Some objections to ultracalvinism

If by any chance you read this blog just for the articles, it’s my duty to inform you that you are missing out on most of the fun. UR may not be the smartest blog on the net, but it certainly has the smartest commenters. This is probably just because it’s new, and the yahoos haven’t arrived yet. But it remains wondrous to me.

(At some point I may slacken the flow of verbiage so that old discussions stay fresh longer. I feel it’s important, since UR is a new blog, to maintain a pretty brutal tempo, so that the site doesn’t seem inviting to the wrong kind of reader. Hopefully at some point there will be a critical mass of disgruntled, speed-reading malcontents who can discipline their own ranks.)

There were a couple of comments on my original ultracalvinism post that I didn’t get a chance to respond to. Rather than posting to a long-dead thread, I thought I’d bring them out here.

First, commenter extraordinaire Michael, who regularly exposes the superficial threads of my flimsy autodidactic pseudoerudition.

Michael points out that, given that most of us think of the essence of Calvinism as predestination (the doctrine that God, who knows all things, knows which of us will or will not be saved), describing progressive-idealists (who are universalists in the strict Christian sense, i.e., they believe we are all saved) as “ultracalvinist” is pretty strange.

And indeed I am bending the usual meaning a little here. The reason I think I can get away with this is simple: if you define Calvinism in Michael’s way, Calvinism is pretty much as dead as Mithraism.

Is there really anyone in the world in 2007 who is seriously concerned with the Synod of Dort? Who has any strong opinions at all on the subjects of unconditional election, total depravity, the perseverance of the saints, limited atonement, or irresistible grace—the “Five Points” of orthodox Calvinism?

Well, actually, they do have opinions about one of these: irresistible grace. This is the general path of doctrinal evolution: unused organs atrophy, and the whole machine becomes stripped down, like white cave-fish that shed their eyes. Jefferson dumped the Trinity, Emerson relieved us of Hell, and so on down to Harvey Cox and his “secular theology.” (If you think “secular” is synonymous with “atheistic,” the full horror of the situation is not yet clear to you.)

When Michael—along with, admittedly, most educated people—equates Calvinism with predestination (aka unconditional election), he is applying what in an older post I called a nominalist classification strategy. That is, he is taking Calvinist theology at face value. Calvinism defines itself as the Five Points, so why shouldn’t we respect this?

Here’s why: because the result that the nominalist approach produces is that a replicating prototype of considerable political and cultural significance, with known pathological tendencies, has simply disappeared. It has become extinct. There is no need at all to worry about it. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

If we apply either the morphological or cladistic strategies, however, we get a very different result. The replicator at once pops back into view. It has not disappeared at all—it just mutated into Unitarianism (that is, non-universalist Unitarianism, now itself extinct), which begat Transcendentalism, which begat Unionism, Progressivism and the ecumenical movement, which became the “super-protestant” Establishment so derided by the late great flower children, who conquered it and gave us multiculturalism, “diversity,” etc.

Not an unusual turn of events at all. Belief systems and languages evolve in much the same ways, and if you look at the historical gyrations of, say, English, the evolution from Calvinism to ultracalvinism seems positively straightforward and sedate.

And when we use the adaptive method, the result is even more disturbing.

First, of course, this trick of dropping off the radar screen is very suspicious. In fact, as I pointed out in my last post, ultracalvinism has extremely compelling reasons for not wanting to be known as either Christian or Protestant, because its patterns of intolerance are extremely ugly and familiar to anyone who can swallow any such taxonomy. (Peter Hitchens has called its Limey equivalent “the most intolerant faith to dominate Britain since the Reformation.”) If there was ever a general understanding that “political correctness” is merely a case of common-or-garden religious intolerance, its apologists would find their jocular habit of excusing it as a kind of intellectual rowdiness, boys-will-be-boys and so on, to no longer roll so smoothly off their tongues, and its foes would find themselves infinitely better-armed.

But worst, the adaptive method does not identify predestination as the salient invariant of Calvinism. Nor does it focus on total depravity or even irresistible grace.

Instead, it notes that a shared feature of all prototypes in this line of descent, from Calvin to Emerson to Hillary Clinton, from Geneva to Chautauqua to the Haight-Ashbury, has been their assiduous insistence on building God’s kingdom on Earth.

Of course this is what Erich Voegelin called “immanentizing the eschaton.” Doctrinally, it originates in a postmillennial interpretation of the Book of Revelation. If you disagree with this interpretation, as many do, you might say (as Michael has) that this represents a rejection of Christianity in favor of gnosticism.

But again, this is nominalism. And it is also focusing, as I have said many times, on metaphysical beliefs. By definition metaphysical beliefs cannot be directly adaptive, that is, they cannot by themselves create an incentive to alter the real world in ways that improve the belief system’s ability to transmit itself.

Whereas building God’s kingdom on earth is certainly a physical action, and the belief that it is morally imperative is certainly a physical belief. And is it adaptive? Can Kobe drive the lane? Did Zeppelin rock? Does the Pope… etc.

So when we identify progressive secularism as one thing and Protestant Christianity as another, we have basically just walked up to one of the most dangerous intellectual pathogens in Western history, said “how ya doin,” invited it to a wild hot-tub party and promised to deactivate our immune system for the evening. Is this safe epistemology? I think not.

There was another comment in the thread I wanted to respond to, but I’m out of time for today. I’ll try and get to it tomorrow.