A Four Letter Word

By ceaseless and careless repetition, our society teaches us many things. Few Presbyterians under 40 years of age, I suspect, can distinguish between Rocinante and Dulcinea. However, everyone knows, and has been influenced by, Don Quixote’s conviction, “When in Rome do as the Romans do” (Part II, Chapter 54). Since conforming to the behavioral norms of one’s society is usually prudential advice, such folk wisdom is passed from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, those who say, “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” might hesitate to recommend, “When among cannibals, do as the cannibals do.” Interestingly, when Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed in cannibal theaters, Puck’s famous line is rendered either as “Lord what foods these mortals be” or, alternatlvely, “Lord what fools these morsels be” (III.2.115).

Our culture also passes along the superstitions of the past. For example, a sneeze was once thought to expel demons from your head. As protection against demonic re-infestation, the phrase, “God bless you” was quickly addressed to the sneezer. Even total strangers in grocery check-out lines, who might be thought completely indifferent to my demon count, address blessings to my head. This practice is especially annoying because it interrupts my research concentration on magazine covers that Margaret would never allow me to bring into her house. Most people close their eyes in sneezing thinking thereby to see no evil. The scientific reason for closing your eyes is to prevent the sneeze’s muzzle velocity from popping your eyeballs right out of their sockets.

According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the American personality was powerfully informed by the lure of the “frontier.” In earlier times, any American who was unhappy in his present location could shout, “Westward Ho” and join a wagon train. A lot of Methodists took the suggestion to “Go Wesley, young man.” Presbyterians, on the other hand, accepted Paul’s advice to be content wherever you found yourself (Philippians 4:11). Therefore, Presbyterian ministers, clinging to the eastern seaboard, were learning Greek and pondering the mysteries of patristic theology while Methodist circuit riders were entering frontier saloons to preach for repentance and against “demon rum.”

According to Sidney Mead, America and American theology moved in a decidedly Methodist direction after the second great awakening (The Lively Experiment, p. 55). Americans now assume they are captains of their souls, masters of their fate. Indeed the Methodist conviction of individual freedom and personal responsibility is so strong that it almost inevitably involves a weakening of the Reformed conviction of God’s grace and providence. Lamentably, even some Presbyterians use the four letter word: luck. (For a small fee absolution is available to those who were thinking of a more taboo four letter word that recent movies cannot seem to do without.)

I do not like to add to the burdens of those with too much time on their hands who read these lines. Still, you should know that the next generation of Presbyterian ministers have been overheard in seminary halls during final examinations piously and piteously wishing each other “Good Luck.” Apparently they have not yet learned that Reformed theology categorically denies the ontological reality of Lady Luck, the Goddess Fortune (Sophia’s wilder sister) and the Epicurean view of radical contingency also known as “taking your chances.”

Sophisticated Calvinists recognize that the term “Good luck” indicates a defective understanding of the providence of God. True Presbyterians therefore wish each other, “Good Predestination.”

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