A Realistic Optimism

or Calvinists are Never Surprised


“A Puritan confronted by failure and ambivalence could find his faith justified by the experience, could feel that the world had answered his expectations.”

Marilynne Robinson writes:

“The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity—’depravity’ means ‘warping or distortion’—was directed against casuistical enumerations of sins, against the attempt to assign them different degrees of seriousness. For Calvinism, we are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace. This is a harsh doctrine, but no harsher than others, since Christian tradition has always assumed that rather few would be saved, and has differed only in describing the form election would take. It might be said in defense of Christianity that it is unusual in a religion to agonise much over these issue of ultimate justice, though in one form or another every religion seems to have an elect.

The Calvinist model at least allows for the mysteriousness of life. For in fact life makes goodness much easier for some people than for others, and it is rich with varieties of cautious or bland or malign goodness, in the Bible referred to generally as self-righteousness, and inveighed against as grievous offenses in their own right. The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain.

A Puritan confronted by failure and ambivalence could find his faith justified by the experience, could feel that the world had answered his expectations. We have replaced this and other religious visions with an unsystematic, uncritical and in fact unconscious perfectionism, which may have taken root among us while Stalinism still seemed full of promise, and to have been refreshed by the palmy days of National Socialism in Germany, by Castro and Mao—the idea that society can and should produce good people, that is, people suited to life in whatever imagined optimum society, who then stabilise the society in its goodness so that it produces more good people, and so on. First the bad ideas must be weeded out and socially useful ones be put in their place. Then the bad people must be identified, especially those that are carriers of bad ideas. Societies have done exactly the same thing from motives they considered religious, of course. But people of advanced views believe they are beyond that kind of error, because they have not paused to worry about the provenance or history of these advanced views. Gross error survives every attempt at perfection, and flourishes. No Calvinist could be surprised. No reader of history could be surprised…

Optimists of any kind are rare among us now. Rather than entertaining visions, we think in terms of stopgaps and improvisations. A great many of us, in the face of recent experiences, have arrived with a jolt at the archaic-sounding conclusion that morality was the glue holding society together, just when we were in the middle of proving that it was a repressive system to be blamed for all our ills.”

(“Puritans and Prigs” in The Death of Adam, pp. 155-159)

Christians who are “postmillennial” (the gospel of Christ will continue to take cultural ground and finally be vindicated in history) are not wearing rose-coloured glasses. Postmill not only understands the strength of the gospel through the Spirit of Christ as the true mortar that builds Christian culture, it is not disheartened by the failures of a Christian culture that attempts further progress without Christ. Because this is also, in fact, vindication of the gospel. In the big picture, just as it is in any Christian’s life, this realistic—messy—process of trial and error is part of humanity’s growth to maturity. The gospel-leaven will eventually fill the whole lump as Christ promised.

A postmillennial Calvinism is a realistic optimism.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord. (Zechariah 4:6)

(See also A Priesthood of All Believers Can Be Messy – 1.)

Share Button

4 Responses to “A Realistic Optimism”