Chapter 9
The Images of Birth

In the previous chapter I ran ahead of myself, and I must now return to the subject of the birth of belief. Some converts to the Christian faith tell me that the truth burst on them like a great star-shell, illuminating the landscape of their lives in a moment of time with such a flood of divine light that they felt as though they had been born again into a new world and that they have never felt the same since that moment. If there is any truth in the old saying that it takes all sorts to make a world, then it probably takes more than one kind of convert to make a Church; but however that may be, I certainly did not become a Christian in such a spectacular way. Instead, as I have said, Christianity crept up on me, breaking and entering the unoccupied apartment of my head like a squatter almost before I noticed that it had been invaded, and getting to know the new occupant was a gradual process; indeed, to begin with I refused to recognize the existence of such a despised and unwelcome intruder, and it was only slowly over many months that I began to understand and respect him. But although my experience was very different from that of those who call themselves 'born again' Christians, I understand how they feel, and I respect their sincerity and the depth of their convictions; but there are, I think, aspects of their particular brand of Christian fervour which can be counter-productive in commending Christianity to some people. For instance, it is often associated with a purblind biblical fundamentalism, which is not made more appealing by the unwavering assurance of its adherents that they and only they are the possessors and guardians of God's truth. Yet the experiences of renewal, to which the great images of birth and rebirth in Christian belief and symbolism point, do not lead all those to whom they occur to embrace that kind of religious totalitarianism.

Rebirth means renewal, and St Paul spoke of all things being made new rather than of personal renewal alone. 'If any man is in Christ,' he reminded the Corinthian church, ' he is a new creature; the old has passed away; behold, all things are become new.' Being a new creature is much the same as being born again, but Paul widens the concept to embrace all things, and this made sense to me. Gradually, as the results of what had happened to me made themselves felt, the old world in which I had lived revealed itself to be a different place from that which I had always believed it to be; a place shot through with different implications and perspectives and loaded with hints I had never noticed. Curiously enough, in trying to describe this experience of a transformed world, it was science which came to my rescue; for the nearest I have ever come to finding my own experience at this time analysed in detail and beautifully described came when I was reading Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, to which I have already referred; writing about the results of a change of world view in science comparable to the changes inaugurated by such men as Copernicus, Newton and Einstein, Kuhn observed that:

led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments
and look in new places. Even more important, during
revolutions scientists see new and different things when
looking with familiar instruments in places they have
looked before. it is rather as if the professional community
had been suddenly transported to a different planet where
familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined
by unfamiliar ones as well. Of course, nothing of quite that
sort does occur; there is no geographical transplantation;
outside the laboratory everyday affairs usually continue as
before. Nevertheless, paradigm changes do cause scientists
to see the world of their research-engagement differently.
In so far as their only recourse to that world is through
what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution
scientists are responding to a different world.

We may indeed want to say just that. I did, and the fact that the world was a different place with new dimensions to explore - or, perhaps more accurately, that the old familiar world had been transformed - was both startling and invigorating.

But it was not entirely unprecedented, because for many years I had been aware of the fact that transformation was an inherent part of works of art; aware, indeed, if only vaguely, that one of the prime characteristics of great works of art was that they revealed the transcendent splendour of essentially ordinary things, though I had not thought this out or put it into words. But from the days of the cave painters of Lascaux and Altamira with their wild horses, bison and deer, through the octopuses on Minoan vases and the birds on Pharaonic walls, up past Rembrandt's old Jews, Breughel's bucolic dancing peasants and the little children of Louis le Nain to our own time with Cezanne's apples and Renoir's irresistible naked girls, the stuff of great works of art has been ordinariness transformed. In Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus the court musician, Salieri, bemoans the fact that, whereas the genius of a man like Mozart is to transform the ordinary into the miraculous, it is his fate to transform the miraculous into the all-too-ordinary hack music of the court.

But although I had vaguely realized for years that such was the nature of the arts at their best, the fact that Christian belief was founded on an experience of the ordinary world transformed in much the same way as the world glimpsed by artists came as a total surprise to me. The greatest transformation of them all, of course, was the transformation of the very ordinarily dead Jesus into the living Christ; that is to say, the result of the act of new creation and transformation glimpsed by the disciples and formative as the agent of their own transformation and that of their world, as it is still the active agent in transforming the lives of those today who get a glimpse of the same dead man, raised and renewed by God - hence all the talk of rebirth. Although the comparison will seem unforgivably trivial to some people, I was forcibly reminded of how Uccello's self-disclosure had opened up an entirely new world to me years before and how enormously enriching that experience had been. The self-disclosure of God through Christ, of course, was vastly more so.

