TULIP by Esther Nelson

I’ve been blown away this Spring by the abundant beauty and sheer number of tulips planted throughout Roanoke, Virginia, a city I’m beginning to think of as “home.” 

If I were to pick a favorite flower, it would be the tulip, yet I find it impossible to look at a tulip without being reminded of my religious upbringing regarding “salvation” as represented in the acronym of Calvinism’s “Five Points.”  Each tulip displays five petals in its flower.  Each petal stands for one point.

T=Total Depravity

 U=Unconditional Election

 L=Limited Atonement

 I=Irresistible Grace

P=Preservation and Perseverance of the saints. 

When my (now ex-) sister-in-law delivered her first baby one Spring, I gave her a pot of tulip plants, reminding her that T-U-L-I-P was the basis of our faith.  The plant didn’t live to the following Spring, portending perhaps my future abandonment of T-U-L-I-P doctrine—doctrine being an interpretation of Scripture.  T-U-L-I-P  lays out an understanding of soteriology (doctrine explaining human salvation) hammered out by the French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) and developed further by his Protestant followers.

Calvin had pushback to his five points from Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) and his disciples who disagreed vehemently with Calvin.  Both Calvinists and Arminians claimed to be Christian, believing Christ to be the ultimate sacrifice for sin and necessary for blissful, eternal life. The discussion/debate remains an intramural one.

Seeing and engaging the world through a T-U-L-I-P lens does damage to the human spirit.  It’s especially harsh on those people who have been systematically marginalized throughout patriarchal history—women, the LGBQTIA+ community, poor people, and Black/Brown people (especially in the US).  After all, marginalized people have been considered “depraved” (first leaf of the tulip) by those who have power in our hierarchical society to develop and enforce doctrine that keeps the status quo for those in the upper echelons.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

 What is salvation?  How does it happen?  Who gets to be saved?  Why are some saved and not others? 

Today these questions don’t plague me as they once did.  I find them curiously interesting, but not personally relevant.  Nevertheless, these very questions and T-U-L-I-P, as a viable explanation for the human condition, used to hold me in their grip, crippling me while sucking joy from living in the here and now.

A brief explanation of T-U-L-I-P:

TOTAL DEPRAVITY—Not only have human beings inherited original sin (sin being the transgression of divine law), but are totally incapable of doing any good whatsoever without God’s intervention and help.  Sin has infiltrated our thinking, emotions, and will.  Only God can break through that murkiness before we can receive the free gift of salvation accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

(The following four points are dependent on the “truth” of the first point.)

UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION—God chooses who will be saved (the “elect”) for his own purposes, not based on anything an individual may or may not do.  Nevertheless, we humans are responsible to see/believe the “truth.”  (Huh?)

LIMITED ATONEMENT—Christ (the ultimate sacrifice for sin) did not die for everybody—only for those “elect” that God gave to Christ.  Not everybody can be or will be saved.

IRRESISTIBLE GRACE—Those whom God “elects” to salvation cannot ultimately resist the offer or internal call of God’s grace for salvation.

PERSEVERANCE (AND PRESERVATION) OF THE SAINTS—Once Christians have been saved they cannot lose their salvation.  God will see to it that the “elect” will persevere in the faith to the end.

So, why is this at all pertinent?  Because our religious communities’ theological doctrines (handed down from our ancestors) have seeped into the social fabric of society.  How often have we (those humans not “equal” to other humans) been told we don’t know things, don’t measure up, and will never achieve?  We are lacking in countless ways and only our “betters” can enlighten and save us.  (This is one way “total depravity” has worked into the interstices of society.)

T-U-L-I-P,  Re-imagined:

Instead of Total Depravity, might we consider Total Perfection?  We come into the world completely vulnerable and gradually learn to navigate our particular circumstances through the various communities we belong to.  We express ourselves within the boundaries of our humanity.  We love, hate, cry, get angry, and express joy.  In much of Buddhist thought, these emotions are just that—emotions.  We retain our perfection while being “angry Buddha,” “sad Buddha,” or “happy Buddha.”  Emotions are not a moral issue.  We are perfect in our humanity.

