MORAL theologians have made it their business over the last 300 years or so to prove that Christianity is possible. Today they are beginning to realise that it is, after all, impossible. Once everyone has accepted the fact that the Gospel is beyond our reach, there is a chance that we shall relax and end up better Christians.
The trouble is that we are constantly trying to reduce the whole of the Christian religion to a set of precise definitions and rules which every self-respecting individual is expected to be able to understand and obey. These rules never quite match up to full Sermon on the Mount standards, but they are a working compromise which is thought to fit everyone who has been properly brought up and knows how to behave in decent society.
The application of rules of this kind is not working too well at present, partly because people have seen through them—they do not go far enough—partly because too many of us found them too difficult, softened and watered down as they were.
Christianity often appears to be no more than an eventempered acceptance of respectable standards, not wild or excessive, but not too selfish or careless either, attractive, on the whole, for the unambitious of placid temperament. When this lifestyle is rejected, it is, often enough, in the name either of of a happy business-like hedonism, especially where the young, healthy and vigorous are concerned, or else of a sour and angry Christian radicalism, which suspects charity of being a cloak for bourgeois sins or a characteristic of the unadventurous: agreeable conforming patterns, it says, mpst be avoided at all costs if compromising liberal values are to be swept aside by New Testament absolutes.
Church patterns of moral behaviour express themselves in various different styles of piety: the exuberant decoration of baroque façades and ceilings suits some temperaments, while grey Gothic restraint fits others. But too many find neither lofty clouds nor cramped columns particularly adapted to their tastes or capacities. The baroque facade is too confident in its proclamations of the triumphant possibilities open to mankind; the dim light of latter-day medievalism washes out the warm colours of real life; both now seem false and strained.
Can Christianity nevertheless be shown to suit those who wish to run to the heights as well as those who are only capable at the moment of pottering about in the foothills? Can we shed our cramped respectability without falling into dissolution and decay?
It can be done if we remember that morals are relative as well as absolute. The standards which Christ set arc beyond man's reach until he has been fully transformed into a mature and complete person: in other words, until he is in heaven. The saints we know on earth are those who have most nearly reached that heavenchange in the course of their life here. These standards must be constantly rammed home and run after: we must be stretched to the uttermost if we are to develop our full potentialities, if we are to succeed and be happy.
So it is our first business to know the direction in which we are supposed to be moving and the distance we must attempt to travel. The Gospel acts as a magnet pulling human beings forward. It is not a statistical norm, any more than the fact of having climbed Everest or been to the moon and back represents the average standard of human attainment. But all the same it is normality, in the sense that only those who have yielded to its gravitational pull can be said to be properly developing along correct human lines.
We have not always properly understood this activity of the Gospel as a ferment in human life, helping men to grow, not just individually but also collectively, as the generations go by. We have put in its place a variety of moral principles which really represent a compromise with Gospel standards, treating them, not as statements representing a limited level of moral achievement, relative to particular circumstances, which is what they were, but as absolutes which left our consciences clear once we had conformed with them.
God's law forbids men to kill, but men have at all times found good reason for killing one another. The pastors of the Church have reassured them that in certain circumstances they were in fact behaving correctly. But this "correct behaviour" was in fact only correct in that it represented about the best that could be expected of human nature at a particular stage of its education in the law of Christ.
Theories defending "the just war" and capital punishment are as relative to a particular period of the history of civilisation as was the Truce of God, to which the Church had recourse in the eleventh century in order to moderate the violence of the time. "We adjure in God's name every Christian not to do hurt to any other Christian from sunset on Wednesday till sunrise on Monday"; close seasons were established and extended until it was practically impossible for the full-blooded barons of the time to get in any decent fighting. Regulations belonging to more recent times are just as much of a compromise between what is desirable and what Is possible, given the current state of Christian education and behaviour.
We should not treat these regulations and theories as if they represented ultimate Christian achievements. The fact that we manage to conform to them does not mean that we have done all that is expected of us. We must always be trying to push on beyond them to the next stage of attainment.
But those who are leading the Church (and the human race) forward in this way must not dismiss the lower standards as useless and those who are content with them as outlaws. They are essential adaptations of Gospel teaching, as necessary in the moral field as elementary and secondary textbooks are in intellectual education, criticised and cast aside as they must be when the university stage is reached.
"Let them grow together until the harvest." The Church has always been true to its own nature when it has maintained this principle and refused to pass judgment or to exclude. Heresy is a restriction, a narrowing of the boundaries and horizons of the Kingdom of God. Currently accepted norms of Christian behaviour are relative not only to the Gospel absolutes in the light of which they must constantly be revised but also to the people who are trying to discover themselves as human beings in the sight of God.
For the few pioneers, they are not enough; but at the same time, for very many, they are too much. When they are taken as the one yardstick for Christian respectability, they become an obstacle discouraging potential beginners.
This is not to overlook the ill-will in, people's hearts; there is a deliberate opposition to the good of which we are all capable. But we must not be blind to other people's struggle to be good any more than we would wish to be discouraged about our own efforts. Often, their obedience to the light which they have seen in one particular area of human behaviour puts to shame the action or inaction of those whose conformity with convention in other areas makes them feel justified in calling themselves Christians.
It may seem strange to say that the Church ought to be the most permissive of all societies. But that is the way God made it and intended it to be. In the goodness of God man enjoys true freedom. Evil is not permissive: it is obsessive, allowing no freedom or growth, keeping men and women immature, unformed creatures of animal instinct and habit.
To follow the good is to develop to full humanity. The Church must foster and guide all true development; a moral system which sets the same maximum and minimum levels for us all is not a true expression of the Law of Christ.