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Calvin's children

It's time we rediscovered John Calvin, the seminal thinker from whom so much American history and religion flows. A good place to start is with novelist Marilynne Robinson, a modern Calvinist.
John Calvin, 1509-1564

John Calvin, 1509-1564 Yale University Library

Novelist Marilynne Robinson

Novelist Marilynne Robinson SAU

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the French Protestant Reformer John Calvin. To mark the occasion, conferences and seminars weighing Calvin’s thought and legacy are occurring apace across the globe. Calvin has been enormously influential, if mostly forgotten today. He is credited or blamed for all manner of things from capitalism to democracy, from religious intolerance to religious freedom. It's time for a reappraisal, maybe even a comeback.

Calvin has his contemporary admirers. They are diverse, ranging from the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and UW graduate, Marilynne Robinson (Gilead and, most recently, Home) to the Seattle pastor, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, the city's largest congregation. In a time when religion’s star is not on the rise, it is interesting to find a novelist of Marilynne Robinson’s stature and gifts locating herself as both a Christian and someone instructed by Calvin.

As with any such figure, Calvin’s corpus and genius resist easy summary. Still there are some themes that are more prominent than others. More important, there are themes that may be especially relevant in times, such as our own, when a certain sober chastening and new humility are in order. Here are three.

Calvin’s description of his own conversion may come as a surprise to those who associate him with the grim, grey, or intolerant. Trained as a lawyer, Calvin described his conversion as receiving the gift of “a teachable spirit.” Here’s Calvin: “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.” In contrast to understandings of conversion as having reached rock-hard conclusion or complete certainty, Calvin’s account emphasizes the softening of his heart and a new openness of his spirit.

Calvin is also associated with the Christian theme of sin and the doctrine of “Original Sin.” Many times I have quoted Calvin in this regard saying, “Confession of sin begins with the house and people of God.” In other words, if you wish to take the measure of things and assess responsibility, start by looking in the mirror and owning your own part in the mess. Like Pascal, and unlike George W. Bush, Calvin understood the world does not divide between saints and sinners, but between saints who know themselves to be sinners, and sinners who believe themselves to be saints. All the business about sin is essentially a way to say, “Let’s be honest here folks.”

Novelist Robinson finds the Christian teaching of original sin and Calvin’s stern claim of human “depravity,” not so much harsh as compassionate. “Maybe not coincidentally, I now consider sin both radically compassionate and, as doctrines go, fairly verifiable. This is not to say that I would follow Edwards [Jonathan Edwards, Puritan divine and, at his death, President of Princeton University] in tracing our condition back to an actual Adam. It is to say, rather, that we do all err and fail, are in some degree helpless against our human weaknesses, and that we owe ourselves and one another a chastening awareness of this fact, and forgiveness on these grounds.”

Perhaps if we joined Robinson in taking this Christian and Calvinist teaching more seriously we would not be quite such suckers for the media’s favorite story line, which goes, “Watch celebrity rise to god-like stature and radiance; now watch celebrity fall to wretched depths.” Moreover, an assumption of human fallibility might have caused us to place less blind or absolute faith in the market and to imagine that some level of regulation of financial institutions was both necessary and important. Everyone is bent.

No doctrine is more frequently attached to Calvin’s name than that of predestination. In truth Calvin did not place predestination at the center of his work in the way that subsequent “Calvinists” did. But still it’s there, and often proves galling to Americans with our devotion to the contrary tenet of free will. Calvin intended predestination to be reassuring to the faithful, setting them free from anxieties about their eternal destiny or from constant efforts to ensure their future. But it has seldom been interpreted that way.

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Posted Fri, Jun 19, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Wasn't John Calvin the preacher who had beheaded those who wandered through his Swiss village preaching any other faith? Not exactly a redeeming redemptionist.

Posted Fri, Jun 19, 10:49 a.m. Inappropriate

It's wonderful that Ms. Robinson won such a prestigious literary award--but she's very unlikely to even make the short list for logical, or theologically sophisticated, discourse.

She says that "free will is an attractive phrase" and then "dissents" (from what?? there is no assertion from which to dissent, other than her own comment!) to say that “Predestination is more attractive to me because it makes everything mysterious. We do not know how God acts or what he intends, toward ourselves or toward others. We know only that his will precedes us, anticipates us, can never forget or look away from us.”

Whether evaluated logically or theologically, her comments are nothing more than statements of preference or unsupported assumptions about the nature of God and "his" intent, actions, etc. This may be of great moment and comfort to Ms. Robinson, but is meager stuff indeed for the seeking, thinking person who hasn't yet arrived at doctrinal (Cauvinist) positions such as "strict construction" of biblical texts, the "total depravity" of humans, or the tortured construct of "predestination" and its dreadful implications.

The glory of the protestant reformation was the courageous insistence of its practitioners on spiritual freedom; "freiheit." The disgrace of the same practitioners and their followers was in replacing one intellectual and spiritual tyranny with another. Calvin figures prominently on both sides of this complicated dynamic, and any attempt to cast him only in the role of spiritual reformer is to ignore his very rigid and un-egalitarian influence in his own communities and throughout Europe and the Christian world.

There is a reason why the term "Calvinist" largely connotes inflexibility, a pinched and humorless view of human nature and its conduct, and narrowness of thought. Apologists may wish to picture it otherwise, but open inquiry abets revelation.

As for God:

"Robinson, like Calvin, wishes to let God be God." Fortunately, God does not require the dispensation or imprimatur of you, me, Ms. Robinson, or John Calvin to "be God," and we can all take comfort in that.


Posted Fri, Jun 19, 10:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Was it William James who said that seeking truth and avoiding error lead us to very different destinations? Here the first responses to a gentle invitation to seek a little truth in an unpopular corner of history come from people firmly focused on avoiding error. I appreciate both kinds of endeavor (I even went to Wikipedia on Calvin to check if he really went around beheading rival preachers). But isn't it ironic that the writer appreciating something in Calvin's thought comes across as more open and less rigid than the writers attacking Calvin's narrowness and rigidity? Let's all read Marilynne Robinson's wonderful "Puritans and Prigs" again!

Anyway, mostly I wanted to say thanks, Mr. Robinson, for poking around in a place rarely entered by conventional wisdom today. In my own struggles to see my failings, be forgiving, and keep my egocentricity from getting in my way, I find these themes from Calvin inspiring, and it's delightful to see a little of his work outside the mental pigeonhole I'd stuck him in.


Posted Sat, Jun 20, 10:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Modern Calvinist = oxymoron

Posted Sun, Jun 21, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Seneca seems not to know that he's responding to a very brief article by Anthony Robinson and not a treatise by Marilyn Robinson. She never uses the word "dissents," which Senecas makes so much of, he (Anthony)does. She doesn't offer her unsupported statements or preferences, he does. She never says she wants to let God be God--those are Anthony's words. A newspaper article of this length can't fully and accurately reflect M. Robinson's thought, and there's no point in expecting it to or pretending it does. Better to read Robinson herself before condemning her entire enterprise.


Posted Wed, Aug 26, 9:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Calvin Schmalvin

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