In my former life as an evangelical (really more a fundamentalist) I was always interested in the debate over eternal security and whether or not one could lose their salvation. Even at the age of 13 or so, I would read anything I could find regarding the Calvinist/Arminian debate. Yes, weird, I know (this may explain a lot about my childhood…).
As an adult, and probably right before seminary, I became a fairly strident Calvinist. How, I wondered, was this not obvious to all Christians—that Calvin nailed it. This was the correct and only way, I surmised, to interpret scripture and understand the Christian narrative. Everything else was either heretical or just poor theology. Well, let’s just say a lot has changed since then. Now, I have mostly the same view of Calvin as David Bentley Hart.
This has been discussed elsewhere, but I think what attracted me to Calvinism was its systematic completeness and confidence. It was a whole circle. It encompassed everything, made sense of everything, with no remainder. It was a pretty box all tied up neatly and nicely with a bow on top. Of course, it was a pretty box full of horrendous suppositions, sort of like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where they peer inside the beautiful gold ark only to have their faces melted off.
Many of us don’t like loose ends. We don’t like it when the puzzle is almost complete, only to find one or two pieces are missing. We don’t like the book or movie that ends with some questions unanswered, or where the meaning is ambiguous with no resolution. We like our mysteries solved. We are uncomfortable with the awkward silence that accompanies those moments when something slightly off and completely unexpected is said or done. We prefer our division equations to have no remainders. And Calvinism is perfect in that sense.
Here’s the problem. There could hardly be a conception of the world further apart from reality than that. Life does have loose ends. Life has remainders; it has things left over and left behind. It has things that don’t fit nicely into boxes. To say that life is messy and complicated is to state the obvious. Just when we think we have everything in place, we notice something missing, something not quite right, something askew. A person normally present is absent. There is an awkwardness between us that wasn’t there before. A marriage falters.
Of course, Calvinism has an answer for all of the out-of-place things, the remainders, and all: God. God is sovereign and ultimately in charge of everything, from the movement of an atom to the implosion of a star. Whether the hand that helps one up, or the hand that slaps one’s face, God is the prime and final mover.
“Sovereignty,” becomes a synecdoche for God as pure will and motion. From the creation of existence, everything explodes out in streams of perfect preconceive and predestined lines, now moving zombie like toward their intended target and goal, whatever they might be, and nothing can change their trajectory. Think of God as pipe bomb, but completely in charge of each fragment. That this makes God the devil no Calvinist seems to notice. There is talk of a “permissive” will as opposed to a “perfect” will, but if it was our child’s life taken away, if it was one of us walking into a gas chamber at Auschwitz, do such distinctions even matter? Does knowing it was the “permissive” type help us?
The idea of a permissive and perfect will is an attempt to provide a reason for the unreasonable, something intelligible for what is morally unintelligible. These are all remainders, the things left over or left behind. All these sorts of things don’t fit into our equations and if we try and make them, we do the devil’s work. Equations with no remainders, in the moral economy of God’s goodness and love, is the devil’s math. The death of a child (or any living thing) doesn’t fit into a moral equation with no remainder, nothing left over.
What we see in modernity, with Western liberalism (meaning classic, not in any pejorative sense), is the attempt to build systems that are complete, whole, all encompassing (everything is mapped and graphed), and without remainder, nothing left over or left out. In many ways, this is commendable. However, in practice, it often ends up hiding or attempting to hide those who, for whatever reason (that’s another post), still end up as a remainder, something left over and behind. Because this can call the entire system into question, these are often pushed out of sight, out of the way.
We think of this as the margins—the edges. These are the loose ends. This is the other side of the tracks. This is the prison. This is the down-and-out part of town, skid row. This is where the factories lie silent and decaying. And where former employees now through opioids and other means, live in a painless dream state of days gone by. This isn’t main-street, but the alleyway. This is the people sleeping under freeways and on park benches. This is where a person knows their world is less somehow because of their skin color, birth place, or gender. These are the losers (so-called) and lost. These are the punished and poor—the remainder.
And in such a world, in such economies, this is exactly where we find Christ. Christ takes his place with the remainder, with the left over, the left out, and the left behind. Such is God’s math and God’s economy in a broken world. Look now, there he is. With the wounded and scarred, there he hangs, on the cross–outside the city, outside the camp. With arms stretched out, he embraces the captive, the down-and-out, the poor, the oppressed, and the lost. He takes in the whole world, as remainder. God doesn’t explain to us, God dies with us.
Only then can we talk of resurrections.
Rather than tight, neat, crisp, and even theologies of cosmic balance, with no skin in the game, with no remainder–we need messy, complicated, and mystical theologies of a beautiful and loving attention to the remainder. We need theologies that bleed right along with the left over, the left out, and the left behind. If our theologies don’t hang on crosses right next to those already doing the hanging, of what good are they? Only such theologies, I believe, are worthy of the God they try and articulate.
(This is a revised Patreon post)
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