A Tale of two Churches

4:33 PM

Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe (Lille 1716-1794 Fontainebleau)

Two riders weathering a storm, a church being struck by lightning beyond

Father Dwight Longenecker writes about the 2 different groups he sees in the Church...

"Two very different sets of underlying foundations have created the two churches within the Church. The two opposing views can be called “Happy Here” and “Happy Hereafter.” Those who hold the first believe that the point, not only of the Church but of the whole of human existence, is to produce human happiness here in this life.

The second is concerned with finding eternal happiness. According to this basic assumption, this life is a vale of tears. This mortal life is hard because it is a place to battle against sin and to produce those diamond-hard souls called saints.

Those who hold to the “happiness hereafter” viewpoint expect to sacrifice their happiness here to win happiness hereafter.

If this is your basic assumption, then your expectations for this life are realistic. You consider yourself and other people, while created in God’s good image, to also be sinners who need redemption and daily discipline. You believe in the reality of evil and consider this life to be the place and time to engage in spiritual warfare for the winning of souls.

This underlying assumption used to be the foundation belief not only of Catholics but of all who called themselves Christian.All Christians understood life here and hereafter in this way. To do so was simply what Christianity was all about.

Unfortunately, this basic assumption has been eroded within every branch of the Christian community. Modern Christians seem to have adopted one of America’s founding principles as the founding principle for the whole of life and the whole of their understanding of the Christian faith. The American ideal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may be a noble political ideal, but once the “pursuit of happiness” becomes the basic foundation for one’s whole worldview, a terrible distortion of the faith is the result.

The Pursuit of Happiness
If Christians put the pursuit of happiness in this life as the primary goal, everything changes. Suddenly the Church is not perceived as an army engaged in a spiritual battle, but a mutual self-help group in which people try to make each other happy.

Church buildings cease to be marvelous buildings transcendent with beauty that take us to the threshold of heaven, and they become functional meeting halls where the mutual self-help group meets once a week. (Wow, how true!)
When the pursuit of earthly happiness becomes the driving force, religion becomes utilitarian. Whatever is useful for making one “happy” is what is good. Whatever is not immediately useful is discarded.

So, for example, what use is religious art or glorious church architecture? There is no immediate usefulness, so the images are pulled down, new art is not commissioned, and if it is, it must be crudely illustrative or didactic. In other words, it has to do something and be useful.

When religion becomes a function to produce happiness here and now, hymns become comforting, banal songs about us and our problems and how God will make us happy.

When the quest for holiness is replaced with the quest for happiness, the priest ceases to be an agent of God’s supernatural grace in the world and becomes a therapist, a social worker or simply an avuncular administrator of the mutual self-help group.

When religion is expected to merely produce happiness, then worship is stripped of mystery and it must become entertaining. When religion is expected to simply make people feel better instead of being better, no one preaches on the difficult or hard hitting subjects. (Again, wow - what ever happened to saving souls?)
The pulpit becomes a platform for pious platitudes that make people feel nice, and the confessional ends up empty.

In the end, it is not only the confessional which is empty.

People are not stupid.

They soon realize that there are self-help courses out there that are more entertaining, more motivating and run more professionally. If they want to be entertained, then worship on a Sunday morning will never be able to compete.

If they expect to be made happy by religion, they will very soon realize that religion doesn’t really deliver the instant happiness they want, and they will either start a long and hopeless search for the church that really makes them happy or they will abandon the faith altogether.

The Adventure of OrthodoxyIf this diagnosis is correct, what is to be done? Shall we return to the old days of long hectoring sermons on mortal sin, the fires of hell and the possibility of damnation?

Certainly, more instruction on seriousness of sin and the reality of hell would help to redress the balance, but that is really only treating the symptom. But a real cure is a return to a rollicking, honest and hearty understanding of what Christianity is really about.

It is about a supernatural transaction between God and mankind.

It is the old, old story of a race fallen into sin, and a God who lowers himself to seek and to save that which is lost.

Life — especially the Christian life — is about our search for the God who is searching for us.

It is about stepping out on the adventure of faith to search for a city whose founder is God.

It is about engaging in the war for our souls, and being determined never to sacrifice our eternal happiness in a search only for happiness in this life.

Where this old story is preached and lived with dynamic discipline, hearty good humor and joyful abandon the faith will flourish. Where it is abandoned, the faith will soon falter.

It is vitally necessary within our catechesis, the formation of our children, the instruction of priests and the teaching of the whole Church that we renew the foundations of our faith. If we do not, there will soon be no faith left. If we do, the faith will flourish and we will build a Church which will have the strength, the power and the glory to welcome home many more of her lost and wayward children.

There is no better time to renew these foundations of the faith than the season of Lent. We are given the penitential season as a time to look within, to examine the foundations of our faith and embark again on that most exciting quest of all: the adventure of orthodoxy.

/div> Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of Adventures in Orthodoxy and is chaplain of St Joseph’s in Greenville, South Carolina.


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