I agreed with the priest that it is sometimes when we are at our lowest that the egoistic self gives way and we become more receptive to God. But I wrote too that:
I find it difficult to believe that we should automatically side with whoever seems to be most powerless, as if being powerless defines you as good.
In the comments I added some further thoughts, which several readers have urged me to include in a post. The gist of it is that focusing always on being weak or powerless can be one factor in alienating men from Christianity:
I know people whose fathers have died and it sometimes affects them very deeply. Not just in the sense of mourning a lost one, but in the sense of their existential stability. The father brought a sense of assurance and stability to their lives.
And this is an aspect of men attempting to be strong for the benefit of those around them, those they are responsible for.
The interpretation of Christianity made by my local priest suggests that a man who is successfully strong in this way is separating himself from the good. He should instead focus on and identify with being powerless, broken down, marginalised etc.
If this is true it sets up an irresolvable contradiction in the lives of men. Our worldly role would be to be strong; our religious role would be to be weak.
I don't think this is how Christianity was understood by previous generations of Christians. I think instead the idea that we should treat well "the least amongst you" meant that those who were strong should not abuse those less fortunate.
You can see this is in the ethos of the Christian knight; you can see it in Western literature (as when in a Jane Austen novel the heroine is chastised for mocking a poor widow).
Is it not true that men should be morally strong and self-disciplined? That men should be strong in wisdom and prudence? That men should be strong in discharging their duties to family and community? Whilst at the same time serving God in a spirit of humility? (i.e. not adopting a stance of arrogant, closed off self-sufficiency).
Cannot the Church sometimes encourage men to be strong? (For instance, in their role as husbands and fathers within a family?)
Maybe this is part of the reason why many men don't feel as connected to Christianity as they might. They know that they have to develop their masculine strengths as best they can, but when they sit in a church they hear a message that identifies the good with being broken down, weak and marginalised.
It's not that churches shouldn't challenge the way people ordinarily think, but in this case the churches are challenging genuine duties held by men. It makes the message heard by men in the churches feel alien to their deeper conscience.
I'd like to hear a sermon which praises men for a strength of perseverance in working to support their families. Or for a strength in maintaining composure when there is stress within their families. Or for exercising a masculine protectiveness in stepping in when their wives need support. And so on.
And rather than charity meaning supporting Palestinians against Israelis, maybe it could be an encouragement to do something practical and local, for instance, helping an elderly person maintain their home, or doing some maintenance work for the local kindergarten.
I wrote this several days ago, but the significance of it has been confirmed by the Christmas Day sermon of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby. In this sermon, you get the same theme that Christians should aim to be vulnerable and weak as this is what makes a man receptive to God's transforming love. I can't reproduce the whole sermon but here are some snippets:
This is the true triumph, of utter vulnerability that in weakness overthrows every apparent strength.
Glorifying God, leaking into the world the love that he leaks into us through the wounds and breaches and gaps of our own lives
we do in the world what God does in us. We receive His love where we are vulnerable and weak, and lose sight of it when we claim strength and power. Christians reach to the jagged edges of our society, and of the world in general.
we must begin with weakness and vulnerability
God comes to us through the breaches and wounds of our lives because He comes in utter vulnerability. We are to be those who allow Him to make us vulnerable, welcome the weakness we have
It's not that I think this is entirely false. There are people who on hearing this kind of message might let go of their egoistic defences and become more receptive to the Christian message.
But think of the logic of what is being proposed in Bishop Welby's sermon. If it's true that we receive God's love when we are vulnerable and weak, then presumably we are to aim at being vulnerable and weak (we are to welcome our weaknesses, rather than trying to overcome them). And mere powerlessness, rather than goodness or faithfulness, becomes the deciding factor in who is most blessed. The Palestinians get to be defined as the good guys not because their cause is deemed just or because their acts are deemed more moral, but simply because they don't as yet have the upper hand. And if they do get the upper hand, then they won't be the good guys anymore - they'll drop back in moral status.
Nor is it true, in my opinion, that we are only open to God "in extremity". It could be claimed equally that the religious experience is often a "peak experience" - one that comes to us most forcefully when we are physically and mentally at our best. And when this happens, we have a sense not of powerlessness but of our powers being held in their proper place. It is a feeling of being completed or fulfilled in who we are, and it is that feeling which brings us a sense of peace, of a natural sense of humility before God, of the Biblical virtue of "prautes" (a measured, deliberate, self-possessed response to things) and of a desire to serve God's will. But it is definitely not an experience of weakness or powerlessness.
Finally, I don't think it's true either that the only way for a church to encourage people to be open to the religious experience is by emphasising our weakness as a way of dissolving an excessive egoism. Churches might also encourage time for contemplation and prayer; inspiring forms of architecture, music and art; a form of the mass that imparts a sense of the sacred; and a striving toward moral virtue.
And many people are led toward a religious outlook by what they experience as beautiful, good and true and which then inspires their particular loves. They might be inspired in this way by an ideal of manhood or womanhood, by the love they feel for their spouse or children, by the higher forms of art and culture, by the beauty of nature or by the goodness they discern within a communal life and tradition.
Bishop Welby's Christianity doesn't and can't speak to any of this, as it defines the good narrowly in terms of weakness, vulnerability and powerlessness. I don't think this is a form of Christianity that is likely to stand in the longer term. It leaves too much out and, as I argued in my comment, it establishes a particular difficulty for men who are called on to be strong for the benefit of those around them.