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Why be a Christian? Pt 3

Timothy Radcliffe What is the Point of Being a Christian?
The final chapter of Timothy Radcliffe’s work is about stopping, recollecting ourselves and, strange as it might seem, playing games. It is about Sabbath rest.  In Christ, we learn to reclaim the sweetness of time, the otium sanctum—the sacredness of rest.  And this is our obligation for, as we hear in Genesis, God rested on the seventh day, beholding all the work of creation.  So we, too, are called from activity to contemplation.

Radcliffe entitles this chapter, “Without the day of the Lord we cannot live.” Those words are the response of the householder, Emeritus, who was arrested in 204AD for hosting a Eucharist.   Why had he held the unlawful gathering? “Quoniam sine dominico non possumus,” he replied.  Without the Lord’s day, we cannot go on.  It is the meaning of life. (194)

This day is an antidote to our present agitation: the Sabbath “is aimed at the idolatry of work. Just as all idols are ‘the work of men’s hands’ so … work may always become an idol, a means of alienation. The Sabbath is there to stop you being absorbed in the success story, to prevent you being enslaved to productivity and profit.” (194) Moreover, in a world of “liquid modernity,” where we are guaranteed no lifelong employment, the Sabbath helps us to find our true security—not in our work, but in God, the One upon whom we rest. (195-8) This rest is our sure footing, our homecoming. (201)

Resting in one another

When we rest, we recall that our lives are woven one in another. We live in other people.  We take our rest in the sight of one another.   And, says Radcliffe, the essence of that presence is the game.  Sociality is gameful, if you will; it is unproductive, about nothing at all but mutual recognition, honour, and the enjoyment of one another.

Yet haven’t we come to savour quite unsocial pleasures? Radcliffe contends that many of us take rest not in mutual presence, but in spectator sport and virtual realities.  These are unsocial, characterised by one-way looking.   We watch screens—televisions, cinemas, computers.  We watch but are not seen.  Radcliffe cites Jean Baudrillard: “Today we live in the imaginary world of the screen, of the interface … and networks.  All our machines are screens.  We too have become screens… We live everywhere already in an “aesthetic” hallucination of reality.” (204) In this situation, we are diverted from our truly social end.

Yet false forms of transcendence have always been a danger for us.  We veer dangerously towards cheap entertainments. Consider, say Radcliffe, the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity in North Africa in 203.  The were to be thrown to wild animals for the delectation of the crowd.

The spectatorship of the circus is a deformed echo of the true play of heaven.  In heaven there will be no one-way looking, but a truly gameful cooperation.  We shall see and be seen; as St Paul wrote, ‘Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.’ (1 Cor 13.12).  Perpetua had an intimation of this shortly before they died.   She had a vision: they ascended to heaven, where they were greeted by angels: ‘They are here, they are here!’  An higher angel said, ‘ite et ludite’, ‘go and play!’ And Perpetua said, ‘I am happier now than I was in the flesh.’

Could it be, Radcliffe asks,

“that in our society the explosion of entertainment is a vague nostalgia for the Christian promise of Paradise, when, as Jeremiah says, ‘their life will be like a watered garden.  They will never be weary again.  Then the young girls will rejoice and will dance, and the men, young and old will be glad.’ (31.31)?  For a generation that has lost its hope of heaven, is Disney World the last echo of our dreams? For hope we have substituted fantasy; instead of eschatology we have virtual reality! (204)

We take our rest in another’s beholding. So it is with love: this helps us to understand God as the Other who beholds us all, and who makes possible all beholding, all sharing, all indwelling, all rest.    God beholds us with a piercing gaze of love—not as a rival or a negotiating partner, but as the One beyond violence.  The attentive reader will hear the characteristic notes of Rowan Williams’ Lost Icons.

We are all on the way to that rest. For now, we might be helped to take “moments of leisure where we serenely let ourselves be naked before God and in the eyes of those whom we love.”  The Church can teach us to take time, to tell our stories—to tell ourselves.  And we, for our part, can offer to others eyes that do not devour or despise them, but cherish them in their particularity.

At its best, then, the Church can be for us a home. It “offers humanity an oasis in our root-shocked world.”  This home anticipates our rest in heaven.  Radcliffe says:

“…we are made for that unimaginable home which is the Kingdom of God.  We aspire to a universal home, Catholic in the literal sense of the word, from which no one is excluded.  We accept the gift of that home by letting our language be stretched open wide by the Word of God, purifying our language of all contempt and domination.  God says to Isaiah, ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes’ (Isa 54.2).  If liberation from fantasy brings us down to earth, then our imagination reaches out for the Kingdom.”