For some time now I’ve been waiting patiently for a cultural reassessment of John Calvin and his presumably dour theology. And, some of my friends would add teasingly, who hasn’t been? But if you’re a theo-geek like me, you’re going to have to wait a little longer for the Calvinist reboot.
Recent articles in The New Yorker and the New York Times are just the latest perpetuations of Calvin’s uptight, puritanical image. Writing in the July 30 New Yorker, Sarah Payne Stuart (“Pilgrim’s Progress: God and Real Estate in New England”) lays at the doorstep of Calvinism her observation that New England is still “an unforgiving place. Like a disapproving mother, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations.”
Matthew Hutson opines likewise in “Still Puritan After All These Years,” his Aug. 3 op-ed in the Times. The science writer plies the notion that Americans today exhibit attitudes and behavior traceable to “those austere English Protestants” who arrived on these shores in the early 17th century. Those were mostly Calvinists, followers of the cleric who, as Hutson recites, “viewed success as a sign of salvation.”
Hutson digs into a few psychological research studies of whether American work habits reflect the Protestant work ethic (as prone to caricature as Calvin himself).
“Calvin argued that socializing while on the job was a distraction from the assignment God gave you,” he purports. “The psychologist Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks has found that Protestants — but not Catholics — become less sensitive to others’ emotions when reminded of work, possibly indicating a tendency to judge fraternizing as unproductive and unprofessional. He and collaborators have also found that Americans have a culturally specific tendency to view family photos and other personal items as unprofessional presences in the office.”
I’m skeptical of whether religious affiliation would explain such a workplace hang-up, but let’s continue down the Reformation trail.
“Not all of the legacy of Puritanism suggests moral uprightness,” Hutson informs us. “Studies since the ’70s have also found that Americans who score high on a Protestant Ethic Scale (emphasizing self-reliance and self-discipline) or similar metric show marked prejudice against racial minorities and the poor; hostility toward social welfare efforts; and, among obese women, self-denigration.”
My guess is that the most avowedly self-reliant among us tend to be politically conservative. So it’s not shocking that these people would be more likely to frown upon “social welfare efforts” and the like. That aside, here we have, once again, the Calvin of popular assumption, served up with shibboleths about classical Protestant theology (I’m Catholic, by the way).
Some writers and scholars in recent years have offered a fresh reintroduction to the man from Geneva. My favorite among these revisers is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Gilead. (Mark O’Connell looked at the Calvinist colors of her fiction in the May 30 online edition of The New Yorker, available here. And, a scholarly review of one of her Calvinist essays is here.)
In an illuminating PBS interview with my friend and collaborator Bob Abernethy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Robinson noted that Calvin spearheaded many social reforms in his city that were certainly progressive in his time. These included the establishment of public education for both boys and girls, and the requirement that men financially support the children they conceive out of wedlock. With Calvin’s encouragement, Europe’s first edition of the Qur’an was published in Geneva. (Calvin also saw concentrations of wealth as unbiblical, which I discussed in an article late last year for The Christian Century.)
Theologically speaking, Robinson said, relating a centerpiece of Calvinism:
We are given the world to enjoy. The signature of God in creation is beauty, as well as the expansion of understanding or the expansion of awareness, which is never complete precisely because it’s a manifestation of the presence of God. That life in the world is an enormous privilege, which is enhanced as privilege in the degree to which we are attentive to what is being given to us, not just as gift of prosperity or something, but what’s given us to understand, to allow us to reconceive.
True, Calvin was a tad obsessed with sin and human frailty. But this of a piece with his intellectual humility, urgently needed in our politics today.
According to Robinson, Calvinism presents “the idea that the world is continuously unfolding itself for your further understanding … [and] that whatever understanding you bring to this experience is incomplete, is too small.” Put another way, every act of seeing is partial. Every instance of human understanding is at least partly inaccurate. Tell that to the folks who claim to know with absolute certainty what God ate for lunch today!
It’s this awareness of human fallibility that led Calvin away from—not toward—the unforgiving and judgmental attitude that has been pasted historically all over him. Much of this theological sensibility derives from his understanding of Original Sin, which “makes it so that we can never see clearly or understand entirely. And this, of course, undermines the assumption that secure judgments can be made, that we actually know,” Robinson told Bob in the 2010 interview.
When Bob asked about a Calvinist ethic of forgiveness, she elaborated:
The assumption is that forgiveness is owed wherever God might want forgiveness to be given, and we don’t know. So you err on the side of forgiving. Or you don’t, or who knows what God’s ultimate intentions are, in any case? But you assume your fallibility and you also assume that anybody that you encounter is precious to God, or is God himself, which is sometimes how [Calvin] describes this when you are encountered by someone, even an enemy. And when Calvin talked about somebody who wanted to kill you, that was most of Europe at that point, from his point of view. But he says this is the image of God that has approached you. And the question is what does God want from this moment? And so there’s this absolute valuing of the other that comes under all circumstances and just leaves the idea of judgment as a meaningless idea.
Judgment as a meaningless idea? Welcome to Calvinism 2.0—if it ever finds a market.