Over in John Shuck's blog, the question came up as to whether (or how much) modern Presbyterian churches adhere to the five principles that supposedly summarize Calvin's teachings, which are identified by the acronym TULIP. These points are described in the Wikipedia article on Calvinism.
This question is of interest to me because I can count Presbyterian churches among those I have visited over the last couple of years, and Presbyterianism traces its theology back to Calvin. Many of these churches that I've been to seemed pretty progressive, or at least they viewed themselves as such. But something has always gnawed at the back of my mind as I have visited them. Calvinism, at least as it has generally been characterized, has always left a rather bitter taste in my mouth. I could never see the appeal of it; I found its conception of God abhorrent, and its view of humanity distasteful and misanthropic. So if I go to a Presbyterian church, am I signing up for something I really can't relate to?
On the other hand, like everything else, Calvinism no doubt has bestowed a diverse heritage, and is probably always going to be an evolving, or shall I say reforming, theology. So maybe the way it is traditionally characterized is not the last word.
But what about this TULIP thing? Consider, for example, the first item ("T") in that acronym, the doctrine of the "total depravity" of the human race. I for one am immediately put off by what comes across as a sour, curmudgeonly view of humanity. As John Shuck put it,
Total Depravity. I don't believe that. I think we would all say that no one is without sin, and that we need the grace of God (election) to recognize it, but totally depraved?I like the idea that we are originally blessed. Total depravity, on the other thing, makes me cringe. I once got into a discussion with a Presbyterian blogger who insisted that people were inherently incapable of engaging in acts of selfless love, that every person's ostensibly loving act is necessarily flawed and selfish in some way (this was presumably derived from this idea of total depravity.) This is an example of why I don't like this idea very much. To cite a counterexample, I can't imagine anyone who has ever experienced parental love (whether it be on the giving or the receiving end) taking such a position. I know that my own parents, flawed people that they were, sometimes did things for no other reason than out of love for their children. Yes, parents are often selfish, inattentive, angry, or impatient--and their love isn't always pure, but--I'm sorry--to say that parents never engage in acts of selfless love for their children is just plain untrue. It is one thing to make the observation that people in general are imperfect and often act selfishly; it is another thing altogether to say that people always have corrupt motives in anything they do. The former observation is a sensible observation of human frailty; the latter is just plain misanthropy.
I prefer to think along the lines of Matthew Fox, that we are originally blessed. I am not really sure how other modern Presbyterians feel about that.
Perhaps even more unfathomable to me than the doctrine of "total depravity" is the second Calvinist principle in that acronym, the one represented by the "U"--unconditional election. This one really makes me want to scratch my head, because I can't imagine why in the world anyone would anyone worship a God who selectively metes out rewards and punishments to people in advance of their even having commited a single act. This is fatalism at its worst. I might as well be Oedipus Rex, unable to escape a fate that was predetermined for me by an inscrutable god. This would be like staging a footrace while deciding the winners and losers in advance, and then telling everyone to run the race anyway.
Double predestination in particular is the most baffling expression of this notion--the idea that an all powerful God would create some people with the advance intention of sending some of them to hell. If God knew they were going to hell, why did this all-powerful deity create them in the first place? What kind of sadistic monster are we talking about here?
Now I do recognize that there is a positive spin to this idea of election. For one thing, it implies that salvation is completely out of our hands, which supposedly takes the worry out of it (although I would argue that it is completely natural to worry about one's fate, even, or maybe especially, when we have no control over it; after all, it is our fate we are talking about.) But in reality, I think that the one way that this idea can be turned into something positive is by making God's grace universal and unconditional. Seen from that perspective, salvation is out of our hands because a loving God extends her grace to all of us, regardless of who we are or what we do. We all then become the elect. As John Shuck put it,
Now, there may be debate on whether or not some folks are not elected. I don't use it that way. I believe God elects everyone. I am universalist in that regard. I would say a good number of my colleagues would agree with me. What maybe 40-50% would state clearly that election should only be used in the positive sense. I am guessing on percentages based on my experience in conversation with colleagues.So what are we left with? As I wrote in John Shuck's blog,
I think, and I may be wrong, but I think Swiss theologian Karl Barth was universalist in that he defended the freedom of God who desires salvation for all and therefore his will cannot be thwarted.
I've visited a few Presbyterian churches in my area and none of the ones I visited seemed very TULIP-like, but I have to admit that this issue has always stuck in the back of my mind about whether I would be getting myself into something that I couldn't identify with. I like the idea that God's grace is out of our hands and thus is a free gift from God. I don't like the idea that some people are preselected to be "elect" while others are not, or that we are all totally depraved, or that there is a substitutionary atonement and that it is only available to some people.The question of how to relate to Calvinism from a progressive Christian perspective is really just a specific example of a broader question. Protestant churches divide themselves according to various traditions that go back to the early Reformers--Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and so forth. An interesting question for me is whether progressive Christianity might lead to a blurring of these historical distinctions, and thus whether progressives within each of the traditions find support within their own heritage for a common progressive theology for the twenty-first century that bridges all these divisions. I would like to imagine that this is possible.
P.S. Dick Martin, who died a few weeks ago, appears in the Youtube clip at the top of this posting, along with Tiny Tim. I was an avid eight-year-old viewer of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh In" when it went on the air in 1968, and I am thus pretty certain that I must have watched the original broadcast that the above clip comes from. God bless Tiny Tim.