Monday, Aug. 17, 2009  
Lingering innovation


by Canon John H. Heidt
Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Fort Worth


You don’t have to know anything about John Calvin to be a Calvinist nor be a member of the Roman Catholic Church to be a Catholic. In this article we are talking about a cultural Calvinism and Catholicism that influences our thinking and attitudes whether we are aware of it or not.

Catholic Brits

Scratch the most reserved Englishman deep enough and you’ll find a residual Catholic underneath, not politically or doctrinally but spiritually and psychologically. The Catholic believes that sin has made us sick human beings, but that we are still human. We have spoiled our likeness to God, but we are still made in His image. Nothing we do can destroy that. We can still think and we can choose; we can know the truth and we can do the truth. With the help of God’s grace we can do good.

The English are spiritual Catholics because they believe that human beings are fundamentally good in spite of their sins and stupidities, and that having a good time is having a godly time. If you want to see the Catholic religion in practice go to a local pub while you still can. It is no accident that as England becomes more and more secular three to four pubs are closing every week.

Puritans are the children of Calvinism, and the Church is the one place left in Britain where the Puritan cloud still hangs over the people like a deadly shroud. With John Calvin, Puritans believe that human beings are totally depraved. We can do nothing good, and there can be nothing good in having a good time. The Puritans even got rid of the joys of Christmas once they took over England by cutting off the heads of the Archbishop and the King. It took 300 years for the Tractarian Anglo-Catholics to restore Christmas carols. For the Calvinist they were too much of a good thing to possibly be good. Today, in spite of singing a few Christmas Carols, the Church of England is still too haunted by its Puritan past to be truly English. If it were English, the English would go to it.  Instead they try to throw off the Puritan shroud by becoming charismatic Evangelicals, by fleeing to Rome or by tending their gardens on a Sunday morning. It is no wonder that London buses now have large banners on their sides proclaiming: “There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.”

Puritan Americans

Scratch the most slap-on-the-back American deep enough and you will find a post Puritan underneath. Most Americans believe that human beings are totally depraved and there is nothing they can do about it. They believe that to err is human and that having a good time is fascinatingly wicked. They excuse their behavior by pointing out that after all they are only human. The Catholic retorts, “Good Lord, what more do you want to be. You have been made a little lower than the Angels to be crowned with honor and glory.” With the help of divine grace the Catholic believes God can make us into perfect human beings. Grace enhances and enriches our human nature. It makes us more human rather than less; grace can turn us into Saints but it will never turn us into angels or anything else that isn’t truly human.

Calvinists believe that grace replaces our depraved human nature and turns us into a special class of spiritual creatures and pray that it will turn their children into little angels. But this grace doesn’t come cheap. God only gives it to an elect few who are arbitrarily lucky enough to be among the saved. It is all up to God, and there is nothing we can do about it. Once people think that they are among the Elect, they can no longer sin because, as John Calvin taught, God’s grace is irresistible. Modern American Puritans, religious or not, do not believe they are sinners. They only suffer because they are sick and the victims of other people’s sins. They defend themselves by spotting sin in everyone different from themselves; everything in America becomes a moral issue and Hester must have her A.

Who then are the Elect? America is the country of the elect as the early American Puritans believed and as our present prosperity proves, and people living elsewhere are alien sinners and either potential terrorists or just quaintly stupid.  But not every American is a good American nor among the Elect. God has not chosen everyone. He only showers his blessings on a fortunate few, and these few have the burden of looking after those less fortunate than themselves. If the rich think their wealth is a special blessing from God they will patronize the poor “whose penury tempteth them to sin.” [1928 Book of Common Prayer]  Those who think that God has elected their particular race, will keep their distance from people of other races. The White Man’s Burden is the fruit of Calvinism.

And what about those who are not privileged enough to think they are among the elect but the outcasts of society? What are they to do? They might as well eat drink and be merry for tomorrow they will die – and go to Hell if Calvin was right.

This inevitable fate is a burden too great for most to bear and “doth thrust them into desperation or into wretchedness,” as the articles say [Article XVII] or into depression as we call it today. Having been raised in a Puritan culture, our children, when they grow up, eagerly cast off the shackles of Calvin’s depressing doctrines and no longer believe in such religious things as heaven or hell or even sin.

The Choice

In both Britain and America secularism is the cultural reaction to the inhumanity of a Puritanical Calvinism.

So what are we going to be, Catholic or Calvinist? Do we want to follow the 2,000-year mainstream Christian Humanism of the church or try to shore up the innovative teachings of John Calvin? It’s up to us, but I know where I’m putting my money.