Indeed, the consequences of the fact that God is self-disclosing, and that the initiative in the divine-human conversation is his not ours, are revolutionary. As I came to recognize them, they completed the transformation, if not of me myself, of the notional landscapes in which I found myself living. The first and most obvious of these consequences was that the concept of self-sufficiency, which lies at the heart of humanism, began to look sick and absurd, while the splendid epiphytic growth of human pride, which depends upon it as a tropical orchid depends upon its host, began to look dangerously attractive like some exotic and deadly poisonous plants. I don't, of course, mean that my own pride and self-esteem died like weeds before the flame-thrower of God's unexpected advent; I remain as subject to recurrent attacks of both as a chronic asthmatic is subject to fits of breathlessness, but at least at this time I began to recognize that such attacks were symptoms of a disease. Indeed, perhaps I should have said the disease, for the attempt to justify ourselves in our own eyes, which occupies most of us most of the time, together with our attempts to manufacture some sort of significance for our lives in the eyes of others by achieving success in one field or another, lies at the root of most of our individual and corporate frustrations, self-inflicted wounds and destructive rivalries. yet plainly enough, if there is any sense in the idea that we stand in relationship to God as children to their father, our various efforts at self-justification are as pathetic and as unnecessary as the antics adopted by children to impress their parents.

It is conventional to go on from there to denounce the self as the villain of the piece and all self-regarding desires as evil; but this, I think, is dangerous nonsense. On the contrary, self-fulfilment - the blossoming of the self - is the right and proper consummation of each individual life; the only problem is how to achieve it, and if the evidence of either history or personal frustration is anything to go by, aggressive self-assertion over against other people, either by means of corporate violence or by means of personal, financial or psychological dominance, is not the way to do so; it seldom leads to must lasting satisfaction. Violence provokes violence, and most people who live corporately by the sword do, as a matter of history, eventually die by the sword, either tribally, nationally or culturally; while those who pin their hopes of personal fulfilment to the band-wagon of financial success or some other kind of dominance generally discover before they die that the saying 'Man does not live by bread alone' is not mere pious nonsense, as most of us assume in our hard-headed youth, but descriptive of a harsh reality, as the zest of wealth dies in a thin and rather barren old age.

Meanwhile, from a religious point of view, self-assertion has an even more malodorous and murderous historical record than that chalked up by homo profanus down the ages, and this is not surprising; for religious people have greatly outnumbered unbelievers in the past. The heart of religious self-assertion is the belief that people can lift themselves by their own boot-laces and make themselves acceptable to God, becoming in the process not only the sole repositories of God's truth but better than everyone else; whereas the truth is that those who believe themselves to be successful in this endeavour become riddled with hubris, which is the stuff of religious failure, while those who fail in the same endeavour do indeed fail; and thus the enterprise is doomed to failure whatever happens. In fact, at a deeper level it is bound to fail, for the attempt at self-justification and self-enthronement over against self-forgetfulness and self-abandonment to the springs and wells of life is the root of most of our personal frustrations and miseries and many of the evils of the world in which we live, let alone the origin of alienation from God.

That is a dogmatic statement, but it receives support from two wisely separated and somewhat improbable sources: from the works of that remarkable German-American polymath, Paul Tillich, and from the old biblical myth of Adam and Eve, which received such scornful treatment at the hands of the intellectual avant-garde in the nineteenth century. The heart of that timeless insight into the human condition is to be found in Eve's encounter with the serpent, an animal with death in its mouth, which tempts her to believe that God is a liar and that she herself, the mother of all humanity, can become like God if only she will disobey him and eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; that is to say, in biblical and mythological terms, God's knowledge. Thus, in the biblical myth, succumbing to the temptations to enthrone oneself as God and arrogating to oneself the divine moral omniscience is identified as the root of our trouble; and perhaps it is permissible to ask whether the 'moment' in evolutionary mythology, when a member of the race, Australopithecus, or whichever hominid ape I must regard with filial gratitude as my distant ancestor, achieved self-consciousness, was also the 'moment' in our aboriginal journey down from the Darwinian tree-tops, when we became human as opposed to being merely simian? And if so, was self-enthronement or the tendency thereto - self-reliance and self-sufficiency - born in us at the same moment? In mythical terms, this could be put as the question, 'Was the possibility of self-idolatry the risk that God took when he made men and women to be the first animals to know the kind of self-consciousness which he himself knew?' If the answer is 'Yes!', then the Fall was simultaneous with the Creation, and human alienation is endemically human; very original sin in fact.

