This post was written two years ago. This week I’m republishing it for Holy Week.
This is embarrassing to admit, but here goes. If I were not a Christian, I’m pretty sure I would be a Unitarian Universalist, or something like one.
I’ve known the answer to the “What religion would you be if not Christianity” question for a long time. It’s not that I’m impressed with UU from an intellectual or even moral point of view. On the contrary, it seems vapid and incoherent in the extreme. No, the reason I’d be a Universalist is Charles Dickens,”What a Wonderful World,” and Coke commercials. I’d be a Universalist because of Star Wars, art museums, and the New York Times. If you were to take most of my favorite things about American culture and wring them like a rag, universalism would pour out—not so much the idea of it, but the mood. My day to day happiness would multiply if I could go about my middle class American life and sincerely believe that everyone who walked into my favorite coffee shop on a Saturday morning was gonna be OK, or that all my favorite pop songs and blockbuster films were different hymns of the same church.
For me, this exercise is hypothetical. For a lot of people, it’s where they actually are. A whopping 72% of Americans believe in heaven; 58% believe in hell. That 14-point gap is one of the most seductive places I can imagine. Who wouldn’t sell all they had to live in a world of just heaven, no hell? Who could measure the psychological relief that many would experience if the red and green lights of Christmas signified only the spirit of giving, carols only the sentimentalism of the past, and church bells merely the brotherhood of all living things? Life would be so very simpler if it were a metaphor rather than a babe in that manger.
My inner desire for a world such as this has been my version of a “crisis of faith.” I’ve never actually seriously contemplated rejecting Christianity for universalism. Then again, the universalist in me doesn’t play by the rules of serious contemplation. C.S. Lewis made famous the “apologetic from desire,” the argument toward the God of Christianity starting from our need to make sense of our deepest human longings. What I’m describing is an argument from desire, too, an apologetic for rejecting everything that obscures a romantic view of the universe.
In his first letter, Screwtape advises his apprentice to interrupt a human’s journey to Christianity by showing him the minutia of a typical day—”a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past”—and gently suggesting that this is real life. The genius of this demonic strategy is that it’s all happening underneath reason and argument. The point is not whether ignoring the evidences for a personal God and the truth of Scripture is a logical or illogical thing to do. The point is that, given the choice between Christianity and unbelief, there is only choice that will let you look at the universe, whether the Milky Way or Main Street, and accept that that’s all there is to it. That’s what I find romantic about universalism: “This is the world, this is reality, and you don’t have to think or do a thing about it except eat, pray, and love.”
I decided several months before my oldest child was born that I was going to watch the whole birth. I wanted to do this partially to support my wife, partially out of curiosity, but also because I’d heard countless testimonies of how seeing the “miracle of life” and then holding the miracle in your arms annihilated any doubt of the existence of God. Not that I doubted God’s existence, really; I just wanted the sensation of doubt being annihilated.
When we checked into the hospital I brought in all sorts of romantic ideas about watching a life come into the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that most of these ideas were sterile, almost offenisvely so. I expected to see a beautiful infant glide effortlessly into the room. I expected to hear cries as soft as whispers break my mental rendition of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” I looked forward to the moment of my son’s birth as a moment that I knew would transform me in its greatness, exorcise my demons and balm the proud callouses of my soul. I was going to be a different person just for having seen this, I thought.
What really happened was blood. What really happened was searing pain in a trembling wife. What really happened was gore and viscera, as a grey-purple mass of human anatomy slowly came out covered in its own fecal matter. My son’s cries were almost entirely muted as he struggled to cough his own waste out of his lungs. Instead of a moment of enlightenment and transformation, there was confusion as nurses swept him away from our arms and took him to the NICU to help him not asphyxiate. Instead of the soundtrack-backed beauty penetrating my soul, my wife, in-laws and I cried and prayed that our son would be able to cough the waste out of his body and breathe.
