Don’t Blame Calvinism

In his daily set of links to items of interest, Michael Sean Winters commits this drive by:

we as a culture used to know money was corrupting, but have forgotten that fact in recent years. There is something to the argument, to be sure, but there was a fascination with the robber barons and the Newport elite longer before “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” came along. And Calvinism, the strongest religious influence in our culture, has always had a soft spot for wealth, seeing it as evidence of divine approval, rather than as the devil laying his traps.

Notice the either-or perspective on wealth — either it’s from God or from the devil. And Winters thinks Roman Catholic conservatives are guilty of dualism.

What Winters reveals is that Rome has never caught up to Protestants on vocation and how to understand work in the world (whether you make a lot of money or not). Imagine if Rome had taught about secular work as part of the priesthood of all believers. They might have helped Protestants who tried to hold back the tide of acquisitive (or status seeking) participation in the market.

Consider the way that Rod Liddle in his review of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy describes middle-class English Protestantism of a generation or so ago:

I was of J. D.’s mum’s generation, the people who made fecklessness a lifestyle choice, and were somehow encouraged to do so. We jettisoned almost everything our parents believed in and made ourselves much worse off—just as did J. D.’s mother. I tried to make sense of this generational shift in a book—Selfish, Whining Monkeys—which attempted to explain the reasons why my generation had managed, in such a short space of time, to let down their children and their parents. Some of it accords with what Vance has to say, even if he does not spell it out. Gone, for example, was any notion of deferred gratification and work ethic—just one of the many consequences of the diminished importance of religion in our lives.

Protestantism inculcated a simple and perhaps confining moral code: work hard, invest, don’t steal, look after your community, put your family first, wait for reward—always wait for reward. Don’t sleep around, don’t lie, don’t spend more money than you have. For my parents’ generation, divorce was a stigma and vanishingly rare, at that. But recently I stood outside a Middlesbrough job center interviewing one hundred or so people who were seeking work. Every single one of that hundred came from a broken family. Every one. And of those who now had children themselves, every one was no longer with the partner with whom she’d had the child. And this state of affairs had not made them happy; it had wrecked them. They were all J. D.’s mum now.

What’s so bad about that approach to work and economic considerations? Granted, those middle-class virtues are not the sole possession of Protestant creeds and confessions. But it is hardly a recipe for “the lives of the rich and famous.”

And what did Roman Catholics offer as an alternative?

Within the early Christian community through the medieval period, a similar attitude toward work in the world as associated with the body and the lower elements of human nature prevailed. Through the influences especially of neo-Platonic thought, the emphasis was upon a life spent in contemplation, as reflected in these words of Augustine in the 5th century, “the contemplation of God is promised us as the goal of all our actions and the eternal perfection of happiness,” or Aquinas in the 13th century, “the contemplation of divine truth . . . is the goal of the whole of human life.” Work which meets the needs of the body, then, has “no lasting religious significance.” As theologian Ernst Troeltsch notes in his monumental study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, “An ethic which starts from the point of view of an original equality, and which holds that the differences that do exist are due to sin, and which at its best regards the division of labour as a Divine arrangement adapted to the needs of fallen humanity, is inherently unable to see any value in ‘callings’ at all” (Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 121).

The monastery or the nunnery, places of withdrawal from worldly activities, exemplified the most valued state of life, and even while bodily work occurred in those settings, the work was a means of purification and the development of virtue, not an activity to be pursued for itself. Furthermore, in the later medieval period as liturgical practices took up more and more of the roles and time of the monks and nuns, they no longer worked to support themselves; many lived off the wealth of the aristocracy through gifts in exchange for prayer. Even the wandering mendicant friars lived off the good will of those whom they met along the way.

In the Catholic understanding, vocation was a response to God’s calling by removing oneself from the cares and concerns of this world. Sociologist Max Weber notes that in Jewish traditions, among the Greek and Roman classics, or in the medieval world of Catholicism, vocation had none of the contemporary meaning of a fulfillment of one’s duties to God by active engagement in the world. Further, in the medieval world someone who engaged in the work of business was certainly suspect; today’s business state of mind “would both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.”8 “Business was only possible for those lax in ethical thinking.” According to Aquinas, there is “something shameful about it [commerce], being without any honorable or necessary defining goal” (quoted in Tam).

