Note: I use the term “babies” in the title of this post rather than the more accurate “fetuses” because this is how conservative Christians who believe that life begins at conception think of it. Readers of this blog should be well aware that I reject their framework and avoid using the term “unborn babies” myself. For the best takedown of religious “pro-life” arguments I’ve seen anywhere, check out Libby Anne’s “How I Lost Faith in the ‘Pro-Life’ Movement” on her blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. If you would like to hear me discuss more of my experience in “Mr. Henderson’s” high school sophomore Old Testament class, listen to my guest appearance on the Judges episode of Sunday School Dropouts (starting at 39:22).
On Friday, March 24, I came across the following tweet by Ken Roberts (a response to one of my own, which he quoted), and it made me think of a story:
I’ve been wanting to write up the story with some related thoughts, but I haven’t had the time to finish getting them down until now. Things have been pretty busy over the last couple of weeks, so I apologize for the lack of new content here. That will happen from time to time, but for now I should be posting more regularly again. Anyway…
I attended inter-denominational Christian schools for most of elementary through high school. Despite the presence of multiple Evangelical denominations, including a number of Arminian Wesleyans, there was a lot of Calvinist influence and flavor in the Christian schools I attended in Indianapolis and Colorado Springs. When I attended high school in Indianapolis, I think it’s fair to say that our Bible curriculum in particular was dominated by Baptists, and our sophomore Old Testament teacher frequently touted his status as a “five-point Calvinist.” (The five points can be summed up in the acronym TULIP: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints.) He also had the three Protestant “solas” displayed prominently in his classroom: sola scriptura (by scripture alone); sola fide (by faith alone); sola gratia (through grace alone)–a formula derived from Paul’s discussion of salvation by grace through faith as opposed to works (see Ephesians 2:8-9), combined with the reformers’ elevation of scripture over tradition and church hierarchy. There’s a strong Pauline-Augustinian influence here, and it’s certainly not a coincidence that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk deeply moved by the writings of Paul before he inadvertently sparked the Reformation.
Anyway, it was partly through my high school sophmore Bible teacher–I’ll call him “Mr. Henderson” to avoid using his real name–that I discovered how cruel and abusive a worldview Calvinism is. Aside: Hipster bearded, whiskey drinking, “edgy” neo-Calvinists who may be offended by this statement, rant in the comments all you want, but I am not going to debate the theology with you–no amount of mental gymnastics will ever convince me that the deity of Calvinism is anything but a megalomaniacal, sadistic monster. Conservative Lutherans possibly patting yourselves on the backs at this point, you should probably know that I don’t consider “single” predestination any less cruel or arbitrary than “double” predestination. In fact I consider the very idea of an original sin that causes us all to “deserve” damnation to be wholly abusive in and of itself. If that’s God’s approach to his human creations, he’s no better than a pickup artist using the vile “negging” technique, or a con artist or demagogue who tells you how horrible everything in your world is and oh, by the way, only he can fix it. But I digress.
Now back to Mr. Henderson. He was a large man with a booming voice and powerful presence, and also a record of service in the Korean War. Which, of course, if you’re counting, indicates that he was already elderly by the time I had him. He was something of an institution in the school for decades, and I got the sense that he was the sort of man who simply didn’t want to retire. While he engaged in woodworking as a hobby, that wouldn’t have been enough for him on its own. The year after I had him, the school essentially forced him into retirement by not renewing his full-time contract and instead offering him part-time work. He took the hint. At the time, I didn’t think it was right. I suppose I still don’t. It’s complicated, given that he taught us that the world was created in 4004 BC (he didn’t use BCE, of course), and I don’t think students should be taught Biblical literalism. But the school teaches Biblical literalism in general, and I think it got rid of Mr. Henderson because he rubbed some people the wrong way for other reasons, which you will likely be able to infer from what follows below. Despite the harshness of his worldview, I still remember Mr. Henderson fondly. Growing up fundamentalist and rejecting fundamentalism leaves your experience of yourself riddled with paradoxes.
