Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 3

Posted: July 31st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 3

3.  God is the Creator from all eternity, and He creates when He wills, in His infinite goodness, through His coessential Logos and Spirit. Do not raise the objection: ‘Why did He create at a particular moment since He is good from all eternity?’ For I reply that the unsearchable wisdom of the infinite essence does not come within the compass of human knowledge.

4.  When the Creator willed, He gave being to and manifested that knowledge of created things which already existed in Him from all eternity. For in the case of almighty God it is ridiculous to doubt that He can give being to anything when He so wills.

Time before the beginning of time is not a concept that makes sense within our perspective of reality. Everything about us is ordered by sequenced events. We could not exist in any other way. Creation exists in the overflow of God’s love made uniquely real and manifest.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 4 – Theodicy

Posted: July 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Theodicy is a term generally used to describe the problem of reconciling a powerful and benevolent God with the suffering and pain in the world. It’s generally presented as an argument for atheism, so it may seem odd that I’m describing it as one of the reasons I’m not an atheist. Hopefully I can unravel that apparent conundrum.

I do want to be clear. Christianity does assert a single creator God on whom all that exists is contingent from moment to moment. Our God is one who is both immanent (everywhere present and filling all things) and transcendent. Christianity teaches that this God who is fully revealed in Christ is a good God who loves mankind. Moreover, this God is such that the only word, inadequate as it is, that we can use to capture his essence and being is love.

So it is true that the problem of evil is a very real one for Christianity. While I don’t intend to explore that problem in this post, I have discussed some of my thoughts in various places in the past. However I do acknowledge this is truly a deep philosophical problem — for Christianity. But atheism presents itself as the rejection of all Gods and any concept of deity, not merely a rejection of the Christian God. As such, I always wondered why its arguments, such as this one, seem to often be so narrowly focused.

I’ll illustrate by drawing on my pre-Christian Hindu perspective. Suffering is acknowledged, of course, but it cannot be described as a problem for Hinduism. Now, it’s been a long time since I actively thought from a somewhat Hindu perspective and I was never a particularly devoted practitioner by any stretch of the imagination. But that lens did generally shape how I perceived the world around me for much of my first three decades of life. And I did meditate, read the Bhagavad Gita (sporadically, at least) and other texts, and commentaries on them. I searched online and found one of the texts that still sticks in my mind from chapter 18. (Always keep in mind that it’s not easy to translate these texts into English. Concepts don’t necessarily match well at all.)

Within the hearts of all living entities, resides the Supreme Lord, O Arjuna and by the potency of the illusory energy orchestrates the movements of all living entities like figurines on a carousel.

This page actually includes four commentaries or different perspectives with Hinduism on that passage. The one by Sridhara Swami captures what would have been my understanding. It’s maya (often translated illusion, but flowing from the idea of “not that“) that binds us to samsara, the wheel of suffering within which we are locked by the cycle of death and rebirth. Through transcendence, we can stop revolving from one life to another. (Reincarnation and our attachment to the illusion of the material is actually more a core part of the problem in Hinduism than something desired. I guess that’s another reason I find it odd that a significant percentage of Christians today embrace reincarnation.)

Other religions have different perspectives, of course, but as far as I can tell, it would be hard to frame evil and suffering as a problem within their frameworks. (The exception is probably Judaism, though I don’t think the problem takes exactly the same shape that it does in Christianity.) And yet, as I’ve heard atheistic arguments over the years and as I’ve heard and read stories of people who embraced or converted to atheism rather than being raised within it, this problem of evil is often close to the core. I often don’t get the sense that people even see that it’s an anti-Christian argument and not one that actually supports atheism.

Finally, I find it strange that this particular argument is so common. After all, atheism itself offers a pretty poor ultimate response to pain and suffering. I don’t want to be flippant, but for all practical purposes, the modern atheistic answer seems to boil down to something pretty simple.

Life’s a bitch and then you die.

I’ll take Hinduism or Buddhism or Shintoism or any of a host of other answers over that one. I guess I’ll never be a good materialist. That lens has never held any appeal for me. Yes, it can be difficult to resolve a God of love with all the suffering and evil that exists. But I would rather make that effort, however deep the rabbit hole goes, than abandon it.

But let’s say I was willing to embrace the materialist perspective. If I did, I think Nietzsche carries it to its logical conclusion. And that will be the topic of my next post in this series.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 2

Posted: July 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 2

2.  How can the intellect not marvel when it contemplates that immense and more than astonishing sea of goodness? Or how is it not astounded when it reflects on how and from what source there have come into being both nature endowed with intelligence and intellect, and the four elements which compose physical bodies, although no matter existed before their generation? What kind of potentiality was it which, once actualized, brought these things into being? But all this is not accepted by those who follow the pagan Greek philosophers, ignorant as they are of that all-powerful goodness and its effective wisdom and knowledge, transcending the human intellect.