Instead of blaming Calvinism, Winters may want to look in the mirror. He may also want to think, as Liddle encourages readers, about economists on the left and the right who have no dog in the hunt for the church Jesus founded:

But it’s not just the retreat of religion, or more properly, our retreat from religion, that caused this shift. It was also the rise of two supposedly oppositional doctrines that grew up in the early 1960s. First, the post-Marxist Frankfurt school of sociologists (Habermas, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al.), which posited the overthrowing of those old, discredited notions of respect for authority, of capitalism, of anything that could be considered bourgeois, in favor of rampant individualism and free expression—sexually, morally, politically—which unpicked the fabric painstakingly woven by our parents and their parents before them. And then the Chicago school of economists (Hayek, Friedman, et al.), which also posited a rapacious individualism at the expense of the larger society. A deregulated economy in which homes were not places in which one lived, but another form of collateral. An imperative to strive to make money and to spend, to consume and consume without the constraints which had previously attended.

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The Amazing Holy Spirit – He Goes Wherever You Do

Does word-and-sacrament ministry (or Sunday worship) have a shelf life? Put differently, do you go to church to have your spiritual batteries recharged? If so, will the charge last for an entire week? Or do we need a mid-week service to revive our spiritual energy?

This may be one reason for spiritual retreats or mid-week Bible studies. It may even explain the reason some people have daily quiet times. You never want to be too far away from the spiritual outlet.

This is not simply an evangelical Protestant problem. Turns out the mechanical calculations of the Mass’s effects also turn up among those loyal to the Bishop of Rome:

How long does the fullness of the sacramental presence last? To assert that it perdures for life would be to deny that the Holy Eucharist is our daily bread, and would be inconsistent with our nature as finite, mutable mortals. If one Holy Communion sufficed for life, our time of trial would be an anticipation of Heaven, when our souls will be so transformed, so glorified in the rapturous consciousness of their eternal union with God, as to be invulnerable to change.

At the moment of Holy Communion, we have a very definite sense of the complete possession of Christ — a calm, heavenly absorption of His divine life quickens our souls. But if this condition continued, it would not accord with our spiritual development, which, because we are finite beings, is gradual; and the Holy Eucharist would not be the pledge of eternal life.

Does union with Christ in the Mass totally transform the believer? It better not since humans can’t handle a full blast of grace (or one that makes purgatory unnecessary). It needs to be partial, even daily, if it is going to sanctify the ordinary work a Christian does:

Even if we are not vividly conscious of the presence of our Divine Guest during the performance of our daily duties, it will influence us both interiorly and exteriorly, sanctifying the most trifling commonplace of our unobtrusive lives. It will urge us to imitate His eucharistic life, cost what it may, for the spirit of Christ will sustain us, and His light will not only illumine our own souls, but will also enlighten those “sitting in the darkness and shadow of death.”

Maybe it’s just mmmmeeeeEEEE, but the Protestant doctrine of vocation sure looks a lot less complicated and a whole lot more compelling. By the Holy Spirit Christians offer up sacrifices to God through the duties they perform as part of God’s providential care for his creation. By the Holy Spirit, Christians are priests. By the Spirit, they perform a small imitation of the priestly responsibilities that God gave to Adam in garden when work was synonymous with worship.

No need for a pit stop at the parish before going to the office. Family worship will do.

Only Professionals Have Licenses to Conduct Historical Science

Michael Haykin seems to deny the doctrine of vocation when he argues that every believer needs to be a good historian:

history is obviously important to God, since it is the realm where God ultimately brings about the salvation of his people by entering into the very fabric of time and taking on our humanity, sin excepted, in the person of Jesus Christ. This divine activity in the realm of history should not be restricted to the Bible. Though it is impossible to trace out his footsteps across the sands of time in detail, it is blasphemous to deny that God is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his Name and the good of his people. As such, to quote the seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Baxter, “The writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word.” Reading Church history should lead therefore to the praise of God and his adoration.

This is a tad sloppy and betrays that evangelical earnestness so often eager to find in every-square-inch Neo-Calvinism that magic wand to integrate everything. Everyone, thanks to the Holy Spirit, can now see historical significance, perform algebra equations, and tie boating knots. Well, not really. All good believers, even the most gullible, won’t come to my door in hopes of finding a cure for that nagging pain in the sciatica. Maybe to be a good historian it helps to go to graduate school and obtain a license.

But, when Haykin writes this:

Without the past our lives have little or no meaning. When a community forgets its past, it is like a person suffering from dementia: they really cannot function in the world. So we must study history, and as Christians, this means Church history.

He has a point.

Imagine the pain Tim Keller might have avoided if he had known better the struggles between Machen and Old Princeton, between Old School and New School Presbyterians, or between New York and Philadelphia presbyteries. For that matter, why doesn’t the Gospel Industrial Complex have a better memory of Carl Henry, Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Fuller Seminary?

Selective skepticism? Heck, selective memory.

