One can rarely be sure how to go about paraphrasing Calvin. He’s an almost bottomless pit of nuance – so much so that it’s nearly impossible to summarize his thought without burying each sentence in qualifications. There is a tacit existentialism to him – especially in The Institutes – and he’s well-pleased when a thought stream grows dizzying and the fragile tensions he has drawn together become insufferable. The result is that Calvinism, in the broadest sense of the term, is a magnet’s coil – always, evidently, liable to burst at the seams, and yet, consistently, holding together. It’s ‘head in the clouds’ theology, to paraphrase a much-easier-to-summarize John Piper. The unfavorable appraisals that he has obtained in recent years seem, at best, reductive.
There’s a certain poetry to the disfavor into which he has fallen of late. Calvin spent his life swinging at enemies real and imagined. He is, in fact, a prime example of the demonic perils of demanding to be proven right. The man nursed an appetite for vindication. At every turn, his words were twisted by adversaries and misinterpreted by troglodytes. He longed, sometimes violently, to be understood. And now, more than ever, he isn’t.
He is know for his rigidity and supposed authoritarian bent. Fair enough. He was insufferably rigid. And rather heavy handed in governing Geneva. These facts are unremarkable. It shouldn’t surprise us that a 16th century intellectual was vociferously combative, nor that he ruled his Protestant theocracy with a half-clenched fist of iron. It should astound us that he was as remarkably flexible as he was – both as a theologian and politician. This flexibility makes him a complex read – not that any of his writings are terribly complicated, but his willingness to tease out possibilities and to take his readers along with him as he plumbs the depths of the transcendant beauty at center of the universe makes him an author who defies systematization. It is not that his thoughts are disorderly; they aren’t. And yet, no summary of Calvin has ever captured his many-layeredness. His nuances must be felt, not simply assented to. Calvinism is a lived-theology, and, as such, can only really be understood in hindsight, and from the inside.
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There are no good theodicies. As Austin Farrer observed half a century ago, nothing in the world can quite make up for the fact that the universe runs on suffering. There are also no pacifists. Not unless we so thoroughly restrict the term as to render it meaningless: Research has suggested that plants can feel pain and think thoughts, recognize relatives, and support one another by sharing photosynthesized sugars through a rather complex entangled-roots system. A rapidly multiplying group of animals have proven to be more nearly ‘sentient’ than we ever previously imagined. The boundaries between human and beast, and beast and plant are ever-narrowing. And no creature, human or otherwise, can exist without inflicting suffering on other creatures. One is reminded of a Noah and the Whale song:
When the baby’s born
Oh, let’s turn it to the snow
So that ice will surely grow
Over weak and brittle bones
Oh, let’s leave it to the wolves
So their teeth turn it to food
Oh, its flesh keeps them alive
Oh, its death helps life survive
Oh, the world can be kind in its own way
To understate: The classic ‘Problem of Evil’ is a bit passé. And in light of the sheer brutality of existence, so are theodicies. How can life be meaningful – or, even tolerable – in the face of such horrors? Can anyone stay sane who takes seriously the fact the the world literally runs on the suffering of creatures? It is not simply that unnecessary suffering pervades the goings-on of the current milieu. The ecosystem mainstains itself and adapts as creatures, some microscopic and others magnificent, fight and claw for resources. And there is no rest, no escape route: If creatures did not kill each other on purpose for resources, some would kill others by accident. Larger creatures would still crush smaller creatures by no fault of their own. Sizable creatures would still crush those too small to be seen by the naked eye. And worse yet, if creatures did not kill each other on purpose, even more would die than before. Plants are alive, but herbivores have to eat them. Trees feel the pain of losing bark to hungry herbivores – they emit an ultrasonic noise when feasted upon. Trees scream in horror when predators sink their teeth in and fungi drink them dry from the inside out. And even if plants did not think and feel and scream in pain, there would be unspeakable animal suffering if creatures stopped competing for resources. It is the bloody struggle for survival that guarantees that as few creatures die as is necessary. If they stopped killing each other, there would still be such a scarcity of resources that most of them would starve to death – a worse fate, even, than being mauled. No creature, anywhere, can exist, in any sense, without inflicting senseless suffering on other creatures.
How does one keep from going insane in this world? Interestingly enough, Calvin – who did not have access to the findings of modern science and had not read The Hidden Life of Trees – was remarkably in tune with the absurdity of the universe. I don’t, of course, mean that he grasped the particularly sordid depths of animal suffering. And yet, he grasped, long before it had become self-evident, that the world is precisely as fleeting, as cruelly indifferent, you might say, as Solomon had posthumously warned, and Job had (rather repetitively) chronicled. And yet – he was also the man who, long before Edwards, had declared that ‘there is not one blade of grass that does not exist for the glory of God.’ The world is a horrifying factory of barbarism that somehow, still, is an indefatigable repository of transcendant beauty. If you can accept it, the horrors that travel the veins of everything are a characteristic absurdity, which, though omnipresent, contradict the very fabrics of reality. God is love, and God is the Ground in which we have our being, and yet, to be at all is intolerably painful, and yet, the transcendent beauty at the bottom of everything beckons us onward into the absurdity in pursuit, we hope, of transcendence itself.
And so Calvin eschews theodicy, instead goading his readers on to something less clear and more satisfying. Endlessly qualified and characteristically dizzying, he says to the downtrodden – and, my paraphrase will be unsatisfactory here – ‘You will suffer, and often, perhaps unthinkably so, and others will suffer worse, too, unbearably. And God’s hand is in it, somehow – like all things, your suffering, seemingly needless, traces back to God’s eternal decree. And you have no grounds for protest, because He is the very Ground you stand on. But you can endure it and, by grace, find yourself hammered more nearly into the image of the bloodied Christ.’