Saturday, July 09, 2011

Hawthorne's Hell

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Young Goodman Brown, a prototypical Puritan named Goodman leaves his Faith.  That is to say, he leaves his wife named "Faith" for a walk in the unwelcoming woods.  There Goodman encounters the devil himself, who disabuses the "good man" of his assumption that his fellow Puritan acquaintances are all pious.  On the contrary, the putrid sins of each are laid bare in the dark of the woods.  "'Welcome, my children,' said the devil, 'to the communion of your race...  Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race."   In case we miss the point, Hawthorne includes a moment when Goodman shouts, "I've lost my Faith!"

The story begs (me at least) for theological interpretation:  Faced with a curdled Calvinism, the notion that God chose an undetermined number of individuals to be damned for whom Christ could never have died (i.e. the "L" in TULIP), Hawthorne resolves the unbearable numerical tension:  Everyone is damned.  Hawthorne dreams the nightmare of American history in overly-didactic, but nevertheless effective, prose.  It worked.  Melville said the story was "as deep as Dante."

Leaving aside whether Calvin himself would have approved of the way his message was disseminated, it's hard to deny that predestination was historically unhinged from Christology to torturous results, especially in this country.  Again, see Thuesen on that.  The decretum absolutum, the notion that certain people are out with no chance of ever being in, became an ugly wedge in the American psyche, and to be frank, we American Protestants have a responsibility to sort it out, and not - of course - by facilely suggesting the opposite: Everyone is saved.

This is one of the reasons the theology of Karl Barth is so important.  Barth fixed the disaster of predestination (with Athansius' help), on specifically Protestant grounds.  Of course, many believe this to be unwise because of Barth's supposed universalism.  But this is a misrepresentation.  All are potentially included in Christ for Barth, and yet:
It is His concern what is to be the final extent of the circle. If we are to respect the freedom of divine grace, we cannot venture the statement that it must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such (as in the doctrine of the so-called apokatastasis).  No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced.  Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind  (II/2, 417).
For Barth, one can take upon oneself damnation, but to do so would be to take on a punishment already borne.  It would be to deny one's own God-given nature instead of realizing it, which - not incidentally - is John of Damascus' definition of sin. Barth's doctrine of election is apophatic. He stands with Paul and Job, 'O the depth of the riches and wisdom of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!' (Rom. 11:33)."  But what is definitely ruled out is the less than apophatic insistence that there are certain individuals to whom the invitation of salvation could never apply.

Others, traditional Calvinists among them, say that Barth is unwise because his collectivism undermines the individual. The Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America, for example, even names Barthianism as a view which "denies that God chooses individuals." This too is a misrepresentation.  According to Barth:
The community is its necessary medium [of election].  But its object (in Jesus Christ, and by way of the community) is individual men... individuals are actively responsible...  and not the groups themselves or any single group.  There is no... predestined humanity [in the abstract].  It is individuals who are chosen and not the totality of men (II/2, 313).
It's curious that the most developed, and certainly the most Christological view of election, has now been picked up by the tradition that most disastrously fumbled the ball.  "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10).  This is the happy result of Barth's decision to stay put, to be faithful to his own unfaithful tradition, giving us, in turn, a balm to wounds that America (let's be honest) forgot it even has.  But they still need healing, and who better to apply the balm than the tradition that inflicted the wound?  This is also why it's so significant that Barth has in many ways won Princeton Seminary, once known for inflexibly disseminating classical Calvinism, and then - ironically enough - for the early twentieth century Protestant liberalism which Barth did so much to undo.

The problem, however, is that Barth's compelling doctrine of election is too frequently locked up in theology seminars, having not (yet at least) taken literary or artistic form, as have some of the worst versions of Calvinism due to gifted writers like Hawthorne. We might, then, re-imagine Hawthorne's Goodman Brown on Barthian grounds. It would involve a walk into a different thicket. The revelation that occurs therein would not be an equal and opposite distortion - where everyone was secretly good, or where all were necessarily dragged into heaven.  On the contrary, sins would be just as putrid, but could be confessed because forgiving grace was on the horizon.  In those woods Goodman, disabused of the illusion of his own goodness, would encounter not Barth, much less Barthians, but Christ, who - speaking of the church - would say the very same words of Hawthorne's devil:  "'Welcome, my children, to the communion of your race. Ye have found thus your nature and your destiny."

These, I like to think, are the woods we live in.