Fr. Alvin Kimel, whom some readers may know from his former blog Pontifications, has written a new post discussing why he does not believe in absolute predestination. It is, as are all writings of Fr. Kimel, excellent and well worth the time for those with interest in such things.
More specifically, it voices with much greater precision the same somewhat unformed impulse behind my own rejection of my former Calvinism. It was a revulsed impulse, and though I have not put the concentration into formulating precisely why that is (beyond a sense that it profoundly offends God’s justice and love and, hence, God’s core character), Fr. Al has: the doctrine of absolute predestination makes God capricious and unreliable–it makes of God a horror from which humanity needs salvation! It is responsible for the unhealthy fear in which at least Western Christians hold God (not the fear which more precisely signifies awe, and which is itself proper). This, in turn, lies at the root of the Medieval theological troubles which lead up to the Protestant Reformation–which unfortunately kept the same poison for itself, but dressed it in new clothes (I’m lookin’ at you, Calvin). Of course, Fr. Kimel spells all of this out in much greater detail.
From a biblical point of view, and going out on my own here, the hyper-individualistic atomization of humanity necessary to consider this doctrine any form of “good news” whatsoever is utterly foreign to all conceptions of salvation in the Old Testament, in which salvation is communal and, what’s more, spreads via Israel through the whole world. To make of the election of the few and damnation of the many an occasion for celebrating God’s justice is reprehensible and, I believe, diabolically unbiblical. The Psalms are un-prayable to such a God, since we can never really hold the trust in his mercy, his hesed*, that the psalmist holds. The sweeping language of love throughout the Gospels themselves is utterly subverted.
Important too in Fr. Kimel’s article is a side issue: that the Church Fathers can be wrong. St. Augustine, wise and holy as he may have been, hit his great stumbling block while dealing with the Pelagian heresy (and, in my opinion at least, with his favor for force in dealing with the Donatists). There is much that is commendable in Augustine’s writings, but this teaching is not. It is tragic the extent to which it has been virtually unquestioned among wide swaths of Protestants, who often claim St. Augustine as a sort of proto-Protestant (sorry, but no), and never draw on his many, many ancient colleagues of equal and greater theological stature. But I digress. With Fr. Kimel and others, I think absolute predestination and its attendant troubles are problems for all Western Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike.
What’s kind of maddening is that, when I’ve done some reading by hardline predestinarians, it all seems to come down to “if you question this reading of Romans, that just means you’re one of those ‘hardened’ and prideful people who refuse to understand it right, and can’t understand it right; and furthermore it’s all your fault and you deserve what you get!” Where the Love that draws the Infinite to flesh in order to draw flesh into the Infinite fits in this kind of theology I do not know. I am thankful, though, for Fr. Alvin and his lucid and wise writing. Here’s hoping for more new posts.
*Hesed is a complicated word to translate, but the NRSV’s “steadfast love” is a good start. It carries connotations of dogged insistence, relentless pursuit–in a good way. It is operative throughout the Hebrew scriptures in God’s unfailing claim on the people of Israel, through anger and tenderness alike, through the purifying fires of Lamentations, but always to the end of life in a community of love between Creator and creation. The image of the “hound of heaven” is fitting. H/t to John Goldingay.