This is an odd thought, but what happens if we attempt to understand Calvinism as a particularly rigid and unforgiving mode of ‘Gnosticism’? What if part of its success relies on its ability to give voice to a fundamentally gnostic experience of the sacred? I am no fan of Calvinism, but what if its problem lies not so much in its theological intuitions as its practical and rigid disciplining of them?
This disciplining seems to happen on two levels. First, there is simply the theological debates within Calvinistic movements, the active force to convince people having religious experiences that Calvinism provides a proper voice to it. Second, there is the understanding of the history of that on the part of those outside it, on the part of historians and readers of history to compartmentalize changes to make it easier to think about.
The second may be the more insidious of the two, because it allows us to tell a comfortable story about Christianity’s life in the United States which we can affirm or rebel against without having to dwell upon. But if there is a dimension of personal and communal religious experience which remains utterly irreducible to theological and historical efforts to subsume it?
The smooth landscape of U.S. religiosity fractures, bend, break, like the heaving earth when mountains are born. The denominational affiliations become less useful terms for grasping this personal and communal stew and the seemingly marginal elements of American spiritual history become fused to the liveliness of that. Look to the Burned Over District to see the complicated interactions that will contribute to the birth of spiritualism, evangelicalism, Mormonism, Primitive Baptists, Spiritual Baptists, and many others.
There is a theological alternative that emerges from this loosening of Calvinism’s hold. We can give voice to a rich, anti-missionary strand within that world, one that does not (and cannot) demand conversion. While it is easy to mock Calvin’s predestination, there is a less rigid application of it that still seems vital, namely that the spiritual destiny to which we are called predates our conscious being and cannot be altered by mere will.
There are many ways to live in such a world. One, of course, if well-known to us, the violent privileging of an elect over everyone else. There is another. If there is more than one spiritual destiny, more than one path and people, than election once again becomes universal, except it is not election to the same work. In the face of that, violence emerges as moral narrow-mindedness, an inability to humble ourselves before the majesty of the election’s diversity bolstered by ego-fueled imagination.
Instead of trying to copy and tear at each other, a commitment to self-direction and cooperation.
More an ideal under which to strive than a state of affairs to be realized, I suspect.