Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Can't Argue with a Dying Calvinist

Presbyterian Pastor
Perishing Parishioner

John Updike
This post is a follow-up to "This Minister Lost His Faith" which you can read here. With both I am reflecting on the first chapter of John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies which portrays a Princeton educated Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot. The historical setting is the early years of the 20th century. In the first post, I focused on Mr. Wilmot's loss of faith and its consequences theological and practical. There is a section in the first chapter of the novel and which describes a pastoral hospital visit with a member, a Mr. Orr.

Mr. Orr was was a patient in Barnert Memorial, a hospital that served the poor and immigrants. He was dying. He was alone. He had been a laborer who never saw his way clear to marry. 

Mr. Orr was a professing Christian, a Presbyterian church member, faithful in attendance at services where he always sat in the same place underneath the memorial window to Protestant martyrs and heroes. He listened intently to Mr. Wilmot's sermons. He had been brought up by "pious folk":
...good people, lost their pig farm to the banks in the Panic of (18)'73, never got their heads above water since. Every night, before supper, we used to sing a hymn. Even nothing on the table, we used to sing a hymn. 'Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh.' That sort of thing.

Mr. Wilmot finds Mr. Orr asleep and would have slipped quietly away (today a relieved pastor might leave a business card with the scribbled note "Sorry I missed you" on the bedside table) but the patient forced his eyes open so the pastor inquired in the falsely optimistic way pastors sometimes do, "How is your cure progressing?" Mr. Orr is not doing well. Clarence deflects Mr. Orr's response with, "This unseasonable muggy spell has got us all down. My wager is you'll be up and about within a week or two." 

