In a combox discussion with a Naturalist about why I was a Christian, I kept hitting a brick wall over what “holiness” meant. Christianity, I argued, was the best system I knew for becoming holy, and I wanted to be holy. Considered from this angle, joining the Church was no more remarkable than a drunk going to a bar: both provide a desirable service. The Naturalist kept insisting that either I took my ideas of a good person and attributed these realities to God, or that I decided before the fact that those who followed God were good, and then concluded that holiness was therefore good. My position was that holiness was a quality of persons which is as basic as any other human quality, and that it no more needed to be explained by reference to something else than a cat needs to be explained by reference to something else. Holiness was not an inference, at least not anymore than any opinion of a person’s character is an inference. Holiness is a unified character that is simply different from compassion or dedication or silence or resolve or chastity or a love of the transcendent, even though it contains all these things and a good deal more.
One can be irritated by holiness, or desire it, or be more or less oblivious to it, but I doubt it is in keeping with anyone’s experience to say that holiness is nothing other than a judgment we form after the fact. A holy person is simply a kind of person, even though we can live our lives in more or less perfect isolation from this kind of person (there is nothing remarkable about this- we live most of our lives in isolation from most of the kinds of person that there are.)
Put in popular terms, holiness is a chief product that the Church produces, and it is the one that it was designed to produce. Churches provide other goods too- a sense of community, a feeling of purpose, various health benefits for those who attend regularly, but for all I know these might be provided just as well by some other institution. The Church promises salvation too, and many might point to this as the chief good it provides, but this strikes me as a misunderstanding: the Church only promises salvation on its own terms: it claims to provide only an eternal opportunity to exercise the virtue of holiness. The rejection of such an opportunity is ipso facto the rejection of salvation. Everyone would want to go to heaven if heaven were a place offering the eternal enjoyment of whatever you happen to want now- but as far as I can tell, no Christian sect has ever claimed that such a place exists. There is a place for those who love the holy, and hell. Faced with such options, it is entirely reasonable to think that when most people look at the options, they say “well, then I guess I’ll go to hell”.