My Calvinism

I’m not trying to fool anyone. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, right? I am not about to hurl a thing. I know my sin.

We built this house of ours just outside a flood plain – as in just outside. Not long ago, a man who grew up in the neighbourhood told me he remembered when the lot was under water. I shuddered. Still do.

But when we built here, I knew the gurgling brook across the field gets angry whenever the skies up the road lay out a gully-washer. I’ve seen the river rise, seen it splash over the berms across the field. I’ve got pictures of moments when we seemed, for several hours, to live on a lake.

Professor Kerry Emanuel, who teaches atmospheric science at MIT, took a shot at all of us in the New York Times recently, when he maintained we use the phrase “natural disaster” as if what we’ve just gone through was.

“Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires are part of nature, and the natural world has long ago adapted to them,” he wrote. “Disasters occur when we move to risky places and build inadequate infrastructure.”

As we did, knowing full well we could wash away. I’m not throwing stones. Millions of us want to live close to water. We thumb our noses at river and gulfs, and hills that wash away. We go where we may not, build where we shouldn’t, live where we dassn’t (as my grandma used to say).

We want the best we can get. Why? Maybe it’s the capitalist in us, or maybe it’s simply our already immense affluence. I think it’s just us.

Me first
I can see a flood plain right outside my window, but I built here anyway because it’s what I wanted.

Was it a sin for us to put our house here? We can argue that until my wife and I leave for the Home. Or worse. Honestly, I don’t know.

But I know I have within me a stubborn, ever-churning urge to care for myself first, as almost all of us do. I believe in depravity, not because we’re all cooking meth, but because that which is most human in me is a desire, even an instinct, for self-preservation. We always want first what we think is best for us. Me first.

I’m not particularly morbid about it because that same urge keeps us alive and drives us past the finish line even when we start to believe, midstream, the race is over. Ego pushes us toward accomplishment.

But the other side, the shadow, just loves putting me above others – and God.

The darkness we all carry, the darkness Calvin – and 400 years of church history – has called “depravity,” is so unyielding we call it total.

I call myself a Calvinist because, for better or for worse, I think that’s true.

But Calvinism has a side so glorious we struggle to see it, illumination like nothing else.

Calvinism has a simple definition created by an unlikely pair of tenets: our depravity on one hand, and God’s sovereignty on the other.

Sovereignty. In the last decade, I’ve taken a couple thousand landscape pictures in the neighbourhood. I go out alone, toting a camera, just to look, just to see. Good friends of mine claim endless row crops induce numbness; but right now, at harvest, yellowing corn and beans weave dusky swooshes through otherwise emerald fields.

Light is crucial
Most shots I take get unceremoniously deleted (digital photography is such a blessing!), but once in a while perfect beauty awakens the day and I get lucky and blessed to get just a fragment of it.

Beauty is not easily to define, but a textured sky is helpful in a landscape. Total blue is nice, but some blustery clouds mix things up, often dramatically. Light is crucial, and it doesn’t get any better than dawn and dusk when the world belongs to Midas.

I look for moving lines, how the elements of what’s in the shot fit together, how they lead the eye somewhere, how they flow. But I can’t tell you what beauty is because, with photography and art itself, there’s only one rule: it works or it doesn’t.

On those early morning jaunts, something in my eye and in my soul lets me know that that particularly cottonwood, right then, right there, on all that open land is beautiful. Dorothea Lange was right: the camera teaches you how to see without a camera, how to see this look at this marvel we call Creation.

When I’m out there, I often think of Calvin – I really do. After all, Calvin knew.

“There is not one blade of grass,” he wrote somewhere, “not one colour in the world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” When I’m blessed, that’s pretty much what I see.

When we stand in awe in his world, in his glory, that’s when Calvin says we sense his God-ness and know, for sure, we need him. His eternal largesse, his grace, is the only remedy for our selfishness; his sovereignty covers even our depravity.

That’s what I believe, and that’s why I call myself a Calvinist.

There’s much more to it, I’m sure. Ask a real theologian for a definition, and you’ll get a fine and lengthy discourse.

But me? – I call myself a Calvinist because the world outside my window, flood plain or not, is my Father’s world; and that world lets me know clearly, daily, that, without question, the Creator of all of this is my only comfort in life and death.   


  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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