Embracing Fear and Great Joy

Each year Dean Hill focuses the Lenten preparation for Easter by considering the special insights brought by some important Christian author.  This year it has been John Calvin.  Several weeks ago I had the special privilege of preaching the Sunday morning service at Marsh and drew attention to Calvin’s claxon insistence on the transcendent glory and beauty of God.  Although Calvin began his Institutes with the claim that any consideration of God immediately reflects on the wretched human condition, and any consideration of the human condition directs the light back to the unmeasurable perfection of God, for him the real point of religion is God, not the human condition.  Martin Luther, the other great Reformer of Western Christianity, said in effect that it’s all about human beings, their salvation, and how God brings about that salvation.  For Calvin, religion is all about God who, incidentally, brings about salvation. People concerned for their own salvation and the renovation of the world in justice find Calvin austere. They take little comfort in his claim that from God’s point of view the whole creation is beautiful and that God’s justice is glorified as much in the punishment of the damned as in the heavenly welcome of the saved.  Calvin is rarely associated with feel-good religion.  But Calvin was indeed concerned with the human condition and in fact wrote far more about how we ought to behave within the divine economy than he did about God per se.  So I feel obliged tonight to preach the Word through Calvin’s warm and fuzzy side.  Only a Methodist would attempt such a thing.  And if you are thinking that this means a very short sermon, think again.

The Easter Vigil is an appropriate occasion to seek God through Calvin’s understanding of the human condition.  It is a time between the crucifixion, which symbolizes the worst in the human condition at its most depraved, and the Easter resurrection, which symbolizes the best that can happen.  Officially after sundown on Saturday we are in Easter day as the Jews reckon the beginning of days, and we all know about the discovery of the empty tomb and the encounters with the Risen Christ that are coming in the morning’s symbolism of our liturgical year.  But this service is still a vigil, a waiting for what has not yet arrived, albeit promised.  The side of Calvin that is so genuinely empathic with the human condition, the side that has drawn people to him despite his abrasive austerity, is his recognition that life every day is like the Easter Vigil.  The catastrophic judgment of Good Friday is past and the fulfillment of Easter resurrection is only promised.  This is the condition in which we actually live.  We can pretend that we in fact

live face to face with God dying for our salvation as symbolized by Calvary.  But that is not in our personal experience.  It happened in the past and perhaps it has been misinterpreted.  If we are honest we worry.  We can pretend that we actually live fully resurrected Easter lives, that our souls are purified and that our institutions guarantee justice and flourishing for all.  But of course that is simply mistaken.  Theologians protect their hinder parts by saying that we now live in anticipation of the fulfilled resurrection triggered by God’s saving act in the crucifixion, an “already but not yet” resurrection.  This is called “proleptic consummation,” a great phrase to remember for cocktail parties.

Dean Hill tomorrow, I wager, will talk about signs and manifestations of resurrection.  “Christ is Risen!” we will sing.  But what about us?  How are we risen? Tomorrow we will know deep down that it is still only promises.  Easter morning is still only promises, just like the Easter Vigil tonight, and any honest heart knows this.  Every day is still the Vigil.  When we face up to this with an honest mind, and look carefully to see who we really are and what our world really is, we have cause to worry in this Vigil.  Only preachers who are realistic about the vigil-character of Christian life offer honest comfort.  This is the warm and fuzzy part of Calvin because he is with us in what we know in our hearts to be true.  His honesty is the beginning of true comfort.  Let me call this “deep” warmth and fuzziness.

