Predestination Shmedestination

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Kafka

If your pastor asks you to lead a Theology on Tap (God conversations at the local bar with fellow church members), don’t chose predestination. Trust me on this. When I saw it on the list of possible topics I thought: “Well, why not? It’s fascinating and profoundly unsettling and just kinda gnarly. And nobody likes to talk about it.” I thought it would be fun-ish. I should have paused when beautiful Idaho gal, she who feigns interest in (almost) all my ruminations asked, “Really? . . . Do I have to go?” (She found something else to do that evening.) Stubbornly, I spent a week or two wallowing in commentaries and creeds and Calvin’s Institutes. I figured I could make Predestination winsome. (Really.) And truthfully, it just didn’t work. At all. There were furrowed brows and sighs and about 15 minutes into the conversation I wondered about the etiquette of shotgunning beers while leading “Theology on Tap.”  (Then I remembered it was a Presbyterian gathering, so no problem.)

To be fair, predestination – God elects some and not others to eternal life and there’s not a whiff of anything to be done about it – does make one squirm. But here’s the rub: predestination in some form is a narrative thread that runs right through the biblical storyimages. No amount of exegetical jiu-jitsu can deflect its existence. Calvin didn’t create it, he simply reported it. And very few evangelicals want to spend a beer-length conversation discussing why. I will always be grateful to my evangelical heritage. It mediated the good news of God’s love for me and for all. But evangelicals do tend to soften the hard edges of unpalatable doctrines. And revelation, if it is actually revelatory, should probably shock and trouble us. “You cannot see my face,” God says to Moses, “for no one may see me and live.” The shepherds were “sore afraid” when the angels appeared. Uzzah died when he reached out to steady the ark. God’s holiness means more than some sort of vague luminescence. Paul tells us that all creation groans in anticipation of something more.

Predestination is certainly more. It has myriad forms and profoundly troubling corollaries, many of which Christians have used to unscrupulous ends, almost always self-serving. But it isn’t in any sense foreign to Protestants. The front end of the idea – that God and God alone authors salvation – is the necessary outgrowth of sola gratia, the belief that if salvation means anything at all, it’s predicated only on grace. As a Protestant, I’m supposed to believe in sola gratia. But I don’t, not really. I believe in “grace and . . .,” grace and the fact that I choose Jesus, grace and I believe, grace and right belief, grace and being excruciatingly nice. But grace as the very ground of my choice as well? Grace as the necessary precursor to faith? The Reformed tradition calls this prevenient grace and it throws a grenade in the midst of the cherished certainty that I control, in some form, my own destiny.

To this the biblical witness says, clearly,”Nope.” Consider the lilies. Consider the grass in the field that flourishes like a flower, for a breath, and then is gone forever. Consider too the tax collector and the thief on the cross.

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  And in his final moments, the thief on the cross said only, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Both were redeemed and neither added anything to the equation except need.

Predestination hints at the possibility that any movement toward God requires God’s movement toward me. How this works is entirely incomprehensible, which leads not to despair but to dependance on a Creator whose will and ways are beyond my knowing – or, in a word, faith. It is an uncomfortable faith, to be sure. But it avoids the common spiritual horrible that equates my “tribe” with those who have entered the kingdom and relegates “the other” (those less pious, humble, righteous, orthodox, etc.) with those outside of the kingdom. Jesus’ caution could not have been more clear: “Many who say to me Lord, Lord will not enter the kingdom.” Who’s in?  Who’s out? Who knows? Grace is not ours to dispense.

Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and Lila (no hard edged, pulpit thumping Calvinist  but a Pulitzer Prize winning writer) says this of predestination.

Predestination is more attractive to me because it makes everything mysterious. We do not know know how God acts or what he intends, toward ourselves or toward others. We know only that his will precedes us, anticipates us, can never forget or look away from us.

I like that. A lot. The story goes that Calvin offered predestination as a pastoral word. The Reformation had stripped the sacraments of the power to communicate grace, objectively, and left believers without hope and solace. Predestination was firm ground, he believed, for those adrift in doubt and fear. There is some comfort in the doctrine, to be sure, but it is not mine to own, only to hope beyond hope that it is in some sense true. And if it is true then it says absolutely nothing about me, but points to a Creator who is forever turning all the noise – in the world, in my life – into something more, something true and meaningful and, in the end, beautiful.

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