«Извините… Всё нормально?»
This is about as far as my Russian will take me towards making sure that the teenage boy hanging out in our stairwell with a can of beer and a hand-held computer game is neither lonely nor homeless nor about to throw himself out of the fifth-floor window.
Yeah, yeah, I’m fine mate, he says – or so I imagine he would say if he was speaking English. Холодно, he says – it’s cold out. Ты куришь? Do you smoke?
I don’t smoke, and head up the dingyish, greenish staircase to my own front door, relieved. Not entirely for the best reasons, though. Relieved that he seemed fairly content, but also relieved to not have to worry about him. Pleased by a simple, comical moment of human fellowship, the spontaneous offer of a cigarette from a random person. But also pleased with myself because for once I actually stopped instead of walking past.
There’s nothing wrong with the staircase itself: it’s full of families and ordinary people, peaceful, recently repainted, and close to a shop, a park and a metro station. Apparently all this makes no difference when the greenish light, post-teaching tiredness and the fact that someone did fall out of the window five months ago combine to bring on irrational staircase-related anxieties.
Which then become theology-related anxieties. Half an hour earlier I was probably thinking about the past continuous, Pre-Intermediate fluency activities and whether to stop for milk on the way home. But obviously the sight of a kid playing computer games on the stairs means one has to drop everything and angst away over whether the hope of the random people really does depend on their accepting a message which they may not have heard, or may not have understood, or may be, as it seems, simply unable to believe.
How much compassion is really compassion, and how much is just to do with me? How much perplexed faith-related pondering actually makes the ponderer a better and wiser Christian, and how much is kind of self-absorbed? I hope at least some is real and useful, and probably quite a lot is in the case of those who are more compassionate and better ponderers than I am. Still, it seems there can be a risk of dealing with God, the Universe and Everything in a separate mental compartment which really makes no contribution at all to the ongoing project of loving him and loving one’s neighbour.
One does want to have a decent theology, to know and understand the truth. An adequate theology would be more useful, either in a crisis or in the slower adventures of everyday life, than a vague mixture of half-ideas: charismatic-evangelical impulses towards praying for signs and wonders, conversative-evangelical impulses towards verbal proclamation, wannabe Good Samaritan impulses towards trying to show kindness somehow or other, and overriding ordinary impulses towards doing nothing at all.
But maybe it’s approaching things the wrong way round to worry on-and-off in private about how salvation works, about whether stair-sitting teenagers are OK, etc., and hope thereby to work out a true theology that will empower compassionate and useful action in the world. If to love God and love your neighbour are the most important commandments, then maybe the best system is to start there, even in the absence of complete understanding, pre-empting the random anxieties if possible, and finding a bit more wisdom in the process of engaging with the world God made and entered into.
It occurs to me that according to its own favourite verse, Christian apologetics is meant to happen in relationships and start with listening: we’re asked to ‘always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]’; we need to know our hope and our reasons for it, but we also need to hear the other person first before we answer.(And where we have failed to listen, an apology would be rather more appropriate than an apology.)
Perhaps something similar could be true of Christian theology more generally: that it becomes most fully itself in practice, that it happens in relationships and starts with loving. If we have got far enough to believe that the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, then we have got far enough to focus our attention (a) on him and (b) on seeking the ones he is seeking, on seeing them as he sees them. Understanding, with a bit of luck (or, should I say, by the grace of God), comes as we follow, like it did for the first disciples: how we think about all the whole business will be shaped by the actual living of it.
Which is not to say that one will actually be any better at Christianity that way round, or any good at it at all, without miraculous assistance… I just find it helpful to remind myself that everything starts with loving: learning to know Jesus, and seeing, noticing, caring for people out of whatever we have so far grasped of who he is. I’m sure one does often find wisdom in the secret place, but I also hope that a better understanding of him and his truth will come from meeting him among the people around us and seeing how he loves them and what he is doing with them. The amazing thing will be to find him there, wherever one happens to be: perched on the stair next to the beer-can, for example, watching the little computer game over the young guy’s shoulder.