Calvin’s own theology is quaint, offensive to our usual understanding of Christian kindness, and out of date because his mythic understanding of the world is premodern.  But permit me to sketch the logic of his theory of the human condition.  He began with St. Paul’s claims about law and grace in the fifth chapter of Romans, the chapter just before our Epistle tonight. Paul drew the language of law from the Jewish Torah and Calvin drew it to extremes from his own background as a lawyer.  What they both meant, phrased more generally, is that the created world has moral standards, whether expressed as laws, or better and worse policies, or better and worse choices, or ways of life.  No matter how hard we try, we come short of perfection as measured by those standards.  Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and knew as well as anyone that there are great human accomplishments and that some people are better than others.  But from God’s point of view, according to Calvin, any moral imperfection is a failure to meet the standards and thus is sin: we are depraved.  “Depravity” is a good Calvinist word for the ineluctable tendency to sin.  That we are moral failures was as empirically obvious to Calvin as it is to us. Why we think perversely and behave badly is in part because of bad intentions and choices, but why we make bad choices despite our best will to the contrary is a deeper problem.  Calvin’s mythic understanding blamed it on the original sin of Adam from which we inherit an irresistible tendency to sin.  Our own mythic understanding more likely looks to deep psychic contradictions, incompletely suppressed infantile urges, bad upbringing, neurologically damaged impulse control, economic deprivation, dysfunctional families, and wicked social structures.  From a compassionate human point of view we readily make allowances for our behavior. “Sarah surely is a selfish person, but look where she came from; and she is not half as selfish as her brother.” But for Calvin, the human point of view is not the relevant one.  It’s God’s point of view that counts and part of God’s perfection is perfect justice. If a person fails to meet the moral standard the person deserves to be punished in Calvin’s juridical imagination.  We all fail, and thus we all deserve to be punished.  Because no one is perfectly justified, everyone must be condemned according to God’s justice.  In Calvin’s mythic world, God is anthropomorphized to be a judge as depicted in the great paintings of the Last Judgment and people are mythically conceived to have a natural afterlife that must embody their just reward, Heaven or Hell.  Because everyone is guilty, everyone belongs in Hell, according to Calvin  (and Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, and Paul).

This mythic understanding of God as an anthropomorphic judge, and of human life as naturally immortal with a destiny for Heaven or Hell, has lost its hold on most of us.  I don’t anthropomorphize God at all nor do I think about a natural or supernatural afterlife.  But I do know that in ultimate perspective I and maybe everyone else fail our moral standards and thus are ultimately guilty, however proximately worthy we are.  I don’t need to imagine an anthropomorphic divine judge in order to know what the ultimate judgment ought to be. I don’t need to imagine a Heaven or Hell to know that we are in a broken relationship with God as the ultimate Creator and that this broken relationship is ultimately the most important thing about us.  And I don’t need a belief in an historical Adam causing all his children ultimate grief to know that however much we might improve our relationship with God, we still cannot make it perfect.  What is your mythic understanding of all this?  I suspect most of you have mythic visions somewhere between Calvin’s and mine.  Calvin’s point was that, however you mythologize your broken relation to what is ultimate—a danger of frying forever in Hell or being ultimately estranged, if we take life seriously we are in ultimate trouble.  Most non-Calvinist Christians find ways of saying it is ok not to take life seriously.  Calvin was serious.

Now, the Christian Gospel is that God is not only perfectly just but also merciful.  Although everyone deserves to be damned to eternal punishment, however that is imagined, God sent Jesus Christ his Son to take the punishment for us.  Therefore, although we deserve to be condemned, in fact we are reconciled to God by Jesus Christ.  Notice the strict logic here: God’s justice condemns us all and God does not have to save anyone; but God does save us, at least some of us, and this is pure merciful grace on top of justice.  This is the sense in which Christians from Paul to Luther and Calvin understood the meaning of salvation: by the Law we are condemned but by Grace in the sacrifice of Jesus we are saved.

What happens, for Calvin, when we recognize God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ?  Do we become perfect?  No, not at all.  We do not need to become perfect because God saves the already condemned.  Instead we just need to get better.  Recognizing that we are saved by God in Christ, sin loses its hold on us and we can work at improving our lives.  For Calvin this meant building more loving communities and more loving relationships.  In his time, this was a directly political task and he set up a theocratic state in Geneva.  To determine how to be more loving he set up laws of thought and behavior, and more laws.  The state-church appointed elders as officials to administer pastoral care, which consisted in finding sinners and correcting their behavior. This passion for enforcing love is what seems so terrible to us today, an invasion of privacy, an authoritarian dictatorship, all in the name of helping the graciously saved to improve.

