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John Calvin at 500: Patron Saint of the Recession

4 years ago
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John Calvin turned 500 Friday and he's probably never looked better. This makeover is no mean feat, not just because Calvin is so old, but because for most of that time he has been identified -- with some justification, so to speak -- with the most dour form of Christianity. Or, as religion writer Ray Waddle puts it, "religion that won't dance."
Calvin was born in France (as Jean Cauvin) on July 10, 1509, but he became associated forever with Geneva and Swiss Protestantism, having fled to Switzerland after a conversion born amid the ferment of Reformation. In his magnum opus, "Institutes of the Christian Religion," Calvin systematized the theology that Luther preached, and thereby left a legacy that would, in many respects, outstrip that of any other Reformation leader -- not always for the good, at least from the modern perspective.
In history's grim reading, Calvin's God was a scowling deity, holding us over the pit of hell with nothing but his mercurial grace to save us. God had, in fact, predestined you to salvation or perdition, and there was really nothing you could do to change that. Calvin's "five-point" theology even earned a paradoxical acronym, TULIP-which stands not for a lovely flower, but for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. There's no tiptoeing in TULIP.
Indeed, Calvin's views were so controversial within Protestantism they led to many of the subsequent schisms that are still dividing Protestants. Southern Baptists are currently feuding over whether five-point Calvinism is a good thing, even though some 30 percent of the membership adheres to it, and many of them to an especially assertive form of "neo-Calvinism." Catholic writers have certainly never liked Calvin, for many obvious reasons -- Calvin was no fan of the pope, and vice versa -- but also for esthetic ones. As the English Catholic writer Hillaire Belloc put it:
"Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There's always laughter and good red wine.
At least I've always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!"
Not exactly a Calvinist sentiment, you might say. Even the evangelical champion and convert C.S. Lewis turned his nose up at what he saw as Calvinist self-loathing.
So can anything rescue Calvin from his reputation? Some big names are giving it a good shot. Marilynne Robinson, whose 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Home," is one of the most convincing portraits ever of a Congregational pastor, spends a good deal of time in her essay collection, "The Death of Adam," trying to rehabilitate Calvin, and doing an admirable job. And a spate of new books timed for the anniversary includes works that highlight Calvin's pastoral side, and one, from Princeton Seminary professor William Stacy Johnson, that calls Calvin a "Reformer for the 21st Century." Biblical scholar Roland Boer weighs in with perhaps the most provocative thesis, arguing in "Political Grace: The Revolutionary Theology of John Calvin," that Calvin was at heart a political radical, not a conservative.
How you categorize Calvin may depend on how you define your political terms. But Emory Law School's John Witte, Jr. also argues -- in his new book, "The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism" -- that Calvin's ideas were the "seedbed" of American constitutionalism and that core ideas like "popular sovereignty, federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, church and state, and more" were the product of "Calvinist theologians and jurists." (Read a Books & Culture review of Witte's book by Michael W. McConnell, a federal appeals court judge and constitutional law scholar.)
In his comprehensive biography, "Calvin," Bruce Gordon of Yale Divinity School documents Calvin's sere theology and a personal asceticism that often led to oppressive public measures. (Gordon recounts, for example, how Calvin grew apoplectic at the "shocking" conduct of Genevans found to have danced at a wedding!) But the author also notes that in his sermons "Calvin has nothing but positive remarks for the healthy sex lives of wives and husbands," and he relates how Calvin believed that the fruits of the world -- good friends, good food, and yes, good sex -- were to be enjoyed. Calvin himself was especially fond of fine wine, which he associated with chatty dinners with friends. "The enduring image of Calvin as an unyielding, moralistic and stone-faced tyrant who rejected all the pleasures of life has been his opponents' greatest victory," Gordon writes. For Calvin, "The fine things of life point to a gracious God."
But perhaps we shouldn't try to tame Calvin too much. In the current economic climate, the man credited with shaping a sober form of capitalism -- Calvin's thought lay behind Max Weber's landmark 1905 study, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" -- may have more to say to us today than ever. Calvin's fierce writings against materialism, and his equation of theft with murder, and the rich with thieves, certainly strike a satisfying chord as we look around at the Bernie Madoffs of the world. "Calvin said if you have so much then you probably stole it!" as Stanley Hauerwas, the quotable theologian and social ethicist at Duke -- and fan of Calvin --put it to me.
More than pointing the finger of blame at others, however, it is Calvin's sense of personal discipline, not as self-flagellation but as an expression of a life consecrated to God in ways great and small (as Gordon puts it) that should be rediscovered. Barack Obama, of the sunny "Yes we can!" campaign slogan, certainly seems to channel Calvin with his disciplined style and his calls for personal responsibility and self-sacrifice. Indeed, a Dutch magazine released a special edition titled "Calvin Glossy" and depicts Calvin as the "Barack Obama of the 16th Century." And according to Reuters, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is citing Calvin to explain the financial mess that has inundated his country -- once a bastion of Calvinist industry.
Christianity itself, in particular the Big Business version favored by many Americans, could use a dose of Calvinist propriety in the wake of so many scandals, and a generation of televangelists pitching the irrational exuberance of prosperity theology.
For all the talk of stimulus packages, John Calvin -- 500 years young -- preaches a gospel of restraint and individual rectitude that leads to societal uplift.
Unfortunately, his birthday has drawn scant attention. But his message may be getting through in other ways. The savings rate is higher than it has been in 16 years, and conspicuous consumption is passé -- for now, at least. Perhaps the suffering and anxiety felt by so many, as opposed to just the undeserving poor, may finally teach Americans a spiritual lesson that has been obscured by a religious worldview that is often fixated on the evils of sex and Harry Potter.
Would Calvin be pleased? Who knows, he might even smile.
Filed Under: Religion

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