Sunday, July 02, 2006

Calvin: Our Crazy Ass Grandpappy

When I said on BeautyTipsforMinisters recently that jeans are NOT appropriate for ministers on Sundays (or to wear when leading worship any other day of the week -- and I stick to that, Jamie Goodwin!!), I wrote "Calvin is fine for church. Calvins are not."

Donald O'Bloggin wrote something very frowny about Calvin NOT "belonging" in Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Donald, dear heart, Calvin practically INVENTED the Reformation. Without the Reformation there wouldn't be either Unitarians or Universalists, hence no Unitarian Universalism.

I'm not a fan of the man who burned out martyr Servetus at the stake, either, but we ought to know more about him than the old pre-destination thing that everyone knows and rejects.

Calvin made some genius contributions to religious life as you and I know it, including to the ministry as you and I know it and have benefitted from it.

He may be a crazy-ass grandaddy in some very serious ways, but he's still our crazy-ass grandaddy. See, when you come from a dissenting tradition, you have to know WHO and WHAT you dissented from to get any juice from it. Trust me, as a kid who spends an awful lot of time with Mr. Calvin -- your understanding of, and appreciation of contemporary Unitarian Universalism can be so much more thrilling when you don't approach it as a tradition that sprang from Dana McLean Greeley's helmet, fully formed and in full armor, in 1961.

And since when is ANY legitimate topic of conversation or historic personage forbidden from our congregations? That's part of what we call the Free Church, and like it or not, Calvin helped make the Free Church possible.

Now all you brainiac historian types can weigh in.


Blogger Doug Muder said...

I often wonder about this question: How many of the people we claim as ancestors would claim us as descendents?

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Doug points out a practice I really despise among us, which I call Dredging the Cemeteries. i am of the mind that VERY FEW of our so-called "descendants" would claim the typical UU as spiritual kin -- especially those who have no use for the Bible or for the Christian faith within which so many of our ancestors were firmly and exclusively grounded.

I hope I don't seem to be claiming Calvin as an ancestor. I am saying we should not ban him from our churches, since he pretty much founded the Reformation and we really should be at least somewhat acquainted with the theologies of the Reformation. Calvin would like nothing so much as to see people like me burned at the stake. Even given that fact, I don't like to hear UUs ever say, "This or that person's ideas should NEVER be studied or discussed in our congregations!"

When you're a rebel, you should know what you're rebelling from. If one of the great Unitarian legacies was to refute Calvinism, we should know what Calvinism IS, beyond the one-sentence Calvin For Dummies description.

As most of my readers know, I have delved deeply into Calvinistic Puritan theology in the past year and find there much to redeem what I think are harmful liberal excesses among us.

{{ducking as the Bierkenstocks and copies of Eckhart Tolle's "Be Here Now" come flying at her}}

Oh, also: I had soft shell crabs for dinner last night.
Now the vegetarians can throw things, too.

Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

I agree with you with some reservations. Calvin was a second generation Reformer, sort of like Emerson was second generation Unitarian. Some decades had come and gone before Calvin found himself on the outs in France and his career ruined and decided to join up with Reformers. Hard to invent the Reformation when it had already spread to dozens of cities, harder still when one was refugee from a country in which the nascent reform effort was defeated. Calvin was a youth in the French effort.

My other reservation flows from my critique of the Big Man theory of history. Does history flow from Heros or from changes going on among the middle strata of the intellegentsia and the community leaders at the grass roots. As a former social historian I opt for the latter. Leaders are critical, but without followers they aren't empowered to lead.

The aldermen of Geneva had a run away reform effort unfolding and turned to a law and order Protestant to provide the intellectual rational for regulating the exciling the radicals, and getting things under control. He might have saved the magisterial reformation from the Radical Reformation, and the Radicals would have mismanaged governance which would have opened the door to Catholic restoration in Geneva.

But is significant, for those who like order. But not the inventor of the Reformation. He gave it order.

Blogger boyinthebands said...

Who was it that said Calvinism -- by high theology of the sovereigty of God -- is the subtlest form of atheism? That is, God runs all but lets us alone to run the "field offices" of our lives and towns?

Just a thought.

Blogger Jamie Goodwin said...

Peacebang I have had this argument (Jeans that is not Calvin) many a time.

Infact a minster up and Cleveland recently chastised me for the same thing during small little revival we did on Holy Saturday..

I just say, one of the nice things about not being a minister and therefore a volunteer is that I get to get away with a more relaxed style!

I do try and wear the cute jeans for services though!!

As for Calvin.. he is up there with St. Paul for me.. infuriating, but to important to ignore, if only for apologetics sake.

Blogger Litocranius said...

The "Dredging the Cemeteries" problem afflicts just about every faith, I think. . .as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America whose childhood parish had a female minister, and as someone who is a paleontologist who doubts the total veracity of every word of the Bible, I wonder what Luther would say to me. . .

On the plus side, Luther would agree on my love of a good beer.

On a related note, I have always found amusement in the "Famous UU's" t-shirt. Albert Schweitzer often shows up on lists of famous Lutherans, too (raised Lutheran, but not precisely Lutheran towards the end of his life). Isaac Newton (who was almost certainly not U or U) is also often claimed by biblical creationists (I've seen him on a few UU lists). And a few others. . .

