Zen Calvinism

To show this is not just a Lutheran blog, I offer here Carl Trueman offering some semi-whimsical reflections about taking life as it comes, which he calls Zen Calvinism:

Like the Buddhist movement which shares the same name, Zen-Calvinism is a school of religious thought which allows its adherents to live at one with the world, untroubled in any ultimate sense by the slings and arrows which life throws their way. It is also counter-cultural and thus represents a deeply alternative lifestyle. Let me elaborate a little on this counter-cultural mentality.

At the heart of Zen-Calvinism is the belief that all human beings are morally flawed, unlike the worldviews projected by the celebrity-saturated commercial culture of the modern West. . . .Zen-Calvinists also accept that they are themselves no better than anyone else; and, understanding their own tendencies to treat everyone else in a less-than-perfect fashion, they will not be surprised when they are repaid in kind. Zen-Calvinists are at one with the depravity of the fallen universe; they expect to be treated as they know they have treated others.

The second major element of Zen-Calvinism is the mantras which we use to worship. Unlike those used to hide from reality, whether the latest Britney Spears ditty or some nostalgic song extolling the mythical virtues of yesteryear, the Zen-Calvinist mantra book is rooted in the 150 songs we find in the Bible’s book of Psalms. Here, both Zen master and novice find words to express their deepest longings, their profoundest fears, and their most passionate desires in words which, as inspired by God, have the divine imprimatur. . . .

The final element of Zen-Calvinism is perhaps the most important: the realization that all evil has been subverted for the greater good purposes of the God who loves his church. If the supreme crime of human history – the judicial murder of the very Son of God – can be used for the greatest good, then any other crime, sin or moral failing can also be frustrated and turned to good account. And that applies not just to the loutish and corrupt behaviour of others; it applies supremely to that of the Zen-Calvinist who reflects upon these things.

The most conservative Calvinists sing only Psalms in their worship. (Though they are actually metrical paraphrases: to Calvinists, I ask, why don’t you chant them, a musical form that allows you to sing non-metrical lines directly from the Bible? Surely you can’t think chanting the Psalms is too “Catholic” when it would allow you to be even more directly Biblical!) Anyway, I respect that practice, and it’s similar to our liturgical worship that consists nearly always of worshipping with texts from the Word of God.

Anyway, what do you think about this Zen-like serenity? What is distinctly Calvinist about this particular formulation? What is lacking (Christ’s Atonement? His presence? His Gospel? Suffering and the Cross?) and what difference would these make to the Christian’s serenity?

HT: Rob Spinney

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • S Bauer

    To me it sounds a bit too fatalistic and universalistic (which certainly is Zen-like enough). To say that the death and resurrection of Christ simply declares that God is going to make everything right in the end is not yet the Gospel. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus declares a justification by grace through faith in Him and what He has done for me. Christian serenity (“the peace that passes all understanding”) is experienced only by those who can confess what Luther says in the Explanation of the Second Article, “I believe that Jesus Christ…is my Lord, who has redeemed me…purchased and won me…that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness and innocence forever…”

    This view also leaves out any place for the Church and the Sacraments for being necessary for such serenity.

  • S Bauer

    To me it sounds a bit too fatalistic and universalistic (which certainly is Zen-like enough). To say that the death and resurrection of Christ simply declares that God is going to make everything right in the end is not yet the Gospel. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus declares a justification by grace through faith in Him and what He has done for me. Christian serenity (“the peace that passes all understanding”) is experienced only by those who can confess what Luther says in the Explanation of the Second Article, “I believe that Jesus Christ…is my Lord, who has redeemed me…purchased and won me…that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness and innocence forever…”

    This view also leaves out any place for the Church and the Sacraments for being necessary for such serenity.

  • http://www.measureofmydays.blogspot.com Jared

    Gene,

    I am pastor of a church that only sings Psalms (Immanuel Reformed Presbyterian in West Lafayette, IN).

    Our current psalter has some selections of chants within it.

