Obsolete Ideas

12 Oct

Back in 1984 I wrote a cover story for Micro Communications magazine on 2400 bps modems. Sending data across the telephone wire at 2,400 bits per second was the hottest thing for PC users. To get a 2400 bps modem to work you manually controlled it by using the arcane de facto standard called the Hayes Command Set. It was state of the art at the time, but ridiculous today.

I got to thinking about this obsolete technology when I came across a story in the current issue of The Economist called “The New Calvins” (p.46) about obsolete theology. It describes a “cadre of  Young Turks” within the 16-million strong Southern Baptist Convention who “are looking back to the 16th century for fresh inspiration.” That is, they are reviving the now dated ideas of John Calvin.

As a rebel against the corrupt and intellectually stagnant Catholic Church at the time, like Martin Luther, Calvin’s ideas breathed life into the Reformation. And like so many theological precepts, his ideas have the odor of obsolescence about them today. He established rules against dancing and swearing. He opposed any theological notions that weren’t his and approved the execution of so-called heretics.

Calvin, who ruled Geneva, Switzerland like a despot until his death in 1564, was the theological inspiration for the Puritans who settled in the New World because Old Europe was too decadent for them. Calvinists hate the idea of free will, so it’s ironic that his ideas continue to appeal to people dwelling in the so-called “land of the free.”

Even more amusing, I think, is that Calvin’s unbending beliefs are taking hold among social conservatives. For example, Calvin was rock solid in his view of predestination. That is, no one has a choice about who he is or what he’ll achieve on this earthly plane because it was all “predestined by the Lord God.” I guess that shoots down the notion that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.

Calvin also held that “only the Elect will be saved.” In his mind the Elect were pious people who, by outward success and achievement blessed from above, are the most likely individuals who will go to heaven. That will be good news to the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, David Sedaris, and many other modest, successful gays who are obviously among the Elect. But it may distress Calvinists whose homes are in foreclosure.

I know that many of these renegade Baptists are flocking to Calvin because they are among the “greed is good” strain of Protestantism. God’s plan, Calvin argued, is that success on earth translates to a successful election to heaven. As a proof point these new Calvinists underscore Calvin’s approval of usury, the charging of interest on borrowed money, something the awful old Vatican once made illegal in its domain. One problem for these new breed of greedy Calvinists is that Calvin himself only approved of usury for rich people or merchants. Charging the poor interest was, he wrote, immoral.

Another problem for modern Calvinists and the distinctly un-modern views of their hero, is his belief in witches. He sent no less than 34 to be burned at the stake. Social conservative Christine O’Donnell’s protestations about her being a witch would not hold water with Calvin. Once accused in Calvin’s Geneva meant you were all but guaranteed a gruesome end. (And politically it looks that way for the GOP senatorial candidate from Delaware.)

I think if you listen carefully to the tired, discredited theology of John Calvin, you’ll hear the obsolete noise of 2400 bps modems. And it’s not something intelligent people want to hear again.


6 Responses to “Obsolete Ideas”

  1. Jordan Guthmann October 12, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    I think you are by far my favorite person to follow on Twitter, mostly because we disagree about most subjects in life (religion, politics, government, etc.). Being around like-minded thinkers is so boring.

    In regards to Calvinism, I disagree with your premise that election is based upon success and/or human works. In fact, the concept of election comes from Calvin’s “TULIP,” with the “U” being Unconditional Election. Like the name implies, Calvin taught that election was entirely based on God’s will, and not some foreknowledge of choice and works. Success, good deeds, living in Oklahoma or having an awesome beard have no bearing on God’ election, as taught by Calvin.

    Also, as a card-carrying Calvinist, I have to also disagree with your opinion that Calvinism is an obsolete theology. Modern Christianity is a severe perversion of the Bible, with the majority of our practice and beliefs being shaped in the early 1900s by fringe theology and American culture. I guess the ultimate question you have to ask is, who would you rather have: A group of believers who follow Benny Hinn and believe that it’s their God-given right to be wealthy and swindle money away from the hopeful, or a group of Calvinists who believe in the grace and the sovereign will of a higher power?

