Friday, April 21, 2006

Why I'm Getting More Calvinistic

As I was watching a PBS special on Dietrich Bonhoeffer last night, followed by a special about Auschwitz (or perhaps documentary would be a better word, as the terms "special" and "Auschwitz" should never appear in the same sentence together), it occurred to me why my theology has become more and more Calvinistic over the years: I just don't think we can't be trusted with just plain Self-Culture in the manner that Emerson preached it, and toward which Channing and Henry Ware, Jr.'s optimistic Christianity pointed us.

Left to our own conscience without the instructive influence of authority and tradition, and a sense of obedience to a Moral Reality beyond our own conscience, we're just too prone to delusions and justified cruelty, and insanity.

This isn't to say that religion doesn't prompt humans to some insane cruelty and delusions. Duh. I know that. I'm not proposing a religious solution to humankind's innate depravity, I'm just saying that more and more, I believe we ARE innately depraved. My own personal solution is a serious Christian life, but I don't believe that's the universal solution for anything.

For such an Emersonian as myself, it's been terribly sad to read some of his late sermons and to think, "Oh buddy, you've really got your idealistic head up your posterior."

Obviously I have to think about this a lot more (I've been thinking more this week about why I came out and said that I believe Jesus was dead, dead, dead, and why he made a later JESUS: LIVE AND IN PERSON! appearance to his disciples).

For a bit of comic relief: As I was watching the Bonhoeffer special I thought of a minister I know who fancies himself quite the saint and savior of humankind, and quite the exemplary Christian. I snorted to myself, "He thinks he's Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but he's not even Marlene Dietrich."

Okay, it was funny to me at the time.


Blogger Kim said...

It is time for you to read this article:

It is called "Moral Endo-skeletons and Exo-skeletons: A Perspective on America’s Cultural Divide and Current Crisis" and addresses some of the issues you express concern about -- perhaps in a way you have not encountered before.

Blogger fausto said...

Oh crap, looks like we're about to lose another one to the UCC, if not the Cumberland Presbyterians.

Is it possible that you're only confusing the Channing/Ware/Clarke rejection of Total Incapacity and affirmation of human moral agency with the UUA's current caricature of that view, the First Principle?

Or have you rejected all forms of Arminianism and reverted completely to the Jonathan Edwards Total Incapacity/Limited Atonement camp?

Blogger Kim said...

I've been reading a lot in the last few years about the nature of human nature. There are several authors who write on the subject. My impression is that human nature includes both the good and the bad -- we are all capable of great evil and great good. Our lives are a mishmash of impulses dicated by evolution that can be both good and bad, depending on the situation and your point of view. Impulses that are "good" in one situation may be "bad" in another. Some of our problems come from evolution designing us to survive most efficiently as hunter-gatherers, and we are trying to adapt those things to today's world, and sometimes they don't fit.

Blogger Vice Chancellor said...

Kim, what a fantastic Blog Site! And that article was very enlightening for me. thanks

Cheerfully, Roger Kuhrt

Blogger Peregrinato said...

I have come to very similar feelings, Peacebang, from working at the morgue.

Blogger Rev NDM said...

“Left to our own conscience without the instructive influence of authority and tradition, and a sense of obedience to a Moral Reality beyond our own conscience, we're just too prone to delusions and justified cruelty, and insanity.”

I agree, but I’ve never understood the concept of “salvation by character” etc. as having abandoned the notion of a “Moral Reality” beyond our own conscience, nor do I think that it necessarily has to mean that we are really just cute little marshmallow peeps inside, if only we’d look deeper (1st PP). I believe fundamentally that we are neither depraved nor sainted inherently, but rather we are inherently filled with moral and ethical potential; one of religion’s jobs, as you point out with the “instructive influence of authority and tradition” is to provide guidance and tools to hone that potential.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Kim, that's a great article -- or what I read of it was, anyway. I liked it a lot and it's pertinent but somehow not exactly what I'm trying to hit on. Which is still unclear to me.

Fausto, I don't think I would go UCC if I left the UU's. It might be interesting to find a Presbyterian church to worship with this summer and see if it resonates with me at all. I could sneak in under a pseudonym like "Roseanne Bradstreet." (Puritan scholars, go ahead and guffaw)

I might be getting closer to rejecting Arminianism. I just know that I find Channing more and more objectionable, and that makes me terribly sad since I adore the guy.

I have been studying the Puritans for years and can't believe how badly they're misunderstood and how stupidly they're caricatured in our current culture. And then again, they were unbelievably repressive and oppressive, so that part is true. Yet I totally dig them in some deep way.

Blogger Kim said...

Peacebang -- I hope you get around to finishing the article -- I know it's long, but the analysis at the end is worth getting to. The part dealing with the shadow side of human nature is a big part of what I thought applied to what you were saying.

Blogger fausto said...


I know some Presbies, and can even put you in touch with a very nice and very earnest evangelical PCUSA woman minister (who leans toward Universalism) if you're interested. I'm sure sister CC can do even better, having grown up among them.