    But the reason we don’t use more chants is the sheer difficulty of the musical form for western, Protestant ears. Personally, I would love to learn and use more chants. However, most of the folks in our church grew up with hymns or choruses in church. The jump to psalms-only is often difficult enough without adding a new style of singing on top of it.

    To partially answer the obvious question (“Well, isn’t that just a paraphrase then, and not the actual Psalms?”), we regularly update our psalter with the best translations possible. Never perfect, of course, but always improving in accuracy.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it immensely.

  • http://www.measureofmydays.blogspot.com Jared

    Gene,

    I am pastor of a church that only sings Psalms (Immanuel Reformed Presbyterian in West Lafayette, IN).

    Our current psalter has some selections of chants within it.

    But the reason we don’t use more chants is the sheer difficulty of the musical form for western, Protestant ears. Personally, I would love to learn and use more chants. However, most of the folks in our church grew up with hymns or choruses in church. The jump to psalms-only is often difficult enough without adding a new style of singing on top of it.

    To partially answer the obvious question (“Well, isn’t that just a paraphrase then, and not the actual Psalms?”), we regularly update our psalter with the best translations possible. Never perfect, of course, but always improving in accuracy.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it immensely.

  • Hyozan

    Stating that Zen is to live untroubled, fatalist and counter-cultural is superficial at best. The concepts of fate, good & evil, and God are irrelevant to Zen, the personal experience is primary, not an established, dictated way of practice and perception.

    If Zen is to be compared to any Christian teaching, it should be that of Johannes Eckhart: “to pass beyond God to a simple ground, a still desert, without any distinctions, out of which all things are created”.

    The mystic experience of Jesus in the desert as described in the Dead Sea scrolls is – in the eyes of Zen as in the eyes of Eckhart – an utterly human experience, not a divinely bestowed one. If it is to be called divine, it should be called so because of the fundamental human wisdom it reveals, not because it is supposedly special and exclusive to this one man. This human factor got lost in translation; many people don’t realize that in “I am THE son of God”, THE is an interpolation from the translator. The original Greek text in the scrolls is actually better translated as “I am ONE OF MANY sons of God”. To a Zen practitioner, it is inconceivable that wars would be fought over a grammatical preposition.

    Confession nor repentance are required nor requested to experience this inner peace. These things are, as Master Dogen would say, pictures of rice-cookies that will not still hunger. There is a lot of wet paint on this concept of Zen Calvinism, much like there is on the abuse of the term in yogurt brands and other consumer products nowadays.

  • Hyozan

    Stating that Zen is to live untroubled, fatalist and counter-cultural is superficial at best. The concepts of fate, good & evil, and God are irrelevant to Zen, the personal experience is primary, not an established, dictated way of practice and perception.

    If Zen is to be compared to any Christian teaching, it should be that of Johannes Eckhart: “to pass beyond God to a simple ground, a still desert, without any distinctions, out of which all things are created”.

    The mystic experience of Jesus in the desert as described in the Dead Sea scrolls is – in the eyes of Zen as in the eyes of Eckhart – an utterly human experience, not a divinely bestowed one. If it is to be called divine, it should be called so because of the fundamental human wisdom it reveals, not because it is supposedly special and exclusive to this one man. This human factor got lost in translation; many people don’t realize that in “I am THE son of God”, THE is an interpolation from the translator. The original Greek text in the scrolls is actually better translated as “I am ONE OF MANY sons of God”. To a Zen practitioner, it is inconceivable that wars would be fought over a grammatical preposition.

    Confession nor repentance are required nor requested to experience this inner peace. These things are, as Master Dogen would say, pictures of rice-cookies that will not still hunger. There is a lot of wet paint on this concept of Zen Calvinism, much like there is on the abuse of the term in yogurt brands and other consumer products nowadays.

  • Gman

    Zen Calvinism:

    You may be going to hell, it’s presumptuous to think you will ever know God’s grace, but practice good works anyway. Pretty simple.

  • Gman

    Zen Calvinism:

    You may be going to hell, it’s presumptuous to think you will ever know God’s grace, but practice good works anyway. Pretty simple.


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