Christianity is not an attractive concept for most Londoners. Many are more likely to want to attend the popular Clapham club The Church than attend actual church on a Sunday morning. My experience is that this rejection of Christianity is not necessarily based on a rigorous intellectual and experiential investigation of the claims of the Christian faith. After all, most Londoners are not to be found in the British Museum on a Saturday afternoon pouring over the Codex Sinaiticus, or attempting to weigh up whether the archaeological evidence supports the historical accounts of Jesus recorded in the Bible.
No, I think for the majority of modern Londoners the antipathy towards Christianity is more fundamental than that. They’re offended by the way it goes against one of our strongest modern instincts: the importance of personal autonomy. This is particularly true in the area of sex. Christianity teaches a radically different sexual ethic than is popular in our culture. The Christian notion of confining sex to marriage seems to belong to a more sexually repressive and intolerant past. As such, the Christian faith is simply unthinkable.
Even laying aside the question of sexual freedom, most people understand religion to be a commitment to live according to a specific external code of ethics. In the popular view, the religious person is walking under a burden of near-impossible commands with no autonomy to decide for themselves what is right or wrong. So even if we’re attracted to some of the ideas and practices within religion (who doesn’t meditate these days?), to believe and follow a supernatural deity would seem to inherently constrain your freedom, and, as such, inevitably lead to a less satisfying life.
As someone who has been a Christian for a little over 10 years, I have often wondered about this assumption that most people make. Undoubtedly there is some truth in the claim that Christianity limits your freedom. Most people understand freedom to be the absence of external constraints. There’s no question that following Jesus involves the presence of such a constraint. Jesus’ claim to be God in human form, comes with an implicit expectation that he warrants our obedience. If you truly believe and follow him, it will change your life in all sorts of ways.
And yet I know many Londoners (myself included) who have become Christians in adulthood, seemingly happy to renounce their freedom and follow Jesus. My anecdotal evidence suggests they’re often living more satisfied lives despite their apparent lack of freedom. Why is that?
Partly, I think it’s because our assumption that freedom produces happiness is a flawed one. Unfettered freedom is insufficient (and sometimes detrimental) to guarantee our happiness. If you’ve ever had a free Saturday with nothing but Netflix and Deliveroo on tap, you’ll know that you can set yourself up for a great day of binge-watching but actually feel empty and unsatisfied at the end of it. Or suppose you were given the freedom to go anywhere in the world, for as long as you wanted, with an unlimited budget to spend. Most of us would have a great time, but eventually even the most passionate travellers amongst us would feel bored and unsatisfied by the endless chain of luxury hotels.
I think that’s because we as human beings need meaning and not just pleasure. Unrestrained freedom can give you the latter, but that’s not enough to bring true satisfaction in life. If we really want to be satisfied, we need a purpose. Of course, many Londoners recognise this. Many of us have signed up for challenging jobs with demanding expectations because they give us a sense of purpose. We have something to get us up in the morning.
However, I think it goes deeper than this. At our most fundamental level, we’re all ‘meaning makers’. We all look for something to give us meaning in our lives, whether it’s our career, or a cause, or courting the approval of a specific social group. When we find our existential meaning in someone or something, we find ourselves living for that thing. We tend to sacrifice our freedom for the things that matter most to us. When you give something this level of ultimate importance it will end up controlling you, even if you don’t want it to. In a sense, you’re not as free as you think you are.
This willingness to allow that thing (or person) to control your life is a form of worship. David Foster Wallace, atheist postmodern novelist describes this phenomenon:
‘In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.’
So if we’re all worshippers, the question is what will you worship? If you worship something you will constantly be striving to achieve it. If you fail to achieve it, it will crush you. I know from personal experience that if you worship success, it’s a cruel master. Whenever you succeed, you’re happy for a short time but that is quickly forgotten as you feel the need to pursue the next goal.
The Christian claim is that when you worship the living God you find one who loves you even when you fail. Following him is far from repressive; it actually gives you the freedom to become the person you were created to be.