Tuesdays with Abhorrent Fiends vol. 46: Calvinism!

So. Calvinism.

I ran across this quote over at Rhoblogy. Taken completely out of context, I agree with it:
If there's no law, there's no depravity. Or commendability. There just IS.
But Rhoblogy's making a point about predestination. The idea that some people are saved and others damned without having a say in the matter, as I read him, isn't supposed to make us feel surly or resentful. Rather, we should be astonished that any are saved at all. That way no one has any call to puff themselves up with pride at their accomplishments. All human effort is worthless anyway, and it is only because of the astonishing and uncalled-for mercy of God that He has chosen to spare some from the fate which all unquestionably deserve.

Put that way, I can see how belief in predestination can be used to set up a very stable emotional homeostasis on the subject of the worth of persons. "I do notice," says predestination-believing Fiat, "that according to X standards of measurement, you are a much, much more valuable and important person than me. I don't need to be afraid of you, however. Because these are human standards of measurement, and you and I are both, by divine standards, totally screwed." Or, in a different situation; "I am aware that according to X standards of measurement, I am a much more important and powerful person than you are. However, I have no reason to make that role a part of my identity, nor any right to snub you because of it. By God's standards, you and I together are both totally worthless." In either case, I could merrily conclude, "But since there's a tiny chance that God may have taken pity on us and allowed us to be redeemed even though we don't deserve it, let's be friends!"

I think existentialists must have riffed off of Calvinism there, perhaps without realizing it. Both play a neat trick of turning our natural animal us-against-them instincts inside out. A person who constructs the belief dynamic properly in their minds is left with a permanent feeling of "us, together, against unbelievable odds, with a hope whose chances of fulfillment we cannot know." Which state of mind often brings out the best in a human being. It is either the attitude that helped us defeat the dinosaurs to fulfill God's mandate to fill the earth and prosper, or the attitude that helped us fight our way out of the trees and to the top of the food chain.

Either way, it IS a neat solution to one of the knottiest personality construction problems out there: identity versus ego.

In order to understand the power dynamics of your social environments, you need to be able to constantly compare yourself to everyone else around you. This information allows you to understand your identity as a member of each group. However, if you take what you observe and plug it immediately into your ego, your sense of self-worth becomes extremely volatile. The weight and substance and passion you allow yourself to experience becomes dependent upon the social status given to you by others. Wearing more "goodguy badges" on your brain than the next guy? Feel ten feet tall and ready to take on the whole Empire yourself. Not entirely comfortable with the values and beliefs of those who are superior to you in the hierarchy? Feel small and squishy and always in everybody's way. (And woe betide you if the people above you in the hierarchy are, themselves, insecure. They WILL take your discomfort and lack of adherence to their value set as a personal attack.)

What a belief in predestination allows you to do is the emotional equivalent of finding a common factor to two terms on either side of a mathematical equation that cancels out both of them. The emotional value loads drops out, leaving behind only information. You can then take a step back, look at what you know of yourself in a social context, and compare that with the internal structure of values which are the core of your identity. The thing that makes your personality tick. Your place in the social hierarchy of a group you've chosen to join becomes a piece of information that you can weigh and judge. It only needs to be used to alter the core beliefs of your personality if you find it matches up well with the values you've chosen to take to heart.

However, this is extremely hard work. As one of my favorite poems has it:


bright metal melts away.
Attention is the hardest thing
to pay.

Not many people feel there is sufficient reason to keep paying attention to this process, this separation of social information from internal beliefs, to continue working it out on a day-to-day basis. The values of one's chosen social groups stay the same, right? One's internal values don't need to be questioned and re-evaluated for every single crisis of conscience or conflict of honor, right?

So in practice, we build ourselves little shortcuts. Little DIY beliefs which substitute for the laborious process of comparing belief against action, idea against practice. For use in those tough real-world situations where making a snap judgment of someone's character will show you how to behave toward them without bothering to learn what they are really like as an individual. We want to be able to tell at a glance if someone is depraved or commendable, and so we take a working summary of our beliefs where they intersect with the values of our communities, and make them into laws in our minds. Arbitrary laws.

Let's take the example from last Tuesday of a football team whose players have a fad going for Valentino suits. Guys who wear "our brand" are good guys, have good judgment and fashion sense and are generally cool. Guys who don't are less cool and may be taken less seriously, unless they prove themselves to be "goodguys" by adhering to other values shared by the team, ones with a heavier emotional weight attached to them.

How might a Calvinist assemble such an arbitrary law in his mind, if he felt a shortcut was necessary for the economical use of his attention and emotions?

Let's go back to Rhoblogy:
"Regular" 5-point Calvinism teaches that God uses means to accomplish His will, like missions, leading a godly life as a witness to others, sharing and explaining the Gospel, etc.
Then, later, refuting a point in the NY Times article that sparked this discussion:
"being a persecuted minority proves you are among the elect."

No, it doesn't. It proves you're among a persecuted minority.
Adherence to God's Word and repentance and faith in Jesus are among the proofs that one is among the elect.
A perfectly fair critique. Rho is talking about a hypothetical Calvinist who is thoughtful and thorough in living out his beliefs; Worthen was talking about a hypothetical Calvinist who has built himself a shortcut based on the sentiments of his social set.

