I’ve been writing about Calvin and Calvinism lately, and I mean to write more. I have lately been spending time reading and rereading Calvin’s chapters on divine providence with which he concludes the first book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’ll get back to that and to Calvin’s approach to scripture in subsequent posts, but in the past week two essays related to what I have been writing about crossed my path, and I think that we, those of us who care about such things, should take note of them.
These essays were not written for a specifically Christian or even religious readership. One, an essay by Tim Keller, long-time pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, was published in the New York Times. The other, by Marilynne Robinson, appears in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Both in remarkable ways address the present peril of our nation and the current cultural moment.
Keller’s essay is the slighter of the two, a teaser for his book Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (Viking, 2022). The essay, “What Too Little Forgiveness Does to Us” (New York Times, December 3, 2022), begins with two mass shootings less than a month apart in Virginia, one in Chesapeake and the other in Charlottesville. Although the two shooters were quite different, Keller notes that both seemed to harbor “bitter resentment and unresolved anger toward individuals, groups, or even society as a whole.”
While acknowledging that gun violence cannot be wholly explained by these sorts of unrelieved resentments, Keller suggests that our culture increasingly discourages forgiveness. And such a society, he says, “a society that has lost the ability to extend and receive forgiveness, risks being crushed by the weight of recriminations and score settling.”
He doesn’t mention ex-President Donald Trump by name in the essay, but he seems to have Trump and the Trump style of political engagement in mind when he says, near the end of the essay, “If forgiveness in small things and large were deeply embedded in our culture, it would transform us politically, ending the demagogy that never admits wrongdoing and mocks and belittles one’s opponents.”
Keller notes as well the complicity of the church in the unforgiving spirit of our age. He says:
The Christian church today is not the model of forgiveness that it was at times in the past. God uses kindness to lead people’s hearts to change (Romans 2:4), but taken as a whole, today’s American Church does not.
Marilynne Robinson’s much longer essay also addresses the present cultural moment, and in the essay she rounds to the topic of forgiveness, but it’s not forgiveness that is her focus. It’s creation and creation’s God. She calls the essay, “A Theology of the Present Moment” (The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2022). She means to articulate for a secular readership a way to think about God.
In doing so, she invokes Calvin, her “favorite theologian,” and indeed her theology breathes Calvin’s fascination with creation. Calvin wrote at a time when a new science was beginning to be articulated, Copernican rather than Ptolemaic, and Robinson in writing about creation seizes on what is new in the science of our own time, quantum theory rather than the mechanistic models of earlier centuries.
In beginning her essay, Robinson notes that in the present cultural moment neither science nor religion is doing well. She says of our time, “Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant.” She notes that in a segment of our population, science is mistrusted. And religion is often worse. “Religion,” she says, “has been largely overtaken by a belligerency darker and cruder than obscurantism . . ..”
This is tragic. I am reminded of the words of the Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” these perhaps overworked lines:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.
In reaction to the failure both of science and theology, Robinson invokes the story of Eden, reworking it for today. She notes Calvin’s idea that our world is “the theater of God’s glory.” A theater is a space “circumscribed so that what passes within it can seem or be comprehensible and meaningful.” A theater gives us a frame within which to consider life. It’s a small space for considering larger things.
For us, for the human race, that frame is the earth. Robinson calls it “our little quiet,” but “within our little quiet . . . we have been up to all sorts of things, testing the limits of good and evil, filling the calm with havoc and disruption, making music and poetry.”
For Robinson, there is a grandeur about life on earth. Within a universe that seems inconceivably large and cold, “floats tiny Earth, gleaming and blooming gaudily in a universe where nothing else blooms.” We are, she suggests, “the consciousness of the universe, its sole aperture of awareness of itself.” At least, this is true as far as we know. We and “Little Earth, alone in an indifferent universe, flaunting its jewels.” The earth by this token is “a garden in the midst of measureless reaches of sterility,” an Eden, perhaps the only Eden there has ever been. Robinson remarks, “If we lost Eden once, we can do it again.”
But where is God in this? For a culture that has too often pitted science against theology, how can we begin to think in ways that honor both science and theology? It’s here that Robinson makes two compelling arguments.
