If Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith is downright scandalous when it comes to how modern Protestants conceive of both the nature of and relationship between church and state, his Recovering Mother Kirk is perfectly (and deliciously) delinquent when it comes to how a truer Presbyterian godliness is both expressed and nurtured.
In the course of making his broader case for a churchly expression of Reformed piety in which, by way of contrast, “some proponents of the Reformed faith under the influence of evangelicalism are caught off guard” by the suggestion that in question and answer 85 the Shorter Catechism’s prescription to escape God’s wrath and curse includes not only faith and repentance but also a diligent use of the means of grace, Hart brings to bear just how triumphant the pragmatic architects of heart religion really are:
“They have so emphasized either conversion or doctrine that they have abstracted the Christian religion from the Christian practices that mark the body of Christ.”
He then begins to explore how the “virtue of nominal Christianity” is essential to the making of an observant Protestantism:
“In conversations about specific Roman Catholics or Jews, it is common to hear them described as either observant or nonobservant. In both cases, the line between observance and nonobservance is easy to spot because the person either does or does not practice the ceremonies and religious routines that constitute the commonality of faith. Protestantism, however, has no such language. Instead, discussions along these lines about Protestants usually employ the words genuine, nominal, authentic, or dead…Since the rise of pietism in the seventeenth century and the Anglo-American revivals of the following century, the goal among God-fearing Protestants has been to eliminate observant Protestantism.”
From the more obscure notion that what constitutes proper Sabbath observance can be guided by the principle of “whatever is conducive to worship” (i.e. be worshipful), to the rather ubiquitous idea even in Reformed circles of the Sabbath-as-recharge, to the clearly under-tutored practice of physically fasting in order to get the full effect of the sacraments, it seems there is quite a lot stacked up against the conception of an observant Protestantism. I recall some years back listening to a very prominent and popular Reformed figure describe worship and my own instinctual hesitation. Quite absent his description was any mind toward getting worship correct but rather the soul’s preparation before (extended all the way back to Saturday afternoon, in fact), its intense and undivided attention during and just as earnestly sustained reflection after worship. The fulcrum in all of this, to my mind, is an emphasis on the inward effect on the worshiper instead of seeing to it, first, that the stated worship of God is correct and, second, that such worship is faithfully attended.
Some in the Calvinist tradition have even coined the lingo of an “experimental Calvinism,” as if the stuff of intellect and affect or love and duty were indeed mutually exclusive and in need of a helping hand if ever to meet again. (Closer readers of the Outhouse know that I don’t have any particular ideological ax to grind, but this must be what consistent ideological conservatives feel like as neo-cons prance about with all their faith-based initiatives. Experimental Calvinism is to Calvinism what “compassionate conservatism” is to conservatism.)
But, while admittedly zealous for the edification of the saints, the best of the Reformed tradition has never seemed to be so worldly about just how that edification is effected. Such strategies seem to be more consistent with the doings of pietism. If something like Sabbath-as-recharge is any measure, it would seem that the general victory of pietism to greater or lesser degrees is what keeps even confessional Protestants from seeing the benefits of a nominal Christianity that only an observant Protestantism can yield.
Jesus said that tares and wheat must be allowed to abide with each other and without any human interference. Where an observant Protestantism would seeks to be so faithful, pietism will have none of it. Instead of being content for the dividing lines between belief and unbelief to peacefully co-exist—a peace only to be disturbed when unbelief rears its own head in doctrinal or moral apostasy—pietism desires to up the ante and erase the lines. Of course, the problem for pietism is that, just as a tradition of anti-traditionalism becomes its own tradition, what inevitably follows in pietism is exactly what it seeks to circumvent in an observant religion. Feigning true piety is not bypassed by making up new practices, however seemingly sincere in nature. Just as many that can faithfully but unbelievingly attend God’s stated worship may also bluff heart religion. A child, for example, can just as easily parrot his parents’ inward religiosity as he can hypocritically utter the Creed. In point of fact, it may be more dangerous to defraud heart religion as it seems the only alternative a doubting soul might have is blatant rebellion. An observant religion is kind and long-suffereing enough to let doubt inhabit its sanctuary. After all, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt but sight; and Calvin remarked that we all go to our deaths with an unbeliever abiding within yet. If that is true, much as it might think so, pietism has absolutely nothing on the staid wisdom of an observant religion.
The question becomes which template is the right one to act as the fulcrum between belief and unbelief? Is it experientialism or confessionalism? It might be helpful to consider what Jesus said about how he planned to build his church. He didn’t ask Peter how often he nurtured Jesus in his heart; he asked him who he said Jesus was. He didn’t ask Peter how well he’d groomed his inner life; he asked Peter for his confession of faith. And when Peter answered correctly this was to be the basis for the church. Even so, that same Peter would go on to deny Jesus and even get it wrong with Paul as to just how circumcision figured into justification by faith. An observant Christianity doesn’t fool itself in light of this by inventing another way in order to shield itself from such an apparently troubling contradiction. It actually endures doubt as a necessary part of true faith and lives with the paradox. This gives new meaning to not snuffing out a smoldering wick (or maybe not so new).