But if the realization that 'we are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves' lays an axe to the root of the tree of human self-esteem, for the true self it has some marvellously liberating consequences, which have been analysed in depth by Paul Tillich. The New Testament in general and St Paul in particular describes them in terms of freedom from sin, but since the various Churches have reduced and perverted the concept of sin to that of breaching any one of a number of moral rules, dwelling with particular relish and ferocity upon the rules governing sexual behaviour, understandably the world has rejected the idea of sin altogether, preferring to use less compromised words to describe the vagaries of human behaviour. Tillich contended that to be human at all, as opposed to being a cockatoo or a sea-slug, was to suffer from three built-in anxieties which, if left unattended, were liable to become neurotic and thus to undermine the individual lives of many men and women and also the corporate lives of whole societies, cultures and civilizations; anxieties over meaninglessness, guilt and not-being have stalked through human history like a trinity of furies, according to Tillich, and it is difficult not to agree with him.

I have already looked briefly at the abundant evidence of a corrosive anxiety besetting many people today that life may be without meaning, purpose or value, an anxiety which is not made any the less persistent by the kind of lifestyle which is forced on most of us by the urbanized mass society of the industrialized, secularized nations, both of the capitalist West and the communist East. Tillich's allegation that guilt still threatens the peace of humanity must also be considered, if only because many people seem to believe that Freud has delivered us all from its clutches and no one suffers its destructive ravages any more. This is not true even as far as sexual guilt is concerned, though happily condemnation of other people's sexual behaviour is no longer either as fashionable or as vicious as it often was in the past; but lapses from the accepted sexual norms of behaviour are not the only causes of guilt, and both
individually and, even more so, corporately, people today show every sign of feeling, if only half-consciously, guilty for their past economic and military sins, or for the sins of their fathers and forefathers; guilty for the treatment meted out to coloured and colonial peoples.
guilty for the social oppression and exploitation of the poor and under-privileged slum-dwellers of the nineteenth century, guilty for the bombs, both atomic and otherwise, which wiped out the Hamburgs, Dresdens, Hiroshimas and Nagasakis of the immediate past, and guilty at the remembrance of the camps at such places as Auschwitz and Treblinka. I have no doubt that practising psychiatrists could easily add a large number of other common causes of personal guilt to the list, as they could also dwell at length on the various ways in which we try to hide or deny them under cloaks of aggression or anger, or off-load them on to some convenient scapegoat: God, for instance, for why did he create such a bloody world in the first place? Or the News, the Fascists or the long-suffering Reds under those familiar beds; but I am not a psychiatrist, and I must leave the list to them.

One does not need to be a psychiatrist, however, to agree with Tillich that anxiety over the prospect of annihilation - of not-being - is endemically human. It is not the same thing as the fear of death, which is shared by all animals when their lives are threatened; on such occasions, our stomachs turn over, we sweat, tremble, feel like evacuating our bowels and bladders to lighten ourselves for flight, breathe more rapidly than usual and are aware of our hearts pumping away for dear life. All mammals react to danger in a similar way but, as far as I know, no other animal lies awake at night, as we all do from time to time, unable to sleep because we know that the membrane which separates us from the abyss of not-being is so thin that it may rupture at any moment with the breaking of a blood-vessel or the blocking of an artery. Swinburne, in his lyrical tragedy Atlanta in Calydon, painted a portrait of man in thrall to this kind of angry human anxiety:

His speech is a burning fire;
With his lips he travaileth;
In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap;
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep.

Tillich contended that certain ages were corporately dominated by one or other of these three endemic human anxieties more than by the others, and he cited as examples the obsession with death of the Graeco-Roman world of late antiquity as manifested in the pullulation of religious sects and mystery religions, including Christianity, which promised immortality to their initiates, and the equally obvious obsession with unresolved guilt of the medieval world of Europe with its flagellant sects, penitential ascetics and stylites, sale of pardons and indulgences, and morbid preoccupation with hell fire. It is easy enough in historical retrospect to agree with these examples, but it is much more difficult to go on to decide whether our own age is dominated more by meaninglessness, death or unresolved guilt, or whether it is in equal servitude to all three; but certainly individuals today have to cope with their own anxieties with very little help from anyone, since the Churches shattered most people's trust in Christianity by centuries of fratricidal strife, corruption and legalism, and
since humanism was murdered by the re-emergence and triumph of barbarism in the years between 1914 and 1918 and again in those which followed 1939. Yet those anxieties are as likely today as they have ever been, and I believe that much of our hectic and relentlessly noisy lifestyle is the result of an attempt to stifle them with trivia. Philip Larkin has nailed this particular modern syndrome to the wall for public exhibition in his poem, Vers de Societe:

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours; perhaps
You'd care to join us? In a pig's arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed,
And so Dear Warlock-Williams; I'm afraid -

Funny how hard it to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who's reading nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown

Straight into nothingness by being filled
With forks and faces, rather than repaid
Under a lamp, hearing the noise of the wind,
And looking out to see the moon thinned
To an air-sharpened blade.

