Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"The New Calvinism"

"No creed but Christ" is fine sentiment, but somewhat silly. In some ways it's as easy to love Jesus as it is a stuffed goose, but the moment we think at all about that love or Him, we start to create an infrastructure--a system of thinking, something we've called, for centuries, a theology.

I was born and reared a Calvinist, although I never really understood it until I got to college, where, oddly enough, I started to dislike it, then despise it, preferring, well, nothing for a couple of years. Calvinism meant the picayune rules that made no sense in the late Sixties (putting tape over the coin slots of Coke machines lest Dutch Calvinist covenant children use them on Sunday and thereby violate the Sabbath).

I sometimes think I was brought back to faith--and to Calvinism--by Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Edwards, and a host of other writers and preachers, the "old, white guys" of early American literature. New England, after all, is the seed bed of majority culture in America, and New England was, for 200 years, quite intolerantly Calvinist. Try as she might, Dickinson never could really wash the Calvinism from her heart. Melville couldn't stop kicking himself for being one.

Calvinism's ability to haunt even its rebels is itself a indication of its often sour puss, but also it's pervasive strength. For centuries, literally, Calvinism got dissed in these United States as a dour old wart-faced uncle who sits, arms across his chest, in the back of the room, snarling like old Young Goodman Brown might have. "Puritanism is the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is having a good time," Mencken wrote--or words to that effect. It is said of Miss Emily's father that he was once known to laugh. And all of that is true. Hrruummph.

Eventually I came back to Calvinism, piped along by the merry music of all those rebels. As Melville said famously of Hawthorne, "Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free." Count me among them; I don't trust easy answers. Then Melville says, "For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance." Won't somebody here say 'amen'?

I'm not thrilled by that definition or the truth of the statement. But I agree, almost wishing it weren't so. I'm a reluctant Calvinist, I guess, but then there's probably nothing I'd trust less than a spirited Calvinist.

Here's the deal. A couple weeks ago, Time magazine created a list (lists sell copy)of 10 Ideas that are changing the world right now, the third of which is (it's hard to believe) "The New Calvinism." That's right, we're making a comeback (woo-hoo). It is, after all, the 500th birthday of John Calvin, so I suppose it's fitting that he get gussied up for the occasion. (All those parentheticals come directly from Young Goodman Brown in me.)

Let me try to wash the skeptic out for a minute. Here's what the writer, Van Biema (a Dutch Calvinist himself?) says, among other things: "John Calvin's 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism's buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time's dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision."

There you have it--a Calvinist trifecta: God's sovereignty, human depravity, and predestination. And, if it's not there already, it's coming soon to a pulpit near you.

Truthfully, what Van Biema (and Time) says makes sense. The very next week's cover story was "the end of excess." The bawdy evangelicalism that still produces those over-the-top Christian stations on our cable system, the evangelicalism that married Christianity to the religious right, and that release movies like Praise Band (see yesterday's rant) may have finally run itself out of gas. The fact that many evangelicals are now finding a home in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches makes all kinds of sense to me; they're weary of spiritual excess commonly mistaken for success.

Niebuhr may well have been America's last public theologian. You see his name over and over these days, for a number of reasons. Inside, Niebuhr was a Calvinist too.

But we're not talking about stars here, were talking about systematics. Here's how the article ends: "Calvin's 500th birthday will be this July. It will be interesting to see whether Calvin's latest legacy will be classic Protestant backbiting or whether, during these hard times, more Christians searching for security will submit their wills to the austerely demanding God of their country's infancy."

He's right. Honestly, I'm shocked by all the hoopla, shocked because I thought of me and my Calvinist ilk as guerillas with foilage on our helmets. Who knows? Maybe there's been a legion lurking, now, suddenly, ready to enlist.

I admit it--I like the attention. And, of course, this Calvinist will readily admit that evangelical Christianity could do itself and the Kingdom of God a whole lot worse than what it might accomplish by taking another look at what it so gleefully abandoned.

Interesting stuff.

T-U-L-I-Ps forever!


Pryorpostsindia said...

Check out Alan Jacobs' "Original Sin: A Social History." Worth the read.

Kell said...

Regarding all those "ex" calvinists out there, I can only utter "Et Tu, Paul Schrader?"

Happy Easter!

Anonymous said...

Corinthians 3
4For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?

Anonymous said...

1 Corinthians 3

Sectarianism Is Carnal

1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?

I am of Martin Luther, I am of John Calvin, I am of John Wesley. Is Christ divided?

Kent said...

Have you seen the new Calvin resources at Logos Bible Software has begun a massive digitization project of almost 100 books by and about Calvin—46 volumes of commentaries, 5 editions of the Institutes, 4 volumes of letters, dozens of tracts and treatises, 10 biographies, and 20 volumes on the history of Calvinism. I thought you might be interested!

Anonymous said...

Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 (New International Version)

11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd. 12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

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