Mr. Henderson used to stride into class just in time for it to start, bellowing “You’re all going to hell!” as he burst into the room, where the students were already assembled in our seats. I suppose we all thought he sort of meant it as a “joke,” but I’d be lying if I said this didn’t make me uncomfortable, since at the time I was deathly afraid of hell. Indeed, around this time in high school, I began to feel like the book of Romans necessitated accepting Calvinism, and to wonder if perhaps I were part of the reprobate–that group of humanity relegated to damnation–rather than the elect, who were predestined for salvation. Incidentally, no one should have to wonder this, which is part of the reason Calvinism is abusive on its face.
Anyway, Mr. Henderson liked to cultivate a gruff exterior, insisting, for example, on his right to use the word “bastard” because it was featured in the King James translation of the Bible. He would also go off on digressions about his military service at times, which as a rule we students relished. And yet he would tell us openly he was really “a big softie,” and we could see plenty of evidence that this was true. I remember when we came to class shortly after Carl Sagan died (he died on the morning of Friday, December 20, 1996). Most likely it was that Friday itself; it was probably the last day before Christmas Break (that’s what we always called it, of course, eschewing the secular “Winter Break”).
For some reason, despite his unshakeable belief in young earth creationism, Mr. Henderson had deep and abiding respect for Sagan (who, for the younger readers out there, was a very important Cold War era intellectual and popularizer of science, and who remains well worth reading). When we got to class, Mr. Henderson cried as he brought up Sagan’s death, telling us how much he’d wanted to get a chance to meet and talk to him. Sagan, you see, was much more respectful toward believers than today’s New Atheists, and I think that’s part of what drew Mr. Henderson to him. In fact, I got the sense, reading between the lines just a little, that Mr. Henderson believed on some level that perhaps God could have used him to save Carl Sagan’s soul. In any case, it was clear that Mr. Henderson was a sensitive man; he could become torn up inside by the cruelties his fundamentalist beliefs forced him to contemplate. The story I’m building to illustrates this even more starkly.
Mr. Henderson was among the teachers I respected most in high school. I was trying very hard at the time to settle my questions and doubts about Christianity, to figure out theology, and I would often engage him after class to ask questions and discuss particular points. He not only tolerated this, but seemed to enjoy it. On more than a few occasions, this made me late for my next class, and Mr. Henderson would write me hall passes to excuse my tardiness, listing the reason as “Solving the world’s problems.”
One day in class, the subject of the “age of accountability” came up. I suppose a student asked Mr. Henderson whether he accepted the idea. For those who aren’t aware, this notion of an “age of accountability” is something floated by some Evangelicals in order to make their harsh worldview slightly more humane. What it means is that up to a certain age–perhaps 3 or 4 or 5 or a little older–children will go to heaven, even if they have not “accepted Christ as their personal savior” by “asking him into their hearts” through the sinners’ prayer. After all, they might be too young to grasp these concepts and their full implications. (The previous sentence is meant to demonstrate Evangelical reasoning. My own view is of course that it’s horrible to teach anyone, but especially children, that God intends to torture most of humanity in hell forever, “because of our sins” and/or “for his glory.”)
Mr. Henderson understood the reasons many Evangelicals believe in an age of accountability. Only a psychopath could remain undisturbed at the thought of children being tormented in hell. And yet, Mr. Henderson had to tell us that he saw no Biblical evidence for an age of accountability, which meant he couldn’t believe in it. At this point someone raised a question that could only come up within the dark, twisted realm of fundamentalist thinking. What about aborted babies? At this point, Mr. Henderson began to choke up and shed a few tears. The “logic” of his extreme Calvinist worldview compelled him to believe that miscarried and aborted “babies” wind up in hell. But he was clearly deeply troubled by the thought. Something in him must have felt that God sending aborted babies to hell was horrifyingly unjust, and yet Mr. Henderson could not shake the ultimate source of abuse in Calvinist thinking–Calvinism’s insistence that whatever God does is good by definition, regardless of our own doubts and moral intuitions.