John Calvin at Berkeley

calvinCheck out Jonathan Sheehan‘s recent New York Times piece about teaching John Calvin’s theology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Here is a taste:

In my history of Christianity course, we read a number of challenging writers. Each one I ask students to read with as much sympathy, charity and critical perspective as they can muster. But nothing outrages them — not the writings of Augustine or Erasmus or Luther — more than two or three pages of John Calvin.

Calvin was the most influential religious reformer of the 16th century. His theological imagination and organizational genius prepared the way for almost all forms of American Protestantism, from the Presbyterians to the Methodists to the Baptists. He was also a severe and uncompromising thinker. The Ayatollah of Geneva, some have called him.

Late in the third book of his 1559 “Institutes of the Christian Religion” — when he seeks to describe the utter power of God over man, and our utter dependence on Him — is usually where my students revolt. These young people come from all walks of life. They are atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims and more besides. They are the face of California diversity, young people with wildly different social, religious, ethnic and racial experiences.

Diverse as they may be, their reaction is the same when they read a sentence like this: “Some are born destined for certain death from the womb, who glorify God’s name by their own destruction.” This is the heart of Calvin’s teaching of predestination, his insistence that God determined each human destiny before the creation of the world. The elect are bound for heaven, the reprobate to hell, and there is absolutely nothing to be done about it, ever. “Jacob is chosen and distinguished from the rejected Esau, by God’s predestination, while not differing from him in merits,” is how Calvin put it. Your merits, your good will, your moral action: None of these make a difference. The chosen Jacob is no better than the rejected Esau. The damned glorify God’s name. And God is pleased by the whole business.

The classroom erupts in protest. Nothing has prepared my students for an idea like this. Secular students object: How can so much arrogant misanthropy pass itself off as piety? Non-Christian students are agitated, too. What kind of God is this, they ask, that took pleasure in creating man so that he might be condemned to everlasting damnation? And the various types of Christian students are no less outraged. “Follow me,” Christ said, and doesn’t that mean that we are asked to choose, that the choice between death and salvation is a free one? All different concerns, but the outcome is the same: rejection, usually disgust.

I ask the students to read on. After all, Calvin anticipated these objections, since they were raised in his day, too. He dedicated a whole chapter to dismissing the “insolence” of the human understanding when it “hears these things.” He knew that our first reactions would be anger and denial, that we would be baffled by predestination. So he demanded that his readers, then and now, think alongside him. His argument goes like this: If God alone created all things, doesn’t that mean that he did so freely? If he is free in his choices, how can it be otherwise than that God himself determines our fates, right to the edges of hell? Once you grant the first premise — that there is no God besides God and that he made the universe — reason itself apparently requires we assent to this terrible thought.

None of the students are persuaded by Calvin’s logic. But again, Calvin probably knew that they wouldn’t be, since many of his own readers weren’t either. For this saying “no,” the rejection of this terrible idea, is a natural, even reasonable reaction. “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin exclaimed.

Read the rest here.

This is a wonderful example of the humanities at work in the classroom.  I am assuming that Sheehan is not a Calvinist, but he wants his students to understand Calvin’s profoundly influential set of ideas.  The historical empathy on display here is inspiring.

I wonder, is Sheehan doing “theology” or intellectual history?  I would suggest he is doing the latter (and doing it quite well).  I have always thought of theology as something done in a community of believers.  It seems to me that the primary goal of teaching Calvin in a theology course would be to decide whether or not Calvin’s ideas are correct and thus provide a useful way of understanding the human relationship to God and vice-versa.   Just a thought.

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