The twentieth-century physicist Niels Bohr wrote: “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” I was thinking about this important principle the other day while pondering the relationship between God, faith, and safety. In one sense, there is no one or nothing as safe as God, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” and for whom “our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Him,” to use the famous words of St. Augustine of Hippo. The very word salvation — in English, Latin (salvatio), and Greek (σωτηρία) alike — means first and foremost, ‘safety’. To be ‘saved’ means to be safe in God. “God is for us and not against us” and “works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” God is, in no uncertain terms, safe, and is in fact, our only true safety.
And yet, in the same breath, we also must affirm, and also in no uncertain terms, that God is not safe. Salvation in God means the willingness to be pulled apart at the seams and stitched together again, it means exposing all the dark parts of our souls we’d rather not see to the light of God; in short it means repentance and it means transformation. Both of these entail risk. And neither of these are safe.
These thoughts reminded me of a talk by the wonderful Soviet dissident theologian and priest Fr. Alexander Men. Railing against warm-and-fuzzy conceptions of Christianity that were apparently as tempting even under Soviet persecution as they are for us in our ease in the West today, Fr. Men agreed with Karl Marx, asserting that this kind of Christianity is indeed an “opium for the people.” He continued:
It functions as a sort of spiritual anesthetic, it helps a person adjust to his surrounding world, over which one can hang the slogan: “Blessed is the one who believes that it is cozy in the world.” … Most people who find that it is cold in this world are drawn to this warmth and imagine Christianity as a kind of — well, if not a bath, then at least some sort of tepid place like a mud-bath where one can warm up.
This is all wrong! … Your religion does not consist in this at all. Your God is a consuming fire and not a warm hearth, and he is calling you to a place where all sorts of cold winds are blowing.
Later in this talk, he added:
The false form [of faith] is always more convenient. It always suits us better, which is why contemporary religious life is often characterized by a churchly falsehood when people prefer that which is convenient, calm and pleasant, conforms to their own ideas, consoles them, and which they enjoy. It is not at all to this that the Lord called us when he said “the gate is narrow” … Again and again we need to understand that this Spirit is not warmth, but a fire. It is a fire.
If we will live in this fire — which will be burning secretly within us, secretly — then we will be able to go to cold places and we will not freeze. Christianity can be compared not to a warm oven but to a nuclear reactor…”
The analogy of fire that Fr. Men uses is wonderful. For almost all of human history — from the domestication of fire until electrification just barely a hundred years ago — it was viscerally understood that fire carries within it many possibilities, some good, some bad. Fire was the only source of light at night and warmth in the cold; fire kept wild animals at bay, cooked food, purified metal and forged weapons. Fire was essential to human life; yet it could also burn, injure, maim, kill and destroy everything and everyone you loved. Fire was both essential to safety yet not the furthest thing possible from being ‘safe.’
Likewise, God calls us into being and into fullness of being, calls us, as I wrote the other week, to a genuine faith that transforms us to be more than we thought possible. Yet God also calls us out of our comfort and safety and into the cold: God is calling us to bring that same divine fire that enlightens us, warms us, protects us, feeds us, purifies us and empowers us into all of the cold, dark, empty, vulnerable and powerless places, both in our hearts and in the world.
To paraphrase Mr. Beaver’s famous line in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, God may not be safe, but God is good. God calls us and transforms and empowers us. The only question is: will we have the faith to follow his call into the cold?