But the process of killing time in case, if we allow it to live, it may force us to think, begins long before our carefully arranged and vapid social evenings; we wake in the morning, turn on a transistor radio, read a paper at breakfast and perhaps another on the bus, tube or commuter train as we go to work, or even don earphones to ensure that our minds are numb with noise from pocket radios; we work ourselves silly all day with a break for gossip, a drink and lunch in a pub or a burger-bar with background music from a radio or juke-box dutifully blaring, return home in the later afternoon with an evening paper, eat, watch the television or play bridge or go to a party with the Warlock-Williamses; finally we have a night-cap or a sleeping pill or both and thus retire to bed having banished all possibility of allowing Tillich's imprisoned demons to break the surface of our dreams. But keeping them caged in the dungeons of the unconscious mind only makes them angrier and more insistent than ever, and so we double our activity, increase the dose of noise and alcohol, 'Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard favour'd rage', and dedicate ourselves afresh to proving to ourselves and others that such anxieties do not bother us, for ours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen. Eventually, of course, the demons win, even if they have to wait to do so until they have cultivated an ulcer in our duodenum worthy of a prize in the local ulcer show or perhaps a terminally splendid coronary thrombosis to make us realize that if we refuse to release our demonic anxieties and face them they will destroy us.

At this point it would be all too easy to insist in a fine flurry of enthusiasm that the heart of Christian experience is to be freed from these three demonic human anxieties by the knowledge of the love of God which is implicit in the resurrection of Christ as the culmination of his self-disclosure; and so, indeed, it is. For forgiveness is the key to freedom from guilt, and finding oneself accepted and loved constitutes the stuff of forgiveness, while the discovery that one has been created for an eternal destiny, however unimaginable that destiny may be, dispels any idea that our lives may be meaningless and cuts away the ground upon which our anxiety over not-being used to rest; but while all this is true and liberating we are creatures of habit, and old ways of life and thought do not die overnight. Like Pavlov's dogs, many of our actions and reactions are conditioned reflexes over which we exercise little conscious control; years of striving the make ourselves acceptable to ourselves and others shape and form the patterns of our behaviour, which, once fashioned, are doggedly resistant to change, and traces of the old anxieties linger on in the subterranean chambers of our minds like smoke left over from last night's drunken party.

This can have various results; the man whose new belief and outlook are principally a matter of intellectual assent to the proposition that, because the initiative is God's and Advent is forever, he may relax, in the knowledge of God's love and cast off the shackles of the old anxieties can become so excited by his new-found freedom from anxiety that he enthrones his own intellectual conviction in the place of God, worships it, and determines never to be unfaithful to it or change it by one iota; it is the truth, and he has it. Thus, with his mind firmly closed, he exchanges one idolatry for another and spends the rest of his life relying, not on God, but on his own particular doctrine of God, while the man whose conversion is principally the result of an emotional experience is often even more unyielding, if less intelligent, than his intellectual counterpart.

I realize that this is much too harsh a judgement, and that I probably make it because I myself fell into a similar trap for a time and was rescued only by the grace and patience of various friends, of whom John Fenton, the biblical theologian and Canon of Oxford, was perhaps the most influential and helpful. But even if such a judgement is too harsh, I make no apology for making it, for the trap is real and the bait which lures people into it is so attractive that the churches are filled with people who have been caught by it. The bait, of course, is certitude: the knowledge that you are the possessor of all truth, while other people wallow in their ignorance with the exception of those who agree with you' and nothing is more enjoyable than that. But the price people pay for such a possession is exorbitant; for the promise in the gospel is not that those who are 'born again' shall receive the truth, lock, stock and barrel as the christening present, but that they shall be freed from the old chains of self-idolatry and self-justification to be led into all truth by the spirit of God, whose direction, like that of the wind, can be predicted by no one. You cannot be led into the truth, however, if you are sitting on it, and if the windy spirit of God is to lead you in unpredictable ways you must be free to follow wherever you may be led. It is better, I suppose, to be born into the nursery and never to move out of it than never to be born at all, but it seems to me to be better still to recognize that birth is the beginning of a new life, not the end, and that growing up involves change. If the freedom and possibility of self fulfilment, of which the notion of new birth in Christian imagery is the symbolic beginning, are to become lasting realities, they must embrace the freedom to ask all questions and raise all objections; and one or two such questions and objections clamour for attention.

Antony Cyprian Bridge