The thoughtful Calvinist would say to himself, "Others mock and deride me for my beliefs; according to God's law, we are all sinners and equally worthless. But if I am among the elect, these attacks will not deter me from accomplishing God's will. And if those who mock me are among the elect, they will eventually see the truth when God moves in their hearts. So I must neither stop, nor despise my adversaries."

The shortcut-taking Calvinist would say to himself, "Others mock and deride me for my beliefs; I can take this as evidence of where we each stand spiritually. I am being persecuted for doing God's work; therefore I am saved. They are persecuting me for doing God's work; therefore they are damned."

So anyone I meet, no matter his professed belief set, might have some arbitrary shortcuts such as this assembled in his mind. He might have several of them, dozens, a horde of emotionally-satisfying but logically absurd assumptions. These may seem to him to match up with the doctrines of his supposed religion. But in fact, he may have so constructed his shortcuts that they unmake and nullify all the beneficial personality transformations which his religious system is meant to wreak.

This is why I try, to the best of my ability, not to build shortcuts. Or if I must build them, I try to take them apart, check what other beliefs they're based on, make sure the emotional re-routing going on is not blinding me to important information about myself and the people around me. Personality construction is an art (not, alas, a science!) we all must practice. It's part of being a person. Yet the least little mistake is bloody freaking dangerous! Someone can sell you a diamond, and as soon as you buy it, you without any outside prompting can turn it into a turd. And then go waving your turdly behavior around at everyone you meet, causing them to conclude, "Well, I guess whoever that person was dealing with doesn't have any diamonds."

My chief worry about the new Calvinism has to do with the nature of shortcuts people are mostly likely to put together if they choose to stop wrestling with the real thing. "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling" is good advice for anyone of any belief set. Because any belief system, however well-put-together, turns into an emotional minefield as soon as you start making substitutions. As soon as an individual loses the sense of uncertainty regarding their own salvation, their "Calvinism" becomes Nazism. In the broadest, non-racial sense, that is, "People of my group are inherently better and people of your group are inherently inferior, therefore we can do anything we want to you and you have no right to do anything." If a person sets up his shortcuts as a series of proofs for his own elect, saved status, he can quite easily come to believe that he knows the will of God, he knows who is naughty and who nice, and will begin to treat other people according to the beliefs he himself has constructed.

And there is a huge temptation to set up those shortcuts. Uncertainty regarding one's own relative worth as a person is an extremely uncomfortable way to live. Which is one of the reasons it can be so beneficial: those who are able to work through the discomfort can gain wisdom, patience and compassion as they see others enmeshed in the same struggle. The belief in one's own innate superiority is an extremely comfortable one--emotionally efficient, satisfying in a junk-food kind of way. But it is just about the worst thing you can possibly do when it comes to obtaining accurate information, whether about yourself, your social environment, or other people. It's a greasy fingerprint over the lens of the mind that turns your vision of everything outside yourself into a nasty, disgusting blur.

In conclusion, Calvinism done right is something I approve of, and I certainly wouldn't despair at being stranded on a desert island populated only by true and proper Calvinists. I could adapt. But in part because it is such an effective transformation when done right, it is more susceptible than many belief systems to being twisted just that little bit, from a source of great wisdom into a source of great pettiness and stupidity.


Rhology said...

Hi there,

First time visitor. Thanks for the link.
Your first paragraph, however, mistakes seriously what my quote was referring to. Read it again. It wasn't in reference to predestination at all.

Here is the quote from the NY Times author, Worthen, to which I was responding:
we are totally depraved, yet held to the impossible standard of divine law.

My response thereto:
We are totally depraved WHEN HELD TO THE STANDARD OF divine law. If there's no law, there's no depravity. Or commendability. There just IS.
And of course, a faithful Christian is held to the standard, and found wanting every time. God judges that Christian's sin by punishing Jesus Christ, Who willingly sacrificed Himself to take that punishment in the place of all who repent and believe.


So I was referring to an antinomian universe, a secular universe, a naturalist universe and worldview. It was contrasting Calvinism (where God is the ultimate grounds for morality and intelligibility) with antinomianism, where there is no standard to reference in order to distinguish good and bad.


Fiat Lex said...

My thanks for the clarification and the vocabulary word! I hadn't known the term "antinomianism", but you make a very good point. A universe which has no ultimate standards and a universe with whose standards fallible human beings can never hope to comply are not at all the same thing.

I think I fell into the oversimplification because I was eager to get on to my next point. The two beliefs can sometimes produce equivalent effects on the emotional state of a person who takes them to heart. It is always important to understand what one's beliefs actually mean before trying to work out what one will take them to mean. A person who fails to understand the distinction, whether they believe in predestination or antinomianism, can easily be led astray into self-serving assumptions which conflict with their professed beliefs.

And if I don't "show my work", as my math teachers were always reminding me to do, my description of that process will be much less clear than I want it to be!

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