Though there is no shortage of disagreement over the sources of our current malaise, that we live in a decadent society is, perhaps, one of the few ideas that actually can unite many conservative and progressive Americans. What’s more, in the eyes of many Americans, Christianity is not positioned to help us navigate through decadence, but is rather an agent in its creation.
The way toward purpose, toward an existentially satisfying life that both provides direction in the midst of confusion and an anchor in the midst of pain is to move away from Christianity. Or, in other cases, it is not away from Christianity but at least away from evangelical Christianity—many seek deeper roots as a way to anchor them in a time of uncertainty and find themselves agreeing with Cardinal Newman.
In one sense, the idea that the reformed faith isn’t emotionally satisfying can be swatted aside without much trouble: simply introduce the person to the Heidelberg Catechism. But the objection often runs deeper. It’s not that the reformed tradition lacks poetic language—certainly anyone familiar with Heidelberg or the writings of John Calvin or the hymns of John Newton knows there is imaginative depth to be found in reformed soil.
Rather, the objection is that the theology itself is somehow lacking what I guess you could call climbing holds—sturdy places to hang on when you’re scaling a mountain (not an inaccurate picture of the life of faith) and are simply trying to keep from falling. One friend of mine, who converted to Catholicism not long after our conversation, spoke of the lack of practical resources that Protestantism offered to her as she was struggling to keep faith.
I thought of this struggle when I recently went back over a few sections of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Often filled with precise, scholastic language, the Confession is not the place one would think to go for warmth and humane piety. Even many reformed Christians will acknowledge the point, choosing instead to direct people to the Heidelberg Catechism. I have done this myself on more than one occasion. But the Confession will surprise you.
Consider this excerpt from chapter nine:
When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.
Another way of expressing that idea is simply that the process of conversion is precisely that: a process. What is said here parallels more widely used terminology to describe the moral life—the acquisition of virtue, the cultivation of habits, even Eugene Peterson’s idea of “a long obedience in the same direction.” (Peterson was, after all, a Presbyterian minister.)
Because the curse of sin still remains with us, even after we encounter God, we will still groan under its weight. We will fail others and be failed by others. This is the reality we all face. It is accurately describing a struggle that virtually every person has experienced. Speaking of this internal struggle, the Dutch Reformed divine Herman Bavinck said that, “these experiences do not merely exist but have a right to exist; they are inseparable from godliness.”
The Confession is naming this ordinary human experience in a way that also acknowledges our capacity to truly will the good with the aid of God. Thus none of this need lead us to despair, for it is, in one sense, normal. We aspire to love God and love neighbor perfectly and yet often we fail and then we must repent and carry on with the Christian life. This basic moral insight, though often forgotten in our day of public shaming, is sitting right there in plain sight in one of the most famous reformed confessions.
Similarly, when we turn to chapter 25 and headings four and five we again find this striking balance, this familiarity with ambiguity:
This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to his will.
Again we can see this simple assumption that failure is normal in the Christian life and in the life of the church. It need not crush us. What’s more, the chapter ends on a strikingly hopeful note: because of God’s work to preserve his people, there will always be a church on earth to worship God. “Always,” is an uncomfortable word to use during a day in which so little seems to endure—”all that is solid melts into air,” right? But in the sturdy faith of the Confession and the God it describes, we find grounds for using that hopeful word.
Certainly, we do not always live up to our confession. We attempt to manufacture a pure church via unpleasant, protracted debates over non-essential matters where even our own tradition is more ambiguous than many care to admit. We bear down on individual people and crush them rather than understanding their weakness. We struggle to realize the goodness of restoration with a person that has sinned against us.
But, of course, these are our own forms of the very thing the Confession anticipates. No church is wholly pure and, indeed, the inordinate lusting after purity is itself indicative of this fact because it represents an attempt to lay hold of a good that we ourselves cannot lay hold of but must instead trust to God. In other words, it is a form of unbelief, a refusal to trust God to care for his sheep. Similarly, no person is free of sin in this life, the overbearing person who heaps judgment on the person Scripture describes as “a bruised reed,” not least of all.
Though few think of the reformed faith as being emotionally satisfying, a closer reading of its historical documents suggests that it just might be—and if that is the case it suggests a very different path out of late modern decadence.