The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).

Stealth Calvinist Ninjas (Or, Throw Me a Bone Here)

The title of this blog is ‘Reformedish’, and while I’ve traveled deeper into the Reformed tradition since its inception, I’ve tried to remain something of a “friendly Calvinist”, as my buddy Morgan put it. I know that the Christian tradition is broad and extends widely beyond the Reformed world. What’s more, there are a great number of non-Reformed theologians–Wesleyans like Fred Sanders, Thomas Oden, and my own prof Donald Thorsen–whose work I profit from greatly and would commend to anyone.  In other words, I try not to be “unreasonably Calvinist” about things. I don’t think I’ve written a post in the two years I’ve been blogging picking on, or even arguing with Arminians. I’ve even been the guy pleading with my Reformed compatriots to extend grace, be humble, and so forth.

Calvinist ninjas trained by John Piper to come take over your church.

Calvinist ninjas trained by John Piper come take over your church.

I say all that to caveat my comments on Roger Olson’s recent foray out from scholarship (some of which I honestly have found very helpful, insightful, and even-handed) into conspiracy-theory: “Beware of Stealth Calvinism!” (Subtle title, I know.) In the post he outlines a scenario in which Calvinists are sneakily trying to take over and convert innocent Arminian churches under the guise of combating Open theism (the view that God does not have an exhaustive foreknowledge of the future). What apparently is happening is that Calvinist pastors are drafting belief statements that are putatively designed to rule out an open theist view of foreknowledge (or lack thereof), and in the process are sneaking in statements that actually rule out Arminianism as well:

Under the guise of attempting to exclude open theists the denomination has asked its member churches to affirm the following:

We believe God’s knowledge is exhaustive; that He fully knows the past, present, and future independent of human decisions and actions. The Father does everything in accordance with His perfect will, though His sovereignty neither eliminates nor minimizes our personal responsibility.

…my main objection is that no Arminian should sign such a statement and any church that adopts it is automatically affirming Calvinism—whether they know it or not. Only a Calvinist (or someone who believes in the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty) can say that God’s knowledge is independent of human decisions and actions. Even a Molinist cannot say that and mean it.

Now this, Olson takes it, can only be an act of incompetence, or is evidence of a nefarious intent to convert unsuspecting Arminians to Calvinism. He continues:

This appears to me to be another case, on a grander scale, of stealth Calvinism.
…This statement (above in italics) is probably being promoted as a guard against open theism, but it’s much, much more than that. If adopted by my church I would have to give up my membership—not because I’m an open theist (I’m not) but because whether intentionally or not it excludes classical Arminianism. It makes any church that adopts it automatically, de facto, Calvinist.

Arminians—beware! This tactic is continuing among evangelicals. Privileging Calvinism is already the case in many evangelical organizations that have always included both Calvinists and Arminians.

Olson’s a competent theologian, so I won’t argue with his contention that he’d have to give up his membership at the church should they adopt the statement. I suspect some theologians might dispute his judgment and say that an Arminian could affirm it, but I’ll let that alone for more qualified hands than my own.

What I want to point out in the middle of this is the bald-faced cynicism of the post. Here we don’t simply have a theological correction, dispute, or caution about inadvertent theological drift. No, here we have a warning about Calvinist tactics in general, about their alleged strategic maneuvering to crowd out and stamp out divergent thought by “stealthily” taking advantage of people’s ignorance.

I know I’m a lot younger, but if we’re dealing in anecdotes, I suppose part of the reason I find the whole thing silly is that three out of the four Christian colleges nearby me, including my own seminary, are explicitly non-Reformed, and the fourth is definitely blended. Fuller has, maybe a few Reformed theologians, certainly not of the militant sort. They’re not cranking out Calvinists ready to take over churches there. But maybe that’s just a Southern California thing.

In any case, like I said, I’ve been the guy who’s written the “Hey Reformed guys, stop being jerks so people will pay attention” post. I’ll be honest, I don’t regret writing it for a moment. I stand by it and would continue to issue a plea for helpful humility in conversation with our brothers and sisters in “other rooms of the house” as Lewis put it. What I will say is that posts like these give the lie to the idea that Calvinists are the only ones running around making accusations, imputing false motives and so forth, about their fellow believers. I don’t doubt there’s some churches here and there where something like this has happened. I mean, just about everything has happened in church before. But Olson is here taking about some widespread conspiracy to take over churches by subterfuge and deceit. Honestly, it’d be silly if it weren’t so shameful–especially for a scholar of his stature. At best it’s uncharitable, and at worst it’s cheap slander.

I’m reminded of a post by Todd Pruitt a while back writing on the ‘mean Calvinist’ trope:

But I don’t buy the hype. I suppose we could trade anecdotes. For example I could write posts about the fact that the meanest and most self-righteous people I have ever encountered are Arminians. But what would that accomplish? Honestly, some of these posts sound a bit like, “I thank you Lord that I am not like this mean Calvinist.” What is more, until prominent Arminian theologians stop publicly comparing “the god of Calvinism” with Satan, then the reports of mean Calvinists are going to ring a bit hollow.

(By the way, Olson’s one who keeps going on about the God of Calvinism as “the devil”, or a “moral monster.” For an alternative approach to arguing with Calvinists, see this essay by Fred Sanders.)

Where am I going with all of this? Well, I guess what I’m saying is, if you want Calvinists or Reformed types to cool it, be charitable, and so forth, maybe don’t give credence to, or traffic in this sort of thing. Calling for a unified line of attack on the other side usually doesn’t do much for the two linking arms for the sake of the gospel.

In other words, I’ll do my part, but throw me a bone here?

Soli Deo Gloria