Am I a Christian? | Malcolm Muggeridge | From "Seeing Through the Eye"

Am I a Christian? | Malcolm Muggeridge | From Seeing Through The Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith

The subject that has been chosen tonight [1] is one that to me is of immense seriousness. Am I a Christian? I don't think it's merely of seriousness to me. I think that many people who might in their normal habits of thought and ways seem very remote from any connection with the Christian religion might well be putting that question and putting it sometimes with great disconcertment. Am I a Christian? It ought to be the easiest question in the world to answer. A Christian is a follower of Christ, and I'm quite sure that the early Christians, from whom it all began and in whose honour this edifice and millions of others like it were erected, would have had no difficulty whatever in answering that question. To them it was abundantly simple. They followed a man of whom they'd known or heard at first hand, and who told them that His Kingdom was not of this world; and therefore the problem to them was an infinitely simple one. They didn't feel bound to relate their thoughts and their conduct to the permissive morality of the Court of the Emperor Nero. That was something that had nothing whatever to do with them. They didn't feel bound to associate themselves or attach themselves to political causes; they belonged to another world. Their cause was their love and loyalty to this Man. Even Peter on that tragic occasion when the cock crew knew exactly what he had done–denied an allegiance, an allegiance which was terrifically simple and meaningful.

Now of course today the situation is different. Two thousand years have passed. Churches have come and gone, theologies have been discussed and drafted and abandoned and re-discussed. In this Church today a creed will have been recited; a creed to which I myself could assent to barely one single proposition in honesty, and I still think and feel sufficiently a Protestant to believe that the worst thing that any man can do is to say he believes something which in fact he doesn't. You will gather from this how utterly unfitted I would have been to be ordained in the Anglican or any other church. Yet there remains–and this, to me, is the extraordinary part about it–a sheer enchantment in the Christian religion; in the personality around which it is built, and in the Gospels and the Apostles from which it has been derived–an enchantment which has miraculously (one can only use that word) survived through the centuries. What other document is there extant which can still be read and have this unbelievable enchantment about it? There is, in this story, in this Man, some incredible living message which one still senses, and then one tries to relate that message to the edifice of institutional religion, whatever it may be, and somehow the two don't connect.

I spent three weeks recently in a Cistercian Abbey for the banal purpose of making a film about an enclosed order. But, of course, one did live there; one did get some idea, a feel of what this way of life amounted to. One of the occasions which sticks in my mind as illustrating what I mean about the extraordinary enchantment of the Christian faith, was talking to a lay brother; one of those men that you rarely meet in younger generations who combined an utterly simple and certain faith with an enormously practical and sagacious and amusing disposition. He was in charge of the farming; the monks farmed about a thousand acres. It was the lambing season, and he was very, very keen on these lambs. He was sitting, talking and looking lovingly at them, and suddenly I grasped the phrase 'Agnus Del' which I had heard in the chapel in the morning–‘the Lamb of God'. And I thought: surely this was perhaps the most extraordinary moment of all in human history, when men for the first time saw their God in the likeness of a lamb, instead of, as heretofore, in the image of power or wealth or sensuality or beauty; God was presented to them in the form of a lamb. And I told this to Brother Oliver, and somehow, in a way that I can't fully explain to you, I understood what was meant by the Incarnation; somehow this basic doctrine took on life as Brother Oliver and I contemplated together the sheer stupendousness historically of this moment.

Now I could go through the story and illustrate again and again this enchantment; this drama which pulls one up. I could relate it to the Crucifixion; itself another fantastic moment, when the sick joke of some Roman soldiers that led them to write a ribald legend above a dying man's head, 'King of the Jews', and to dress him up in a purple robe and put a crown of thorns on his head–that sick joke abolished for ever the validity of earthly authority. It was a most stupendous thing to happen and it lives on in the Cross, in this symbol of the Christian religion which has been spread to every corner of our world.

Similarly with the miracles. I was thinking about the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and suddenly I realised this: there was this Man preaching, this extraordinary Man, and there these people had collected to listen, and some of them had brought refreshments–you know how people do–and felt rather superior because they had something to eat, and thought how they'd bring their packages out and munch them. And then the words that this extraordinary Man was saying made it totally impossible for them to do that. They couldn't eat the food they had brought with that man speaking, and so they passed it round to be shared with all the others. Of course that might not be true, but if it were, it would be so much the more miraculous, because in point of fact a man whose words overcame the terrible imprisonment in our egos and greed which make life for us personally, and for the human race, such hell, would be performing an almost inconceivable miracle! [2]

