A Beer with a Calvinist: Reflecting on the Meaning of Hesed

Three years ago I responded to a post on my church history TA David Fink’s Facebook page. I quickly started arguing with a friend of David’s named Paul who was basically on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from me: he was a Calvinist. I decided to add Paul as my Facebook friend because I wanted to have at least one Calvinist friend so I could try to understand them better and possibly grow in my faith as well. Well we argued for three years and had fascinating and sometimes overly volcanic conversations. We called each other hell-bound heretics at least a few times and unfriended each other earlier this year after a particularly intense exchange.

Well when I found out I was coming up to the Twin Cities for a family reunion, I knew that was where Paul lives so I added him back as my Facebook friend because we had talked many times about how cool it would be to get a beer one day, and I still wanted to try to do that.

So last night, my cousin David and I went to a Granite City in a suburb of Minneapolis to meet Paul and a woman named Georgia who is the daughter of Paul’s former senior pastor and another online friend I made (whose theological views tend to be more compatible with mine).

We sat in a booth together from 11 until they kicked us out well after 1 am, enjoying one of the most epic spiritual conversations I’ve had in a long time. The thing that we all share is a ferocious hunger to know and understand God. We were able to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the reformed and Wesleyan theological traditions along with just sharing exciting “kingdom moments” from our lives.

One of the things we talked about is the Hebrew concept hesed (חסד) which is translated into English as “mercy” (or “loving-kindness” in KJV) and has a connotation in Hebrew of the kind of love you have for your family. I believe that God created hesed between the four of us as we sipped beer together and tried to understand what this whole Jesus thing is about. And I really feel like hesed is what God has been trying to accomplish in the human community by reaching out to us through Christ and continuing to build the εκκλησία of people who have been called out of the world and into God’s family.

One of the greatest enemies of hesed throughout Christian history has been the tendency to turn faith into a big old never-ending argument. Augustine and Jerome were utterly nasty to one another. John Wesley was every bit as opinionated and self-righteous as John Piper. The pamphlet wars and papal bulls of past centuries were just as nasty as the blogosphere is today.

I often accuse Calvinists of idolatrizing their doctrine and losing their sense of mercy, but I’m just as bad. I think I’ve got atonement and divine justice figured out and I’m just as quick to throw the heretic label around as the Gospel Coalition. I’m very passionate about trying to understand God but that can so quickly turn into a passion for cynically shredding other people’s genuine convictions. I genuinely want to prevent the demons and bogeymen of “fundamentalism” that have oppressed me from hurting other people. I hate it when I encounter descriptions of God that seem wooden and insulting to people’s intelligence. I want for the truth to be something that has an answer for Foucault and Zizek and Badiou and Agamben and all the other postmodern thinkers because I honestly think they’ve got a piece of the truth too. But I’m realizing that people like my Calvinist friend Paul are on the same journey I am. They’ve read different books; different caricatures of God have frustrated them and caused them to defend a different dimension of God’s identity more ferociously; but this in no way makes their passion for truth some kind of evil bourgeois conspiracy which is what postmodern criticism has taught me to label everything I disagree with.

God rescues us from the unfair caricatures we make of other people by creating hesed between us. When people are family, you can love them even if their opinions drive you crazy. My uncle is an extreme tea partier far to the right of Sarah Palin. He’s also a soft-spoken, good-natured guy who loves to play with his grandkids. Even though I can’t talk to him about certain things, I love him. God has created hesed between us.

I thank God for my friends Paul and Georgia and my cousin David and the amazing conversation I got to share with them. I think God has a different purpose for each of us which is why he has shaped us with very different upbringings and sensibilities and life stories. I hope to hold onto the hesed that God has created between us and to resist my tendency to presume and caricature and oversimplify the views of Calvinists like my friend Paul in the future. מלך חסד יהוה


2 thoughts on “A Beer with a Calvinist: Reflecting on the Meaning of Hesed

  1. What a wonderful experience for you! I’m glad that you finally got to meet your friend Paul. And yes, I too believe that God created hesed between you all. I’m just sad you didn’t tell me you were coming! 😦 Would have loved to join you all.

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