Thoughts for Thursday 14th January 2021

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Judges 2:6-15; 2 Corinthians 10:1-11

Psalm 139, ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me’, is quite a good source for the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Verse 4, for example, has, ‘Even before I speak, you already know what I will say,’ and verse 16, ‘The days allotted to me had all been recorded in your book, before any of them ever began.’ It is possible to take these sorts of text, and then to extrapolate from them, as Calvin did, the terrifying prospect that, while some people will be ‘saved’, others will be ‘damned’.

It often dismays me to think that when polls are taken of the ‘best’ works of literature produced here in Scotland, ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner,’ by James Hogg consistently manages to make it into top ten lists. Maybe, though, I shouldn’t be so dismayed by a book that charts the immorality of a man whose Calvinist religious views lead him to believe that, as one of the ‘elect’, he can then commit depravity without impunity. Because maybe what Hogg was doing was to sound a warning to us here in Scotland, just as Robert Burns did with his, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, about the great dangers of such theology.

Within Philosophy, there has always been a tension between those who believe in what’s called determinism i.e. that every effect has a cause, and that like leaves blown about in the wind, our actions could never be other than they are (Ludwig Wittgenstein thought that free will was an ‘illusion’); and those who believe in ‘free will’ instead. And I think it’s helpful for us to know that, while the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, described this as ‘the most contentious question of metaphysics,’ he was also a supporter of a sort of half-way house between determinism and ‘free will’ called compatibilism. Described as a ‘wretched fudge’ by Immanuel Kant, my own view, like Hume, is that, without denying the laws of nature (i.e. that there is still cause and effect), it is still possible for us to exert some control over our destiny.

And I don’t care if that is a fudge, because otherwise – if we do all believe, as Calvin claimed, that we’re all beyond redemption anyway, and can only be saved by the grace of God – concepts that are so important to us, and feel so real, like shame and praise, the exercise of democracy, moral responsibility, and even a notion of personhood, would all be rendered quite meaningless.

Let us pray (using the lyric of A Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter):

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you,

Amen.


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