Teaching Calvin in California

Many believe theology has no place in the secular college classroom; this is wrong. I learned to think otherwise teaching Calvin in California.

Whether they buy these or not — and both models are easy to critique — my students have now experienced for themselves how Calvin’s thought demands a way of life that would support it. They have wrestled with this thought together, religious and secular. Perhaps they have come to different conclusions about the theology or the history but, when all goes well, they have done so with integrity, reason, creativity and charity.

 

BERKELEY, Calif. — We spend a great deal of time worrying about theology these days. From extremist violence to the American culture wars, the theological imagination can feel like an existential threat to liberal democracy. Or more simply, just to common decency. No surprise that many believe that theology has no place in the secular college classroom.

Over the years, I have decided that this is wrong. I learned to think otherwise teaching Calvin in California.

Given my profession, I am naturally curious about theology. But it takes collaborative work in the classroom to persuade students that they should be, too. To persuade them that theology is more than its bad press; that it is a rich subject as likely to provoke disbelief as belief; that it is more likely to open than to close interesting conversations about religion and public life. To persuade them, in short, that theology matters to a liberal education.

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.

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