Thursday 9 August 2012

Christianity for the 'not-nice'


Too often Christianity is portrayed as a matter of being nice - of emulating a 'gentle Jesus meek-and-mild'; the idea that real Christians are hardworking, good-tempered, friendly, placid, sensible, empathic, conscientious... Good Citizens.

But what about people whose personalities are not-nice; who are the opposite in one or more respects: aggressive, dominant, lazy, solitary, crazy, irritable, inconsistent, unfriendly, impulsive - can the not-nice be Christians?

To ask the question is to answer it: of course!


Yet there is perhaps an expectation that becoming a Christian will also 'convert' the not-nice person into a nice person: will make an inconsistent and moody and wild guy, into the meek-and-mild, regular stereotype.

And if this does not happen, if the convert is not remade into the agreeable, empathic, sociable, conscientious ideal - than maybe the conversion was not real...


Yet personality is mostly inherited and mostly stable throughout life - so people seldom change much in their personality type - although they may change in response to different circumstances.

In terms of personality theory - when I refer to 'not nice' I am talking about people (most often men, but a smaller proportion of women) who are high in Eysenck's Psychoticism, low in the Big Five traits of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, low in Baron Cohen's trait of Empathizing.


What would a Christianity for the not-nice type look like?

In the first place, there would be a major role for repentance and no possibility of hypocrisy since the not-nice Christian would very obviously not live-up-to the law, would not live by the rules - and so would be characterized by sinning and repenting rather than by not-sinning.

The vital thing would be that the not-nice Christian must acknowledge their failure to live by true and good standards of behaviour, and never try to re-define sin in terms of what they themselves can accomplish.


They must say - this is right; but I can't do it.

I keep trying but I keep failing, and I must repent and ask forgiveness.

But this is right.


Yet in a crisis, when something heroic needs to be done, and done now and reckless of consequence.

A single, profound, extreme, symbolic act - an insistence a refusal to comply... then the not-nice Christian is your man.

Such are numbered among the Sainted martyrs.

Christianity for the not-nice might have regular elements - indeed it might be highly-supervised and regimented as the life of a monk of the life of a soldier for Christ (eg a Knight Templar).

By such means of external discipline, by obedience by fasting, heroic prayer vigils and so forth - sustained over years and perhaps decades - the inconstant and wilful personality; the ego, the pride; was subdued and dissolved into communion with God.


But in terms of self-discipline the rule would be: if frequent then brief, if prolonged then structured.

So the practice of regular, daily, low mass in the Roman Catholic church was a good way for the not-nice to maintain the faith - the practice of attending a very short mass first thing in the morning, every morning as a skeletal structure for life.

Long services and the like would need to be structured and would need to deploy all possible aids to attention and absorption: uniforms and vestments, solemn architecture, traditional ritual, formal and serious words and music.

This was the major devotional activity of JRR Tolkien who was - in many respects - a classic not-nice type of Christian, in that although he was empathic and sociable (a nice man), he was also irritable and impulsive and had great difficulty in sticking at jobs and seeing them through to completion.


Another model is the Eastern Orthodox idea of a Fool for Christ - a person whose apparently crazy, impulsive and seemingly-'random' acts are perceived to carry a Holy meaning; and to serve as a form of instruction for the community.

(A similar type was seen in the Ancient Greek characters of Socrates, to some extent, and Diogenes, as an extreme instance. And some of Shakespeare's 'fools' seem to be intended in this fashion.)

Such Holy Fools may indeed come to be regarded as Saints.


So here we have at least three ideal patterns or odels for the not-nice Christian: the supervised monastic or quasi-military life, where impulsive irregularity is coercively tamed by asceticism and routine; the use of regular, structured short religious practices; and the full-blown crazy Saint whose apparent indifference to the comunity, to status and standards, to social values is in fact divinely-inspired critique of the worldliness of the Good Citizens.



jgress said...

This reminds of an article by a Russian Orthodox priest who was a convert from Methodism. He described a very similar "niceness" among the people he grew up with, people who otherwise would appear to epitomize ideals of Christian virtue. The main flaw, and one of which apparently the majority of them were unaware, was complacency. As long as you went to Church, said grace over your meals, worked hard and made a good living for your family, didn't smoke, drink or curse, that was good enough.

The lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee is that it's never good enough. If you manage to fulfill all the commandments, the result is only that you are "an unprofitable servant".

With that in mind, I think there is something in what you say about the "not nice". Those who struggle more to keep the least of the commandments may paradoxically end up more aware of their own sinfulness, and therefore achieve a greater degree of repentance than those who find conventional morality easy.

Anonymous said...

Evelyn Waugh would be a classic example of a "not nice" person who was nontheless a good Christian.