jyp|