Sep 30, 2010

In which I Read through Half of a Calvinist Sermon

A friend from years ago recently contacted me on Facebook to ask about my religious beliefs, which are listed on that site as: "christian. mostly. but what i mean by that might be different than what most people mean ..."  It was an odd conversation: almost like he was trying to catechize me or figure out what I actually believe "so that," as Gandalf would say, "I may point out your missteps."

Possibly he meant nothing of the sort, and I was simply misreading.  Hard to tell sometimes, on Facebook chat.  At any rate, he gave me a link to this sermon and asked me to look at it, so here goes:
I don’t think that human beings are very reliable sources of good ideas, and I am one of those human beings, and therefore the thought of coming up out of my head with insights and wisdom and ideas about what’s real and what’s important, and how to do the most important things in the world, strikes me as being an unlikely place to look. I think the more important things become, the greater things become, the less reliable we are as human beings to come up with ideas about the nature of those things.
Yeah, I'm misanthropic, too.  I've heard the phrase 'talking monkeys with car keys' bandied about--it seems a pretty good description.  Now that being said, we're capable of rising above it.  Yes, sure, 25% of Americans disbelieve in Obama's birth certificate, Delaware Republicans nominated a former witch who is on record against masturbation, and Bulgarians keep voting for the communist party, but there's also the tremendous leaps that we've made in the past hundred years--relativity, spaceflight, genetics, electronics, etc, etc, etc.  Yes people are stupid and the hardwiring of our overclocked ape-brains often fails us, but we're capable of rising above it, and the fact that I can listen to you talk through the internet while sitting at home in my underwear in Bulgaria is proof of that.

But I for one am very doubtful that I know what love is, on my own. I think if you ask me, “Come up with an idea. What is love, John Piper?” I’m very suspicious that what I would come up with might not be true, that is it might not accord with ultimate reality, just came out of my head. Feels right, seems right, got it from my dad or mom, or television or preacher. It’s just my idea about what love is and what love is like, and so I’m very, very suspicious.
Is it really so traumatic that language is imprecise?  Words are descriptors which refer to certain concepts, actions, things, what have you.  The English word 'love' is used to refer to a lot of things, but I don't think that we need to drag in 'ultimate reality' to justify usage.  Yes, I have felt the longing for my subjective experience to be validated by the Eternal Absolute, but these are words that we're talking about here: there is no Perfect Chair residing in an ineffable World of Forms which gives meaning to the (English) word 'chair', yet I can continue to happily use it and people more or less know what I'm talking about.  'Love' is a broader concept (or, rather, a number of related concepts); as a descriptor, different people often use it to delineate different things, and, yes, it's fuzzy around the edges.  But there's no need to drag in Aristotle's God to provide us the One Right Answer for the inherent ambiguity of mortal tongues: if you don't know what a word means, google it.

I think that the speaker is using the imprecision of language and the ... well, stupid-factor of humanity as part of a larger conceptual framework in which this world is denigrated by comparison to the next.  The frailty of human minds contrasted with the mind of God, human confusion versus Divine Clarity, fallen-ness and imperfection contrasted to heaven's perfection, the crude matter of flesh paling before the luminosity of spirit ...  Sounds like a bunch of Gnostic bullshit, to be honest.  Corrupted physical nature in the way of true knowledge, redemption in the form of hidden gnosis, here referred to as 'ultimate reality' ... blah.  If God is real then He made the universe, including human reason which we are told is in His image: why despise it?  That most people are idiots no one can seriously dispute, and all human knowledge is provisional.  But that doesn't mean that its worthless.  And I don't buy the notion of Original Sin at all.

We then segue from 'what is love?' to 'how God's love and glory are linked'.  This is theological hair-splitting: I don't care.  But he did mention 'get[ting] the Bible right in its wholeness.'  Excuse me, what?  The Bible is not a whole, and in any case the picture that it provides of God and what He wants goes through a clear evolution from the earlier writings to the later.

But back to not caring: the whole next section is illustrative of what I find so frustrating about churches.  You're making some point about God's love and God's glory being linked: I don't care.  Are you trying to psychoanalyze God?  Are you treating Him as some metaphysical puzzle?  How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?  This has no possible relevance to anything or anyone.  It's not even interesting, yet we drag it out forever and ever over seven examples of things that God did for His people that added to His glory.  It has no application in anyone's life, it treats the transcendent divine as the subject of psychoanalysis, and it's boring.

The only part of this section that's even vaguely interesting is the bit on predestination, and that's only because the doctrine that it takes for granted always gets me steamed.  Let's say that God predestined some people to be saved.  Okay.  Now look at the other side of that: He predestined other people not to be saved.  God allowed the souls of all mankind to come into being, and then randomly decided "Okay, some of you are predestined to be adopted by me into my kingdom to know eternal bliss in the afterlife.  The rest of you get to suffer in unimaginable torment for all of eternity with nothing that you can ever do to change it, because--hey!--predestination."  The preacher would have us believe that God did this for His glory.  The preacher is smoking crack--if this abhorrent doctrine is actually true, then God is an unfathomable monster who created a cruel, capricious universe in which infinite joy and infinite suffering are separated only by His own capricious, arbitrary and absolute will.

In case you're missing the point, let me spell it out for you: Calvinism is fucking horrifying.  HP Lovecraft on a bad acid trip couldn't come up with something worse than the doctrine here glibly asserted as 'precious'.  Think about it: God made people solely for the purpose of damning them for all time, with nothing that they could ever do to change it.  "What could be more precious?" he asks.  How about: "not living in a universe presided over by a deity whose capacity for infinite cruelty is surpassed only by the arbitrariness with which He metes it out"?  Or better yet: "not sharing the universe with people who think that a God who acts in this fashion could be called 'loving'."  The gentleman was blabbing on about the lack of human capacity to know what love really is: there is no definition of the word that can be stretched to cover that.

To let off steam, here's a joke:

Q: What did the Calvinist say when he fell down the stairs?
A: I'm glad that's over with.

Which is pretty much what I feel about this sermon.  Gnostic twaddle leading to irrelevant theological questions leading to Calvinist twaddle, all within a 'sinners in the hands of an angry God' conceptual framework, and we're not even halfway through.  I might scan the rest to see if it gets any better, and I'll blog it if I do (or if something else pisses me off), but for now I'm through.

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