You may recognise this as the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer published just over fifty years ago. I remember the vicar at St. John’s Church in Penge, South London, holding the book up in his right hand and recommending it to the congregation. I cannot imagine that many church leaders today would recommend such a book.
That is not because it is a bad book. It is because a substantial section of the church today would probably not only be unable to understand it, but more pertinently, would lack the motivation to work at understanding it.
Schaeffer was one of a batch of writers in the post-war years, who sought to stir the church to weigh and apprehend truth and then communicate it to others. His books were not an easy read. Desiring that his readers would grasp a past and present world-view of thought, he ranged through the history of philosophy and reason in a competent but not always easily understandable way. I did not read the book when the vicar recommended it, but some ten years later, I ventured into Schaeffer, first unsuccessfully, but then gradually with some real appreciation of what he was saying. It was not that I or others in the 1970s, were necessarily more intelligent than the generation today, but whereas we grasped that some good books needed working at, many of today’s readers appear to want all knowledge in pre-digested snippets from Wikipedia or a two-minute thought for the day.
I was a very unsatisfactory student at school. Outside of school I lived in an adult world (my parents ran a pub) where my honest interests centred on card playing and horseracing, and my less honest interests kept me hovering on the borderlands of trouble or possibly prison. I rarely read a book and my perceptive headmaster suggested that I leave his establishment at an early opportunity. God broke into my life in my twenty-first year and one of the first fruits of conversion was that I began to read.
I actually do not know where it came from or how God accomplished it in me, but I began to have a desire to study. I graduated from my teenage reading of Parade and the Daily Sketch to Calvin’s Institutes, the Works of Wesley and Whitefield, C. S. Lewis and the likes of Francis Schaeffer. What I discovered was that hard study was usually beneficial. It was not that I became a mind centred Christian: I was fully immersed in the Charismatic and New Church scene and often used to engage in impromptu street preaching outside St. Paul’s Cathedral or Charing Cross Underground Station. However, in the midst of all the experience and action based stuff, I discovered that God had given me an enquiring mind that wanted answers.
Since those early days, I have struggled to hold these different aspects of Christianity in balance in my own life, and to relate to them appropriately in the lives of others. However, I have been increasingly persuaded that, however many spiritual experiences we may have in meetings, it is not generally possible to grow beyond spiritual babyhood without some measure of applied learning in our bedsits or at our desks. The pathway to maturity is paved with hard work. Whatever else it may have meant, the word ‘disciple’ used by Jesus embodied the concept of a committed learner, and committed learning involves persistent application of all our gifts and abilities. This is equally true of practical and academic disciplines. I learned how to clean toilets when I worked in a care home and that involved as much applied care and attention as when I studied at college.
Fredrick Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury a hundred and twenty years ago said:
“The real student knows perfectly well, and it is the thing of great importance in practical life, that nine-tenths of all good work, whatever it may be, is what we usually call drudgery, has a mechanical character about it and requires nothing more than orderliness….. Nine-tenths of all good work is labour in which those who are engaged cannot feel any conceit at all; and the man of genius is distinguished from others mainly by this, that he sees, all through, what this mechanical drudgery is going to lead to”
Many of us today appear offended by the need to undertake anything that might be termed drudgery or, to use its present term, ‘boring’.
I suspect that the reason why many of us have not progressed beyond spiritual babyhood, may not be because of a lack of spiritual experiences, but from a lack of acquiring understanding of those experiences and applying that understanding to action in our lives. For those of us who are gifted to some degree in using our minds, such a course may involve learning from more mature disciples who have written down their acquired wisdom, and who have sometimes done so in a way that will require a real measure of hard work. Even the apostle Peter noted that some of Paul’s writings included that which was hard to understand (2 Peter Ch3 v 16), so it seems unlikely that we can expect to get everything we need served up in a pre-digested form. As helpful as Wikipedia is (and I use it a lot) it is no substitute for coming to grips with some of the great Christian thinkers and writers of past generations.