Yard Sign Calvinism

Is "No Mow May" peak Yard Sign Calvinism?

Some years ago, the people who service my lawnmower got somewhat overwhelmed and lost track of it.  I called and was assured it was "next up" but after a few weeks, panic set in.  Much of my back yard is well-watered, and the grass always grow thick and quickly.  By the time I got it back, the grass was a foot high, and even though it's a decent riding mower, it struggled to make headway.

Indeed, it didn't so much mow it as push it over.  I had to go over it multiple times over several days to restore it to some semblance of order and in the meantime, the mosquito population was off the charts.

I mention this because I see that several of my neighbors are participating in something called "No Mow May," which is the latest exercise in Yard Sign Calvinist virtue signalling.

I have to admit it is brilliant - one literally does nothing with the yard in order to feel superior to everyone else on the block who is maintaining theirs.  Of course, the whole point of Yard Sign Calvinism is the yard sign, and this is critically important because without it, the yard just looks neglected.

Only by having the sign explain what is going on can one understand how simply doing routine yard work is now sinful and depraved.

Whether this experience is repeated remains to be seen.  Whatever fuel I saved while waiting for the mower come back I more than used up once I tried to cut it.  Not only did I have to mow it multiple times, the effort required of the engine to hack through the growth caused it to burn fuel at a greatly accelerated rate, causing me to go through a month's normal use in a matter of days.

In two more weeks, I will be interested to see if the signs remain, reminders of the virtue that the rest of us failed to demonstrate.

I'll also see how many use lawn services to clean up the results of their piety.  Does cleaning up that mess bestow a plenary indulgence on the crews?

That time when the Patriarch of Constantinople became a Calvinist

After listening to recent episode of the Lord of Spirits podcast, I figured I'd do a bit of a deep dive on Father Stephen's least favorite theology, Calvinism.

Yeah, I know, a guy who is promoting the term Yard Sign Calvinism should already have done that, but I wanted to refresh my thoughts a bit.

What I found was a rather obscure episode where the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Lucaris, decided to publish a confession in Switzerland declaring the teachings of John Calvin to be in accord with those of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  This actually happened.

You can read about it more detail at the link, and because I was now fascinated, I found and downloaded the proceedings of the various Eastern Church councils that dealt with this matter.  There were three in total, with the first two mostly focusing on anathematizing Cyril while the final one, the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672, was a full-frontal assault on Calvinism.

The edition I found (which seems to be an 1899 imprint), helpfully includes Cyril's original claims as an appendix, so it presents a unique opportunity to see a challenge and response.

It also presents an example that many Catholics might find interesting since the Patriarch of Constantinople has precedence in the Eastern Church.  While this does not convey the same kind of power or authority as the Papacy, it is an interesting example of what happens when a church leader decides to make a radical break with doctrine.  (Spoiler alert: it didn't end well for him.)

Reading about the affair gave me a much better understanding of the experience of the Orthodox Church, particularly the intrigues and instability that followed the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire.  Cyril was deposed four times, reinstated, and was finally murdered by the Turks after his enemies said he would incite rebellion.  The fact that Orthodox religious leaders were for centuries dependent on the goodwill of the Sultan does much to explain both their practices and theology.

The episode also served to remind me that as much as religion has faded from the public square in America, there is still a profound Calvinist influence out there.  The notion that people are judged instantly upon death and go straight to heaven or hell is nowhere in the scriptures, but is a key point in Calvinism.  Without a final judgement, there's no reason to pray for the dead - they've already gone where they are going.

The doctrine of predestination combined with the fact that marriage is not a sacrament also finds echoes in the modern notion that serial marriage can be acceptable and even moral because people are simply trying to find their "soul mate," the one they were "meant to be with."

As I enter Holy Week, I feel much more empathy for my Orthodox brothers in Christ - and even less charity towards the Calvinists.


The god of the two-car garage

My recent perusal of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels brings out another critique of post-war America, which is the erosion of religion in public life.

Today much of this blame falls on the Baby Boomers, but Thompson himself was born in 1937, and I think much of the loss of faith can be blamed on the unprecedented prosperity in America following World War II.

