Always new: Marilynne Robinson's essays bring theology to life.
By Marilynne Robinson
In this year of celebrating the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's .birth, North American Protestants should be especially grateful for Marilynne Robinson's rereading and careful re-examination of the thought and times of Reformed theology's most important founding father. (It should be noted that amongst these ground breaking essays, Robinson also offers insight into some other critical areas of modern thought such as Darwinism, capitalism, the American family, environmentalism and censorship. It would seem that no name or movement is so formidable as to frighten her.)
Robinson acknowledges satirically where Calvin stands in popular opinion: "All we know about John Calvin was that he was an 18th-century Scotsman, a prude and obscurantist with a buckle on his hat, possibly a burner of witches, certainly the very spirit of capitalism." Given all the editorializing on the severity of Calvin, the stodginess of Calvin and his followers, the viciousness of the Calvinist movement toward its enemies, the theological support offered by Calvinism to the oppressive establishments--aren't Calvin and Calvinism simply to be avoided? After all, isn't Calvinism behind most of our western unhealthy inhibitions? Isn't Calvinism the very epitome of sexual repression? Wasn't the execution of Michael Servetus the outstanding example of religious atrocity in the age of the Reformation? Wasn't Calvin a staunch supporter of the oppressive establishment?
And wasn't he a principal founder of modern capitalism? Wasn't 16th-century Geneva under Calvin's autocratic hand not the classic example of religious tyranny?
Robinson confronts all these popular certitudes through a careful rereading of the original sources.
Perhaps the most serious charge against Calvin by his modern detractors is that he was ashamed of the human condition, that he denigrated our common humanity. Robinson meets this criticism honestly and head on. She points out that Calvin's attack on his own humanity and on our common humanity arise from his exalted view of what we human beings were created to be and are capable of be coming. His apparently dark assessment of human nature can be understood only in light of the dialectical relationship between our sinful nature and our nature saved by grace. Rather than being "inhuman and world-hating," Calvin's theology is quite the contrary. His description of our fallen nature is given only for purposes of contrast to our saved nature in Christ.
Robinson also shows that there are no grounds for the prevailing view that Calvin was against women. Concerning the Creation story in Genesis, Calvin wrote: "He [Adam] lost, therefore, one of his ribs; but instead of it, a far richer reward was granted him, since he gained a faithful associate of life; for he now saw himself who had before been imperfect, rendered complete in his wife ... in the person of the woman the human race was at length complete ..." Unlike some other theologians who imply that our Mother Eve was the real culprit in the story of the Fall, Calvin finds Adam to be a self-protective hypocrite: "conscious of no evil (in himself), he puts his wife as the guilty party in his place."
According to Robinson, those who presume that Calvin is anti-sexual are basing that assumption on evidence that does not exist. Unlike Augustine and other theologians, who regarded sex as a necessary evil in the promulgation of the race, Calvin demonstrates no hint of that kind of thinking. For him, marriage is "the bond which God has preferred to all others."
Calvin has, of course, been accused of promoting capitalism, even the unfettered capitalism now wrecking havoc on our planet. In her essay McGuffey And The Abolistionists, she discusses the influence of the Old Testament on Calvinistic New England: "In fact, it [the Old Testament] is more insistent than Marx ever was in championing the poor and the oppressed. Its influence is thought to have made New Englanders severe, yet Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) who is taken to personify their severity, preached an absolute obligation to assist the needy--before their need became urgent, before they were compelled to seek help, despite any question of their own worthiness or of the responsibility of relatives or others to assist them."
Robinson goes on to quote Edwards: "We are particularly required to be kind to the unthankful and the evil." She points out the contrast between Edward's sermons and some present day extremely negative attitudes toward the poor which are "a supposed reclaiming of traditional values."
Those who associate Calvin and Calvinism with an unfettered, brutal free-market economic system, according to Robinson, have failed to understand the great Reformer's" generosity of spirit ... we do not do him or the generations immersed in his thought the courtesy of reading him."
I must recommend to all Christians, Reformed or otherwise, Robinson's remarkable essay on her personal experience in church going, entitled, Psalm Eight. As a Calvinist herself, she confesses that, "My tradition does not encourage the idea that God would find any merit in it. I go to Church for my own gratification, which is intense." About the gratification, she writes, "The essence of it certainly is the Bible ... with which after long and assiduous attention I am not familiar.... By grace of my abiding ignorance, it is always new to me. I am never not instructed."
I can only say that by not getting it, Marilynne Robinson, in my opinion, has got it. She describes her own efforts at understanding: "I have spent my life watching not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes." I am grateful that she has encouraged us to watch and to see those same visible but elusive sights.
Rev. Philip Lee is minister emeritus of Grace, Saint John, New Brunswick. This review has been edited; you can find the complete text on our website.
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|Date:||May 1, 2009|
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