Thursday, 5 February 2015

Reports from the Fringe II

The word ‘Reformed’ in this post refers to a subset of Dutch Reformed Christianity, not the orthodox Calvinist tradition in general.

Recently a Reformed school class went to a mosque, as an educational activity. A pastor was scandalized and reacted to this in the newspaper. In his own congregation, a similar extracurricular activity had been suggested, but had been cancelled due to protests from parents and from the kids themselves. The pastor was afraid, not so much of conversions to Islam, but of relativism: people going home with the idea that Muslims were sympathetic people after all, with admirable religious fervour and veneration for their holy book. It’s difficult to combine that with a visceral horror of unbelief in Christ.

In the course of the conversation, the pastor mentioned that he would not enter a Roman Catholic church if he would be obliged to make the sign of the cross or ‘do something with holy water’. He was asked how he felt about going into a synagogue with a yarmulke. That, he said, was different. The Jews based themselves on books that were also in his own Bible, even if they read them with a veil on their hearts. Which means, apparently, that a yarmulke is more acceptable than the sign of the cross.

I posted this on Facebook, because I was amused by the ‘rather Jewish than Romish’ sentiment. A few Protestants chimed in to make clear that the pastor was not speaking on their behalf.

A former Protestant, now atheist, was more general in his condemnation: every time he opened the Reformed newspaper, he was unpleasantly struck by the ‘medieval ideology’ to which they adhered. If there was concern about radicalizing Muslims, the radicalizing Reformed should also be addressed, to avoid a double standard. I pointed out that there were no Reformed Christians in the Middle Ages, and that it betokened confusion to (1) label the default pre-1960s mindset as ‘medieval’, and (2) describe the disappearance of societal approval of a group’s view as the ‘radicalization’ of that group.

In fact I got confused myself, thinking that he was just talking about this article and not about the Reformed mindset in general. Anyhow, I was surprised by the fact that I suddenly found myself speaking on behalf of an old-fashioned pastor whom even the Protestants did not bother to defend. Suddenly my sympathies were all on the other side.

But before I had filled out all the registration forms to enlist in the Reformed crusade, my warm feelings were severely dampened. The occasion was, of course, a baptismal service; nothing like a Baptism to divide Christians!

Last Sunday I attended the Baptism of my cousin’s child, with full readiness to join my separated brothers and sisters in heart and spirit for this occasion. I smiled when I remarked to my mother that the opening Psalm verse (a rhyming arrangement of ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’) might have been beautifully and aptly complemented by the subsequent verse (‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’). I listened with interest and generally with assent to the liturgical formula explaining the meaning of Baptism. And I was grateful that three infant children received the Sacrament.

Then came the homily.

The pastor had chosen the text of Titus 3, which contains a beautiful baptismal passage: ‘He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’

The pastor started his homily by drawing a portrait of a rather Bunyanesque flat character, which, if actually from Bunyan, would have been called ‘Mr. Righteous-by-Works’. He lived an outwardly decent life, paid tithes (I don’t think anyone in the Reformed church pays tithes), and was praised in the community. He was satisfied with himself until he discovered that, for all his good appearance, he was ‘an abomination unto God.’

Just like that.

The pastor came back to this theme multiple times, saying that God has a ‘disgust of man’. It would be wrong to say that it was the main thought, but I do not recall there being much of a counterweight anywhere to soften this rather distressing thought. At least it was distressing to me; presumably it was received by the general audience as a truism, a simple fact of divine life. Presumably I have received similar thoughts similarly. This was the first time it really bothered me. I saw many familiar faces in church who awakened affection in me; I rather doubted that Love Himself would get from them the urgent desire to vomit.

The pastor described the inner life of someone truly converted, who apparently wondered things like ‘Would He still show regard for a dead dog such as I?’ That did not seem a particularly Dutch thought, so I looked it up. It occurs in 2 Samuel 9, after the death of King Saul and his sons. David has risen to power and summoned Saul’s crippled grandson, Mephibosheth. The grandson has good reason to be scared; dynastic changes are messy affairs and tend to end badly for the dispossessed. So he humbly introduces himself to David as ‘your servant’. He only calls himself a ‘dead dog’ after David has told him, ‘Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.’ So he abases himself (in colourful oriental fashion) with intense grateful relief.

The intense relief was rather lacking in the sermon. Even the text from Titus, ‘But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us … through the washing of regeneration’ was telescoped as follows (and I quote): ‘But … He … there is a possibility, brethren!’ Towards the end of the homily the pastor explicitly claimed, contrary to all patristic testimony, that the ‘washing of regeneration’ was not the water of Baptism. And he made a small excursion into Titus 2, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’, but only to point out that the classical Reformed annotations taught that this meant ‘all kinds of people’, not ‘all’, not at all.

So I left the service with a simmering indignation at the irresponsible use of Scripture and (for the first time) the nagging doubt if the pastor’s disgusted God was the same as mine. And a glance at the thermometer hanging there, which indicated that the inside temperature was 23.8°C, or 74.8°F.

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