Zen Calvinism

Article by   June 2006

Returning home late one night in the early summer, I found that my van's transmission had died. Fortunately, it happened on my driveway; unfortunately I needed to be at the airport at 6am the following morning, which meant that I was placed almost permanently in the debt of the colleague who kindly crawled out of bed at 5 am and drove me the 35 miles to Philadelphia International. Still, it's an ill wind that blows no-one any good, and it gave me the opportunity to replace the soccer-mom minivan with a slightly cooler, though just as antiquated, Dodge Neon. Given my compulsive need for almost constant rock music, it is also useful to have a four-cd capacity in the audio system.

While doing the paperwork at the dealership for the "new" car, the salesman, noticing my accent, asked me what had brought me to the US. Teaching at a seminary, I responded. Well, well, he said, what a coincidence - the company for which he worked and from whom I was buying the car was a Christian company, owned by a Christian, and reflecting Christian values. At this point, I almost walked out - a Christian company? Give me an honest Jew, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, tree-hugger, or Memphis-based Presleyterian worshipper of "the King," but, when it comes to service and integrity in business, keep me away from Christians!

Why do I say this? Well, when I cast my eye over the 22 years of my time as Christian, I realize I've just about seen it all done by those who name the name of Christ: homosexuality, adultery, stalking, theft, lies, sexual abuse of minors, threats, fraud, wife-beating, defamation, bullying, back-biting, greediness, heresy, and general all-round loutishness. And as for the language of grace and forgiveness - well, as American talk show guests might say, "Don't even go there!" Frankly, I have lost count of the times that such language has been used to excuse and then baptize and sanctify substandard behaviour, moral and professional. The bottom line: in my experience, Christians can be horrible people; and, basically, they cannot be trusted to sell you chewing gum, let alone a used car.

It's disappointing, given that Christianity claims to hold the key to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Even more disappointing, one might add, when the church also claims to represent the claims of a righteous and holy God on earth, and to foreshadow the great heavenly community which will be brought into full and final existence at the end of time. Given all this, I should surely have stood up and walked out of the car-dealership and taken my business elsewhere.

But I didn't; and the reasons I didn't was simply this - first, my wife is Scottish and knows a good (i.e., cheap) car when she sees one; and, second, I am a committed Zen-Calvinist, and thus able to face life as it really is without being particularly disturbed by it. Indeed, it is only my Zen-Calvinism which keeps me sane (though some might dispute the appropriateness of applying that word to myself).

So what is Zen-Calvinism? Like the Buddhist movement which shares the same name, Zen-Calvinism is a school of religious thought which allows its adherents to live at one with the world, untroubled in any ultimate sense by the slings and arrows which life throws their way. It is also counter-cultural and thus represents a deeply alternative lifestyle. Let me elaborate a little on this counter-cultural mentality.

At the heart of Zen-Calvinism is the belief that all human beings are morally flawed, unlike the worldviews projected by the celebrity-saturated commercial culture of the modern West. In the latter, imperfection is conceived of as a lack of happiness, in turn understood as lack of access to products, broadly conceived, be they fast cars, fame, beauty, or power. At root, we could say that, in the West, human imperfection comes increasingly to be seen as a lack of money - because money can buy any or all of these things and thus enable us to become perfect. In fact, of course, this culture is itself profoundly flawed and ultimately self-defeating - money, like crack cocaine, gives short-term fixes but the experience of buying something lasts only a moment. And, for the record, I believe this is because it is not the buying of products which ultimately drives consumerism; it is the buying of products which does this (that's one for a future Wages piece). When I buy something, then for a split second, I become god; I, Carl Trueman, use my divine powers to transubstantiate a worthless piece of paper or plastic into a loaf of bread, a book, a car, a house. This momentary self-deification satisfies my idolatry of self, but only for a moment; it has to be repeated again and again and again if I am to keep myself persuaded that I am indeed god, master of all I survey.

In contrast to this, Zen-Calvinism understands that the human predicament is not solved by such rampant consumption; in fact, this consumption is itself a manifestation of the human desire to throw off responsibility to God and deify humanity itself. It also acknowledges the futile nature of this consumption, that the fleeting kicks and thrills it gives are in the end just so many reminders of our own mortality. In its place, it acknowledges its morally flawed nature, its constant tendency to placing itself at the center of the universe, and puts dependence upon God, not consumptive flight from God, up front and central. Zen-Calvinists also accept that they are themselves no better than anyone else; and, understanding their own tendencies to treat everyone else in a less-than-perfect fashion, they will not be surprised when they are repaid in kind. Zen-Calvinists are at one with the depravity of the fallen universe; they expect to be treated as they know they have treated others.

The second major element of Zen-Calvinism is the mantras which we use to worship. Unlike those used to hide from reality, whether the latest Britney Spears ditty or some nostalgic song extolling the mythical virtues of yesteryear, the Zen-Calvinist mantra book is rooted in the 150 songs we find in the Bible's book of Psalms. Here, both Zen master and novice find words to express their deepest longings, their profoundest fears, and their most passionate desires in words which, as inspired by God, have the divine imprimatur. Indeed, there are words here that, if God had not declared `I have written these and they belong to me," we might hesitate to use them in an address to Him. Yet here is a book which allows all human emotions to be expressed in the worship of God. Public and private spirituality built upon these words will, by definition, be both counter-cultural and equip us for life as it really is. Counter-cultural because we learn here that it is OK to be depressed, to be angry, to be frustrated, to be broken-hearted; and that the answer to these things is neither to pretend that they do not exist nor to `consume" our way out of them by pretending to be god ourselves and using our credit cards to flee from the Creator. The answer is rather to understand our fallen, finite, tragic condition, to face up to this in all its naked, stark reality, and then to look to the God of all-history as the only ultimate source of stability in the present and happiness in the future.

The final element of Zen-Calvinism is perhaps the most important: the realization that all evil has been subverted for the greater good purposes of the God who loves hi church. If the supreme crime of human history - the judicial murder of the very Son of God - can be used for the greatest good, then any other crime, sin or moral failing can also be frustrated and turned to good account. And that applies not just to the loutish and corrupt behaviour of others; it applies supremely to that of the Zen-Calvinist who reflects upon these things.

So that's why, against my better judgment, I didn't flee from the Christian car sales company, and how my Zen-Calvinism enabled me to buy the car with confidence. Yes, I expect to be ripped off and treated shabbily, especially by Christians, because I know they are no better than I am. But I have the weapons of the great Zen masters at my disposal to make sure that, far from driving me to despair, such behaviour merely confirms what I already know about the universe (that it is fallen, just like me): drives me again to my mantras (the inspired psalms) which teach me to articulate reality and personal identity as it really is, not as some commercial tells me: and points me to the ultimate reality (Jesus Christ, crucified and risen). This, if you want a real alternative life-style, get hold of Zen Calvinism and turn on, tune in, and, with regards to consumerist idolatry, drop out.

 

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