Calvin’s Questions: A Response To Jonathan Sheehan

The question is not “Do I make my own choices, and determine my own destiny?” but instead, “Given that I do not, why do I want to believe that I do?”

And yet at this point, just when it is about to get interesting, Sheehan pulls up short. He tells students that when they critique Calvin’s ideas, they are “participating in the intellectual revolutions of the modern world.” This is a way of containing the challenge Calvin poses.


In “Teaching Calvin in California,” a recent piece in The New York Times, Jonathan Sheehan argues that students in secular college classrooms can learn a lot from studying theology. The example he uses to make the case is predestination. Sheehan is not teaching the comfortingly vague idea that each person’s fate is in God’s hands, however, but instead the disturbingly specific version insisted upon by the sixteenth century Christian reformer, John Calvin. According to Calvin’s teaching, often referred to as double predestination, God selects a chosen few and actively damns everyone else, for reasons known and knowable only to God.

Tech savvy students in sun-dappled classrooms in California are not the only ones who predictably find this theology offensive. Even Marilynne Robinson, the acclaimed novelist who has done more to champion Calvin than any non-theologian writing today, emphasizes the offending features of this aspect of Calvinist theology in a scene in Gilead in which her main character, the wise preacher John Ames, is asked to explain predestination. “I hate this conversation a great deal,” Ames’s friend Boughton—also a pastor—says when the topic comes up, “and I’ve never seen it go anywhere.” Ames himself wants to leave it alone: “I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that’s what people who talk about it normally do.” In this scene, as in so many discussions of predestination, freedom has the last word. “A person can change,” Ames’s wife Lila says simply. “Everything can change.” Lila’s reassuring denial of determinism ends the conversation. “Thanks,” the questioner replies. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

John Calvin, by contrast, thought we should want to know more. Sheehan follows Calvin’s lead, dwelling on the lessons Calvin lays out in Book III of his 1559 “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” As Calvin explains it there, predestination is a valuable doctrine precisely because it violates our sense of justice and fairness. We humans are naturally inclined to put ourselves at the center of the world and judge everything against our own standards of what makes sense. This is the problem, according to Calvin. “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin observes, in one of the lines Sheehan directs his students to ponder. Left to our own devices, we will keep repeating this mistake: only the shock and awe of predestination can counter the power of self-absorption. “A taste of this doctrine,” Calvin explains, is unparalleled in its ability “to make us as humble as we ought to be.” This is why, as Sheehan tells his students, the anger that predestination provokes can teach them what Calvin wants them to learn. It is “exactly here,” Sheehan observes, “in this rejection and anger, Calvin insists, that you finally feel in your gut the greatness of God. You finally feel the difference between his Majesty and your limitation.”

And yet at this point, just when it is about to get interesting, Sheehan pulls up short. He tells students that when they critique Calvin’s ideas, they are “participating in the intellectual revolutions of the modern world.” This is a way of containing the challenge Calvin poses. So too is Sheehan’s emphasis on the historical lessons students can glean from reading about predestination: that people in the past think differently than we do today, and that we can understand why we think the way we do today by revisiting how we got from there to here. Both lessons are important. Yet turning to them, even while assuming that a gut-level sense of the greatness of God will affect believers differently than non-believers, means that Sheehan fails to fully explore the most challenging implications of Calvin’s theology: Ideas are transformative, and studying alternative ways of perceiving the world might not only improve our capacity to appreciate difference but also prompt us to deny the differences we currently assume (secular versus religious thought, for example, or modern versus pre-modern, or liberating versus oppressive).

I am persuaded that Sheehan’s students complete the exercise of reading Calvin schooled, as he says, in “integrity, reason, creativity, and charity.” Encountering Calvin as Sheehan presents him, these students should rightly feel reassured that they can engage even the most outrageous ideas, make sense of them, and better understand people whose ways of being in the world might otherwise seem inexplicable. What is not clear is whether they have learned to appreciate theology as a live option, or have been confronted with the possibility that theological ideas might change the way they themselves understand the world.

Why not ask students to compare Calvin’s theological notion of predestination to modern secular theories that make analogous claims: that we regularly overestimate the powers of reason and fail to appreciate the limits of our self-perceived rationality and capacity for free choice; that we often overlook or minimize the structural forces that condition our choices; and that our reluctance to grapple with these limitations has significant consequences? Why not invite students to consider the fascinating analogies between Calvin’s theological ideas and modern theories about how power dynamics undermine the belief that Sheehan describes all his students holding dear, that our fate is determined by our effort, that we are all free to make a life for ourselves, that the outcome depends on the choices we freely make?

When I teach Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, and face the kind of responses Sheehan describes, I ask students to guess what kind of car I drive. “A Prius,” someone calls out. It is usually the first guess, sometimes the second. I smile, they laugh. They’re right. Like many professors, I predictably drive a Prius. What’s the connection? I ask them. What does my choice in cars have to do with the outrageous theological doctrine we’ve been discussing? Silence falls. People look confused. Theology is about God, and faith. Love it or hate it, that’s one thing they know for sure. And cars are all about us, about how we’re seen and how we want to be seen, about what we need and what we want, about whether we like loud motors or low monthly payments, speed or gas mileage, bright colors or cleaner air. Nothing declares the importance of personal choice like the choice of a car. So why are my choices so predictable? Am I just imprisoned by my profession? Unwilling or unable to be an individual?

At this point, students start to lean forward again. They know where this is going. They have learned about social determinism in Sociology 101 and the conditions that determine impulse control in Introduction to Psychology. Neuroscientists have explained to them how brain chemistry dictates what we do and how we feel about it. Courses in History and English and American Studies have taught them about the power of culture, and the varied ways that gender and race and class define us.

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