Looking around, Calvin saw a lot of people that simply didn’t seem to be working at becoming more moral and loving.  Some of them rejected the whole idea that they were naturally damned or that Jesus Christ makes them righteous in God’s system of justice.  Many nations never heard of Jesus Christ.  So it seemed to him that only some people are saved by God’s grace, manifests God’s freedom.  That God’s mercy saves some does not mean that God’s mercy has to save all.  There are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s elect and Calvin concluded that God elects some for salvation and leaves the rest to the damnation everyone deserves.  From the human point of view this seems terribly unfair and the great Calvinist Karl Barth said that, although God does not have to elect everyone,  he does.  For Calvin, what counts is God’s point of view and God’s justice is fulfilled as much in the punishment of the non-elect as in the salvation of the elect.  This famous Calvinist conclusion is repugnant to most modern mythic sensibilities and is a good reason to flee from his theological anthropomorphism, which actually is inconsistent with his other emphasis on God’s transcendent beauty and immeasurable perfection.

The consequence for Calvinists of Calvin’s conclusion about selective election is to raise the horrifying question, am I among the elect?  I try hard to do better, but still sin, as Calvin said even the elect would.  But then what is the difference between me as elect and me as a continuing reprobate?  The answer has been to work harder.  Take life seriously and work on being more loving.  Work, work, examine your conscience, work more.  Somehow working to be more loving became associated with working to be richer, but I’ll leave Dean Hill to deal with that.

Suppose we reject Calvin’s mythic world of an anthropomorphic God saving some and damning others to Hell.  Suppose instead we ask whether we are estranged from God and also somehow reconciled.  How can we tell whether we are reconciled?  What are the empirical marks of being reconciled with our ultimate Creator?  Methodists look to experiences of emotional assurance; the theologian Paul Tillich says to look to ecstatic experiences.  But can we be sure?  Need we be sure?

Tonight’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans, that comes after the Law and Grace chapter, says that as Christians we already have died with Christ in our baptism and have risen with him to new spiritual life.  Paul was talking about the Romans as they were then, not about an afterlife, although he also expected some consummatory afterlife.  The quality of being a Christian is to die to the bondage of sin and to rise with all the powers of God that might flow through us like rivers of grace to live well and better in the world.  Forget about whether you are elect and instead live with the bounties of grace that abound around us.  Don’t worry about others who might not be elect.  Point out to them the graces that abound.  Get up and do better, as Calvin said.  Forget about the salvation problem and just live abundantly.  This is the deeper message of Calvin, the deep warmth and fuzziness.

Back at the Easter Vigil, through which we watch every day, what is the gospel of promise?  According to Matthew, the women who discovered the risen Christ were filled with fear and great joy, which is what we should feel tonight and live with always.  The women at the tomb did not know what to expect, and neither do we.  But they had seen the reversal of death in this life and so were filled with great joy.  What did they fear?  Calvin is associated with the fear aspect of faith.  But contrary to what many people think, he did not say that we should fear that we might not be saved.  Rather he said that we should fear that we do not take all this seriously.  It is possible to go through life inattentive to what is ultimate.  It is possible to construe Easter as just good times and no worry.  What Calvin tells us is that we must keep close attention to the ongoing affairs of our lives, ready always to make an advance in love and to build a better community, because this is the way to pay attention to God.  The beauty of God is to be found in the details of life, however horrific and exhausting they might be.  Calvin and many Calvinists used outrageous and even cruel means to call our attention to the duties of this life, including threats of hellfire and brimstone.  But we are beyond that mythic worldview.  Calvin’s point was that concerns for some final salvific fulfillment are misplaced: we cannot know it, or do anything about it, and the concerns only illustrates the folly of living life from the selfish human point of view. Forget about the fulfillment of mythic promises because they only tempt our self-centeredness. Live rather in the Easter Vigil mode, baptized in Jesus’s death to whatever would hold us back and raised in Jesus’s new life to live filled with God in our attention to the everyday.  Life in the Vigil mode fears inattention to the seriousness of the fact that God is in everything we do and enjoy.  Life in the Vigil mode is also filled with great joy, celebrating not our victory but the fact that God is to be enjoyed in every detail.  The warm and fuzzy Calvin comforts us only when we crucify both the quest for salvation and the hope for victory in worldly terms, and discover the depths of our daily lives that are adazzle with the gratuitous and astonishing glory of God.  The Easter Vigil lets us know that life is charged with God in its details, in its responsibilities and simple pleasures. In the worst of sufferings, in the most humiliating failures, in the shortness and long-term vanities of life, what counts is the ever-present beauty of our Creator, which is the only warm and fuzzy comfort worth preaching.

Amen.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Leave a Reply