At any rate, such lists (whether for Lutherans, UUs, Muslims, or whomever) seem somewhat dangerous at best (if used to argue with someone who has half a knowledge of history). I've been tempted to create a list of "Famous UU's Who Were Young Earth Creationists," or "Famous Lutherans Who Were Anti-Semites," or "Famous UU's in the Confederate Government." ;-)

Blogger Donald O'Bloggin said...

You're right PB. Calvin has a place in UU churches, although Calvinism may not ;-). I don't see the 5 points of Calvinism meshing well with the 7 Banal Orders for UU's in Committee, nor the concept of Universalism.

However... Reading through the comments here, I'm drowning in the theological waters already, taking notes, looking things up in Wikipedia and my other references, and don't think that past thiscomment and being the spark of the conversation, I'm going to contribute much. So why don't I sit over here and listen a bit?

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Lito, you do that last one and I will sell that for you at GA!

Other comments, very wonderful. Thank you all.

Blogger Litocranius said...

Probably the best Confederate U I've been able to "dredge up" has been James L. Pierpont. He's a Unitarian well-known for composing Jingle Bells (and hence shows up on a lot of lists). He's less-known for his role as company clerk in the 5th Georgia Cavalry, and his compositions such as "Our Battle Flag," "Strike For the South," and "We Conquer or Die." And he's even less known for his composition "The Colored Coquette," which given some of the lyrics probably will never show up in _Singing the Living Tradition_. [you can find a scan of the original sheet music by doing an internet search - don't say I didn't warn you]

At any rate, I don't mean to sound like I'm entirely crapping on all of these lists. Our famous ancestors certainly serve to provide inspiration and a thread of continuity in all faith traditions. But, I think we also need to be honest. After all, if I want to claim Johann Sebastian Bach as a Lutheran, I also have to claim David Hasselhoff (even if he did put in a stellar performance in the Spongebob Squarepants movie) and Paul Schaefer (Lutheran minister, unrepentent Nazi, and former SS officer who did some really really bad things in Argentina). When you dredge the cemetery, you're bound to turn up some skeletons! Churches - whether UU, U, U, Methodist, Catholic, or whatever - are made of people, not saints.

Blogger fausto said...

PB says:

If one of the great Unitarian legacies was to refute Calvinism, we should know what Calvinism IS, beyond the one-sentence Calvin For Dummies description.

Let me share with you a dirty little secret, one we don't often admit even to ourselves. My own observation is that there's a huge core of residual Puritanism, if not exactly Five Points Calvinism, still alive and thriving somewhere near the heart UU culture today. (Calvin himself was never a Five Points Calvinist; that was Theodore Beza's doing.) The popular "origin myth" that we were born out of a wholesale refutation of our Calvinist past is polemical spin and bad scholarship, at least in part. The 19th century Unitarians saw themselves as the rightful heirs to carry the best of the Puritan tradition into a new age of scientific revelation, not as rebels against the shameful legacy of foolish, errant ancestors.

For example, the Puritanism of yesteryear still survives almost unchallenged in our tendencies today toward personal moral discernment, congregational covenantalism, presuming the right to pronounce valid moral norms for the rest of society, and conflating political enforcement of those norms with religious observance, among other things. It's where we get our sense of being morally elect and set apart from the masses wandering in darkness, and our sense that a worthy character is demonstrated in worthy works. In turn, much of this inheritance from the Puritans can be traced backward to Calvin and his Reformed theology -- if not as their ideas were originally formulated, then at least as they were often observed in practice. (If she were here, Anne Hutchinson would probably agree.)

It's also closely related, but not entirely identical, to what is known in Red Sox Nation as "the Harvard attitude", a big residual slug of which is IMO also alive and thriving in UU culture today.

I wonder if we would cherish some of these traits so deeply as defining elements of our UU identity if we were also asked to recognize them honestly as the vestigial Puritanism that they in fact are.

As for Confederate U's, my vote goes to John C. Calhoun, even though he died before the outbreak of hostilities.

Blogger boyinthebands said...

Or to accent fausto, Reformed Christianity is as pluriform as anything else, and while most Unitarian Universalists don't maintain the headlining theological tenents, some of the epistomological and ecclesiological traits remain. Worship customs, too. New England "Calvinism" was already mature, diverse and self-reflective before the first Universalist churches formed there, or the Unitarian Departure.

Which is why we care --presently and historically -- about not being like those (other) Calvinists so much.

Blogger powderblue said...

It’s not fair to judge our ancestors in the context of our mores today, any more than it will be fair for our descendants to judge us solely by their mores either.

A former speechwriter for the current President Bush, Matthew Scully, wrote a book in 2002, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Scully is a conservative and a Christian (Catholic), but his book was widely acclaimed by people from across the political and religious spectrums.

The LA Times reviewer said: “In fifty years, we will look back in shame at what Dominion catalogs.” Well, I don’t know about “we”, since many of us won’t be around in fifty years. But will those who are looking back in shame judge us fairly, if they will not have known or experienced firsthand the seductive power of tradition and groupthink that gave a thumbs-up to mass brutality?


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