That my father-in-law didn't attend high school when he was a kid, mid-Depression, wasn't that unusual around here, where there were many, many more farm families than there are today, and those families were of significantly greater size, ten kids in his. I say that because it's a fact of his history that, during his teenage years, the only schooling he had was in church--catechism. He learned tons on the farm, I'm sure, but nothing else in any formal schooling. Church was it.
All of that may help to explain why, by his own testimony, he used to think hard and long about the doctrine of predestination. That theological tenet, he claims, used to get chewed over and jawed about even with his friends, largely because they could never quite figure it out, even though they knew very well that it was the backbone of the sturdy theology they'd come heir to as grandchildren of the Calvinist Reformation.
Predestination, a generation later, used to create significant sparring in my own catechism classes too--when I was in high school. Making us so totally subject to God's almighty will brought some eternal comfort--that's for sure; but I remember thinking, way back when, that there was something weirdly mysterious about the idea. After all, who on earth wants to be a pawn? Besides, we were in America, land of the free. Something about predestination seemed as ill-fitting as wooden shoes, even un-American.
That the idea fit squarely within the logistics of Calvinism seemed, however, plainly evident, even to me. If we set predestination up as a "if, then" proposition, its truth seemed beyond dispute: If God is sovereign--all knowing, then certainly he controls our life's path, our salvation, or else, quite simply, he isn't sovereign. There. Wiggle your way out of that one. But to both my father-in-law in the 30s, and me in the early 60s, something about predestination seemed a mystery that wasn't supposed to be.
But then both of us grew up in a hall of mirrors, where just about everyone we knew held to a similar doctrinal path. Not until I got into broader forums did I realize how deeply despised the doctrine was among some evangelical Christians, people even more pious than my own. Despised, as in hated, villified, spat upon. Some sweet Christian people thought the doctrine of predestination as misguided as, say, Mormonism.
The world both my 90-year-old father-in-law and I live in isn't the same as the worlds of our boyhoods. Today, post-modernity eschews most theological skirmishing as silly. People want to be spiritual, not religious--to glow, not to think. Besides, can't we all just get along? It's a different world.
But to those of us raised in ye olde Calvinist environs, the mystery persists--what on earth is predestination, and is it anything other than a tenet of theo-logic?
Here's what Marilynne Robinson says: "Predestination is . . . attractive to me because it makes everything mysterious." I don't think any of my catechism teachers--nor any of my father-in-law's--every explained things that way. The vagaries of that famous doctrine didn't emanate from mystery, but confidence--confidence that God almighty chose his elect.
"We do not know how God acts or what he intends, toward ourselves or toward others," she says. I'm not sure my teachers would disagree, even though the institution itself--the catechism class--heavily suggested that, up in that room where we sat, we were certainly among those He had to have selected. We were in.
Robinson says no. "We know only that his will precedes us, anticipates us, can never forget or look away from us." That, to me, is new--and interesting.
"I think a sense of mystery, therefore reverence, is appropriate to all the questions at hand," she says. I like that.
My father-in-law told me he used to spend time--alone and with his friends--trying to figure out the mysteries of predestination, and I remember the same questions he used to ask.
That's just fine, says the great Calvinist novelist Marilynne Robinson. You think the whole business is a great mystery? Well, guess what?--it is.
I like that very much.
Robinson's thoughts are from an article in the Spring 08 Harvard Divinity Bulletin; they come to me by way of Martin Marty's Context.