Gilbert K. Chesterton, the renowned Catholic apologist, was a great friend with George Bernard Shaw, the famous playwright, even though Shaw, an agnostic, had major issues with Chesterton’s belief in God and especially with Chesterton being a Roman Catholic. Indeed, when he heard that Chesterton had become a Roman Catholic he wrote him a letter expressing his disappointment. Ever the colorful writer, Shaw ended that letter describing to Chesterton a vision he had of him going to confession:
You will have to go to confession next Easter, and I find the spectacle—the box, your portly kneeling figure, the poor devil inside wishing you had become a Fire-worshipper instead of coming here to shake his soul with a sense of his ridiculousness and yours—all incredible, monstrous, comic. … Now however I’m becoming personal (how else can I be sincere?).
But these differences didn’t deter them from being great friends and from deeply admiring each other. At one stage, Chesterton felt a need to defend Shaw from well-intentioned Christians who were vilifying him because of his agnosticism. Speaking in Shaw’s defense, he wrote: “There is one fundamental truth in which I have never for a moment disagreed with him. Whatever else he is, he has never been a pessimist; or in spiritual matters a defeatist. He is at least on the side of Life. ... Everything is wrong about him except himself.”
I have friends like that, pagans, in the best sense of the word. From a strict Christian point of view, most everything’s wrong with them, except themselves. They aren’t professed agnostics or atheists, but they don’t exactly fit the description of a practicing Christian either. They rarely go to church, mostly disregard the church’s teaching on sex, pray only when in crisis, and are basically too immersed in life here-and-now to think much about God, church, and eternity.
But, even so, they radiate life, sometimes in ways that shame me. There’s something about them that’s very right, inspiring even, and life giving. They may be practical agnostics and ecclesial atheists, but their presence mostly brings positive energy, goodness, love, intelligence, humor, and sunshine into a room.
Don’t get this wrong: this is not to imply (as does the over-simplistic, rationalizing notion that’s so popular today) that those who do go to church and try to follow the church’s rules are hypocrites and immature, while those who don’t go to church and make their own rules are the real Christians. No. There’s nothing enlightened about people drifting away from the church, thinking they are beyond church, living outside its rules, or believing that a passionate focus on this life justifies a neglect of the other world. That’s a fault in religiosity, a fault too in wisdom and maturity.
The wonderful energy that we see, and should bless, in the many good persons we know who no longer go to church with us is precisely that, wonderful energy, not depth. Paul McCartney, perhaps the most talented, pop-musician ever, makes people dance, no small thing, a godly thing even. We dance too little and our spirits are perennially too heavy. But one should never confuse playful energy (“Ob-la-dee, Ob-la-da, life goes on!”) with the wisdom of Mother Theresa, John Paul II, Henri Nouwen, John of the Cross, or Jesus. It’s a wonderful thing to make people dance, to bring sunshine into a room, to lift human hearts so that they can love a little more, but it’s not the full menu, the deepest part of the menu, or something that suggests that the other part of the menu is all wrong. It is what it is and it is only what it is.
But it’s on the right side of things, on the side of life. It’s wonderful, it helps bring God into a room, and it should be blessed.
And that’s why, as Christians, we need to both bless our good pagan friends and let ourselves be blessed by them. That’s why too we should be more discriminating in our use of phrases like “a culture of life” and “a culture of death.” God is the ultimate author of all that’s good, whether that goodness, sunlight, energy, color, and warmth is seen inside a church building or outside of it. Wherever that energy is, there’s “a culture of life,” even if it might also be carrying pieces of “a culture of death.” What’s wrong is wrong, and must always be named in that way; but what’s good is good, and it must also always be named in that way.
I look at some of my pagan friends, at their energy, their generosity, their warmth, what they bring into a room, and my heart lifts and I believe in God more deeply. God also made their sunshine and their warmth. They don’t go to church, and that isn’t good, but they’re on the side of life and that implicit faith, is a challenge for me to remain too on the right side of things.