I first came across a mention of The Imitation of Christ while I was reading Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry a few years back. In that book, there’s a throwaway mention of a student being thrown out of an evangelical Bible college for keeping a copy of it in his room (because it’s a Papist text, obv). I’d never heard of the book before, so I googled it and then read a few sentences of the project Gutenberg translation.
There’s something about the writing that is very clean and simple. For instance, here’s the third paragraph:
Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. If you knew the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God? ‘Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,’ except to love God and serve Him alone. And this is supreme wisdom – to despise the world, and draw daily nearer the kingdom of heaven.
Which is kind of fun, right? Right up front, the book tells you that it’s going to be different than other religious books–that it’s not going to appeal to your intellect, but instead to your sense of the rightness of things.
But the Project Gutenberg translation was (like all PG translations) very antiquated and Victorian and full of archaicisms (thees and thous and -eths). So I didn’t read it then.
Then, a year or two ago, I purchased a Kindle version in a more modern translation. And finally, I fell into the mood to read it.
And it was pretty fun. I’m not a Christian, so all the parts on how you should approach communion with an open heart felt a little irrelevant to me (although I am sure there was something to be learned there). But it is interesting to hear about the travails of a man who’s trying his best to live the good life.
Thomas is primarily concerned with humility. The book is shot through with an intense awareness of man’s sinfulness, which is something that resonates with me. I feel like I am much more sympathetic to Christianity than most atheists, because it seems, to me, to be a very thoughtful attempt to come to terms with perceptions that I am very familiar with. I always feel like we’re just not very good people. Most of the behavior that I observe seems, to me, to be extremely amoral. Which is not to say that it’s bad behavior…it’s just that the good of others doesn’t seem to be a primary concern in the minds of most people (including myself).We all pay lip service to the general welfare, and we all believe in the right sort of things. But in our daily interactions with each other, there’s so little thoughtfulness. And I don’t ever see that changing. It’s just the way we are. Our moral intuitions are at war with our instincts, and our instincts almost always win.
Anyway, Thomas is very practical. He doesn’t try to work out any complicated theological stuff. He’s mostly concerned with teaching you how to be a good person. For instance, he writes:
A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always to think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection. Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace. We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself.