“He’s On Vacation” (Mystery Is Good)

As my family and I will be in Florida on a relatively unplugged winter break for a spell, this is a re-post.

Forrest’s mama always described the hole in his life most of us call “dad” as he who was eternally “on vacation.” In her masterful and indelible performance, it was never clear just what Sally Fields meant by that phrase, though we likely could narrow it down a skosh. It was a mystery we were supposed to endure along with Forrest. Don’t worry, my kids are very much with me on this vacation…as well as my wife…who, by the way, is also named Jenny. And seeing as how Jen utterly detests Michigan in the winter, mama’s definition of “vacation” would probably suit her just fine:

Forrest to Mama: “Mama, what’s ‘vacation’ mean?”

Mama to Forrest: “‘Vacation’ is when you go away…and you don’t ever come back.”

Anyway…

One of my favorite movies is (don’t laugh) Forrest Gump. I usually take it in the teeth for admitting that. I am not sure why, but it has not kept me from still ‘fessing up. While I am hesitant to look for bits of Christian truth in popular, secular culture I can’t help always to wonder if Forrest might do Calvinism better than some Calvinists. You recall what Forrest said when Jenny prayed that God would make her a bird but retained her knees instead of sprouting wings:

“God is mysterious.”

And when Jenny died he admitted over her grave:

“ I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but, I think maybe it’s both.”

Maybe it takes something of a mental midget to be able to live with a both-and sort of answer, to be at ease with that sort of tension, indeed to be a Calvinist. I wonder what it says about my own mental state that the older I get the better able I am to live with what is commonly called mystery. But if my own comfort with it increases I can’t help but sense forces that would rather I don’t.

Reformed Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology R. Scott Clark toggles between mystery-immune phenomenon using two acronyms. QIRC (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty) is defined as “the search for absolute certainty through finding the one fact, truth, or explanation of reality which gives coherence to all other facts or phenomena.” He offers a couple of examples of this rationalist impulse shows itself. In the face of multitudinous Bible translations in the modern era that some think signal an erosion of biblical authority, he cites the “King James only” phenomenon as a sort of Protestant version of “Latin only” in the Roman Mass. Stick with what is not only familiar but has a layer of abstrusely and the dam against uncertainty will hold. Or take the more ubiquitous notion that the Bible is a handbook for all earthly endeavor from child rearing to civil government or moral reform instead of the “infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s saving work and Word in history.” Make revelation relevant to any and all human endeavor and we may be at ease. But as Clark points out, there is a difference between the classical Reformed view of Scripture (i.e. sufficient for “faith and life”) and the mistaken idea that it has something direct and obvious so say about ordering this temporal world.

Then there is QIRE (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience). Clark basically defines this age-old impulse to be the “quest to experience God apart from the mediation of Word and sacrament,” or as Luther put it, “the quest for the vision of God (visio Dei)…the desire to see God ‘naked’ (Deus nudus).” Clark cites as examples those phenomenon from medieval mysticism to “Anabaptist-spiritualist movements in the early 16th century, in the spiritualism of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, in pietism in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally in modern revivalism in the 18th and 19th centuries.” To the extent that we use words like “relationship” over “fellowship” with God; seek to groom our inward lives with God to the relative neglect of Word and sacrament; herald the self in interpreting the Bible over confessional forms in creed, confession and catechism; or otherwise break down the mediatory nature of true religion, we may be more affected by this Quest than we think.

It strikes me that both Quests are equally discomforted by that which might be understood as the mysterious. They are at home with concepts like absolute certainty and jell-like mysticism, but not mystery.

Or take something like Sinclair Ferguson’s “6 Ways to Discovering God’s Will.” With all due respect to a Reformed stalwart like Ferguson, I have always found these approaches to piety really quite odd. I won’t rehearse the Ways here, since I am sure most reading are familiar with such formulas. Suffice it to say that when I dig far enough I find within them the same operating principles I find when I observe parents outfitting their children in head-to-toe crash gear before peddling a block to school. I am all for the stuff of safety, sobriety and well thought out plans. Just ask my much more spontaneous and slightly annoyed wife. But there seems a difference between common sense and insulating ourselves in decision making from initial uncertainty or final regret—and in thinking we have figured out God to boot. The 6 Ways stuff has always been cause for more questions than answers for me. What are we supposed to be able to conclude after applying the 6 ways? That because we saturated something in the 6 Ways that it is all right to proceed, or that we ought not to fret that we did the wrong thing? And what are Calvinists to make of this idea that we may live relatively free of regret? What does that do to the idea of confession of sin? Are we really to believe that we have figured out the secret and infinite counsels of God? What about Dt. 29:29 that says “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law”? What about John Calvin’s idea that the secret counsels of God are “a labyrinth from which there is no hope of return”? And if these questions are an overreaction to the principles of something like the 6 Ways, what is it exactly we should be getting from them? If I ought not to assume I am going to plumb the secret mysteries of God maybe the title should change. But to what: 6 Ways to Sort of Get a Handle on What God Might Want You to Do but Don’t Count on It Since Who Really Knows? One wonders if such a project as that is now worth the effort. In the end, whatever else this sort of piety seems to imply—that we may significantly diminish uncertainty or regret and thereby increase creaturely comfort—it also seems too suggest that we may live without that discomforting thing called mystery. But for my part, I have become rather relieved to know that I may say “I don’t know” a lot.

Or take the latest Synod of the CRC where it saw overtures to allow parents to refrain from administering baptism to their covenant children. This isn’t anything new. Old School American Presbyterians have called this phenomenon in their circles “Bapterianism.” The forces that seem stocked against the sacrament of paedo-baptism are varied: individualism, low views of the sacraments, rationalism, and mysticism. All these could be unpacked. But what has lately struck me is what might run through all of these, namely an aversion to mystery. There is a discomfort at having to grow into something that may not be immediately understood. Maybe it will never be understood. At the risk of sounding too speculative, I don’t really understand how one plus one equals two. But I don’t fight it much and have found that a workable posture most days. I don’t understand how water, bread and wine are supposed to nurture my faith. But God and His Church seem to think the two go hand-in-hand. John Calvin said of the other sacrament, the Supper, “I’d rather experience it than understand it.”

There is another great wrestling match with mystery—human responsibility and God’s sovereignty. How do these things work together? Many seem like Luther’s drunken horse-mounter, falling off one side or the other in trying to solve with this tension. Some emphasize one or the other. But as I go on as a Calvinist it seems that even here we are offered relief from the tortured ways of these drunkards; there is solving these tensions and then there is simply living with them. Scripture never seems to give up on either our responsibility or God’s sovereignty. Coupled with the high view of Scripture we have, my conclusion is that neither are we to give up on either. As a Calvinist, I have always conceived of these two conceptions to disappear behind a big, black circle and I have no idea what happens behind it. The real Quest seems to be a measure of comfort with mystery, not a discomfort needing to be relieved.

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One Response to “He’s On Vacation” (Mystery Is Good)

  1. r'na says:

    just a plug for Ontario URC … one the outhouse saints, Dr. Clark, will be preaching at Ontario, California URC on Sunday night. this is part of the ordination service for the Spanish ministry pastor. a light dinner will follow the 5:30 pm service, there will be no buttered ham (raisin) buns on the menu.

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