In this text, St. Maximos notes, as I commented on Tuesday, that the pagan Greek philosophers did not grasp this point about the fundamental nature of reality. I will also note, especially since I have a son now studying physics and we like to discuss it, that all our studies so far point back to a singularity. That is to say that everything points back to an event before which we can say nothing. We label that singularity the Big Bang. I don’t want to oversimplify, but it does look a lot more like the Christian perspective than many of the other ancient perspectives on origins of reality.


Does God Suffer?

Posted: July 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Does God Suffer?

I was actually surprised by this lecture by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, but probably not for the reason many would assume. (Take some time to listen to the podcast or my comments probably won’t make much sense.) I’ve been reflecting on the underlying reasons for my surprise and I think it’s tied to the often sideways and backwards way I’ve lurched into Christianity. It hasn’t been a formal process and I’ve often had very different questions and assumptions from the typical modern, English-speaking, Western individual.

In this instance, I wasn’t surprised by the Metropolitan’s conclusions. In fact, I had apparently assumed erroneously that they were the common Christian belief. Yes, I’ve encountered discussions of God as impassable, but I simply assumed that meant his nature and the activities flowing from it never changed. God is love. And that never changes. God’s attitude toward his whole creation is love and that too never changes.

I did not, however, ever associate the idea of God’s unwavering nature of love with the Aristotelian concept of the unmoved mover. I’m bemused to discover that many Christians have and do. That concept of God, in many ways, looks to me more like the Hindu Brahman than anything we see revealed in Christ.

Does God suffer? Of course! If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be a God of love.

Love suffers when the beloved suffers.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

Posted: July 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

1.  First the intellect marvels when it reflects on the absolute infinity of God, that boundless sea for which it longs so much. Then it is amazed at how God has brought things into existence out of nothing. But just as ‘His magnificence is without limit’ (Ps. 145:3. LXX), so ‘there is no penetrating His purposes’ (Isa. 40:28).

I want to note something in this text that’s somewhat tangential. I’ve often encountered a modern idea that the ancient “Greek” fathers twisted the Christian tradition they received into something else through the influence of  Greek philosophy. (I’ll note that St. Ephraim, St. Isaac, and many others weren’t actually Greek at all. They are called “Greek” fathers, I believe, because they wrote in Greek.) Yet above we see St. Maximos referring to the ex nihilo act of creation by God. That stands in sharp contrast to pagan Greek philosophy. Yes, they used the terms available to them in the language of their time. We do the same today. The words we have are our available tools. But they used that language to fight against Greek philosophy and Christian heresies in those areas where they did not conform to the faith that had been handed down to them. If you actually read the fathers, you can’t help but see that truth. It permeates their writings.

Reflecting on St. Maximos’ text for today, all I can say is go read Colossians. If your mind doesn’t marvel and your heart (nous) isn’t at least momentarily stilled in wonder, I’m not sure you’ve allowed yourself to truly understand what it says.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 48

Posted: June 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 48

100. Time has three divisions. Faith is coextensive with all three, hope with one, and love with the remaining two. Moreover, faith and hope will last to a certain point; but love, united beyond union with Him who is more than infinite, will remain for all eternity, always increasing beyond all measure. That is why ‘the greatest of them is love’ (1 Cor. 13:13).

No, if you’re wondering, I don’t really understand this text. But I’m taken by the image of love for all eternity, increasing beyond all measure. I’m not sure what ‘united beyond union’ might be, but I sense in that the essence of theosis.


Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

I concluded my first post with the question, when faced with the myriad forms of modern Christianity, what’s a poor pluralist to do? On the surface, at least, the answer is relatively straightforward. I didn’t and still don’t don’t treat Christianity as one religion. Instead, just I had always done with different systems and practices of belief, I learned to approach each stream called Christian on its own terms as something distinct and unique. After all, they are.

I’ve noticed that a fair number of people, if they are more than superficially aware of the diversity within the umbrella labeled Christianity, seem to expend a degree of energy trying to somehow reconcile the different systems of belief, determine which one is right, or somehow try to find some kind of reductionist, minimal common ground. That’s always seemed odd to me.

If someone says they believe differently than I do or than some other groups does, and I attempt to say that actually they believe pretty much the same thing, then I am attempting to assert power over them. Different beliefs at this level are different. As a rule, they cannot be reconciled with each other.

