Taking responsibility – the narrow gate that leads to life

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” Matthew 7, 13-14

“There is nothing that so thoroughly erodes action and distorts life than expecting to be saved and rewarded by a Superbeing, nothing more at odds with the kingdom of God than this cynical economy of rewards and punishment which demeans life into a means to an end, that turns life into a coupon redeemable for an eternal redemption, for an eternal reward, and the love of God into credit in a celestial bank.” John Caputo, “It Spooks”

Back in the 90s, when I was an active evangelical, I went with a group of friends to see a play called “Who Killed Hilda Murrell?” If you are old enough you may remember Hilda Murrell, a horticulturalist and environmental campaigner (and like me, a resident of Shrewsbury) who was kidnapped and mysteriously killed in 1984. The circumstances of her death have given rise to conspiracy theories and the play suggested that she may have been killed by the secret service, or others acting on their instructions. Discussing the play afterwards, a friend, who was also a Bible study group leader said he had been wondering how far Christians should really get involved in causes like this. Coming from the background I do, I was a little shocked by this and suggested that surely Christians should be concerned about the potential for environmental disasters. “It’s ok,” he said, “God would stop anything like that happening if He wanted to.”

This view was being expressed particularly starkly, but the gist of it is not uncommon among conservative Christians. I thought of this recently in relation to the above quotation from Matthew. Many orthodox Christian writers over the centuries have used this metaphor for the Christian life – hard road and narrow gate. But does it make sense?

For what is really so hard about the orthodox Christian picture? You believe what you need to believe, you endure this life one way or another and then you get to spend eternity in heaven. In practice, this life and this world do not matter very much as they are only a testing ground for the next ones. So we do not really need to worry about anything or concern ourselves with issues of social justice, the environment, crime and so forth. All that matters is that we take God’s escape route and ideally bring a few people with us. There is only one question that matters and you have the correct answer. As Brian Maclaren put it, this is “elevator religion” that gets you out of the world and into paradise.

What is so difficult about that? This “cynical economy of rewards and punishments” is surely the wide gate and the easy road.

But what if we do not find the idea of the Superbeing or the afterlife convincing? What if we think that this is our one life and our one world? In that case things become a whole lot tougher. In that case, how we spend our life is of ultimate importance because it is the only one we will get. In that case, the world’s issues press in on us because this is our only planet and its inhabitants do not have another world to make up for this one.

Above all, this perspective is death to complacency. We cannot relax in the confidence that someone else will step in and fix everything. If we destroy the planet it is destroyed. There are no guarantees of success and we must take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

This is truly the narrow gate and the hard road. There will always be an audience for the message that someone else is taking responsibility for your life and your world but that path leads to complacency, injustice and damage – in a very real, physical sense it leads to destruction. But there is another road available – we take responsibility for ourselves and our planet. That road does not carry any guarantees but can lead to life, a life lived to its full, and might, just might, lead to a better world too.

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