BOOK BLOG | Strong Meat (Sayers - Letter 6)
“For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
– The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews 5:13-14
In this short, but clever essay (the seventh in her Letters to a Diminished Church series) Sayers seeks to further amplify the rigor of the Creeds. The Hebrews passage above also leads the essay and serves to frame the context, which is that folks (whether churches or individuals) who reject the Creeds, those who distance themselves from doctrine and dogma, they are the children who can handle only milk. “Here is a robust assertion of the claim of Christianity to be a religion for adult minds.” It is an assertion which has been made in earlier essays – in the same sense as we have been discussing the ‘not boring-ness’ of Christian doctrine – it is boring only to those without a mind suitably matured or skilled to grasp its content (those of the “strong meat” variety).
But Sayers here is really only reaffirming her baseline. The part of the metaphor she intends to draw out is not so much the aspect of doctrine (as one might initially expect) but rather the aspect of age. In the process she will draw in an important, if tangential, social commentary on the youth-obsessed culture of our day. She writes:
“There is a popular school of thought (or, more strictly, of feeling) that violently resents the operation of time upon the human spirit. It looks upon age as something between a crime and an insult. […] Such men [as do hold this feeling], finding no value for the world as it is, proclaim very loudly their faith in the future, ‘which is in the hands of the young.’ With this flattery they bind their own burden on the shoulders of the next generation. For their own failures, time alone is to blame – not sin, which is expiable, but time, which is irreparable. From the relentless reality of age, they seek escape into a fantasy of youth – their own or other people’s.”
According to Sayers, then, the youth-obsessed culture in which we live is no mere passing fancy. It reveals (again) a world in flight from sin and moral responsibility. In a previous essay, Sayers noted how evolution and mechanistic views of the universe may (philosophically speaking) remove sin, but it also introduces a determinism which is seen to absolve all manner of failure, incompetence, and apathy. The obsession with youth becomes little more than crawling into the bottle, seeking escape from the reminder of morality, mortality, and a lifetime of mistakes. These folks may claim innocence, and that they are merely placing hope in a future generation; but their “faith is not really in the future, but in the past. Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”
To support this conclusion Sayers offers up actual children, all of whom (anecdotally) desire nothing more than to grow up. Sayers also offers the Biblical story of Nicodemus. In the context (or perhaps rather subtext) of his famous question, “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?” Sayers suggests a deeper and more profound question emerges: “Can he escape from time, creep back into the comfortable prenatal darkness, renounce the values of experience?” Which is, of course, exactly what Sayers believes that today’s youth-oriented culture is doing. She reminds us, therefore, that the “spirit alone is eternal youth; the mind and body must learn to make terms with time.”
Time, then, is not the enemy. After all, we experience time in a uniquely direct way, being “perhaps the only phenomenon of which we have direct apprehension; if all our senses were destroyed, we should still remain aware of duration. Moreover, all conscious thought is a process in time…” In other words, time is the one thing we perceive in a way resembling the way God perceives things – directly, internally, and without need of empirical mediation. The mature Christian (the one eating strong meat) recognizes that “the Christian Church has always taken a thoroughly realistic view of time, and has been very particular to distinguish between time and eternity.” As with other Creeds, it is necessary to accept both doctrines for either one to have any validity and/or relevance to God or to the “actuality of human experience”.
Time is separate from eternity. Man thinks of good times and bad times. But Sayers notes, recalling her reading of Time and the Conways, “What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time; and when we come to the end of this life, all our time will be us – the real you, the real me.” In a manner of speaking, we are the sum of all our time-parts. Thus Sayers concludes, “In contending with the problem of evil, it is useless to try to escape either from the bad past or into the good past.” We cannot conquer time, neither can we escape it. We can only surrender to it unconditionally.
Most importantly, the Incarnation itself is the ultimate validation:
“The story of Passiontide and Easter is the story of the winning of that freedom and of that victory over the evils of time. The burden of the guilt is accepted (‘He was made Sin’), the last agony of alienation from God is passed through (‘Elio, lama sabachthani); the temporal body is broken and remade; and time and eternity are reconciled in a single person. There is no retreat here to the paradise of primal ignorance; the new kingdom of God is built upon the foundations of spiritual experience. Time is not denied; it is fulfilled.”