The pathologies of knowledge, or hard lessons from cutting my teeth on Calvinism

The pathologies of knowledge, or hard lessons from cutting my teeth on Calvinism

Protestant Christianity in America consists of a veritable alphabet soup of denominations, so saying that I grew up in the OPC probably means nothing to you. If it does, lol wow I’m sorry and I probably know you.

What if I also told you that my Christian high school was Theonomist?

If you also know what the means, please join the support group. It’s okay to recycle those Rushdoony books now. You’re amongst friends.

All joking aside, my early intellectual formation was very very specific, but somehow exactly right for me. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much the thoughts themselves which were important (although some of them I still believe in some form), but the fact that the community I was formed in actually celebrated the work of crafting arguments, defining principles, and engaging in rational debate. I don’t know who I would be if those natural tendencies I had towards questioning and debating had been quashed by authority figures instead of actively encouraged. For that, I’m exceedingly grateful.

To get into the messy details — I was schooled primarily in the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions of Christian theology, and within those niche camps the private Christian junior high / high school I attended emphasized the thought of figures like Cornelius Van Til and Rousas J. Rushdoony, while my church on the other hand emphasized what is now called “Two Kingdoms theology” which was an emergent school of thought from Westminster Theological Seminary in southern California (often associated with David van Drunen).

This is probably more than you wanted to know, but it's the world I called home.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and Calvinism was really my first foray into the realm of logical systems and rational argumentation. I cut my teeth on the old debate of Calvinism vs Arminianism.

If you aren’t familiar with those terms, no worries, they basically amount to whether God predestined those who would be saved or if He didn’t choose them ahead of time. It's a long running and bitter debate within Protestantism.

But, hear me out on this one — this is actually an excellent place to start one’s journey as an intellectual.

When a debate has raged sufficiently long (centuries, at this point), both sides have so thoroughly staked out their side’s arguments that the intellectual work of the young person consists largely of mastering each side’s rhetorical movements and properly assessing one’s opponent’s location in the discursive terrain at any single moment.

Much like the medieval Scholastic’s work of memorizing and commenting on the prior debates of Aquinas and Abelard, the young Calvinist does not contribute anything new to the body of work, but simply learns how to rehearse the skirmishes which have played out again and again in the past.

This is good harmless fun, and actually serves as excellent training for the young intellectual trying to understand how arguments are crafted, which line of reasoning to choose to address a particular opponent’s objection, and what point is most ideal to jump into the argument.

However, at a certain point, the young thinker begins to realize the emptiness of these exercises. The Calvinist says A, the Arminian says B, the Calvinist responds with C, and round and round we go. What dawned on me was precisely this futility.

Every argument would go back and forth until we arrived at an immovable point, a focal point which I found that no reason could assail. We had confronted the naked abyss of desire.

“I simply cannot accept a God who would choose who to save and who to damn.”

This was always the destination at which my interlocutor would arrive. As I had typically mastered the arguments better than my opponent, they would find themselves losing ground until they arrived at this singularly stubborn attachment.

I found myself continually baffled and frustrated. Why did reason always drive us back to an irrational ground of individual commitments? Why did our personal pathologies so powerfully determine which arguments we found persuasive or which rhetorical moves had the deepest impact in the moment?

I couldn’t answer this question, but I knew that I was on to something important.

I had to keep investigating.

Through my pastor’s impassioned critique of Theonomy (or "Christian Reconstruction"), I had begun to encounter the diversity which had existed in the Reformed tradition prior to its being flattened by certain figures in the early 1900's. This meant that I discovered the theology and natural law theory of the Reformed Scholastics. The existence of these thinkers within my own tradition as a repressed possibility began to undermine my prior commitments to the notion of a distinctly “Christian” ("Biblical") philosophy or politics. They argued that one could use experience of the world and careful reflection to craft arguments for better or worse actions, both personal and communal.

Further, they caused me to wonder whether the rhetorical move of appealing to Scripture to lend divine credibility to a particular religious interpretation, political policy, or social norm was an ideological move for establishing coercive authority in a community. Perhaps instead Christians could employ a loving engagement with creation to derive tools and insights which would facilitate genuine debate and disagreement amongst Christians who could nonetheless still pray and partake in Eucharist together.

I never became a full blown natural law theorist (and find certain aspects of it unpersuasive these days), although I mimicked the discourse for a season in an effort to understand its internal logic. What’s important is that all these various intellectual influences were pushing and pulling on me to create a sense of openness and contingency about my beliefs. Intelligent Christians were disagreeing with each other, which introduced cracks into the foundations of my rigid set of beliefs.

As I see it, I had not found my next step so much as I was being prepared to be open to a next step.

The next shift in my paradigm came in my senior year of high school when I  encountered Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom (the first in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy). This was the next step which I had needed. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom was a direct assault on the intellectualism of the evangelical world, and especially the Reformed world, which prioritized intellectual commitments ("worldview") and rational belief systems over the power which physical habits exercise over our desires, and how desires do more to shape our beliefs than vice versa. Smith opened my eyes to the central role which desire plays in thought, and he subsequently pointed me towards the function of the physical world in forming and shaping desire.

[In retrospect, I also think that Smith’s work prepared me to study post-Kantian philosophy in college (although I didn't realize it at the time), as his doctoral work had been on Derrida, and he has written extensively on postmodernity and Christian epistemology. His work back then provided something of a model which I think that I unconsciously follow even today.]

Smith's account of beliefs, desires, and habits had provided a provisional answer for what I had been wrestling with; what do we do when we arrive at the base level of thought — our stubborn libidinal attachments — and can proceed no further by way of argumentation?

We must work on our desire.

I came to realize that I needed to engage in an analysis of locating and articulating how desire shapes particular thinkers’ systems and beliefs. I believe that it was this project which ultimately motivated me to study philosophy during my undergraduate years at Wheaton College.

Although I entered my undergraduate studies as a Bible & Theology major, my sophomore year saw me make the switch to a Philosophy major, and I credit a significant portion of this switch to the Philosophy Club’s year long book study of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I attribute the other cause to a greater resonance with the intellectual openness and curiosity of the other Philosophy majors, especially when compared to the workman-like and almost career-oriented demeanors of the Bible & Theology majors. Ultimately, this change of undergraduate majors dropped me into a new set of discursive coordinates, which forced me to start thinking hard about the foundational structures I had taken for granted, especially understanding, language, and meaning.

I've said enough for now though. We'll continue the story another day.

Free weekly emails in your inbox every Friday morning