Labor Day Is a Holiday that Isn’t Holy

Tim Challies shows the classic confusion of redemption and providence by calling everything grace:

It is God’s grace that you can be industrious instead of idle. Flavel says, “Sin brought in sweat, but now not to sweat increases sin. He that lives idly cannot live honestly.” The Bible’s warnings about laziness and idleness are many and stern. So when God puts you into a vocation that is legal and moral, he has done you a great benefit. He has given you the blessing of allowing you to earn your own living. Your hard work allows you to avoid the temptations of idleness and to care for your own needs rather than having to rely upon others. Further, through God’s provision to you, you have enough to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. It is, after all, more blessed to give than to receive.

But what if I am not as industrious as H. L. Mencken or Woody Allen who seemingly have not lived in a state of grace?

It is God’s grace that you have a job that is lawful before God and men and especially suited to you. There are many people who are employed in jobs that are sinful or even illegal. “They do not only sin in their employments, but their very employments are sinful.” To have a job that dishonors neither God nor men is no small mercy. To have a job suited to your passions and skills is a double mercy. Then, if your job allows you to provide for yourself and others without working you to the bone, without consuming all of your waking hours, you have more reasons still to thank God for what he has given you.

My skills as a historian, such as they are, did not come through the means of grace or conversion. I studied and learned from lots of non-redeemed historians.

It is God’s grace that he has directed you into the kind of job that neither you nor your parents may ever have expected. You may well be involved in a job that your parents did not plan for you to do, and perhaps one that even you did not plan to do. Just like a compass needle turns this way and that before settling on true north, so “a child is designed for this, then for that, but at last settles in that way of employment to which Providence designed him.” Many of us can attest that “Not what we or our parents, but what God designed shall take place.” This is certainly the case with me and I owe God great thanks and praise for his kindness and his wisdom in giving me a passion for writing and then allowing me to do it.

I say it’s providence but it’s also the accident of growing up at a time when college education became wildly available and when graduate schools were opening their doors wide. That kind of economic development is not grace. It is providence.

It is God’s grace that he secures what you have earned. God’s favor toward you is what has allowed you to earn what you have. That same favor is what has allowed you to keep what you have earned.

Let’s not forget civil magistrates and police many of whom are not living in a state of grace. Their non-sanctified labors maintain my security and property.

It is God’s grace that your vocation is sufficient for you. Some people have work, but not enough strength to complete it. Some have strength, but no work to commit it to. Some have both strength and work but even then not sufficient to provide for themselves or others. If God blesses your labors to give you enough or even more than enough to meet your needs, you ought to give him praise and thanks.

If I am content with my vocation — some days — that is partly a function of sanctification. But I know lots of non-believers who seem to have as much job satisfaction as I do.

Tim either needs to get out more or needs to read more on providence (preferably without Petra blaring in the background).

Sixty Hours I’ll Never Recover

But at least no naked actresses.

That is the general reaction in the Hart household to the completion of Mad Men, a tv series perhaps a tad better than Breaking Bad, but miles behind — wait for it — The Wire. (The atmospherics of Mad Men inch the series just barely ahead of Breaking Bad.) I had to go through 90 episodes to see Don practicing transcendental meditation, Peggy finding love, Joan being torn between love and career, Roger finding love appropriate to his age, and Pete landing in Witchita? Yes, it was uncomfortable to see Betty get sick, but not so much that you see a different side of her.

The morning after I read Louis Menand (who is emerging as someone worthy of a man-crush) on Charles Duhigg’s book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life. Menand can’t quite understand why self-help books for business people sell. They are so obvious:

There is not much to disagree with here, and that is one of the intriguing things about the genre this book belongs to. Not dozens or hundreds but thousands of titles like “Smarter Faster Better” are published every year, and they account for a disproportionate percentage of total book sales. Yet they mainly reiterate common sense.

Does anybody think it’s unwise to be lean, nimble, and innovative? Who needs a book to know that rote behavior and fear of uncertainty are not going to take us very far? It’s not startling to learn that organizations that nurture a “culture of commitment” are more productive than organizations that don’t, or that setting ambitious objectives can jump-start innovation. “People who know how to self-motivate, according to studies, earn more money than their peers, report higher levels of happiness, and say they are more satisfied with their families, jobs, and lives.” I can believe that. “Determined and focused people . . . often have higher paying jobs.” I won’t argue. “An instinct for decisiveness is great—until it’s not.” An impregnable assertion.