A general historical principle is that affluence and prosperity breed decadence and depravity.  Being afflicted by the mortal sin of pride, humans naturally turn from the divine and attribute their success to their own cleverness and intellect.  Only fools still follow the old ways, which limit both human imagination and the scope of available pleasure.

The Old Testament is chock full of examples, and records of other peoples in different cultures confirm the same tendency.  Contemporary accounts of prosperous reigns almost always include a lamentation that the gods and their morals are being neglected.

It this was true of the US, but with two key additions.  The first was the sheer scale of wealth, which gave common people a quality of life beyond the reach of the super-rich as recently as a half-century ago.  While the Robber Barons of the gilded age might have had a luxurious estate and gold utensils, they didn't have x-rays, antibiotics or radios.  To evade the heat, they had to retreat to an estate on the lake or in the foothills, but by the 60s and 70s, air condition was something middle class people had.

The second was the pervasive influence of the Puritan founding.  Though their religious practice is all but forgotten, their beliefs regarding individual success and failure endure.  Put simply, people who are doing well are seen as morally superior to those who have failed.  Whereas this was once seen as a sign that they were among God's Elect, it has increasingly been folded into the secular concept of the "meritocracy," the notion that the best and brightest should be accorded more prestige and therefore power.

This no doubt fueled Thompson's hatred of the middle class, since he keenly felt the stigma of not achieving conventional measures of success.

He also detested what he considered their primitive and dull-witted adherence to the old moral codes.  His writing (and that of his contemporaries) generally sneers at organized religions.  In this telling, religious people are either hypocrites (and often running a racket) or simply too stupid to sin. 

Thompson himself is something of an aesthete - sampling drugs like rare vintages of wine.  It's interesting that he regarded the Kentucky Derby as "decadent and depraved" but felt much more at home among the Hell's Angels or various hippie communes.

The problem with society wasn't immorality, but morality itself.  If people would just back off, stop judging and enjoy life, everything would work out fine.   It was the stuffed shirts who ruined everything.  This is the ethos of Caddyshack.

That's all when and good when one is young and carefree, but it ultimately doesn't satisfy the soul.  The significance of The Big Chill was that it was the first warning to the Boomers that the party would eventually end.

At that point, it was the rubes who went to church who were having the last laugh while the materialists frantically try various cosmetic and health procedures to preserve their youth.

I've written about Carly Simon's semi-conversion, but John Voight's change is even more profound and striking.  In the 1970, he was making edgy fare like Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, but he's now offering public prayers for the salvation of the nation. 

There's a hint of Evelyn Waugh about that, and one of the great might-have-beens is if Thompson had a similar conversion.  Alas, he shut himself completely off from God.  Even his funeral was a mockery of religious observance.

Ultimately, that's where materialism leads.  At some point the drugs no longer produce the same highs, one's possessions seem old and tawdry and the end of football season looms (Thompson's suicide note actually cited this as part of his depression).  At that point, the god of the two-car garage falls silent.




The Problem of Evil revisited

Not quite two years ago I addressed what some people call the Problem of Evil and used the example of how children will defy even the most loving and caring parents.

For those not up to speed on Christian apologetics, the Problem of Evil is also phrased as "why does God allow bad things to happen?"

I stand by my earlier answer, but in the time since I gave it, I've come to see things differently.  To me the question is rather "How do good things happen at all?"

I mean, the notion that life should be free of harm, danger or sorrow is completely divorced from reality.  Looking at the world around us and informed by history, the most logical expectation of life is that it should be (to quote Hobbes) "nasty, brutish and short."

And it often is.  Interestingly, in such societies expectations of comfort and leisure are few and fleeting.  I think our current notions of "evil" are largely informed by the unprecedented peace and prosperity Westerners have lived in for the past few generations.

Where I live, there is an assumption in the wider community that these things are the default setting for humanity, that they will happen organically, naturally, like flowers blooming in the spring.  When something disturbs their tranquility, they are indignant and demand that changes be made to ensure it never happens again.  I have a mental image of Karen demanding to speak with God's manager.

