Surprised by Love

I’m always a little embarrassed to admit it, but the book that most helped me return to the Christian faith when I was in high school was The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg.  For those who don’t follow these things (and God bless you), the late Dr. Borg was a founding father of “Progressive Christianity,” which has since come to dominate the mainline Protestant churches.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny.  I didn’t think of myself as a progressive.  In fact, I was president of my school’s chapter of the Young Republicans.  But this was Massachusetts in the late Twenty-Noughties.  We drank in liberalism with our mothers’ milk.  It was in the air we breathed.  You could never truly be sure where the propaganda ended and Reality began.

In fact, I still find myself picking little left-wing assumptions out of my brain from time to time.  It’s rather like how you might go to the beach once and still find sand in your car years later.

My high school was Catholic, but it was very much in the Father Martin bridge-building tradition.  The year I graduated, the Westboro Baptist Church planned a protest at the alma mater because our drama club was putting on The Laramie Project.  We were very much ahead of our time.

So, I suppose that if I was going to be any sort of Republican, it was going to be a progressive Republican. And if I was going to be any sort of Christian, it was going to be a progressive Christian.  My thinking had been molded so fundamentally by liberals, I took for granted that any reasonable, compassionate individual would be okay with homosexuality and whatnot.  It literally never occurred to me that anyone might believe otherwise—except mindless bigots, of course.

Well, fast-forward a couple of years.  It’s the summer before my junior year, I think.  My family and I are on our annual trip to Canada, visiting relatives.  We stop at a bookshop outside Halifax and I wander into the religion section.  There I find a series of attractive paperbacks by a fellow called C.S. Lewis. 

I plop myself down on the floor and start reading one of the volumes.  Mere Christianity, it’s called. 

After three pages, I’m hooked. I’ve never come across such wit and warmth in a writer before.  I’ve never seen such beautiful ideas argued so beautifully.  Every turn of phrase is charming, yet so simple and earnest.  I like this man, and I trust him.  So, I blow all of my pocket money buying up all the books by C.S. Lewis in Nova Scotia. 

A few days later, I’m sitting in the car.  We’re parked outside a Tim Hortons so everyone can use the bathroom.  Suddenly, I come across a passage in one of these Lewis books (I can’t remember which) where my new friend here refers to sodomy as a sin. 

He actually uses the “S”-word.  As a matter of fact, he uses both of them!

Sodomy.  Sin.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  He writes it so casually, too, as though he were confessing that he didn’t like cauliflower.  And here I’d thought that Mr. Lewis was so kind, so intelligent—so Christian!

I set the book down and have a long, hard think.  Obviously, this Lewis business can go either of two ways.  On the one hand, I can write him off as a mindless bigot, as I’ve been taught to do.  I can throw away all of his books and try never to think about him again.  On the other, I can accept that it’s possible (just possible!) that some truly learned, loving, and faithful Christians really believe in all that old-fashioned sex stuff—that men should only sleep with women, and specifically their wives.

I remember that moment, sitting in that Timmy’s parking lot, with C.S. Lewis on the seat next to me.  I sensed that something was going to be different now. In my heart, I’d made a decision that would change my life forever, though I couldn’t guess what it was.  In hindsight, I see that I was beginning my journey back to hundred-proof, Bible-based Christianity.  That was the day I discovered “the romance of orthodoxy.”

Why do I mention all of this now?  Well, I was trying to remember which book I was reading when I came across an old post at the blog Spiritual Friendship.  In it, Ron Belgau recalls: “When I read Lewis’s words on homosexuality when I was 17, it is no exaggeration to say that his humility and realism preserved the credibility of traditional Christianity for me.”

It’s amazing to me that Mr. Belgau (a gay conservative) had the same experience with Lewis that I did (as a straight progressive), and at virtually the same age.  We came at his work from exactly the opposite perspective—and yet, for both of us, Lewis redeemed Christian orthodoxy. 

How did he do it?  How did he save Mr. Belgau from sin, and me from error?  How could he impress the Faith so powerfully on two individuals who had virtually nothing in common? 

I do believe that, when it comes to writing about Christianity, you have to practice it before you preach it.  Of course, a huckster like Peter Popoff can sell fake miracles to retirees and call it Christianity.  But to win real, lasting conversions the way Lewis did, you have to be sincere.  You can’t just think about Christianity: you have to do Christianity.  Orthodoxy isn’t enough. You need orthopraxy, too.  And that means you need to love.

Again, looking back, the title of Dr. Borg’s book—The Heart of Christianity—is kind of funny.  Christianity is all heart.  The Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16), and that he opens the path to salvation because He loves us (John 3:16).  Everything we do must be done in a spirit of love (1 Corinthians 16:14), because loving God and our fellow man is the whole of the law (Matthew 22:34-40). 

It’s clear that C.S. Lewis loves God; there’s no doubt about that.  It’s clear, too, that he’s sharing the Christian faith because he loves us, his neighbors.  Lewis doesn’t argue for Christianity the way Marx argued for Communism.  He’s not bludgeoning us with an ideology.  He’s inviting us to accept God’s love and to share it with others. 

Of course, sometimes, loving your neighbor means telling him difficult or awkward truths.  That’s why the Church counts “admonishing the sinner” among the Spiritual Works of Mercy.  That’s the hardest part of love; it’s also the one Progressive Christians would rather forget.

Still, you can always tell the difference between those who (like Clive Staples) admonish sinners out of love, and those who (like the Westboro Baptists) admonish sinners out of hatred.  As Mr. Belgau says, there’s a humility and realism about those who act in love. And there’s an anger, a cruelty, in those driven by hate.

I first learned this lesson from C.S. Lewis.  In the ten years since, I’ve learned it over and over again from John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Fulton Sheen, Malcolm Muggeridge, Fr. George W. Rutler, Thomas Howard, and Charles Coulombe. 

From these men, I learned that I little kindness and good humor go a long way. Real, spontaneous joy is a better witness to the Christian faith than the most searing polemic or well-reasoned treatise. 

Because what Christians have uniquely to offer is love: love of God, love of neighbor, and (in the best possible sense) love of self.  That, we know, is the only path to happiness, contentment, stability, virtue, courage, strength, and—when all’s said and done—eternal life.

As we said, hypocrites don’t usually make it very far in Christian letters. You can always tell when a writer is driven, not by greed or ambition or hatred, but by charity.

They know that the best defense is a good offense, and so the best apologist is a good missionary. They protect the Church by swelling its ranks. They preserve Christendom by expanding its borders.

But, no: they don’t really look to defend the faith so much as to share it. They address unbelievers, not as enemy partisans, but as future allies. They don’t guard their inheritance jealously: they lavish good things on their brothers who’ve strayed from the Father’s house.

These ones exude a deep, existential calm. It’s the sort of calm known only to those who really do entrust their whole lives to God. They know they can achieve no good on their own, but can do all things through Him.

More than anything, perhaps, they’re happy. It’s almost as if they really believe what they say—that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

These are the men and women who change minds, win souls. And, in fact, that’s true of everyone who would share the Gospel with his neighbor.

I’m a very poor student, and a worse practitioner. Yet I’ve been blessed with the finest teachers, and I thank God for them.

This post originally appeared on my Substack newsletter. In future, I’ll post one unique essay to on Substack every week, along with a rundown of all my writings from the previous week. To subscribe to my newsletter, please click here.

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