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The Not-Quite-So Foreignness of Calvinism

March 19, 2010

Thanks to everyone who responded to my last post, I was able to get a feel for Calvinism (in its diversity of thought…with CCR being one side, and others like, say, C. Michael Patton, being on the other side [Jack, you were right, he was able to make it seem reasonable and thoughtful to a skeptic…])

And afterward, I realized that, when I got all of the misconceptions out (or, I guess I shouldn’t say misconceptions…CCR actually believes that stuff), I found that I identified with quite a few ideas from Calvinism. This isn’t to say I’m a Calvinist, a Christian, a theist, or anything of the sort, but I can see how if I were Christian, Calvinism would actually seem more familiar than Arminianism.

How can I say this? I’ve grown up in a Mormon context, and Mormonism most certainly is not Calvinist. Well…that’s the thing…I’ve had a few major sticking points with LDS doctrine. And it just so turns out that they happen to be the “fault lines” (or what I perceive as…) between Mormonism’s free will doctrines and Calvinism.

What do I mean?

I think one of my favorite articles at Patton’s site was his on a Calvinist understanding of free will.

The important question, I think, is the one he asks: does one have the ability to choose against his nature?

Now, this gets kinda hairy. I believe a somewhat nuanced position on this. I believe that our “nature” represents who we authentically are. We can act against our nature, then; it’s just that this creates great internal strife from our inauthenticity.

But I note several caveats. This describes *actions*. And, for anyone who wants to get hard deterministic, it describes the perception of choice in action. (So, it could be that we just “perceive” we “acted” against our nature, but actually we did not. I think this is a useless discussion.)

So, where I feel the rubber truly hits the road is in something like belief. Can we believe against our nature? I think not. Our beliefs are the culmination of our worldview, mental frameworks, narratives, etc., They are the “results” we get after we have processed the sensory information through our rose-tinted lenses. Because our lenses are tinted, we are going to come to certain conclusions…and we won’t be able to defy these conclusions because we can’t see past our tintedness — and sometimes, we don’t even see that our perspective *is* tinted (e.g., people who get too excited about “objectivity.”)

What we can do is seek new or different data. Because this is an action. The problem is even this isn’t guaranteed to change anything because the data must still be processed by our biased, personal interpretative frameworks. (And the inauthenticity still can strike.)

How does this relate back to the question from Patton’s blog?

I feel his discussion of nature goes well with my personal observations about beliefs. Not only is it inconceivable to me to believe against my nature (e.g., my interpretative framework, my narrative structure, my “tinted lens,” what “makes sense to me”, etc.,)…even if I try to imagine such a thing, I feel like such a person could not be me or anyone. My “nature” is who I am…if I could authentically choose to change it, I wouldn’t be anyone. Even if I couldn’t change my nature (Arminianism doesn’t quite suggest that), but I could simply act “neutrally” outside of my nature, then I still have to agree with Patton that this would seem to remove my choices from myself. (Note: the super-deterministic Calvinism that CCR suggests does a similar thing. The idea of merely being a puppet, I must admit, is extremely relaxing.)

Why have I focused on this? Why was this the article I liked best?

I’ll say.

In Mormonism, there is so much emphasis on free will…I think it’s overrated. Don’t believe? Well then, desire to believe. And endure to the end! If you can’t make yourself believe something (especially something as huge as God or the truthfulness of the church), then this calls into question your will. You aren’t trying hard enough. You aren’t diligent and obedient enough.

At the very least, Calvinism recognizes the unrealistic nature of this. You’re not just going to fake it until you make it. Rather, if your nature is not to believe, then your nature must undergo a radical and profound change to believe.

And here comes the Calvinist idea of irresistible grace. The elect eventually have that radical and profound change in their nature. It’s not as if it strips them of free will…but, because will is bound by nature, those who are inclined to believe…will find that is the way that “makes most sense.”

I have frequently said that I do not doubt that one day, I could be so radically affected by some event that I come to believe in whatever. I don’t doubt the possibility at all. I simply do not hold my breath for it, and do not feel it essential to anticipate such a day or to value people who have had such an event more highly than those who haven’t. (I also believe there are people who are so radically affected by certain events that they come to lose beliefs in whatever. But I don’t value these guys more highly than those who haven’t had such events either.)

Now, I can recognize that I was framing things in a kind of Calvinistic way. The Calvinist might say, “So, you’re unregenerate and depraved. But you recognize that one day, grace could come knocking, and it would be irresistible.”

Please note that I am not going totally Calvinist on you all. After all, I think that the framework is steeped in theism. For example, the idea of depravity itself only truly works if you already believe in god. Since I don’t, then although I can say that the idea of “natures” is intuitive to me, and although I can conjecture certain things about natures *if* I want (e.g., do humans tend to be good…or bad…or neither?), I can’t really buy that human nature is “totally depraved,” because the idea doesn’t really make sense in absence of belief in God.

From there more things fall apart. I don’t believe I am “deceived” in my nonbelief. Or that people who come to perceive that they have been Groped By An Angel actually were groped by angels.


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  1. Andrew, I’m glad that you found the links to Patton useful. I generally find Patton thoughtful and provocative, even though I disagree with him in several areas of theology and practice.

  2. I forgot to say, sorry I am lacking in time to give you a real comment on this article. So busy lately!

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