Monday, January 12, 2009

Two of Calvin’s Chillun

The current issue of Newsweek (Jan. 19, 2009) carries an article chronicling the return of a slightly older and, at least in his own eyes, much wiser Ted Haggard to his home in Colorado.

Two of Haggard’s recent observations popped off the page at me. “I was born an evangelical,” he says, and “homosexuality is a learned behavior ‘like alcoholism.’"

“Gays (and many straights) will undoubtedly scoff,” the article continues (now how did they figure that out?), suggesting that he is simply working hard at being honest.

Possibly so. But honesty is not his problem. His problem is a virus in the brain called Calvinism.

At first sight, it appears he simply got the two reversed. Homosexuality, more new evidence suggests all the time, is in the DNA; beliefs, religious or other, are chosen. But take a minute to consider how much power religion has over this man. Even after all he has been through, no matter how harshly (according to him, anyway) his church hopped his butt, it still lingers in some corner of his brain and infects his reason.

Haggard is reflecting a Calvinist truth. Your are born in God’s grace (i.e., an evangelical) but nothing you can say or do will alter God’s plan for you. No amount of good works can get you into heaven, if he has abandoned you. Your postmortal destination is carved in stone. You are also born a sinner with free will. Which means you can rape, murder, pillage, extort, torture, slander, pilfer or make love to a person of your own sex if you choose. That, too, will not alter your celestial or, as the case may be, infernal destination. Your inclination to do one or more of these things only gives you a glimpse of God’s intentions for you.

Since Ted Haggard did one of those things, I think somebody should whisper in his ear that perhaps there are signs he is not destined for the Pearly Gates.

Man, writes Calvin, is a son of a bitch.

…having been corrupted by his fall, (man) sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the pravity (depravity) of his nature that he cannot be excited and biased to anything but what is evil. . . .
If you are not one of the chosen, your ass is fried.

When the will of a natural man is said to be subject to the power of the devil, so as to be directed by it, the meaning is, not that it resists and is compelled to a reluctant submission, as masters compel slaves to an unwilling performance of their commands; but that, being fascinated by the fallacies of Satan, it necessarily submits itself to all his directions. For those whom the Lord does not favor with the government of His Spirit, He abandons in righteous judgment to the influence of Satan. . . .
To sum up…

… (God’s) foreknowledge extends to the whole world and to all the creatures. Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He hath determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.
Lutherans have to carry the cross of Luther’s anti-Semitism. This crap is the Presbyterians’ cross. As well as that of most American Protestant sects.

One of the great mysteries of life is why so many people not only carry these crosses, but actually climb up and nail themselves to them. I mean, couldn’t they sober up for a moment and turn Catholic? Jewish? Episcopalian? It’s not like this is the only game in town.

As for the struggle with homosexuality, many I know think Ted Haggard should embrace it. I think it’s more likely he’s predestined to be an asshole.

Haggard’s persistent need to wallow in his own sinful nature is not the only evidence that old-fashioned Calvinism is not dead, but simply in remission. Have you heard of Mark Driscoll? Driscoll has decided it’s time to take Jesus back for the bikers. Too long captive to the “weepy worship dudes” who have turned him into a fairy, Jesus’s time as a macho man has come. Mainstream Christians, he says, have turned him into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

This guy Driscoll is destined for heaven, and he’s going to ride in on a motorcycle. And you're probably not, if you don't know how to slap your wife around, Calvinistically speaking.

I’ve been reading Olivier Roy’s new book, Holy Ignorance. He’s arguing that religion these days has been separated from its cultural origins, that we have surrendered to “religiosity” and given up doctrine.

His focus is on Islam in Europe, primarily, and his point is that young European Muslims are seeking a home in religion, not the one which comes with the culture of their parents, but a new designer religion, infused with the resentment of other disenfranchised immigrants like themselves. The parallels in America are the lost souls who don’t know where to go with crime and chaos and political greed and corruption, want to feel power in numbers, want Big Daddy to tell them what's right but find mainstream religion for wusses. Two birds of a feather, these refuge seeking Muslims and their Christian counterparts, they find their way to quick-fix religiosity, as opposed to religion, which usually takes more deep thought. Out with theology, in with pop culture.

Roy's got a point, methinks. But it’s not the whole story, and maybe not even the heart of the story of religion in America. A lot of the megachurches and the TV God salesmen are simply reflecting the follies of the dumbing down age, a descent into emotionality and "truthiness" after so much disillusionment with reason and impatience with objectivity. Like the markets which ebb and flow, sometimes the human race gets rational and logical, sometimes it just rocks and rolls and feels real good. Sometimes science, other times poetry. Sometimes head, other times heart. Can’t do without either one, but either one without the other can kill you.

True, Episcopalians have made Jesus over into somebody to golf with, Pentecostalists have turned him into somebody to have a beer with, and the entire right-wing has turned him into an American general who wants us to save the world through our war technology. But they are not all just reducing him to a god of the heart to suit their own tastes. They are also quoting scripture as if there were no tomorrow. And reading it through the lenses provided by people like Calvin.

A recent poll shows one out of four Americans believes in witches, one out of four believes in reincarnation, one out of four believes in astrology. Scoffing at American credulity is shooting fish in a barrel. But we’re not talking about kookie minorities here. 82% believe in miracles, 85% believe in heaven and 92% believe in God.

I don’t want to make too much of that last figure. God can be anything from the force behind a fresh breeze to the man who had sex with Mary and lives on a planet near the star Kolob (to pick two beliefs at random, my grandmother’s and Mormon doctrine, respectively). It’s easy to imagine that these folk rolling in the aisles speaking in tongues and caught up in the Holy Spirit are folks who don’t read, don’t think, don’t debate or analyze or reflect deeply. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes, these hand wavers with the tears rolling down their cheeks are in fact grounded in some very solid belief systems.

Identifying those beliefs is not the end of the story by any means, since cherry-picking scripture is a way of life for all religions – some Muslims are high on salaam, others on sticking it to the infidels; Pat Robertson is a little heavier on Christ coming with a sword next time than he is on all the Jesus-wants-me-for-a-sunbeam stuff, and hetero Bible-thumpers find it easier to legislate against homosexuality than against divorce. And Calvinist preachers, too, often softpedal this embarrassing predestination business while talking about their faith. But don’t miss it. It’s usually right up there in the psyche when they project their fear of not being loved by God onto the rest of us, with sometimes devastating consequences. And it doesn’t help that they shoot themselves in the foot more often than they shoot you. Their gun is still a lethal weapon.

Lucky us, say the Australians. “We got the prisoners; you got the Calvinists.”

1 comment:

Terence Bull said...

Are these polls anywhere near accurate? ..witches, miracles?

All my life I recall (US) polls which I found incredulous.

Oh, and as an Englishman, I can asure you, the U.S. is the best thing that happened to us.