Saturday, October 7, 2017

Saving Calvin from Clichés

From Commonweal-

In the spring of 2010 I was teaching in the Politics department at the University of Virginia when the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson delivered a series of lectures in Charlottesville. I was able to join her and a few others for lunch after one of her talks, and the conversation inevitably turned toward her distinctive, highly sympathetic reading of John Calvin’s work.

For years Robinson had tried to rehabilitate Calvin, switching out the image of a dour, severe, and authoritarian religious zealot for one that emphasized his debt to Renaissance humanism and classical learning. Her Calvin was democratic and liberal-minded, a brilliant reformer who viewed the world with rapturous wonder. Far from delivering us to the iron cage of modern life, Robinson’s Calvin posited that the world was suffused with God’s glory—there was nothing “disenchanting” about his theology at all. She unfolded these arguments in a number of essays, especially those collected in The Death of Adam (1998), and in her novel Gilead (2004), with its narrator, a Protestant minister named John Ames, describing Calvin in ways rather similar to Robinson. “Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience,” Ames notes at one point. “That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.... I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchman, just as mine a Middle Westerner of New England extraction.”

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