What about Unconditional Love, not Unconditional Election?  What if we were to give ourselves and those who cross our path unconditional love?  No judgment, no agenda to mold people into this or that—only acceptance of our perfect humanity?

Why not Limited Experience instead of Limited Atonement?  We are human and bound by what we often call “laws of nature.”  We fall at times.  We forget what we need to be doing.  Ideally, our family and community are supportive in ways that teach and encourage us, not limiting or withdrawing their support as we explore our environment.

Let’s talk about Irresistible Beauty, not Irresistible Grace.  Beauty surrounds us.  Beautiful art arrests us every day—both in the natural world and in the art humans produce.  Navajo people focus on walking in beauty, meaning walking in harmony with all things—people, objects, animals, and life itself!

Pensive Perseverance rather than Perseverance (and preservation) of the Saints although the latter sounds good as long as “saints” refers to all people traversing the earth.  Pensive (or critical thinking) Perseverance will enable us to flourish as we discover our own path.

My revision of Calvin’s acronym doesn’t answer all of life’s BIG questions, however, I do think a revised version of T-U-L-I-P—one that doesn’t straight-jacket our humanity would better nurture and sustain us on life’s journey.  Perhaps we can begin with contemplating, planting, and even painting the earthy, garden-variety tulips that flourish in the springtime!

Painting by Cliff Edwards

BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.

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8 replies

  1. What I love most about flowers is that they live in the here and now and bring us great joy as no doubt they do for bees and everyone else. Why is nature so beautiful if not to be appreciated by all?

    I have to say that I find all these principles so destructive as you point out…

    They surely perpetuate patriarchy do they not?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, TULIP does perpetuate patriarchy, Sara. One of the hardest concepts to get across to students (when I was still teaching) is that patriarchy is a social system with domination (through violence if need be) at its very core. Carol Christ’s definition of patriarchy is excellent: “…male dominance is enforced by violence which is a product of war; the control of female sexuality ensures the transfer of private property and slaves which are the spoils of war in the male line; and the system as a whole is legitimated by religion.”

      Liked by 4 people

      • I had the same problem when I was teaching Women’s Studies – evidently grasping the bigger picture is becoming harder and harder for people – for example you see endless adds ‘save this or the’ but NO ONE discusses the CONTEXT in which this or that exists – and that destructive context is PATRIARCHY….. How do we have hope when we are embedded in a system like this one? Yesterday I listened to public radio while washing windows – as far as I can see there’s nothing out there in the public arena except patriarchy.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I love your re-imagining of the tulip, one that is so much more closely aligned with the beauty and graciousness of flowers than the Calvinist worldview. Thank you for your explanation of the Calvinist “tulip” – I had never really understood Calvinistic concepts before and now I see that you are so right that all of us who live in our society are still living under their yoke. I think this really speaks to how important it is to do what you are doing – re-envisioning their worldview into one that can create and support a peaceful, just, equitable, and sustainable world.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Carolyn, for your comment. We DO need to envision positive change before we can work effectively towards it. It takes time and patience and it’s so easy to become discouraged. All we can do is continue to work towards our goals.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow–Esther, this is one of the smartest and most perceptive posts I think I’ve ever read on this site. Your reinterpretations of the Calvinist T-U-L-I-P? So mote they be! I grew up sort of Calvinist (Evangelical and Reformed) and Republican in a suburb of St. Louis. When I went through confirmation about age 12, I got those “truths” thrown at me. I’m sure they’re still being thrown at children who don’t know enough to ask questions. Yes, it’s good to reimagine those nasty old Calvinist concepts as related to love, beauty, and kindness. Thanks for writing this post! These days, we really need to have our thinking aimed at directions the patriarchy doesn’t control. Or like. Good for you! Brightest blessings, and enjoy your retirement. Grow beautiful tulips in your garden.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Barbara. Appreciate knowing a little of your personal history. Didn’t realize that TULIP was poison I swallowed and fed my children. Today, we feel as though we are TULIP survivors as we focus on our unique ways of expressing our humanity lovingly

      Liked by 4 people

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