Saving Calvin from Clichés | Commonweal Magazine

This interview with Marilynne Robinson makes me want to get to know her better through her writings. I had always viewed John Calvin as “dour,” but she puts both him and his times in a more positive, even Christian humanist perspective. Perhaps it would not be too far afield to consider that the 16th-century reformers tried to restore an authentic Catholicism in the face of a corrupt and recalcitrant “official” church. This reform effort was sadly derailed through shortsighted actions with complex ramifications on both sides that hardened reformers and counter-reformers into armed camps, resulting not only in theological miscommunication, but also in political polarization and devastating religious wars.

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.” . . .

“Calvin is very much a Renaissance humanist in his appreciation of everything wonderful in the human creature. We are, he says, the highest proof of the divine wisdom. It is rare indeed to find ourselves celebrated in such terms by anyone in any age. And Calvin sets us in a universe of wonders and splendors, which we excel. If this is how creation is to be understood, as a vast and continuous effusion of wisdom and beauty, then it seems trivial to imagine God weighing our merits and demerits as we would weigh them. This is only truer if, as Calvin says, so much of our beauty is inward, in the agility of our minds and souls, in the workings of memory and the capacity for art and invention. It seems fair to assume that we appear very differently as we figure in God’s creation than we do as we live within the constraints of worldly circumstance and of our own perceptions. Given that beauty is, for Calvin, the signature of the divine in creation, that the aesthetic should be an aspect of human nature that reveals our affinity to God simply follows. And there is no reason to think it might not be, by our lights, a difficult, or obscure, or even a terrible beauty.”

Read the whole article here: Saving Calvin from Clichés | Commonweal Magazine

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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