Reformed and Always Raining: Confessions of a Calvinist in the Northwest

Having discovered the Christian faith
at a summer camp north of Seattle
and having recently returned to
the area to accept a call to a local church,
I am sometimes confused by the notoriety
of the Northwest within Christian
circles. It’s not unusual to get the kind
of sympathetic expressions one normally
expects when a beloved pet dies, as colleagues
ask what it’s like to be a pastor in
the region with among the most days of
rain per annum and the lowest per-capita
church attendance in the country.

I guess what confuses me is why
these factors would be considered disadvantages.
First of all, what’s wrong
with rain? Aren’t we facing a water
shortage in this country? We may
have an exceptionally high number of
rainy days per year, but almost no true
Northwesterner carries an umbrella. If
the rain is really coming down hard, we
throw on a GORE-TEX© jacket, but most
of the time we enjoy it.

I find this region’s ambivalence towards
the church to be similarly refreshing.
I’ll take transparent disinterest over
fawning niceties any day. This perspective
was born out of my first two years
of full-time ministry, which happened to
involve about thirty in-your-face middle-school
students. I loved working with
these kids because you always knew
where you stood with them. As I attempted
to impart some semblance of biblical
wisdom to them week by week, my efforts
were always met with mixed results. Obvious
yawns and paper wads were among
the kinder indicators that I had perhaps
lost a few of them.

This was an important reality check
for me. I knew instantly when my message
had gotten too abstract, and I could
tell whether or not they were persuaded
by what I had to say. Now that I’m preaching
to a mostly adult congregation once a
week, I’ve noticed that it gets quite a bit
harder to tell how you’re doing with this
crowd. Most grownups have learned how
to at least pretend that they are interested
even if they are not and will pretty
much always tell you that they “enjoyed
the sermon.”

Given this initiation, there are a couple
of things that I have particularly appreciated
about being a being a pastor in
the Northwest. One is that there are very
few cultural advantages to participation
(or leadership) in a local church. I can
generally assume that the people in the
pews really want to be there. Another is
that those that who do come to church
are Northwesterners as well and, therefore,
tend to be a bit more transparent than church folk in other regions. This
allows me to more closely approximate my
middle-school reality-check on a weekly
basis. And lastly, outside of the church
walls, pastors don’t get any special respect,
so any cultural influence that we
hope to wield must be earned the hard
way.

Especially with regard to this last issue,
there are distinct advantages to being
a Reformed Christian in this peculiar
climate (skepticism, not rain). Here, in
approved homiletical fashion, are three
points of the Reformed tradition that are
particularly well suited to the Northwestern
ethos.

Sovereignty

The first that comes to mind is our confidence
in the sovereignty of God. Northwesterners,
with their penchant for flannel
shirts and torn jeans, are expressing
by that clothing a baseline disgust for
arrogance of any kind. This impulse may
make the locals shy of the word sovereignty
at first blush because such a concept
seems to be inexorably connected to
arrogance. But what many Northwesterners
don’t realize is that if indeed God is sovereign,
this means that humans are not.
It is possible, I have found, to express sovereignty
is such a way that it trumps even
the anti-arrogance of this region.
I recently heard Slavoj Zizek tell a story
that reminded me of this fact. He described
a Yugoslavian scientist who was visiting
a colleague at his home. The one scientist
noticed that his friend had a horseshoe
mounted over his front door, which
according to Yugoslavian folk tradition is
supposed to bring good luck. The following
conversation ensued:

Scientist 1: Do you believe in this
(pointing to the horseshoe)?
Scientist 2: Of course not, I’m a
scientist. I don’t believe any of it.
Scientist 1: Then why do you have
it over your door?
Scientist 2: Well, they tell me it
works whether I believe it or not.

There is a kind of intellectual humility
behind doubt. But, as Zizek’s story illustrates,
there is even greater humility in recognizing
that reality may not ultimately be
constrained by what we are able to imagine
or believe. One of the benefits of belief in
a sovereign God, then, is that it frees us
from taking even our doubts too seriously. I
have found that when sovereignty expresses
itself as humility, it can be attractive to
people in this region.

