Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Newsflash: Calvin Still Not Dead

Well, okay, he's dead. But Calvinism is doing just fine, thanks.

Strangely, this surprises the occasional reporter. A while back, we mocked Time magazine and reporter David van Biema for the assertion that Calvinism had recently returned from the dead, and that this return somehow upended decades of American religiosity.

Comes now Kate Shellnut of the Houston Chronicle, making essentially the same claim. Her version is even more simple-minded than van Biema's: Reformed theology started on Reformation Day in 1517 (!), used to matter, and then "many American baby boomers distanced themselves from the theology side of their religion." (She actually says that.) But now at last, Gens X & Y are coming back to Calvin, led by Mark (Mars Hill) Driscoll, Tim (Redeemer Pres) Keller and Al (SBC) Mohler.

The appeal of this narrative is that is contains a germ of truth. A vast number of Boomers did indeed turn their backs of Christian theology, along with Christianity in general, preferring the dubious delights of sweat lodges, yoga classes, and being "spiritual but not religious." And many, many Christians in every age prefer semi-Pelagianism to orthodoxy, even when the terms mean nothing to them. However, very little else in the story is true.

Let's try a rewrite, shall we? Our second today.

Over nearly 500 years, "Reformed Christianity," shaped by John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, has exercised a vast influence throughout the world. Today, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches claims 200 member churches with a total of 75 million souls, making it comparable in size to the Anglican and Lutheran communions. Since the Reformation, it has been the dominant religious force in Scotland, and continues to figure prominently in England and Swizerland. American history would be unfathomably different without the New England Puritans and Separatists (two different Calvinist movements), as well as their modern descendants -- the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches.

Yes, Calvinism has been challenged from time to time, especially by the Arminian movement in its various forms, most notably that of Methodism. Yes, some Reformed churches have occasionally muted their insistence upon the ultra-Augustinian teaching of double predestination. But it is easy to overstate this phenomenon, which is little more than a matter of emphasis. Even among these seemingly "moderate" churches, almost all (pace the UCC) continue to be defined by confessions of faith which lay out the doctrines of depravity and grace in a manner that would be acceptable to the fathers of Dort.

We remember, from our many years at a proudly Reformed seminary, a certain friend. He was not merely a liberal, but by any reasonable definition a leftist, both in politic and theology. But we also remember the weeks he spent, prowling the dormitory hallways, muttering to himself. What was he muttering, you ask? The Westminster Larger Catechism. He was trying to memorize it. And why? Because, after the Bible, it was this document and the other PCUSA confessions which defined the faith of his church. It was as essential to his faith as it was to that of the neo-Hodgian downstairs, with his pipe and beard and fulminations against feminism (not to mention his door-poster, which read "Pelagiani Sugunt").

So let's be serious. There are (conservatively) four times as many Calvinists in the world as there are Jews or followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama's laundry list gets more attention than a WARC assembly, but perhaps not deservedly so. Calvinism has been an indispensable factor in the creation of modern Christianity, and arguably in the creation of modernity itself. Calvinists, no less than any other Christians, generally believe what their churches teach. The idea that this one strand of Christianity was somehow "dead" at any time in its history -- much less in America -- is laughable to any halfway serious student of history.

So what gives with writers like van Biema and Shellnut? Are they just lazy journalists looking for an easy hook? Maybe so; Shellnut's article in particular gives evidence of hasty composition. But we think there is something else going on as well. We think that they have heard, and are now passing on, one element in a myth that is abroad in our culture. Simply put, this is the myth* that "mainline denominations" have lost touch with their own traditional faith. That Calvinists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and even Vatican II-loving Roman Catholics have all tacitly agreed to merge into a single amorphous and theologically ambiguous body, which in turn is dying.

This myth is deeply beloved both of Baby Boomers, looking for any excuse to explain their own generational apostasy, and of theocon reactionaries in the supposed "renewal" movements, seeking to justify their own existence.

The facts, however, are quite different. While it is true that the principal strands of Latin Christianity have moderated much of their hostile rhetoric in recent years -- lifting anathemas, entering into agreements and sometimes even "full communion," carefully defined -- their distinctions and disagreements remain clear, and are parsed with excruciating care in countless volumes labeled "dogmatics" and "symbolics." We have spent half a millennium doing this, and are very, very good at it. It is unlikely that there are any religious bodies in the world able to describe their agreements and disagreements as precisely as the Reformed, Evangelical and Roman churches. Why do they bother? Because these are the things they believe, and which they believe matter.

So to the seasoned observer, Calvinism is like the old union leader in the song:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead,"
"I never died," says he
"I never died," says he.
* And to be clear, since we know that the OBG will comment shortly, we mean "myth" here in two senses. It is both a story which is not true -- a lie, really -- and also a form of primitive symbolic expression which, in the words of Susanne Langer, "never breaks out of the magic circle of figurative ideas," or approaches the "the phase of logical thought and the conception of facts." The people whom we criticize do indeed live by this myth, as surely as ancient Greeks lived by the tales of the Homeric hymns. That makes the myth no more factual.

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