Thus was my sterile, romantic view of this slice of existence shattered. The real world, it turns out, is not one of perfect-pink babies who melt your heart at first glance, but of blood and meconium-soaked infants who (might) need technology just to live. Yes, there are precious newborn pictures to take and sweet “Happy birthday” celebrations to come, but these don’t exist apart from trauma, stitches, the risk of hemorrhaging, heartbeats that can bottom out, and lungs that can flail. My son only lives because his mother endured violence to her body. He could have not lived. There was nothing in the book of Science! that said his lungs had to successfully eject his own body’s poison. Infants die every day. Infants die.
This isn’t just being “realistic.” It’s one thing to not live in a happy-go-lucky fairy tale like so many literary creations. It’s another thing to suffer. It’s yet another thing to know, to feel, that the very universe is “red in tooth and claw.”
As I write these words, my grandmother is only a few days removed from suffering a severe, life-threatening stroke. Whether she will ever regain her speech is unknown. When I opened my Facebook feed this morning, one of the first things I saw was a friend’s heartbreaking image of his little boy hooked up to hospital IVs. Just now I saw someone else on social media talk about his wife’s days in the ICU. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about cancer, disease, or death.
Red in tooth and claw.
The sterilized metaphysics of Western spirituality, the liturgies of eat-pray-love, are sieves when it comes to the bloodiness of reality. I could, if I chose, close my eyes and insist on believing in the inherent goodness of man, the brotherhood of all, and the common destiny of all but the worst people. But I could not close my eyes hard enough to un-see the blood of vaginal delivery. The blood does not merely sit there. It calls out, just as the blood of Abel cried “out from the ground.” It calls out for reckoning. Almost every secular person agrees that children are the closest thing we have to divine love. What does it then mean that the existence of children is brought about not by ephemeral well-wishing but by the tearing of flesh? What does it mean for the millions of modern people who long for heaven and laugh at hell that heaven has hell clutching at its heels?
Christianity is about blood. It is a blood-stained narrative about a blood-stained universe. The Garden teems with spectacular creations of life, and blood courses through the veins of animals and image-bearers alike. When God gives Adam and Eve skins to cover themselves with after they plunge the cosmos headlong into darkness, the unspoken realization is that somewhere, a creature’s blood was shed so that this man and woman could be clothed, protected, and unashamed.
Atonement is not mere ritual, it is a reckoning with the world as it really is. Everyone offers a blood sacrifice for something: a creature’s blood for my food, a stranger’s blood for my survival, my own blood for the life of my child. Try to believe for one minute that this world is not fallen, not broken, not longing for a redemption denied it hence, and you won’t take three steps before you see blood. Blood is the stuff of life, as well as its price.
What the Easter story gives us is Jesus’ blood for our life. Blood is the price of life, and we have forfeited life with our bloodletting sin (sin’s first fatality was that Edenic animal). Jesus sheds his blood for our sin, pays the price of life, and gives the rewards of that payment to us. Some insist that the idea of “sin” is psychologically damaging and repressive. But what other word is there for a perpetually bleeding existence? The world is red and tooth in claw. No philosophical or religious system that fails to reckon with this speaks truthfully. The sanitized inward journeys of Eastern contemplative religions do not explain the blood. Moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t receive the blood. Atheism and scientism choose to drown in the blood. At the center of Christianity is a man with shredded flesh and pouring veins, a bloody overlay on top of a bloody universe. Look away in disgust if you will, ignore if you can, but every step of your daily, embodied existence reminds you of blood. This is the world as it really is, not as how gurus want it to be. You don’t get a choice whether it’s true. Your very birth shed blood.
The world we find ourselves in has blood at the center of it. You can scrub away at it all your life and it will not come up. Holy Week is about blood calling out to blood. His blood exchanged for mine. The blood of a violent, sinful, dying world transfused for the blood that spoke the stars into existence and washes whiter than snow. A bloody world must receive a bloody Savior.
That’s why I’m a Christian.
Arms nailed down
Are you telling me something?
Eyes turned out
Are you looking for someone?
This is the one thing
The one thing that I know.