Then I was enormously interested in the temptations in the wilderness. The first of them was the temptation to turn stones into bread. Now that would be a terrific temptation to Oxfam and all the different charitable organisations, and to all the different political parties and institutions dedicated to improving human conditions. What a monstrous thing to refuse to turn stones into bread, if it were true that what's the matter with us is that we haven't got enough bread. But if what's the matter with us is that we don't understand, then how infinitely wise to resist the temptation! Again, the miracle of jumping off a building and not being hurt is almost like space travel; the same sort of thing as the so-called wonders of science. Why not do that and dazzle mankind, so that they fall down and worship? But that too was a temptation to be resisted, because, after all, the wonders of science are not so very wonderful, and only deserve worship if the infinitely more wonderful wonders of God–which include and transcend them–are overlooked. Finally, the most important of all, the temptation to take over the kingdoms of the earth.

This is what all good progressive people are always trying to do–to take over the governments and make them good. What a monstrous thing from the point of view of, say, Canon Collins, to refuse to accept the government of the world! But, you see, at the same time, what an alluring and enchanting thing to do, because how awful it would be if it were really possible to make human life acceptable by simply making governments good! And how absolutely essential it was to demonstrate that merely having righteous government doesn't in itself, constitute living righteously.

I've said enough to show what I mean, I hope, about the incredible and inexhaustible enchantment of this religion. Now there is the question I have to go on to if I am to ask myself, Am I a Christian? How is it that something so enchanting, something that seems to fit so perfectly into the situation in which human beings find themselves, should have become, on the one hand, a collection of remote and, to me, incomprehensible and unbelievable theological propositions, and, on the other, a sort of package of progressive and humane and enlightened sentiments which I call sometimes, when I find myself on the BBCs Meeting Point programme, 'soper opera'. As far as the theological propositions are concerned, it's not really for me to speak. I don't understand them, I don't see their importance, they mean absolutely nothing to me. It may be, of course, that, for instance, a concept like the Trinity is tremendously important, but anyway not to me, and I have just to put that aside. But the question of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and the Kingdom of Heaven in Heaven does seem to me an absolutely crucial one. The appeal of Christianity, as I understand it, is that it offers man something beyond this world. It says to him that he must die in order to live, an extraordinary proposition to put before him. It tells him that he can never create peace or happiness for himself merely by perfecting his circumstances on this earth. It presents him, in other words, as a creature who intrinsically requires salvation. Now it would seem to me that the churches and those who present the Christian religion to us have moved entirely away from this attitude, and increasingly tell us that it is possible to make terms with this world.

Take one of my favourite characters, Bunyan's hero in The Pilgrim's Progress which is a superb image of human life. He is hurrying on through his mortal life. If you'd said to Bunyan, "But surely your Pilgrim ought to stop in Vanity Fair and ensure that it's turned into a co-operative enterprise, or that 'one man one vote' is introduced there before he hurries on," Bunyan would surely have thought that you'd taken leave of your senses. The essence of his Pilgrim is that he is pushing on. I would suggest to you that Western Man has for the last hundred and fifty years lived through a period of utopianism, collective utopianism; that, from the time of Darwin particularly, he has believed that it's possible to construct for himself a Kingdom of Heaven on earth. When I was young, we believed that that Kingdom of Heaven on earth had been constructed in the USSR. There are those good earnest people who believed that that Kingdom of Heaven on earth could be constructed by means of a Welfare State through the Labour Party. (I would hope and believe that the present Prime Minister has effectively put paid to [ended] those hopes!) The people who crossed the Atlantic to America went with the idea that they were going to find a Kingdom of Heaven on earth in America.

Now what has happened, it seems to me, is that these utopian hopes–and it was perfectly human that they should have been entertained–have been completely demolished, and we are confronted with a sort of emptiness. The very material success of our world adds to that effect. We have everything that we want materially, and it ought to make us happy, but for some reason it doesn't. It should be the case that the places where all these material things are most available, and where the pursuit of happiness (that absurd and ironical phrase) is most ardently undertaken, should also be the places where human beings are most happy and most purposive and most zealous in their lives; and in fact it's not so. Something has gone wrong. It hasn't worked. The idea that human beings can achieve fulfilment on earth by satisfying their fleshly appetites and their egotistic impulses has simply not worked, and where it's most possible to satisfy them is precisely where it's worked least. This situation is of course enormously intensified by virtue of the fact that, at the same time, we have created like a Frankenstein monster an enormous apparatus of persuasion such as has never before been known on earth.