The first has to do with time. In her discussion of time, Robinson lingers on contingency—the consequences of one event for another. She notes many consider their lives inconsequential. They—or so they think—live and die without making much difference in the world. But, Robinson says, if that is what you think, don’t count on it. Consequences lead to consequences. Robinson mentions the Joseph story. The action taken by the brothers of Joseph to sell him to the Ishmaelites (or the Midianites; the story goes back and forth between the two) leads not only to the brother’s own rescue in a time of famine but to the eventual enslavement of their heirs and thence to Moses and to the Exodus. As she puts it, “One cruel prank opened into a major event in the history of the world.” She cites the Puritan, John Flavel, who said that we will be judged twice, “once when we die and once when everything we have said or done has had its final effect.” The effects of our actions can be long, very long indeed.
With this in mind, Robinson, as she often does, takes down the entire Twitter-verse, filled as it often is with unfounded rumor and conspiracy theories. “Whisper a cruel rumor,” she says, “who knows what force it will acquire if it lives.” Would that those who pass on unfounded rumor, who troll others for the thrill of it, who prefer nicknames to arguments, would consider the consequences of their actions.
This is pure Calvin, the notion that God takes us seriously. Judgment in the end is not some arbitrary pronouncement from above. It’s simply telling the truth. Robinson reminds us that “God, aloof from time, need not await the working out of the effects of our lives to know what, humanly speaking, their consequences will be.” She adds, “The beauty of this view of things is that it acknowledges the reach and potency of our lives.”
“The reach and potency of our lives.” The thought tends to concentrate the mind. What are the consequences of my words, indeed, the words I now write? What are the consequences of my actions? We are, each of us in our own way, powers in the universe with the capacity to build or to destroy. One day the truth will out. It inclines one to modesty and plain speech.
But is there room for God in our science, in our world as understood by our science? This is finally the burden of Robinson’s reflections in her essay. She, like Calvin before her, reaches for the best in the science of moment to understand not only earth but heaven. She says what is always true: “. . . For the theists among us there are no grounds for denying that every true thing we know about creation is relevant to an understanding of the nature of God.”
The ”true thing” she reaches for is the quantum concept of entanglement. Entanglement is the way that quantum events that may occur at great distance from each other are connected. This is the classic Albert Einstein-Neils Bohr debate. Split a photon and let them separate from each other across the universe. If the one particle is observed to “spin” one way, the other will spin the other. Einstein claimed that like billiard balls this was determined at impact. Bohr claimed that the opposite was true. The particles remain connected, entangled. When the one decides to spin one way; the other must spin the other. In contemporary physics Bohr is regarded as having been proved right in this argument.
None of this makes intuitive sense, of course. Robinson readily admits, as do I, that she doesn’t fully understand what this means. But what it suggests is that the intuition we have long held and that is at the heart of the way the scriptures portray creation—the intuition that the universe is intimately interconnected in ways we do not entirely understand—is at least hinted at by our science.
At our level of reality, rocks and trees and our own bodies seem to be made of solid stuff. But below the solidity of the surface of these things they are abuzz with particles that, in Robinson’s phrase, “wink in and out of existence.” And if entanglement exists at that level, could it not be true at other levels—at the level of God?
At the end of the essay, Robinson turns to the biblical portrayal of creation as the taming of Leviathan—the chaos monster. She mentions Isaiah 27:1, Psalm 89:9-10, and especially the speeches of God in Job 38-41. “In all these instances,” she says, “there are images of the calming or exclusion of primal chaos, which is how unmodified reality would seem if it could be imagined in all the freedom and power hinted at by entanglement—simultaneity, nonlocality, and who knows what else—and imagined at the same time as yielding time and space.” “Perhaps,” she concludes, “with the ancient intuition that the world was created there was an intuition of what this meant—ultimately, that inchoate possibility was made a vineyard, a garden.”
An Eden. What if this is our Eden, our always Eden? An Eden into which we have introduced strife and warfare, murder and mayhem, poisons in the earth and too much carbon in the air? And what if the story of the Bible means that God remains loyal to us and to our Eden, entangled with the cords of love, as Hosea has it? Then will we not stop for a moment to consider what we are doing to each other and to our Eden?
These are Robinson’s questions for our time. She is not asking them only of religious people. The questions are far too important to ask them only of some and not others. And for these questions she needs the full resources of science and theology, of modern thought and ancient story. In this way she is, I think, closer to Calvin than many Calvinists and to the scriptures than many who claim to believe the Bible.