Counter Counter-point

Wayne Brittenden presents Counterpoint on Radio New Zealand on Sunday mornings.  He is one of a rare breed in New Zealand broadcasting - articulate, erudite, perceptive and courageous.  He is also, as far as I can make out, a secular liberal, and like so many secular liberals his rare insight fails him when it comes to questions of religion.   His talk last Sunday, on the subject of John Calvin and Calvinism, is a case in point.  Rather than canvas the whole matter of Brittenden's talk - which was a harsh and to my mind unbalanced assessment of Calvin's character and contribution to religion - I will discuss one particular aspect, which was central to Calvin's theology, namely the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

As Brittenden sees it, predestination is the belief that God determined at the beginning of time who among us will be consigned to hell, and who will find salvation in heaven, and there is nothing which we can do to alter his will. Neither works nor faith, neither wit not piety, neither remorse nor resignation will save those destined to hell, while no amount of wickedness and no degree of faithlessness is sufficient to have the elect of God from evicted from their ordained place in paradise. To Brittenden that is inhuman and outrageous.  What loving, moral or just deity could behave so to his creatures? And since Calvin was made in the image of his god, as are we all, then it follows that Calvin was also an inhuman brute.

However even theological doctrines need dispassionate consideration.   Predestination is but the theological equivalent of philosophical determinism, which is a plausible, and indeed logically irrefutable, perspective on the material world.   In Calvinist predestination God is the ultimate reality, the original cause of all things, who thus sets in place a chain of cause and necessary effect that runs until the end of time.  Whatever is was meant to be, and whatever will be, will be.  That is a view of the world which we can accept as scientifically rational, and therefore there is no intrinsic reason why we should not also accept it as being theologically rational.

A second explanation for the doctrine of predestination is that it faithfully virtualises the reality of the capitalist economic system for which Calvinism, and protestantism more generally, provided the theological structure - in the words of Karl Marx "This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point díhonneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification".  Here we have to contrast Calvinist predestination with what went before - the doctrine of salvation by works, espoused by the feudal Catholic church, and the Lutheran doctrine of salvation by faith..  Simply put, Catholics were taught to believe that if you do good works, serve your Lord diligently, and you will be rewarded, in this world and the next, while Lutherans hold that those who truly believe in the sovereignty of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ will be saved by that "faith alone".  The doctrines of salvation by works and salvation by faith both have something to recommend them, which is why they have endured as foundational principles of their respective churches to the present day.  But both also pose certain theological and philosophical difficulties which are addressed by the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination.

For the sake of those who are not students of religion, it is necessary to digress at this point to discuss the concepts of "heaven" and "hell", which are absolute and eternal states of being.   In the material world, all states of being are relative and temporal.   Pleasure and pain, joy and sadness mingle by degrees.   We never experience absolute peace and happiness or unmitigated grief, and the most intense emotions subside over time - nothing stays the same forever.   One of the ways that some of us - not all - cope with the vicissitudes of life and the gamut of emotion is through the sense or understanding of an absolute state of being, which gives perspective to everything which we experience in the real world.   In the same way the mathematician uses the imaginary concepts of zero and infinity to frame and establish the limits of real numbers, the religious believer uses the concepts of heaven and hell to set the coordinates of fear and desire, joy and suffering.

Thus the concepts of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell, relate directly to life in the world.  They are essential constructs which serve to guide the actions and regulate the emotions of believers.  They also take particular forms which relate to the particular social and economic systems.  Salvation by works was a logical doctrine of salvation for a society in which one's life was controlled by a feudal lord or master who could see the work of his servants, and could punish or reward each according to their works.  But capitalism is a lottery, and the market moves in strange ways.   Hard work, thrift and honesty might increase one's chances in life, but give no guarantee of success.   Fortune smiles on some and not on others. The lazy, the thriftless and the dishonest may profit as much as their more industrious, abstemious and trustworthy brothers and sisters.  Predestination is "the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form" and as such it has value.  It enabled the masses to function logically and with a degree of equanimity within the new and strange economic order of free-market capitalism.

Some would query the merit of a theological  doctrine which encourages people to accommodate themselves to an economic system which is, in their estimation, unfair, immoral and irrational, and they would have a point.   But on the other hand, capitalism has been with us for five centuries or more, and for half a millennium  Calvinist religion has given people practical and psychological aids to surviving within that system.   Would it not have been better for the theologians to repudiate the capitalist order rather than provide its  "solemn complement" in the form of Calvinist Christianity?   In fact, many did.   But capitalism has its allotted time on this earth, or, to use the language of the Marxist dialectic, the material conditions have been such as to favour the capitalist mode of production in Europe from the fifteenth century onwards, and no secular or religious evangelism has been sufficient to bring its reign to a premature end.   People find ways of living with that which they cannot change, and Calvinism is one such way.

Aside from the philosophical and sociological justifications, the doctrine of predestination has practical advantages and spiritual merit for the individual in society.   First, it does away with the pharisaical notion that one can keep account with God, and the spiritual pride that goes with it.   If fate is predetermined, there is no point in keeping of good works and acts of piety.   There are no bargains to be made with God, and no way of buying indulgence from the creator by acts of charity.  Neither is faith alone, with the implication that any kind of wickedness may be forgiven to those who believe in God, any guarantee of salvation.   Predestination does away with the possibility of both keeping account with God, and possibility of not being accountable at all through an act of faith.   It therefore leaves us in what might seem to be a moral limbo, but which is actually an enhanced moral state in which we do good for its own sake, and believe in truth for its own sake, and not for the sake of our immortal souls.   Critically, because predestination teaches that no one but God can know the will of God, it follows that we cannot judge whether our own or any other eternal soul is saved or damned.   However things might appear to us, only God knows who are saved and who are damned.  All have grounds for hope, none have reason for complacency, and no one need be anxious about their fate.   The fatalism of predestination may be preferable to the continuous state of anxiety which some may suffer when believing that they must secure their own salvation, or will suffer damnation, through the totality and particularity of their own acts.

I am not suggesting that predestination is a doctrine adequate to all situations, and all the needs of the human soul and human society.   It is a doctrine which, like the rest of Calvin's theology, has its own merit, and fits a purpose.  It deserves better than to be dismissed out-of-hand.

Click here to link to Wayne Brittenden's talk

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