Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 19 – Culture and Cultivation of the Affections

Much has been said everywhere about the decline of religious belief; not so much notice has been taken of the decline of religious sensibility. The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did. A belief in which you no longer believe is something which to some extent you can still understand; but when religious feeling disappears, the words in which men have struggled to express it become meaningless. – T.S. Eliot (On Poetry and Poets, London: Faber and Faber, 1957, 25.)

The Israelite had a large aggregate of symbols in his life. Everything from Israel’s ceremonial laws, to the corporate worship, to the ordering of domestic life gave the Israelite a large collection of metaphors that enabled him to understand ultimate reality. These communicated not so much the truth statements contained in the Tanakh, but a sensibility, an appreciation, towards those truths. To put it another way, his culture shaped his affections. Moreover, it shaped those of his fellow Israelites, creating common sentiments toward God.

When we think about the situation we find ourselves in today, we must ask, what kind of common set of symbols, traditions, routines and rituals shape the sensibilities of the people arriving in our churches, so that we share a common sentiment toward God, the world and ourselves? The answer is that no such shared sensibility exists any longer. The fragmentation of any kind of cultural consensus is a part of modern life. Existentialism, humanism, positivism, relativism, narcissism and others isms make up the fragmented and often self-contradictory worldviews of modern Western people. This does not produce anything like a shared set of tastes, attitudes and values. Instead, everyone has an eclectic set of prejudices and sentiments, which he usually defends as vehemently as Laban looking for his idols.

Further, the church has been steadily secularized over the last 200 years, meaning that it accepts and contributes to this fragmentation. Instead of expecting or trying to cultivate shared affections toward God, the modern church caters to completely divergent sensibilities toward God by holding traditional and contemporary services at different times, or by combining them in blended worship services. In short, every Sunday proves the truth of Eliot’s words.

In light of all this, how does a pastor or spiritual leader desirous to shape ordinate affection respond?

The first thing will be to adjust his expectations for ‘success’. If the loves of broader secular culture, along with those of the average secularized church and the average secularized family shape those of the average church attender, then we can begin to perceive the magnitude of the problem. Loves are grown over decades, over a lifetime. They cannot be changed by merely pointing out what ought to be loved, or enforced by diktat. Someone who has learned to love the trivial, the debased and the sentimental cannot unlearn those loves in a day. Nor will he do so easily, for your loves are just that – the things you love, and which seem to be a part of yourself. Not easily are our idols torn from us. If there is one thing most moderns will not accept, it is the idea that some of their loves could be wrong, inappropriate, malformed, or inordinate. The matter of shaping and forming the affections is a task that belongs also to the common grace found in entire cultures, not only the special grace found in local churches. If our culture is apostate, there is a sense in which our successes in shaping ordinate affection will be very small, and it will take a very different kind of shepherd to navigate his church in a Dark Age.

This kind of realistic outlook should not be mistaken as pessimism. Pessimism is unbelief in God’s power to ultimately bring about the hope of believers or fulfill His promises. We have faith that the miracle of regeneration begins the process of reforming the loves. We know that the Word of God preached and practiced will partly reform the loves. We know that examples of ordinate affection and pious living will partly reform the loves. If God wishes to, He may choose to bring about another Reformation. Ultimately, we have every expectation that Christ will impose His victory and glorify Himself. What we do not expect is that the current Western culture will bring forth a flowering of true worship to God, since the affections of most are radically deformed by its sensibilities, and all too many churches exacerbate the situation, rather than attempting to counter it. Our expectation is to have (smaller?) churches in which we will make our best efforts to encourage ordinate affection in our members. There is a chance for limited success with our adult members, and perhaps a higher chance of success for the children that grow up in churches devoted to cultivating ordinate affection (assuming they trust Christ when they are able to). Part of our task may be to keep some things alive and available for future Christian generations who will be better prepared to receive and appreciate them.

Given this realistic expectation, the pastor or spiritual leader is no defeatist. He actively labors to encourage a church ‘culture’ that cultivates, to a certain degree, ordinate affections. Some suggestions to that end will be the subject of the next few posts.

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