Now I've spent the last forty years working in this apparatus, and I know exactly how it works. I know the people who operate it and the aims it pursues; and what is the effect? The effect of it is simply this, that it says to those whom it influences–and its power is fantastic–it says to them in effect, 'Satisfy your greed, satisfy your sensuality, that is the purpose of life.' You have a situation which is so fantastic that it would be difficult to believe in it if one didn't know it existed, and which posterity will certainly find difficulty in believing in, if there is any posterity. You have in a small area of the world an economic system which only works in so far as it constantly increases its gross national product. This is our golden calf, and year by year it must get bigger. In order that its getting bigger shouldn't create chaos, people must constantly consume more and want more, so that we must dedicate some of our most brilliant talents and a huge proportion of our wealth to making them want what they don't want. It's the most extraordinary state of affairs. At the same time, while this is going on in one part of the world, in another part of the world people are getting poorer and poorer and hungrier and hungrier.

When I was in Detroit, Mr. Reuther said to me that every year they must sell nine million new automobiles in the United States or the place goes bust. Imagine it, you must persuade nine million people to want a new automobile in order to survive. This is a completely crazy situation, and the sense of its craziness is precisely what is creating in human beings so tremendous a spiritual hunger. They know that it's not true that if you satisfy all people's material and physical wants you will make them serene and happy. They know that it's not working out, and so this produces in them a sense of total lostness and bewilderment. It seems to me absolutely clear that either they must recover a sense of what those early Christians had when they too found themselves in a world which was running into destruction and ruin, or the process goes on and produces catastrophe.

It's a perfectly simple choice, and the problem before us is how to present this Christian answer in such a way that people see how apposite it is. I don't know how that can be done. I see a world which is sailing under completely false colours, whose fantastic technological achievements have produced for it both plenty such as has never been known before and means of destruction such as has never been known before and boredom such as has never been known before. The only conceivable alternative to this materialist view of life is in some form or another the Christian view, but, as I have tried to indicate, this Christian view itself in the course of its presentation has got hopelessly caught up with the other.

Now what can one do? What can an individual do, faced with such a situation? I have one hero, a man called Paulinus who was born in the fourth century, and who came to realise that his civilisation was crashing to destruction. He decided that the only thing he could do was to keep alight a lamp in a particular shrine, and that's what he decided to do. It seems to me that that's all one can do, and that, in answer to this fantastic materialist view of life with this fantastic machine of persuasion behind it, the lamp should say to people that the opposite is true, that as the Christian religion taught originally, so it remains true that men can't live by bread alone, that men have to die in the flesh to be reborn in the Spirit, that men are not creatures of production whose existence can be measured by what they can produce or by what they can learn, but a family with a father in Heaven, and that the relationship between men is the relationship of brothers, and that each of them, in that he is loved by the father, must be in all senses the equal of every other, however he might differ in capacity or intelligence or beauty or anything else. All these things the lamp would say.

It might be just a forlorn enterprise; it might be that a materialist view of life will work out; that with the birth pill and nuclear weapons and the possibility of the gross national product endlessly increasing and of people endlessly able to satisfy all their desires, a sort of happiness could be produced. If it were so, it would seem to me the most pessimistic and terrible conclusion that could possibly be reached. And if it's not so, then my lamp, like Paulinus's, would continue to shine when a darkness had fallen and a darkness which would be even deeper if it were to be associated, as it might be, with increasing technological development and efficiency. Such is the conclusion to which I've come, and whether it involves being a Christian or not I still don't know. It seems to me absolutely clear that there is only one answer to the deepening dilemma of contemporary materialism and that is essentially the answer set forth in the Christian religion namely, that men can never become natives of this earth, and that if they ever succeeded in so doing, then only would the light of divinity be finally put out in them.

ENDNOTES: 


[1] Originally a sermon delivered at Great St. Mary's Church, Cambridge (May 7, 1967). Reprinted from Malcolm Muggeridge, Vintage Muggeridge (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985), PP. 7-15.

[2] Muggeridge's interpretation of this miracle is in contrast with the traditional faith of the Church, which accepts the story at face value and believes Christ himself multiplied the loaves. Cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 107, 126, 548, and 1335.


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Malcolm Muggeridge was one of Great Britain's most well-known journalists and television personalities, having interviewed practically every major public figure of his time. He shocked the world with his conversion to Christianity later in life. “St. Mugg”, as he was affectionately known, was clear in his new-found faith: “It is the truth that has died, not God,” and “Jesus was God or he was nothing.”

The wonderful selections of Muggeridge’s writings and speeches included in Seeing Through The Eye cover a wide variety of spiritual themes, revealing his profound faith, great wit, and lively writing style. Topics include “Jesus: The Man Who Lives”, “Is There a God?”, “The Prospect of Death”, “Do We Need Religion?”, “Peace and Power”, and many more.



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