I grew up in a family and in a church which subscribed to Calvinist beliefs. Of course, as a child I didn’t know that I was a Calvinist. I listened to the church’s teachings in sermon after sermon, but it was a long time before I became aware of the underlying beliefs.
Calvinism is a bit like time travel; it seems simple at first, but if you think out all the consequences, then you get tied up in knots. Calvinists believe that because God is all-powerful, He has already pre-ordained everything which happens. This means that before the world was created, God decided who would be saved and go to heaven and who would spend eternity in hell.
Religion is full of apparent paradoxes, which you just have to accept at one layer of belief and sometime later on, when you are able to go deeper into the mystery, you catch a glimpse of a bigger picture where the paradoxes resolve. Paradox aside, Calvinism raises some serious problems. Where does our free will come in, if God has decided everything, and how can a loving God create people knowing that no matter what they do, they will go to hell?
When I was looking into becoming Catholic, I came across the writing of Frank Schaeffer, who was brought up in Switzerland as the son of American Calvinist missionaries. In his novel ‘Portofino’, the main character is a boy called Calvin. He wrestles with the Calvinist beliefs of his missionary parents, in a way that would be funny, if it wasn’t also sad. For instance, he tries to escape the fact that God already knows exactly what he’s going to do, by doing something so fast and so unexpected that he hopes he’ll get one step ahead of God’s pre-ordained plan.
In the novel ‘Portofino’, Calvin and his parents believed that they were among God’s Elect whom he had pre-ordained to be saved. However, most members of my own family, doubted that they were among the Elect. They believed that unless God gave you assurance of salvation, preferably in some kind of Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type conversion, then you were not saved. If God hadn’t already shown you that you were numbered among the Elect, who were you to approach the God of the universe and ask for His forgivenes? Who indeed.
I grew up with a feeling of hopelessness. I was caught no matter what I did. If I didn’t try to live as a Christian and attend church, I was damned. On the other hand, even if I tried to live a Christian life, at the end of it, I might still find out that I was pre-destined to Eternal Damnation.
The effect of this kind of teaching was that many people, including myself, did not become church members and take communion. They doubted that God would actually forgive them and feared taking communion unworthily.
So there you have it: Calvinism, the Highland version.
I’ll finish with the thoughts of Emily MacDonald on Highland Presbyterianism. She was born in England and her uncle Lord Leverhulme had just bought the island of Lewis when she made her first trip there in 1918. She married a young doctor from Lewis in 1923, and although they settled in England, she retained a great affection for the island and visited on holiday. In ‘Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories’, she writes:
A very strict form of Presbyterianism is observed by a large number of the inhabitants, and I feel that the beliefs held prevent many truly Christian men and women from receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They pass through life debarred from this service, because they dare not venture to partake of it for fear they be not worthy. …. What a help and comfort this service might be to hundreds of good-living Lewis men and women, whose chief ‘sins’ are that they read novels and write letters or take a walk and discuss mundane problems on Sunday afternoons though it is likely that they have attended church in the morning and will do so again in the evening.