Hanging from the wall of my 5-year-old son’s bedroom is a large crucifix. The legs of Jesus are contorted, his shoulders are slouched and his thorn-crowned head hangs to the side. Nail wounds are visible, as is the slice in his torso. The crucifix is on the wall because my son wanted it there, but it nonetheless seems an incongruous thing to display alongside his Spider-Man curtains, Hot Wheels cars, and toy hockey sticks. Why this image of death looming over the many items of childhood joy and lighthearted playfulness?
This sharp juxtaposition got me thinking about the sheer strangeness of the faith I profess. No matter how palatable or culturally savvy we try to make it, no matter how hard we try to shape it around the needs of modern people, the gospel stubbornly reminds us of death, and not just any death, but the gruesome execution of the only human being to have surrendered perfectly to the will of God. This is more than strange, it is deeply disquieting.
The English priest and theologian Austin Farrer spoke to this more than 60 years ago in his sermon “The Charms of Unbelief.” This sermon, more than anything else I’ve read, articulates the centrality of death for the Christian faith, and does so without turning Christianity into something morbid and joyless. Farrer saw with clarity the tension and unsettling strangeness that comes with following a crucified Christ.
Farrer begins his sermon by describing an evangelist preaching to a crowd of university students. The evangelist depicts a world of stark blacks and whites, with no shades of gray; everyone is either converted or unconverted. He calls the unconverted to repent, to turn from sin to God, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of heaven. Farrer says he sympathizes with the aim of the evangelist, and recognizes something of the truth in his description of humanity’s twofold spiritual state. And yet he wonders what his unconverted friends would think of their lives being described in these terms. Do they experience their lives in this way? Should Christians think of their unconverted friends exclusively in these terms?
As a way of answering these questions, Farrer imagines himself leaving the evangelistic meeting and coming across a good friend who is not a Christian. This friend invites him out for a drink at the pub. Between pints, his friend entertains him with charming stories, witty banter, and slightly off-color jokes. Although this friend is not an atheist, he belongs to the unconverted world that the evangelist had just described as a kingdom of darkness. And yet this friend seems so full of life, and his joy, although imperfect, seems sincere and real. How to reconcile the stark contrasts of the evangelist with the cheerful reality of this decent human being who sits across from him? I’ve asked something like this myself: What difference does the gospel make to the life of the secular person who seems to live a decent life and who is largely indifferent to matters of religion? I suspect most people who live in this secular age have asked similar questions.
For Farrer, the difference lies in the Christian experience of death. Not only is Christianity centered on and rooted in a particular death (Christ’s), but it also involves a distinctive approach to our deaths. For the Christian, death is not only the eventual end to creaturely existence as we know it, but is also a lifelong process of dying to self, which is the submission of our wills to the will of God.
This process of submitting to God begins with our baptism, wherein we participate in Christ’s dying and rising. From that point onward the Christian life is a process of learning how to die, a recurring experience of losing our lives in order to find them. This is the essence of Christian conversion. Farrer puts it this way: “In the eyes of God our dying is not simply negative, it is an immensely important and salutary thing; by living we become ourselves, by dying we become God’s, if, that is, we know how to die, if we so die that everything we become in our living is handed back to the God who gave us life for him to refashion and use according to his pleasure.”
It isn’t enough to simply live well. One must learn to die well, and in so doing “hand our lives back” to our Creator. God desires that we flourish, but human flourishing reaches an end if it does not lead us to the cross of Christ and thereby to the death of everything in us that resists God’s loving will.
What then of our unconverted friends? Farrer says: “so far as their lives are wholesome or truly human, they are splendid manifestations of the power to live, but that they have not yet learned how to die, they have not made even the first step along that more difficult path which Jesus Christ opened up for us.”
Yes, their lives show a goodness that is real, but at the same time their lives contain barriers to God, as do all our lives. What is needed is the divine work of breaking down these barriers, which will inevitably feel like a series of deaths — the death of desires we have secretly nurtured, the death of idols we have vainly worshiped, and the death of disordered loves that could never satisfy us.
Farrer ends his sermon with images of water and fire; the first thing drowns and cleanses, the second thing consumes and purifies. He provides a memorable picture:
Here we all are, believers and unbelievers, and there away before us is God, the goal of us all, whether we know it or not; and between us and him is the river of Christ’s death, the river in which self-will must drown if we are ever to rejoice in a better and more blessed will, the will of God. Some of us have waded a little way into the waters of that death, some of us have not so much as wet our feet, but we all have to go through, whether in this world or the next. Do I talk of water? The apostle talks of fire, and so did Christ. … [T]here is no getting to God without passing through this fire.
To put it another way, there is no way to God that does not lead us to the cross of Christ. We who are Christians must be attentive to God’s presence in our lives, to recognize the ways we resist his mercy, and to continue to cooperate with his refining work, especially when that work feels painful to us. At the same time, we must pray for the people we know who are unconverted, that they will be able to recognize and respond to God’s mercy in their lives in whatever form that mercy appears. When and how that happens we can leave to God, the merciful judge of us all.