But Mr. Orr will have none of it: 
Ah, don't talk foolishness, sir, in trying to be kind.  I'm nearing the end, and I'm ready to face the verdict. Reverend Wilmot, tell me true now. The time for soft talk is by. What do you think my chances are, to find myself among the elect?
Wilmot says, "I should estimate your chances to be excellent." He inquires about Mr. Orr's experience:
Have you, in the course of your life, as best you can remember, ever enjoyed a palpable experience of the living Christ?
Mr. Orr is not sure but thinks not:
I cannot honestly recollect ever enjoying that. I've searched my heart, but it's hard to say, now, isn't it?...I've had what you might call promptings, during prayer and on occasion in the middle of the day, while about business of another sort. But I wouldn't want to make claims for them as palpable experiences. A palpable experience, I guess you'd have no doubt - isn't that the so?
Mr. Wilmot knows what Mr. Orr is doing. "He had struck a note of sly wheedling that brought home to Clarence the cruelty of a theology that sets us to ransacking our nervous systems for a pass to Heaven, even a shred of a ticket." But he recovers:
You're too modest, Mr. Orr. Anyway, some among us teaching elders hold there can be no palpable experience - just the impalpable experience of existing in God's grace, won anew by His Son Jesus Christ.
Mr. Orr responds with his brand of Calvinism:
Well, if I'm not to be among the saved, it was laid down at the beginning of Creation, and what can a body do? Tell me, sir. What can we poor bodies do?
Mr. Wilmot finds that "dying was making the man conversationally ruthless." Nevertheless, he responds:
What can we do, Mr. Orr, is to do good to our fellow man and trust in the Lord and enjoy his gifts when they are granted to us. I don't see how any deity can ask any more of us than that.
But Mr. Orr won't accept that kind of pap:
You don't. That's right? You talk like it's six of one and half-dozen of the other. We're not dealing here with any deity. We're dealing with the true and only God. He asks the world and then some.
Reverend Wilmot, my life's been hard. I never had any advantages...Having put up with a hard life for sixty-six year, without much comfort in it but hope of the next, I'm not afraid to face the worst. I'll take damnation in good stride if that's what's to come.
That's too much for Clarence. "Oh come now, Mr Orr! - there can be no question of your damnation." But Mr. Orr will not relent: 
No, sir. No question. And why would that be?
Damnation's what my parents brought me up to believe in. They were regular pious folk...There are the elect and the others, the damned. It's in the Bible over and over, right out of Jesus' mouth. It makes good sense...How can you be saved, if you can't be damned? Answer me that....So tell me, Reverend Wilmot, where's the flaw in my reasoning? You're a learned man - that comes across real clear, on Sunday mornings.
This kind talk is not new to Wilmot, but he has not before heard it from the dying.
Clarence had had such conversations before, but usually they were abstract, amiable disputes among professionals of the faith; laymen on their deathbeds he had generally found modest and mannerly, anxious not to embarrass the minister of God come to offer rote comfort, their thoughts absorbed by their bodily upheavals and their final arrangements with loved ones. He sensed that Orr was terrified...
Clarence had already lost his own faith, but he resorted to familiar concepts:
You've left God's mercy out of the equation, Mr. Orr - there's the flaw...God showed Man his love twice - when he created him out of clay and when He gave His only begotten Son to redeem him from Adam's sin. In the Old Testament, we read how he loved Israel, His chosen people even when they strayed. Don't bother yourself about damnation, I beg you, my good friend, but think instead of the glorious Resurrection and eternal life. Think of the thief on the cross to whom Jesus said, 'Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.'
Wilmot is afraid Mr. Orr will hear that as though he has given up hope of Mr. Orr's recovery: 
Not that the state of your health is comparable to the thief on the cross. You've got a peck of years left in you, I can tell by your argumentative spirit. You're on the mend. You'll be back in your pew under the Reformers' windows before we know it.
Orr, despite his weakness, will not let up: "Don't you believe in damnation at all?" Wilmot tries to comfort, for Orr has evidences:
Me myself? Absolutely I do. Without a doubt, absolutely. But not for you, Mr. Orr. Not for as hard a worker and as faithful a churchgoer as you.
Mr. Orr's brutal work on his pastor is not done:
I never heard enough damnation from your pulpit. Many mornings I had to strain to take hold of what your were saying, Reverend. I couldn't figure it out, and got dizzy the way you were dodging here and there. A lot of talk about compassion for the less fortunate, I remember that. Never a healthy sign, to my way of thinking, too much fuss and feathers about the poor. They're with us always, the Lord Himself said. Wait till the next go-around, if the poor feel so sorry for themselves in this. The first shall be last. Take away damnation, in my opinion, and a man might as well be an atheist. A God that can't damn anyone to an eternal Hell can't lift a body up out of the grave either.
Mr. Wilmot wants to put Mr. Orr's mind at ease, but Mr. Orr falls back on his Calvinism:
Young man, don't worry about relieving my mind. I told you, I can face it. I can face the worst, if it was always ordained. God's as helpless as I am.
Wilmot thinks he has found an opening: "Well, now, that's just it, isn't it? How can God be considered helpless --" But Orr's logic is relentless:
If He's made his elections at the beginning of time, He is. He can't keep changing his mind.  I guess that's something He can't do. Well, in a few days I am going to know what His mind was and is...
Eternal damnation it has to be, if there's to be any sense of it at all. Mark my words.
Wilmot has one last word before the man closes his eyes, effectively dismissing him:
I have and I will, Mr. Orr. I wish you well. Forgive me...if I can't quite believe damnation is for you...I can see the signs of election sparkling right in your eyes.
Several weeks later Mr Orr dies in the hospital.

I know the tendency - because I experience it in myself - to analyze this conversation of a pastor and a parishioner theologically. What holes can we find? What criticisms can we make? How defective is Wilmot's counsel? And, since he has lost his faith, wouldn't his counsel have to be defective? How defective is Orr's Calvinism? Isn't he really a fatalist, not a Calvinist? Where is the Gospel?Isn't it muddled? We can so analyze as to be unable to see.

Perhaps it would be wise for us to resist the tendency to analysis long enough to observe the men and listen to the conversation. There are insights here into the struggles of parishioners, into the weaknesses of ministers, into the fears of both, into the kinds of things that are in the hearts of these seriously ill, into popular concepts of Calvinism, into the avoiding strategies of ministers. There are moments in this conversation when we may well say, "There I am," or "I know that person." 

What would people say to us as pastors if they were able to be open? If they felt they could trust us enough and if they thought us understanding enough to tell us their true thinking and feeling? Especially when they are facing terminal illness and death. Do the things we say in sermons or the stories we tell of saints ancient and modern lead them to crawl into their shells and hide when they most need to stick their heads out and talk?

How well do we know people and their struggles? Do we know what to say and not say? Do we know when it is more important to be present than to say something? How often do we engage in unreal, superficial, and defensive talk when we visit the sick? How much spiritual BSing to we do? How hesitant are we to draw them for fear of what they will say? How afraid are we to face our own questions, doubt, and fears?

Swift to its close ebbs out life's 
little day,
Earth's joys grow dim, it's 
glories pass away, 
Change and decay in all around 
I see, 
O thou that changest not, 
abide with me.


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