We UUs are pretty much alone (in the Church Universal, anyway) in rejecting Augustine's view of Original Sin. But not even the PCUSA affirms TULIP anymore, or at least not all the tenets of it. "TU" still works for most Xtians, but "LIP" raises eyebrows almost everywhere. They're all Arminians now.


Blogger fausto said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger fausto said...

To take a broader, less personal view, if I were writing a rigorous 20th century history of UUism or "liberal religion" -- as Philocrites, Jeff Wilson and Mark Oppenheimer have been discussing here -- one of the most significant events to examine would be WWII and its exposure of the inherent human capacity at least to tolerate evil. (We've seen it again recently on smaller scales in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Darfur, but WWII was The Big One.) UUs and other religious liberals had invested so much energy for nearly the previous century in affirming the inherent goodness of human nature that they simply had no effective means for dealing with human evil on such a massive scale. As a result, for decades afterward people turned away from liberal Protestantism (including Unitarianism and Universalism, its most liberal manifestations) toward neo-orthodoxy in droves, and the result was the evisceration of not only our own denominational appeal, but also that of nearly all other mainstream Protestant sects. That's the "Yale view" of the recent history of liberal religion in general (not only UUism) that Philo and Jeff were discussing, and to my eyes explains a great deal about our own past 50 years.

I don't think Channing and Ware took the benign view of human nature nearly as far as some of their Romantic and post-Romantic successors. Theirs was a more balanced view that the human soul is inherently neither good nor evil but susceptible to both temptation and moral nurture, and therefore capable rather than incapable of moral agency, similar to what Oversoul describes above. They read Genesis 3 not as Augustine did, but as most Jews do -- not as the Fall of Man but as the dawn of human moral awareness and responsibility. Channing's idea of "self-culture" was as much about nurturing the ability to resist temptation as it was about cultivating any inherent spark of divinity.

When after the shocking evil and depravity of WWII we failed to re-examine our entrenched "goody two shoes" view of human nature and return to our originally more balanced view, it undermined our credibility with many thoughtful people of faith, those who could no longer affirm it departed (and are still departing). This repudiation was so widespread and draining that in some ways it could be said that only the inmates remained in charge of the asylum.

It was Channing who framed his Baltimore sermon, which served as our first denominational manifesto, by invoking the advice of St. Paul: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." We UUs haven't asked ourselves to "prove all things" in a very long time. IMHO, if we are to save and reinvigorate what is left of our now badly dissipated liberal faith, such an exercise is long overdue. We shouldn't continue to depart whenever we see something we think is foolish, but instead we should get about the serious job of scrubbing all the food and crayon scribbles off the walls, and renovating the place upon the firm foundations that still hold it up, even after all these years of abuse and neglect.

Blogger Philocrites said...

PB, one of the reasons that I try to think about theology and philosophy in historical terms rather than in doctrinal terms is that it helps keep "optimists" like Channing and Emerson in context.

They did not assume that people were "left to [their] own conscience without the instructive influence of authority and tradition," for example. (Sure, Emerson is a complex case when it comes to book-learnin' and the dead hand of tradition — but he was keenly interested in "authority" and was looking for a tradition that had genuine moral claims. He decided that "Genius" was the tradition and the authority he'd be subject to, and he didn't just mean his own.) And even though Emerson seems to be saying that the Oversoul is internal, he didn't mean to be solipsistic: He was trying to assert a "sense of obedience to a Moral Reality beyond our own conscience." Intriguingly, in my favorite of his essays, Emerson openly acknowledges human delusions. "Experience" and "Circles" especially highlight the severe limitations on human apprehension and will.

Here are my two points: 1) Liberal theologians work in response to received tradition and its conservative advocates; they're reformers. This means that they take much of the tradition for granted, and often focus on places that need reformulation. But they do not reject the tradition.

2) When liberal theology gets identified only with the corrective doctrines — with the reforms — people eventually sense the lack of the rest of the package. This helps explain why Bellows, Hedge, et al., rediscovered tradition in the 1870s; it explains why James Luther Adams paid such close attention to neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s and '40s; it explains the phenomenon of the UU Christian Fellowship now. We're not abandoning liberalism; we're reclaiming the context in which our tradition's liberal impulses accomplished their work.

The early-19th century "optimists" were responding to what they understood as failures — practical, moral failures — in a competing worldview. Channing's "Moral Argument Against Calvinism" isn't so much a takedown of the whole Reformed tradition, in my view, as it is an attempt to correct a model of the Christian life that he saw as morally debilitating. It's still a good corrective for people faced with a certain kind of Calvinism. But it doesn't really show the whole Reformed tradition to be bunk; after all, his Unitarianism was still very plainly a kind of Reformed Christianity. Channing didn't argue that human thought was perfect or free from error; he argued that human beings were capable of making discerning moral and critical judgments by virtue of being human. He was rejecting the "total depravity" line of Calvinism. I agree that it sounds awfully and indefensibly cheerful — which is why William James could mock Victorian Unitarianism so roundly in "Varieties of Religious Experience."