It reminds me of a story my father-in-law
tells from his experience of ministering
to students in the 1960s. A reporter was
looking for some dirt on an unconventional
Christian student group. He asked, “Do you
agree with everything the Jesus Movement
[or something like that] is doing?” My father-in-law replied, “I don’t like the question;
I don’t even agree with everything
we’re doing.” That kind of a response would
play well in this region.

Idolatry

A second, related Reformed tenet that can
get some traction in a Northwest setting is
our focus on the sin of idolatry. Northwesterners
are known for being highly individualistic.
The region looks hostile to religion
because we tend to have low rates of participation
in formal religious institutions.

But they are not the only kinds of institutions
that we resist. We also reject the
dress codes of the traditional business culture.
We prefer Tevas and flannel shirts
to dark suits and ties, for instance. This
leads to an uneasy conscience for many
of us. While religious institutions can be
more easily rejected, our need to pay bills
and our desire to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle
means that many Northwesterners
do choose to work within corporate institutions.
On the one hand, they participate
fully in the work of the institution; on the
other hand, they pretend to reject the institution
by avoiding some aspects of its culture,
such as the dress code. This is the
kind of irony that David Brooks captures in
his Bobos in Paradise.

Reformed theology may address this
uneasy compromise by making a more precise
diagnosis of the problem with institutions.
 
The kinds of problems associated with
institutions, according to Reformed
theology, are more about misplaced
worship than about protecting
individualism as an absolute good. This
perspective allows us the subtlety to
acknowledge the goodness of all kinds
of things (including institutions) so long
as they don’t displace our proper
worship of God.
 

While the Northwest is populated
by a diverse group of people who arrived in this region at various times, its dominant
meta-narrative is that our cultural
forbears are those who first fled the stifling
traditions of the Old World to come
to America, and then fled the stifling traditions
of the East for the freewheeling
lifestyle of the Northwest.

Institutions that make excessive demands
on us don’t just waste our valuable
time, they sometimes feel as if they
are sucking the lifeblood out of us. This
suggests that an instinct for individualism
that is bolstered on two fronts. On
the one hand, we value the unencumbered
individual; on the other, we fear the
destructive effects of institutions. I want
to suggest that only the second of these
is really necessary in order to maintain a
healthy sense of self.

I believe that the Reformed tradition
teaches us be concerned about the negative
effects of institutions without committing
ourselves to hardcore individualism. This
is because our concern with the destructive
power of institutions is not based on
the notion that they impinge upon our individualism,
but rather on the notion that
any institution can become an object of
our impulse towards idolatry. And when
we (or others) make an institution into an
idol, that institution will invariably lead us
away from the fullness of life.

Isaiah warns us against the dangers of
worshiping any human creation:

No one considers, nor is there
knowledge or discernment to say,
“Half of it I burned in the fire; I
also baked bread on its coals, I
roasted meat and have eaten. Now
shall I make the rest of it an abomination?
Shall I fall down before a
block of wood?” He feeds on ashes;
a deluded mind has led him astray,
and he cannot save himself or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand
a fraud?” (Isaiah 44:19-20)

This is very different than the outcome of
worshiping our creator:

For I will pour water on the thirsty
land, and streams on the dry
ground; I will pour my spirit upon
your descendants, and my blessing
on your offspring.
(Isaiah 44:3)

The kinds of problems associated
with institutions,
according to Reformed theology,
are more about misplaced
worship than about
protecting individualism
as an absolute good. This
perspective allows us the
subtlety to acknowledge
the goodness of all kinds of
things (including institutions)
so long as they don’t
displace our proper worship
of God. This Reformed
insight allows us to participate
in various institutions
without having to feel sheepish about it.

On the other hand, getting this kind
of problem more precisely diagnosed allows
us to be even bolder in our critique
of the range of institutions in which we
participate.
 
Reformed theology articulates a
concept of church as a covenant
community called and established
by God for the purpose of bringing
glory to his name and establishing
his purposes on earth rather than
some kind of super store or a
support group for disciples.
 

I seem to get a surprised but
positive reaction when I remind people
that good institutions like family, nation,
and even church can be toxic to us if we
take them too seriously and allow them
to become more important than the God
who created them.

