But I'd like to say something nice about Calvinism today. Less about Calvinism as a doctrinal stance than about its emotional appeal. Particularly when we confront pain and suffering the the world.
My observation in brief: When we face suffering some people like to go high and some people like to go low.
A few years ago I was helping lead a study of the Psalms in our adult bible class at church. We were using the categories of Walter Brueggemann grouping the Psalms under the headings psalms of orientation and psalms of disorientation. Psalms of orientation are the psalms of unmitigated praise. YHWH reigns supreme in these psalms and the world is well-ordered. By contrast, the psalms of disorientation are the psalms of protest and lament where YHWH has gone missing and the world seems to be falling apart.
As a Winter Christian (for more about "Sick Souls, Winter Christians and Saints of Darkness" see Chapter 6 in The Authenticity of Faith) I gravitate toward the psalms of disorientation. And I had assumed, going into the study on the Psalms, that anyone facing suffering or difficulties would also gravitate toward these psalms. When you are in distress you'd go to psalms that articulated that distress, right? That's what I do, so I just assumed everyone would do this.
But I was wrong. What I discovered was that many people go to the psalms of orientation--psalms of praise which declare God's control and sovereignty over a well-ordered creation--for comfort and solace in times of trouble. That struck me as strange. Why, when your world is falling apart, would you sing songs of a well-ordered and well-governed world?
The answer, as I listened to people talk about this, how they used various psalms during times of trouble, was that some people want to take in the big picture, the view of heaven, in the face of suffering. That is, they want to see far down the road to see that all will be well in the end. That, despite appearances today, God is ultimately in control. And you get this view best in the psalms of orientation. To be sure, you sing these psalms with tears in your eyes. You weep them out. You offer them up as hope. But this long view, the view from heaven, helps you get through the day.
Like I said, some people like to go high.
But many others like to go low. That is, they like to stick close to the suffering on earth, to the painful human experience. The psalms of lament do this. They take the perspective of earth looking up to a blank and silent heaven. These psalms shake their fists at the sky. For many people, these are the psalms that best articulate the experience of their suffering. These words best fit their tears.
So some people like to go high and some people like to go low. Some people in the face of suffering want to climb into heaven and look down from God's sovereign vantage-point. Others want to stay close to the pain and scream at an empty sky.
Is one way better than the other? Is one way more honest or truthful?
I used to judge those who went high in the face of suffering. I felt that their appeals to God sovereignty were a form of denial, fantasy, and escapism. A too-easy move toward "God is in control and all is for the good." To be sure, I think this is often the case. I wrote a whole book in The Authenticity of Faith about how and why this happens. But over the years I've grown more understanding when people go high.
To be clear, I don't like it when others go high on behalf of those who are suffering. You don't say in trying to comfort the one in pain, "God willed this and it's for the best." You don't use the psalms of orientation as existential band-aids to patch people up. That's obscene. You don't go high for other people. If they want to climb into heaven to take in the view, great, but don't you do it for them.
What I'm talking about here is when those who are suffering go to the psalms of orientation on their own. When people do this I don't think they are being naive or escapist. Because, like I said above, I've seen how these psalms of praise are sung through tears. How they express hopes and longings as much as certainty and conviction. I've seen how these psalms, when paired with tears, are a sort of lament, a deep longing and cry for a place and time when pain shall be no more. A way of expressing the hope, in the words of Julian of Norwich, that "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”