I think what you're really looking for isn't Calvinism but realism: Get some Reinhold Niebuhr. JLA's essays from the 1930s and '40s are also very good, especially "The Changing Reputation of Human Nature." Gary Dorrien argues that neo-orthodoxy (even Barthes) should really be understood as correctives within the liberal tradition, not as renunciations of the liberal enterprise. It amazes me how UUs have still not digested Adams's liberal critiques of liberalism.

As for labels, I've long embraced "liberal theology" much more strongly than "unitarian" or "universalist" theology. (I was sold on what I took to be Unitarian Universalism by reading JLA, which gave me a profoundly misleading sense of the contemporary religion. Like you, my religion is Christianity. The rest are qualifiers.) It's the critical spirit — including the self-critical impulse that recognizes social and individual sin — that I identify as the most important legacy of our tradition. I am not an optimist, but the solution for liberal religion's problems isn't so much saying that our sharpest critics were right all along; it's saying that our empiricism, our criticism, and our attention to the human dimension demand greater awareness than we've often given to questions of authority, tradition, history, culture. Those questions inevitably raise questions about evil.

Sorry for the long response! As a postscript, you may want to read Dorrien's essay, "American liberal theology: Crisis, irony, decline, renewal, ambiguity." I would reemphasize that liberal theology never stands on its own; there's always wisdom in the orthodox camp as well, but in principle only the liberals recognize that there's wisdom on both sides.

Blogger Bill Baar said...

The reason religous liberals have to bury WWII, and turn away from it, is because so many of them took such an appallingly immoral stand about Hitler before hand...

The problem is not back with Emerson and Channing... it happened in the 1930s with people who's names we no longer remember because we've repressed their now very ugly arguments.

Read Loconte's Auschwitz, and Yesterday's Religious Left.

Writing as late as November 1941, editor [of the Christian Century] Charles Clayton Morrison denounced an Anglo-American alliance as "the most ambitious imperialism ever projected." He then offered this dark prediction: "For the United States to make a fateful decision to enter this war on the mistaken and irrational assumption that it is a war for the preservation of anything good in civilization will be the supreme tragedy of our history."

These "progressive" religious thinkers preserved their political and moral neutrality only by downplaying Hitler's anti-Semitic rage. Methodist leader Ernest Fremont Tittle claimed that Nazism could be overcome non-violently -- "with truth and love even unto death" -- yet said almost nothing about the Jewish deaths demanded by his pacifist ideal. When thousands protested the persecution of German Jews during Kristallnacht, Catholic writer Paul Blakely saw only "a fit of national hysteria" orchestrated to drag America into war.

They knew better. The arrests, deportations, and imprisonment of Jews across the continent were widely reported in the American press. Yet the nation's Christian leadership failed even to lobby for immigration reform to absorb more refugees. No wonder: From 1933 to 1941, more than 100 anti-Semitic groups appeared in the United States, many with a Christian hue.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thank you all for contributing to this great discussion. Everyone has offered valuable insights and I'm truly grateful. Keep 'em coming.

I do want to say that old school Calvinism seems to me so spiritually abusive and insulting to God and to Man (as Channing believed)that I could never entirely subscribe to it. My potential rejection of Arminianism wouldn't take me there, so right now I'm just hovering between theologies.

Blogger Verdugo2 said...

(weird Calvinist/radical Arminian/evangelical hybrid here by Fausto's invite)

Have you read much Brunner? You might find his version of neo-orthodoxy a nice alternative to the excesses of Dortian Calvinism (which I agree is abusive-- if not blasphemous) or Arminianism. otoh, I'm more and more intrigued by the radical Arminianism of Open Theologians like Clark Pinnock, as a very sound, intellectually consistent worldview.

Another book to add to your summer reading list: A Stone of Hope, by Chappell. A bit dense, but intriguing thesis as Chappell contrasts a modernist worldview with a Calvinist one using the Civil Rights movement as a sort of case study. Chappell confronts some of our assumptions about MLK and other leaders, tying them more to Calvinism in terms of their understanding of humanity and social change more than modernism. He demonstrates that the optimistic modernism of liberalism failed to produce social change in the era leading up to the Civil Rights movement, but what won the day was the more pessimistic realism of orthodox Calvinism-- which produced MLK's mature theology of suffering.

Blogger Unknown said...

"Left to our own conscience without the instructive influence of authority and tradition, and a sense of obedience to a Moral Reality beyond our own conscience, we're just too prone to delusions and justified cruelty, and insanity."

Watching this discussion, I must admit it is theologically over my head. But it seems to me that we understand Moral Reality beyond ourselves through our consciences, just as we understand physical reality beyond ourselves through our eyes.

The conscience is developed through a dialogue with authority and tradition, but ultimately we have no choice but to make moral decisions based on our own (inherently individual) understandings of moral reality.

Blogger Kim said...

But we each have different capacities. Those of us who are capable of inventing a reasonable and generous morality through our own minds and experiences, have trouble imagining those who cannot.
Nothing works for everyone.


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