The American Spiritual Temper Is Unconsciously Calvinist
[The] American spiritual temper is…uniquely oriented toward the will. Our soil produces more magicians than mystics. We inherited part of this strong will impulse from a source that most of us now find repellant: the Calvinist religion of the early settlers. According to Calvinism, God likes some people better than others and expresses his approval through earthly gifts. Health, wealth, and happiness are proof of God’s favor. Poverty and suffering are telltale signs of sin. Whether people will be favored or rejected by God is already decided before they are born. Some are predestined to be saved, and some are earmarked for damnation.
Contrary to what you might expect, this peculiar doctrine didn’t plunge its believers into despair or stop them from making an effort. On the contrary, it spurred them on. By working hard, amassing wealth, and keeping their lives in good order, they could prove to themselves and others that they were among the elect. This was the source of the Protestant work ethic.
Nowadays, you don’t find many card-carrying Calvinists. I’ve never met one personally. But I have known many who pursue yoga or Buddhism or even paganism in a Calvinist way. The Calvinist impulse has broken free of its Protestant origins and entered the collective unconscious of Americans. When I spell out its doctrine explicitly, you probably think it’s the dumbest spiritual teaching you ever heard. Yet, at some level, you are almost sure to be influenced by it. Rare is the American who isn’t.
You might say that you don’t believe in predestination, but if you are fond of the phrase “meant to be,” you’re leaning in that direction. If you think that an unhappy marriage, poor health, or money troubles are a sign that you’re on the wrong spiritual track, or that spirituality will fix it, you are making a Calvinist assumption.
In medieval Europe, people looked to the impoverished and emaciated for spiritual teachings. Austerity was the mark of a saint. In America, the prerequisite for any spiritual teacher is a life that works. We don’t turn for guidance to someone who can’t pay their electric bill. Consciously or unconsciously, we assume that the spiritually accomplished lead healthy, prosperous, and well-ordered lives….
— On Becoming an Alchemist, pp. 149-50