In an uncanny way, Menand also explains the logic of Mad Men:

If you owned an advertising agency fifty years ago, on the other hand, you wouldn’t care how much pig iron your workers could carry in an hour. You would want your account executives to have winning personalities, to be able to bond easily with other people, to be likable. You would want them to have manners tailored to attract the patronage and retain the loyalty of your customers. Their task would be to persuade, not to push. You would therefore want them to be able to conceal, maybe even from themselves, the manipulative and possibly mercenary nature of their relationship with clients, and to transform a business transaction into a friendly quid pro quo. You would reward the most successful account executives with lavish expense accounts.

The series never goes beyond this (except when Don is being Don).

The Sabbatarian Option for the Benedictines

Noah Millman legitimately wants specifics about the Benedictine Option (and here I thought it was an after dinner cocktail):

Ok, then: monasteries were communities of celibates who held property in common. Anyone from the outside could join the community by taking the necessary vows, and non-votaries could visit, even dwell with the community for a time. But the monastic community was constituted by rules of considerable complexity, and it played a unique economic role in the larger society by virtue of its distinctive legal status. So I’d expect discussion of the Benedict Option to center on what such communities such look like, how they should relate to the larger, less-tethered community of co-religionists and the larger society as a whole. Should Benedict-Option Christians found communities outside of major cities, so as to be able to fully express their ethos, and encourage non-Benedict-Option Christians to visit them there? What should the economic relationship be between communal organs and individual adherents? What should the rules be for joining – or leaving? What kinds of legal protections would such communities need as corporate bodies? And how should adherents behave when they are among “gentiles?”

These are the kinds of questions that actual ethical communities – groups like the Amish and Mennonites, yes, but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, American Sikhs, utopian Socialists, kibbutzniks, all kinds of groups – have wrestled with at their founding. Communal organization for a self-conscious ethical group within a foreign society – not necessarily hostile nor necessarily friendly, but foreign – is not a new problem. I’d expect advocates of the Benedict Option to be particularly interested in such forerunning models, and to be discussing how they might or might not be applied to the specific challenges of small-o orthodox Christianity in a society that still retains the trappings of Christianity but, from their perspective, can no longer be called Christian in any meaningful sense.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be the center of the discussion about the Benedict Option, at least not so far as I have seen. Instead, most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc. In other words, I hear a lot about why the Benedict Option is important, and a lot about what the Benedict Option isn’t, but very little that I can grasp with any kind of firmness about what the blasted thing is in the first place.

Protestants were not (and still aren’t) big on monasticism. Protestantism was a piety for life in the world and the doctrine that undergirded that real life was vocation.

But Protestants were also big on sanctifying the Lord’s Day, as in setting it apart:

This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Confession of Faith, 21.8)

You could argue, then, that every Sunday is a kind of monastic retreat from the world and that’s certainly how many Protestants practiced it. Even my Baptist parents knew this and so when the prospects of Little League came, I had to decline because I would be compelled to play baseball on Sundays. Why my brother and I could watch the Phillies on Sundays thanks to the television was a question we didn’t ask. We wanted to watch. We weren’t in charge.

What if the wider Christian world (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant) treated Sunday as a day for a kind of monastic existence? No work, no inappropriate reading, no sex, lots of bread, even more beer. Couldn’t this be a way to set Christians apart without having to become celibate and so see Christianity go the way of the Shakers?

From DGH on The Death of Prayer Meetings Submitted on 2015 05 12 at 10:52 am

Mark, you are so good at quoting from historical figures that I’m a little taken aback by your throwaway reference to John Calvin. Since he had preaching services during the week, I’m surprised to learn that he advocated a mid-week prayer meeting: “Church history also gives us many good examples (e.g., Calvin in Geneva).”

Here’s a question, though. Say you are a congregation that already has two prayer meetings. Each one takes place on Sunday, one in the morning and one in the evening. These instances of corporate prayer, as you may have guessed, are part of the sanctification of the Lord’s Day. Are you advocating that we add another, for the sake of sanctifying Wednesday night (sure hope it doesn’t conflict with Hockey Night in Canada)?

Or what if you are part of a congregation that only has one service on the Lord’s Day — in the morning, for instance? Do you think a church should first start an evening Sunday service before adding a mid-week prayer meeting? Or is corporate prayer so important that Christians should leave their homes and offices for it, even though they may already pray in those non-church settings alone or with other Christians?

I am having trouble figuring out why you might advocate corporate prayer the way you do. For instance, you say that one reason is that people are too busy. But that’s the same argument that people use against a second service on Sunday. I can well understand that people have vocations that make attending church functions like Bible study, youth group, even catechism difficult. I can also well understand a session that is reluctant to add to a church member’s burdens, someone who already is committed to and practices keeping the Lord’s Day holy.

