Thursday, March 01, 2007

What Would Cowper Do?

William Cowper was an 18th century Calvinist poet, which is, surprisingly, not an oxymoron. (That's him on the right; what a fox, huh?) Calvinists believe in predestination, which I know all of my readers know, since both of you are very well-educated. They essentially believe in fate, that our final destination in the afterlife is already decided, has been decided since long before our births, and there's nothing we can do to change it. It must be this way, since God is all-knowing, all-powerful; He controls the future. Free will is an illusion, in a Calvinist view. We can not ultimately control our own lives, and it is pointless to try, since nothing we do on this earth will affect where we spend eternity.

William Cowper believed that he was predestined for Hell. He was convinced in his soul that he would spend eternity separated, alienated, completely cut-off from God. If such a conviction lodged itself in my heart I really don't think I could go on living. Maybe I would stay physically alive, put off the inevitable as long as possible, but I would have no hope. I would curse God for creating me and giving me a small glimpse of His glory, only to snatch it away with no possibility of restoration, no promise of its fulfillment in me. For creating me only to destroy me.

But that's not what William Cowper did. Instead he wrote this:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face...

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

How could a man so persuaded of his own eternal damnation be so trusting, so favorable toward the very God who, he believed, was responsible for his fate? His answer was simple: we can not understand the ways of God, who is Creator, and therefore Master, of the universe. All things were created for His glory, for His purposes, and He will use them as such. He has the "right," to put it into Democratic-minded American terms. Our lives are not our own and our eternal fates are not our own; they are God's, and He will do with them as He pleases.

Cowper (and by default, Calvin) had a point. God is all-powerful, and He does not have to give us free will. But I would ask them both this question: if God wanted to decide for us where we would spend eternity, why did He pay such a high price for our souls? Nothing is impossible for Him. He didn't have to die. He could have "over-ridden the system," and made it so that all people, no matter their choices in life or opinion of Him, would go to Heaven.

And why didn't He?

He loves us. God wants everyone to come to know Him and love Him. But even more than He desires this, He desires that we choose Him, which is why He will not force our destiny upon us. He can not ravish; He can only woo. If we had no choice but to love Him, we would not love Him in the truest sense. If we were going to end up in Heaven, no matter what we did or what choices we made, there would be no reward in it. And God's glory would not be fulfilled, since it would, in a sense, be only self-love. But God is perfect, and therefore self-less, and the most selfless thing that a perfect Being could do would be to create other beings to love Him of their own free will.

Heaven is our, everyone's, destiny, but it is not our destination unless we choose it. A better term than predestination would be predestiny.

If William Cowper had not believed that he was predestined for Hell, how would his life have been changed? If he had known that his choice to follow and understand God would lead him to an eternity with the Love of his life, would he still have written about frowning Providence and blind unbelief? Or would his pen have turned to other subjects? We may never know, but maybe I can ask him in Heaven.

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