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.
I ask the students to read on. After all, Calvin anticipated these objections, since they were raised in his day, too. He dedicated a whole chapter to dismissing the “insolence” of the human understanding when it “hears these things.” He knew that our first reactions would be anger and denial, that we would be baffled by predestination. So he demanded that his readers, then and now, think alongside him. His argument goes like this: If God alone created all things, doesn’t that mean that he did so freely? If he is free in his choices, how can it be otherwise than that God himself determines our fates, right to the edges of hell? Once you grant the first premise — that there is no God besides God and that he made the universe — reason itself apparently requires we assent to this terrible thought.
Human reason seeks to subject God to itself, but predestination tells us that we cannot. Reasoning itself needs to come to an end before humans can experience the proper relationship to God.
Here we can see something special about the theological reasoning that Calvin practiced. This is not philosophy, after all. His work is not aimed at an abstract audience. Instead it is a direct address to you. Confronting the doctrine of predestination is a kind of psychological experiment. Nothing else can “suffice to make us as humble as we ought to be” as “a taste of this doctrine” of predestination, as Calvin put it. Exactly here, in this rejection and anger, Calvin insists, you finally feel in your gut the greatness of God. You finally feel the difference between his Majesty and your limitation.
Believers in the classroom feel the bite of this argument in their own ways, often struggling to keep the first premise but to deny what seems to follow from it. Even the students who don’t believe any of this, though, can feel the power of the argument, if only in the disgust that it fosters in them. Of course you feel disgusted, Calvin would say, that’s exactly how an atheist should react!
The experience of reading Calvin has unexpected lessons, then, for religious and secular students alike. The first lesson that Calvin teaches us is about the power of an idea, uncompromisingly expressed and shrewdly argued. I tell the students that their reactions were shared by generations of European theologians and philosophers. In the late 17th century, for example, the German philosopher and co-inventor of the calculus Gottfried Leibniz coined the word “theodicy” and wrote the first comprehensive philosophical defense of God’s justice to manage the “horror” all good people feel at the thought that God by choice saves so few “and abandons all others to the devil his enemy, who torments them eternally and makes them curse their Creator.”
And so students learn that they are not alone in feeling the terribleness of Calvin’s challenge. Indeed, that they find it terrible at all (and not just irrelevant or bizarre) already puts them into the very conversation with the past that a history classroom hopes to forge. In their reactions, they are already participating in the intellectual revolutions of the modern world.
The second lesson Calvin teaches us, secular and religious, is this: Be careful what you believe in. Consider the consequences of your commitments. Investigate what your own views demand. These are lessons neither of secular reason nor of Christian reason. They are lessons about reasoning itself. Once we begin to talk at this level, what results are powerful conversations about powerful questions that cut across religious and secular life. Do we think that the world has a purpose and an order? If it does, where do they come from? If it doesn’t, what does a meaningful life look like? If we believe in a God, where does that belief drive us? If we don’t, what kinds of commitments do we actually have?
Calvin was certainly no liberal, but these are questions that the liberal arts classroom was designed to nurture. His theology spurs secular and religious students to discuss issues of common concern, to delineate differences and similarities, to build a community of inquiry.
The third lesson is this: that we don’t need to take Calvin’s bait. Religious and secular students both come to this on their own, examining Calvin’s text more deeply than perhaps even he did. Look at this sentence, one says: “All those who do not know that they are God’s own will be miserable through constant fear.” But how is anyone supposed to know that she is God’s own, she asks? If we feel humiliated and bereft of reason, how are we supposed to feel certain? And what kind of society would this produce, this lack of certainty, this humiliation?
At this point, then, they learn how theology does what it always does, how it shades into politics, history, social life. The German sociologist Max Weber’s view — that it was precisely the uncertainty generated by Calvin’s doctrine of election that helped spur the rise of capitalism — is one canonical analysis that I can now share with them. The historian Perry Miller’s view — that the inability to hew to election was crucial to the formation of colonial American Protestantism — is another.
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.
If these are not intellectual virtues that we need in our modern world, then I don’t know what are.
Jonathan Sheehan is professor of history and a co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion at the University of California, Berkeley.