Part of the mystery of grace is the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope, but also retroactively, in a way: the past is suffused with a presence that, at the time, you could only feel as the most implacable absence. This is why being saved (I dislike the language, too, not because it’s inaccurate but because it’s corrupted by contemporary usage, a hands-in-the-air, holy-seizure sort of rapture, a definitive sense of rift) involves embracing rather than renouncing one’s past. It is true that Christ makes a man anew, that there is some ultimate change in him. But part of that change is the ability to see life as a whole, to feel the form and unity of it, to become a creature made for and assimilated to existence, rather than a desperate, fragmented thing striving against existence or caught forever just outside it.
You can’t really know a religion from the outside, and you can’t simply “re-create” it to your liking. That is to say, you can known everything about a religion - its history, iconography, scripture, etc. - but all of that will remain intellectual, mere information, so long as your own soul is not at risk. To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols say something true about reality.
If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self.
Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary, but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God.
Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience. It is among the most difficult spiritual ailments to heal, because it is usually wholly illusory.
You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of, God. The other problems may very well be true, and you will have to address them, but what you feel when releasing yourself to speak of the deepest needs of your spirit is the fact that no other needs could be spoken of outside of that context. You cannot work on the structure of your life if the ground of your being is unsure.
What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.
Martin Luther famously distinguished between a “theology of glory” and a “theology of the cross.” In the former you find yourself substituting a crown of thorns and a body of nailed flesh for a more palatable scene. But with a “theologia crucis,” you can call a spade a spade. You can look grief and loss in the face and identify them for what they are. There’s room — maybe even a literal room that you set aside in a basement — for rage and sobbing and protest and fear and horror. The great English-American poet W. H. Auden once heard a lecture in which, as Edward Mendelson recounts the scene, the speaker said that, “Jesus and Buddha were the same in effect: they were both attacked by spears, but in the Buddha’s case, the spears turned into flowers.” Auden bristled at this, shouting from the back of the lecture hall, “ON GOOD FRIDAY THE SPEARS WERE REAL.” If those spears were real, we can admit the spears we’ve felt are real, too. There’s no need to pretend we’re smelling roses when all we feel is metal piercing skin. Good Friday enables us to name the pain and face it.
Pleasures can be provided and pain can be avoided, if we use or abuse other beings. But joy cannot be attained and sorrow cannot be overcome in this way. Joy is possible only when we are driven towards things and persons because of what they are and not because of what we can get from them.
The invention of “religion” as something inherently otherworldly and separate from mundane “secular” affairs like politics was an important part of the state-making process. If ecclesiastical authorities could be seen as presiding over an area of life that is essentially otherworldly and distinct from mundane political affairs, then the ecclesiastical court system could be shut down, church lands and their attendant revenues could be confiscated, and all kinds of ecclesiastical checks on civil rulers’ power could be eliminated. This is, in historical fact, what happened.