An individual effort to, through reason or emotion, determine which one is somehow right or correct is focused on the wrong question. If I cared to do so, I could probably write a pretty good logical defense of that umbrella of theological systems of intellectual belief within Christianity called Calvinism. I could probably do the same for many others. I could also find ways to shred and deconstruct many of the same, but at the end of the day, what does any of that matter? After all, I’m not trying to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. I’m not conducting a survey of religion for credit at a university.

I’m trying to determine who offers a description of the reality I experience that seems to more accurately capture my experience. I’m trying to discern who describes a God I am willing to worship and in whom I can find my life. Simply discovering that something is, in at least some sense, intellectually coherent, even if correct, is useless.

Finally, if you strip enough things away, I suppose we could find the common ground between Hinduism and Christianity and call them one as easily as we could strip things away and distill Christian belief to some sort of essence. But what does that accomplish? I haven’t actually made Hinduism and Christianity the same thing. They are still quite different. Instead I have created this new perspective on reality, even if I have not given it a name, which consists of the common beliefs between the two with everything else stripped away.

My approach is not really as difficult as it seems. We know from surveys and studies that between 30k-40k distinctly identifiable Christian denominations and non-denominations exist. That sounds like an unmanageably large number. How could anyone possibly explore each and every one of them? Well, the answer is that nobody ever could, just as no-one could ever possibly explore the path of every guru within Hinduism, past, present, and future. But there are factors that serve, in practice, to reduce those numbers.

First, there are a great many instances of distinct belief within that overall number that consist of a single group not connected organizationally with any others (often described as non-denominational) in locations around the world where I don’t live. As a simple matter of physical location, I don’t need to concern myself about those in my personal exploration. Of course, that leaves a large of number of traditions, denominations, associations, and local non-denominations, but the list is not as daunting as it seems.

Even within those remaining, they tend to aggregate into streams. Now, I do not mean that those who hold themselves distinct within a particular larger stream, such a Calvinism, are all the same. They aren’t. There can be quite a bit of variation and diversity. But that variation and diversity may not matter to me. For instance, I determined early in my exploration that the Calvinist God is not one I would ever worship, nor would I ever agree that lens accurately describes the reality around us. Once I understood that, the distinctions and variation of the individual denominations and non-denominations within that stream became largely irrelevant to me.

For very different reasons, it quickly became apparent to me that the broad Charismatic stream did not mesh with my perception of the Christian God and our reality. I would be hard-pressed to explain to anyone the differences between the different churches in that stream. I’ve read parts of the Book of Mormon (from a literary standpoint it’s pretty dreadful, so I’ve never made it through the whole thing) and otherwise learned enough about it to know that I’m not interested.

As a result, I’ve spent most of the past two decades exploring the streams that flow from Luther, from the Anglican Communion (including those coming out of it from people like the Wesleys), the pietists, and Roman Catholicism. Not too many years ago, I discovered the distinct nature of Orthodoxy and found within it many of the things I had not found in other streams. I didn’t even realize I was searching for some of them.

There are, of course, specific ideas and beliefs I reject because they simply do not factually describe the world. I do not mean to imply that sort of our discernment of reality and perception of things as they are doesn’t matter. It does. The modern “Young Earth Creationist” hypothesis is one such example. And I don’t particularly care if it’s being stated by a Baptist or an Orthodox (and I’ve read and heard it from both of those and many more). I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t spend a great deal of energy on the matter.

But most beliefs are not subject to such simple analysis and categorization.  The strands are woven into a basket and the whole basket must be examined and, if possible, tried.

In a lot of ways, it was Jesus who had worked his way into the chinks of the walls I had established against Christianity. I had not been looking for a new belief system. I was not exploring Christianity, especially at first, because I was seeking to understand reality. I had an understanding of sorts which had been disrupted, but not exactly overturned, by this strange Christian God. In a lot of ways, I’ve always been looking for the stream that actually described something I could recognize as the God who met me, who came to me.

Still, there are a lot of people in those thirty to forty thousand denominations and non-denominations. When I say something like Calvinism does not describe a God I would ever worship, what does it say about those within that Calvinist stream? What about those in the many different streams I do not accept? To me, that’s only different in degree from the question about those within Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of a host of different rivers of belief. I’ve written about that here and there in the past. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to touch on it again.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 47

Posted: June 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 47

96.  The things that distress us are not always the same as those that make us angry, the things that distress us being far more numerous than those which make us angry. For example, the fact that something has been broken, or lost, or that a certain person has died, may only distress us. But other things may both distress us and make us angry, if we lack the spirit of divine philosophy.

I think that’s a distinction we sometimes overlook. It’s not uncommon for us, in our distress, to become angry. To reduce it to a prosaic and simple level, it distresses us to lose our keys or break a dish. But those are not naturally matters of anger. We misplace stuff. Things get broken. These are the normal ebb and flow of life. How often, though, do we lose our keys and become angry that we cannot find them? Or we break a dish (much less when someone else breaks a dish) and are filled with fury? How can we combat the passion anger in those places where there is a natural connection between our distress and our anger if we are filled with anger when there is no such natural connection?


Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 1

Posted: June 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther wrote an interesting post about an exchange between Tim Challies and Ann Voskamp. If you haven’t read it, take a moment to do so. Especially as I read the comments that followed, I realized there seemed to be a pretty significant gap between the way I perceive and interact with the world around me and the way that others perceived the same. That’s not exactly a new experience for me, especially within a Christian context, but I still struggle to understand why. I’ve been mulling it in my mind and I think it goes back in part to basic cultural formation.

First, I hope everyone reading this post recognizes that whatever we term “religion” or its “non-religious” materialist (or, I suppose, possibly even non-religious and non-materialist) counterpart is not merely some private little thing informing a few edge beliefs and behaviors here and there within the life of a human being. Rather, those understandings, often operating well below any level of conscious thought, inform and shape our fundamental perception of reality and the ways we interact with the world around us.

Elsewhere, I have used pluralistic to describe my childhood cultural formation. It occurs to me, though, that people may not really understand what I mean. I also don’t reject the idea of relativism in at least some sense, but probably not as it seems to be commonly understood. As a starting point, I don’t accept and do not believe that every way of perceiving reality is a path on the same mountain, a piece of the same patchwork quilt, or any of the similar metaphors that are commonly used. That’s simply another overarching framework imposed on others as a way of forcing them to fit into your perception of reality.

Ultimately, the story it attempts to force on others is a pretty arrogant and coercive one. The story asserts that others only see a piece or a shadow of reality. They aren’t wrong, exactly, but if they could only see the whole tapestry or the whole mountain instead of just their little piece, they would be so much more enlightened. (I’ve never heard anyone present this perspective who did not seem to believe they were one of the enlightened ones who could perceive at least the existence of the mountain, if not actually see the whole mountain and all the paths upon it.) It’s simply a different way to tell other people — the ones who can’t see the whole tapestry or who do not even acknowledge the existence of such a tapestry — that they are wrong.

No, when I use the phrase pluralistic, I mean something much more straightforward. I look at those around me and I acknowledge that they have different ways of perceiving and interacting with reality. And those perspectives are actually different from each other.

Full stop.

I don’t attempt to force every perspective into a common framework of any sort or understand an individual perspective through the lens of an overarching narrative. I take every perspective on its own terms to the extent that I am able to do so. That does not mean I do not have my own perspective on this fundamental question about the nature of reality. I do. Over the course of my life, in fact, I’ve held a number of different ones. And I don’t take it for granted that the one I now hold is the one I will hold for the rest of my life. I believe I am getting at least a little closer to better understanding reality and don’t anticipate another drastic shift, but incremental change is almost certain.

In practice, that means that when I’ve explored, written about, or discussed different perspectives, I’ve done the best I could to first understand how that perspective described reality. When I’ve been exploring different beliefs, I’ve tried to spend some time living and acting as though those beliefs and everything they imply about the reality we inhabit were true. When I’ve simply been discussing other perspectives, I’ve tried to honestly and accurately compare them to the way I see things. I’m sure my success at those efforts has varied, but that’s my general goal.

I’ve read that incredulity toward metanarratives is a postmodern thing, so I suppose this perspective fits easily within the postmodern context of my overall cultural formation. Without any overarching framework, I simply take each view as it presents itself and allow it to have its own independent framework. Now that does not then imply that I believe every individual framework is somehow “right,” whatever that would mean in any particular context. In fact, since different narratives about reality are often radically different from each other, that whole idea strikes me as a really silly proposal. Is there even any common ground at all between a Hindu’s and a materialist’s perception of reality? If there is, it’s a pretty narrow strand. No, this simply means that I approach each perspective largely on its own terms and not on mine.

When I reached the point in my adult life when I acknowledged that as a result of some pretty negative experiences, I had simply discounted Christianity and never afforded it any true examination, I began slowly to attempt to do the same with it. (And that was always a struggle for me. I held a deep antipathy toward Christianity.)  It’s been almost two decades since that point now and the process is still ongoing. Christianity in our modern world is a truly confusing thing. It’s presented as a single religion, but when you approach it in the manner I describe above and simply allow the different groups to describe the God they worship in their own terms, there’s very little true cohesion or natural similarity. Different groups who present themselves as Christian (whatever that means to them) say different — and often radically different — things about God, Jesus, mankind, the nature of reality,  the purpose and effect of the Cross, and virtually everything else of any meaningful significance.

So what’s a poor pluralist to do?

I’ll explore that in the next post in this series.