My absentmindedness has been a
surprising help in teaching this truth to
my congregation. Our church in the not
too distant past had been known for the
military precision that its eighteen elders maintained while serving communion to
the congregation. Let’s just say that, from
the time of my arrival, I have consistently
been the weak link in the operation. One
Sunday, I messed the whole thing up by
distributing the cup before the bread. You
can’t imagine the problems this created
in the choreography of the distribution.

But it turned out to be a wonderful
teachable moment. Laughing at myself I
reminded the congregation how the power
of the sacrament isn’t in our ability
to perform it perfectly, but rather in the
sovereign power of God who loves to forgive
us and sustain us. There have been
many who have suggested to me that the
recent growth we’ve experienced seems
somehow correlated with our ability to
laugh at ourselves.

Covenant Community

Reformed theology frees us from
having to pit individualism and institutions
against each other in binary
opposition. As we have seen,
one aspect of this is that we do not
need to see institutions as inherently
bad. The other side of this insight
is that we also don’t need to see individualism
as inherently good.

Initially, individualism seems
to be as essential aspect of maintaining
the distinctiveness of our
identity. However Alistair McFadyen
claims that when we understand
individuality as a substantive quality
that we possess, we actually begin to
move away from the rich particularity of
our identity:

It [individualism] is a function of
the identity and interchangeabililty
of individuals as the bearers
of a universal and abstract individual
essence (characterized by
reason). It is on the basis of this
universality that individual life
histories and social settings are
not considered to affect or determine
the structure of rationality
universally shared by all.1

This means that individuals were valued
not in and of themselves but rather for being
an instance of this universal substance
in bodily form.

It is only when we allow for some notion
of God as a personal and creative force
that that we can ground the particularities
of our identity in a meaningful way. This
concept of God, of course, is not unique to
the Reformed tradition, but it is certainly
an aspect of that tradition that can get
traction here in the Northwest.

Individualism can be a threat to our
uniqueness, but a far deeper problem with
the concept is that it can also lead to alienation
and loneliness. In the Northwest, as
in other parts of the country, community
is a popular notion. However, the forms of
community that one is likely to experience
in this context are closer to what Robert
Bellah calls lifestyle enclaves.

He says,

Whereas a community attempts
to be an inclusive whole, celebrating
the interdependence
of public and private life and of
the different callings of all, lifestyle
is fundamentally segmental
and celebrates the narcissism of
similarity. It usually explicitly
involves a contrast with others
who “do not share one’s lifestyle.”
For this reason we speak not of
lifestyle communities, though
they are often called such in
contemporary usage, but of lifestyle
enclaves. Such enclaves are
segmental in two senses. They
involve only a segment of each individual, for they concern only
private life, especially leisure
and consumption. And they are
segmented socially in that they
include only those with a common
lifestyle.2

Reformed theology articulates a concept
of church as a covenant community called
and established by God for the purpose of
bringing glory to his name and establishing
his purposes on earth rather than some
kind of super store or a support group for
disciples. While we are not always faithful
to this understanding of covenant community,
this ideal offers an attractive alternative
to the various forms of lifestyle enclave
that one finds in this region.

This makes me think of one woman
I knew whose sons started attending our
church before she did. I had met with this
woman on a few occasions to discuss her
doubts concerning the resurrection and
some other reasons why she felt she couldn’t,
in good conscience, join our church. Then
she went to a funeral with one of her sons
that was particularly depressing. It was
held in the generic chapel of the mortuary
and attended by a few scattered individuals
whose lives had intersected with that
of the deceased at some point or other. Her
son was thinking about signing up for my
confirmation class at the time, and she
turned to him and said, “See, this is what
it’s like when you’re not part of a church.”
He signed up for the class and a few years
later she had joined the church as well.

Certainly being a pastor in the Northwest
is not without its challenges. But I
have found that the challenges in ministry
that we face here do a particularly good
job of testing the integrity of our convictions
as well as the durability of our received
traditions. The longer I live and
serve in this region, the more attached I
have become to my GORE-TEX© jacket,
and the more grateful I have become for
the Reformed tradition.


ENDNOTES:


1 McFadyen, Call to Personhood, 183.


2 Bellah, et al. Habits of the Heart, 72.


Eric Jacobsen is senior pastor
at First Presbyterian Church
in Tacoma, Washington.