The long defeat

I am periodically asked: why do you remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? For some it’s an honest question. Others ask it with the ulterior motive of expressing their disapproval of my denominational home–an implied judgment. If I’m honest, I periodically pose the same question of myself. My answers are not uniformly affirmative. I have periodic moments of severe malaise where it seems that the weight of our faithlessness is more than I can bear.

One of the realities that helps me to stay is my Augustinian understanding of history. My understanding of the story of the world, and of the church in it, is profoundly shaped by the presence of human sin. With J. R. R. Tolkien, I understand the unwinding history of the race of humanity to be something of a “long defeat.” Things will get a lot worse before they get better. Wrote Tolkien,

“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Don’t get me wrong, there was no utopian age in which the Christian church existed as heaven on earth. A straightforward reading of the Epistles is enough to suggest that the Christian church has been dysfunctional at least since Pentecost. The church has ever and always existed in a fallen world and consisted of fallen men and women. Assurances that the Holy Spirit is perennially “doing a new thing” aside, there is a remarkable consistency to the brokenness and failure of the visible church.

We are in the midst of a story that has to get worse before it gets better–a tragicomedy–a happy ending arising from a story marked by suffering and decline. This stands at odds with the triumphal assertion of progressive Christians who believe that they can usher in utopia through structural change. It stands at odds with the classic evangelical belief that simply by saving people we can change the world–one person at a time.

Tolkien’s phrase captures a certain bleakness–a constant awareness that despite winning (church or governmental) elections or changing (church or civil) laws or even redefining things like marriage to make them more inclusive–sin will remain constant until the day when its death is made complete and the eschatological kingdom of God is inaugurated.

The thinking of many friends who have left the PC(USA) is that they could not, in good conscience, be part of a church that has compromised the Good News of Jesus Christ. I’m profoundly sympathetic to their contention and, at times, find it very compelling. However, at the end of the day, I find myself coming back to Tolkien’s little phrase, “the long defeat.”

Let’s be honest, the church often screws things up. Here’s a little secret–all of our screw ups are not distant history. Some of them are happening right now.

I don’t think that the purity of the church is a small matter. However, history gives me little reason to believe that simply being faithful or orthodox will mean being victorious in church disputes or cultural disagreements. Far from it.

As the story of the world unwinds, the voice of faithfulness will likely be still and small rather than grandiose or esteemed. It will likely be ignored or derided–part of the judgment coming on the world for its foolishness. What is true in the world, is true in our church. As a result, unless and until I am instructed to go; I will stay and perform small acts of faithfulness and seek to model fidelity to the vows I have taken.

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