I don’t know why you don’t see the potential burden unless you don’t understand the doctrine of vocation. Isn’t it Reformed to think that someone is actually serving God by carrying out their civil, secular, professional, and family duties? If they perform those tasks on the Lord’s Day, then Houston we have a problem. But if they honor their callings during the week and cant’ attend a church function to which officers cannot attach a “thus saith the Lord,” are you really suggesting that to be truly holy and pious people need to pray together at the church building (instead of with their families or over the course of their work days)?

Maybe the problem is that you don’t appreciate the importance of Lord’s Day worship and week-day vocation.

Or maybe you simply have forgotten that all of life is worship (thanks to our southern correspondent):

The New Testament model for worship is not just about singing praises. It is living a life of service. It’s about far more than music. It’s helping your neighbor bring in the groceries, providing for the elderly, taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves, helping the poor and needy—these are all examples of biblical worship.

Actually, I’d prefer that you not follow this Framean understanding of every-square-inch liturgy, but you may want to recognize that your version of pietism is out of whack with the neo-Calvinist high intellect pietism. For neo-Cals, missing a mid-week prayer service is no problem since a believer must 24-7 be engaged in some means of grace. As you yourself have argued, grace can be a fairly expansive category that extends to God’s work of creation and providence. So if someone at church who is following Kuyper misses a prayer meeting because they are redeeming culture by watching Downton Abbey, which seventeenth-century theologian are you going to quote against them?

Does Christianity Make Me Less Human?

I finished a seminar yesterday on the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk. I presented to class his speech upon receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2006). (In addition to being a great writer, Pamuk is great for thinking about differences between East and West, secularism and religion, political Islam and secular Turkey, by the way, not to mention that his thoughts about the Muslim notion of huzun resonates with Christian ideas of suffering.) His speech concludes this way, on why he writes:

I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can’t quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Now if I were a good New Calvinist, I could go Strunk-and-White on Pamuk and say simply and tersely, “I write to glorify God”? Or is it possible to talk about all the human reasons for our work and add the glory of God to them? It seems to me that for as admirable as theocentricity is in worship, it doesn’t make for very interesting or complicated human beings.

Lay Plumbing

Since relocating to Michigan I have not only had to think about whether Christians plumb differently from non-Christians. I have also had to think and act plumbingly.

First, I had to purchase a toilet auger to unblock a clogged septic line.

Then, I had to figure out how to displace a large puddle that had emerged in our “Michigan basement” after several heavy rains. A wet-dry shop vacuum allowed the removal of 14 gallons of water fairly easily.

And then I needed to consider the various features of dehumidifiers in order to prevent such puddles in the basement from repeating and growing. And this has led to further consideration about installing a sump with its related pump in order to allow the dehumidifier to keep working without having to empty its water receptacle.

In which case, a sump pump might allow putting the washer and dryer in the basement, as well as the installation of a sink for the sorts of cleaning and rinsing that are less than desirable in the kitchen or bathroom.

If I did not know better, I would be tempted to think that God is mocking my repeated (and perhaps overused) point about Christian plumbing (or the lack thereof). But at least this much can be said in defense of 2k: so far the creational wisdom of the local hardware store staff has yet to steer wrong this mortgage payer who is not doctrinaire about water and its movement within and outside the home.

On the Road to Duality

This is not the right path. But to introduce the concept to 24/7 Christians it may be a place to begin.

The new book is called Christian -Atheist, by some megachurch pastor somewhere. The email from Christianity Today plugging the book asked, “Are you living a dual existence?” My answer, “why, yes I am.” In fact, hyphenation is exactly what the life of exile requires – we live here but this is not our home. The advertisement adds, “If you profess a belief in God, but live as though He doesn’t exist, you may be more divided than you think. Read The Christian Atheist and join author Craig Groeschel as he looks to resolve a conflict that affects the lives of countless Christians.”

I do think I’ll pass.

But it is an interesting thought experiment whether the way I ride the subway, cross the street, teach at a secular university, root for the Phillies, or read John Updike differs from non-Christians performing those same tasks in any sort of visible way. At least, it does differ on the common days of the week since my Christian self avoids teaching, rooting, and reading Updike on the Lord’s Day. Crossing the street and riding the subway may actually be works of necessity to participate in worship.

So even if the dichotomy is wrongheaded – Christian-Atheist – the idea of hyphenation is one that needs to be cultivated, as in Christian-Americans, Christian-Phillies fans, and Christian-historians. We have a lot of divided loyalties out there 24/6, and negotiating them is the task of that wonderful Protestant doctrine of vocation.

(By the way, why doesn’t the Christian side of this guy shave?)