Thursday, August 29, 2019
Like clarified butter. . .
Clarified butter is milk fat rendered out of butter, separating the milk solids and water from the pure butterfat. Typically, this happens by cooking the butter, that is by melting it until the various components will naturally separate by density. The water evaporates, some solids float to the surface to be skimmed off, and the remainder of the milk solids sink to the bottom and are discarded when the butterfat is poured off. Why bother you might ask? Well, for one clarified butter has a much longer shelf life than fresh butter and for another it smokes and burns at a higher temperature so it is better for many cooking applications, such as sauteeing.
There is no shortage of voices raising the sound of alarm for Christianity in America. The Nones are increasing the the faithful decreasing. Or so the media frenzy has put it. In a generation Christianity will not exist as a significant force in America. And the Christians huddle in fear, retreating to their closed door sanctuaries to lick their wounds and pray.
Except that it is not so. The kind of Christianity in decline is barely Christian. Moderate Christianity, or better, lukewarm Christianity, is not only under challenge but it is in real and steep decline. The Church is not simply being tested but sifted and those who believe Christian truth to be simply one truth among many or whose piety mirrors the culture around them are falling away. Numbers are down but it is significant to note among whom those numbers are down.
Could it be that instead of in decline, God is, in effect, clarifying His Church? Could it be that the times are causing the Church to be purified -- not of sinners as in the old understanding of purification but of impurities of doctrine and faith unsure if the truth of the Scriptures is enough to hold onto. Are we, in fact, witnessing as God is using the tests and trials of our modern secular culture to clarify both what it is that we believe, confess, and teach, and how we live out that faith in the world? For the Christianity in decline is nominal Christianity, that is, those whose liberal theology hardly even grants the existence of truth and who have long ago given up on the factual basis of the faith. These are not only not religious, but they are hardly spiritual. Their piety is governed by the voice of their own desire and not by the voice of God in His Word. Their truth is sifted through reason, experience, and feeling rather than by the epiphany of the Spirit. Those who are leaving the Church are those who, in many cases, did not really have a faith to begin with. They were not fully catechized in the faith, they lived on the fringes of the Church's liturgical life, and they did not seek to be holy or desire to belong to God. Their faith was a crutch for weakness to be discarded when strength returned and a fire extinguisher to be used only in case of real fire -- which was rare enough. They believed in technology, they trusted the voices within them, and they sought to have their desires baptized by God rather than brought forth anew by the Spirit.
Ironically, the greatest enemy of Christendom has never been those outside the Church who seek to kill it but the fake friends within the Church who seek to improve God's design and couch the truth in believable and relevant words and transform the focus of worship from God to us. In the end, it may well be that the whole effect of the loss of these nominal believers is that the faith is stronger, the Church is made more clear and pure in her doctrine and life -- and her witness before the world.
Now the great temptation has always been for us to do this. But Jesus is clear. When we sift between the wheat and the tares, we only do damage. Holiness movements in the past, whose purpose has been to purify the Church, have succeeded more in propagating a sense of false pride rather than genuine repentance. Leave the wheat and tares to grow together until He decides, says Christ. So it is that this purifying is not our design but God's work. We cannot decide the timing or how it will work but God will surely cleanse His lukewarm people of their uncertainty and raise up a Church to burn hot and bright with the truth of the Gospel, with confidence in the orthodox dogma of Scripture confessed in the living tradition of creed and piety, and with a determination to live in but not of the world, a people set apart for His holy purpose.
It is this that Benedict XVI and Francis Cardinal George and others have spoken about. It is this to which Bonhoeffer refers in his charge of grace made cheap and easy. It is this, I believe, that we see at work around us. Far from moving us to despair, it should move us to be ever more certain in our confession, ever more Biblical in our identity, ever more faithful in our liturgy, ever more passionate in our preaching, and ever more holy in the shape and direction of our piety. If the Church is being purified by God, then it is one more sign that God is at work within us, that He has not given up on the remnant of faithful and orthodox people, and, no matter how tainted the Sodom's of this world and even the dark corners of the Church, God's mercy is still ours and He is bringing us to the day of the Lord when all things will be completed and brought to their perfect consummation. Until that day, our concern is not figuring God out but holding fast to the truth in love.