One of the keys to happiness (and avoiding disappointment) is aligning expectations with realistic outcomes.  In truth, there is no bottom, no guaranteed level of comfort for any of us.  The only guarantee in life is that it ends in death.  People who have endured great hardship over a space of years get this. 

Every Vietnam POW I've talked to (and I've talked to quite a few as guest speakers during my military career) has an incredible grateful and optimistic demeanor.  They cherish every sunrise and sunset.  No sensation is wasted, from a warm shower to clean sheets on their feet.  After each presentation I have remarked that while I envy their joy, I'm not sure I want to spend years at the Hanoi Hilton to get it.

That's because it's hard to not to take nice things for granted when it is all you have known.  While I am thankful for nice things, I have come to also be thankful for hardships that make me appreciate them more. 

All of which is to say that one of the proofs of God is the presence of goodness and joy in the world.  Logically, it serves no purpose.  Fear and oppression are far more efficient and frankly pleasing to most people.  Absent some sort of moral scruple, most people won't think twice about stealing or hurting someone.  It is only through religion (specifically, Christianity) that we develop a sense that this is wrong.

Much of Western society still has a residual sense of Christian morality, but that is now fading, and we're seeing the results.  Appeals to decency are now pointless, and it has even gone so far that some people respond to expressions of sympathy and offers of prayer with rage and profanity.

These are people who are perilously close to the "I would lie, cheat, steal or kill if only I could get away with it" threshold, but that can't see it.

Indeed, here I must once again mention the Yard Sign Calvinists, who often play a leading role in both disparaging Christianity and wishing harm on those they deem outside of the Elect.

Evil can manifest in many ways, and J.R.R. Tolkien's work illustrates how the more pure of motives can lead one down a dark path.  G.K. Chesterton likewise gives countless illustrations of how the well-meaning and self-righteous become the devil's tools.  Much of Evelyn Waugh's satire focuses on this as well (particularly in Black Mischief).

Thus, I'm not saying anything particularly new or unique, and I freely admit that the Lord of Spirits podcast has contributed to my understanding of evil.

When bad things happen, it is important that we retain this perspective.  God knows our suffering, and we should always strive to learn from it.  It is possible to make something good out of a terrible event - as the Vietnam POWs I mentioned above have done.

Indeed, I think that is something most pleasing to God and perhaps why people who have achieved it seem so content.


Yard sign Calvinism

Time was, people put yards signs up for three reasons: the house was for sale, an election was about to happen, or they wanted you to know who re-paved their driveway.

But over the last few years I've noticed a different category of yard signs - they don't tell you to vote for anyone or even advocate a specific policy, they are simply there to let you know the property owner's beliefs.

Some of them even say that, providing a secular credo cribbed from bumper stickers that used to appear on the rusting exteriors of college-town Volvos.

I'm not the first person to notice that much of what animates the modern American left is a secularized form of Calvinism.  Thomas Sowell beat me to it decades ago, but the traditional Elect were a bit more subtle in advertising their self-righteousness (okay, the "In the case of the Rapture, this car will be empty" bumper stickers were a bit much).

Calvinism is a frequent target of the Lord of Spirits podcast, and justly so.  John Calvin took the Lutheran concept sola fides to its irrational extreme and modern secularists have run with it.  If faith alone can provide salvation, then simply announcing one's virtuous beliefs demonstrates moral superiority in the secular realm.

One of my favorite signs is one that reads:  "Wherever you are from, you're welcome to be our neighbor," which appears in English, Spanish and (presumably) Arabic.  I like it because I see them in the yards of houses that cost $300,000 or more.  Clueless irony is the best irony.

Another point of amusement (which is only possible if you live in the same neighborhood for a while) is when these houses are put up for sale, the virtue-signalling signs disappear.  The contractor ones can stay ("see, we just repaved the driveway"), but the owner is willing to mute their self-righteousness to recoup their investment.

I mean, the sign already proved their virtue.  Now they're just trying to sell the house.