    • Mark Everett Hall October 13, 2010 at 8:26 am #

      I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response, Jordan. Indeed, Calvin believed everything that existed, moved and breathed was through “the Will of God.” No act of a person’s will could change the predestination set out for them from the beginning of time. However, Calvin did acknowledge (and certainly his followers believed) that to be among the Elect meant it was likely (though not assured) that a pious and successful life on earth was indicative of being among the Elect in heaven. Agreed, just being rich was not enough. One needed to be saved, which was to experience “God’s perfect grace.” But predestination meant no matter what you did in life, you were bound to be saved because, as you note, to be elected was not an individual’s choice.

      Predestination is the heart of Calvin’s theology and the essence of its obsolescence. It’s also what disturbs me about radical Islam. The belief that “In šāʾ Allāh” (“God willing” or “if God wills it”) is a rationalization that washes away a person’s choice in an action. If I crash a plane into a building and succeed it is because “In šāʾ Allāh” and not because I flew the plane into the building. That is, of course, nonsense.

      Predestination means no matter what happens in your life it was known or caused in advance by a higher power. God, then, puts people in burning buildings or inflicts people with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Down’s syndrome…pick your horrifying disease. God lets some be cured; others though suffer. Are the cured who choose not to be saved the Elect? Or the suffering who get baptized? Who knows? In šāʾ Allāh.

      Predestination lets people off the hook intellectually when facing the problems of society. If it’s “God’s divine will” that slaves exist, that women can’t vote, that children work in mines, then there is no need to change. Had Calvinists prevailed in their trying to conserve “God’s will” on those matters, we would still have slavery, women would not vote, and child labor would be the norm.

      Luckily, the only thing known to be truly “predestined” is the reality of constant change. It seems to be the one true idea in the universe. And if change is the one clear, observable constant, predestination is a false premise and leads to false conclusions, which is why Calvin’s ideas are obsolete. We need leaders and thinkers willing to affect and manage change and not shrug their shoulders and say, in effect, In šāʾ Allāh.

      Calvin was a progressive thinker for his time. He helped wrest power away from a venal, corrupt and incompetent Vatican. His views on usury broke open the path for modern capitalism to thrive. He helped lay the foundation for the separation between church & state, though he preferred a state that was beholden to the church, but he clearly argued a prince should have no influence over clergy. That was a new freedom and real progress…then.

  2. David Boullata October 12, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    Mark, Thanks for this superbly written post. I believe all religion not just Calvinism is flawed. Religion’s attempt at defining an undefinable ‘entity’ (if we can call Spirit that) has been the bane of it’s existence. Not to get all flowery and all but try painting a rainbow with only green paint…you can’t.

    Religion has been trying to define something that is limitless with a limited palet of colors.

    • Mark Everett Hall October 13, 2010 at 8:29 am #

      Like you, David, I’m leery of anyone who claims to know the “mind of God.” The moment you hear someone, anyone in the name of a religion say, “God wants…,” you know they are lying. No one knows. They can believe all they want. But no one, absolutely no one knows.

  3. David Boullata October 13, 2010 at 8:52 am #

    …just as an added note Mark. I’m a Christian Arab and ‘we’ (meaning my Mom and Aunts) use the term In šāʾ Allāh, too, but it’s more of a superstition thing. Like: “I’ll see you tomorrow…In šāʾ Allāh” or “This time next year I will be fully recovered from my operation…In šāʾ Allāh”. Hoping for something good to happen in the future, sort of an “If God wills it”….emphasis on the IF.

    I think you may mean Mā šāʾ Allāh which means “God has willed it”. Emphasis on the HAS. Like it’s a fait accompli, and there’s nothing you can do about it…

  4. David Leishman October 13, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    An excellent post and an even better thread. As Mark knows, I believe in God. But I don’t believe she’s paying attention to the universe or me in any traffic-cop kind of way. Pretty hands-off in the regulatory sense. That’s my job, or not, as the case might be. Two sayings attributed to Jesus light the way for me, although I don’t think he was their originator: “Do unto others, etc.” and “the kingdom of heaven is within us.” I believe they’re’ true for all of us, but I don’t insist anyone else accept this.

    Regarding predetermination, I’ve gotta say I don’t get it. Sorta like God dealing poker hands, already knowing who’s gonna win with an aces-high full house. Pretty futile exercise, especially to one who believes God doesn’t care about the outcome.

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