Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jensen, John Calvin, Servetus, Voltaire, and down with puritans

(Above: sock us with your chest hair Ned).

Calvin and his henchmen, watched for by the law,
In Paris went to execution in effigy.
Servetus was immolated in person by Calvin.
If Servetus had been sovereign in Geneva
He would, as an argument against his adversaries,
Have had the necks of the Trinitarians squeezed in nooses.
Voltaire, Poem on Natural Law (1756)

I'm with Voltaire. A pox on all their houses. The Catholics and the Protestants, no better than each other. As Voltaire has one Protestant explain to a papist: "It is true that our ideas about the means for spreading the faith are different; but we also have had some of those brilliant moments you regret, and the execution of Servetus ought to excite your admiration and envy."

Servetus was a heretic  sentenced to death by slow burning in absentia by the Catholic church. When he turned up in Geneva in 1553, he attended a sermon by Calvin (having already corresponded with him, to Calvin's great irritation). For his trouble, Calvin had him arrested and composed a list of accusations for the court. At this time Calvin was at war with a group dubbed "the libertines", which complicated the conduct of the trial, but the upshot was that Servetus was burnt to death. Calvin's idea of helping out was to plead that he be beheaded.

Moral of the story? If the tykes don't get you, the proddies will (you can find out more about this remote era and Calvin's dubious record in the indefatigable wikipedia here).

But why should anyone care about John Calvin and the theological squabbles of the sixteenth century? Well okay, they matter not a whit or a jot to the determined secularist, but why aren't you equally surprised there's an attempt to rehabilitate Calvin by way of a Calvin@500 conference to be held at Moore College in Sydney, and to pave the way Michael Jensen, teacher of theology at the college has offered up a stout hearted effort in Decline of John Calvin for The Australian. (You can also join Jensen at The Blogging Parson).

In the process, Jensen offers up a jolly good example of moral relativism, of a kind which has always stood sundry churches and their apologists in good stead:

Calvin was not without flaws, some of them serious. Yet if we are to judge him cruel, we are failing to recognise that he was a man of remarkable moderation in an age of often extreme judicial cruelty. If we are to judge his view of humanity too bleak, we are seriously overestimating our own capacity for moral heroism. If we are to celebrate the waning of his influence, it is quite possibly because we have accepted too lazily the caricature of his critics.

Funny, I don't remember Christ being cruel in an age of often extreme judicial cruelty, but there you go. One law for the prophet and another for the followers.

Let's cut to the chase here. The age might have been cruel, but Calvin was equally happy to be cruel, and while he shouldn't be tagged with the worst excesses of those who came to follow him, the capricious destructiveness of puritanism and other Calvinist outcrops (the most dour the Scottish) represents the worst in Christian traditions. It makes the decadence, corruption and sexuality within the Catholic church (just say a penance and you'll be alright lad) a welcome relief.

I mean, one of the squabbles with the libertines was the breaching of a law against dancing, not to mention the scandalous issue of playing cards.

And as for the Calvinist influenced Oliver Cromwell, the public at large got so sick of his puritan silliness, they brought back the monarch, and now we have aspirational tampons saving the rain forests. For that alone, an effigy of Calvin should be burned every day.

Jensen claims all kinds of large things for Calvin, including popular government, the relatively high status of women, the separation of church and state, universal schooling and liberal higher education in the humanities, quoting Marilynne Robinson on how easily we forget.

Actually how easy it is to remember, and to give credit to Calvin for the high status of women seems to me a rather bold claim, but perhaps I'm still traumatized by the Salem witch trials. 

So if you don't mind, I'll continue to lament the sweep of Calvinism across Europe, and its dark brooding legacy, which it seems is still flourishing in Moore College as they plan to gather to celebrate five hundred years of the man's baleful influence (and yes sadly no one gets together in the same way for Voltaire day). 

If you're not a Calvinist, it's not so hard to remember some alternative visions of Christianity, as say practiced by St. Francis of Assisi centuries before Calvin stalked the earth. You know all that loving the creatures and your neighbors and yourself stuff and vows of poverty and whatever - not that I'm suggesting you hop into a fire, to prove that your god is the go to guy, or dress yourself up with a handsome example of stigmata. At least it's straightforward superstition.

Luckily Jensen reminds us of the caricature of Calvin:

He is a byword for bigotry cast in the role of the austere, humourless and cruel preacher of an austere, humourless and cruel God. He was held responsible by Max Weber for the rapacity of late capitalism. He is remembered as the persecutor of his opponents, including the hapless heretic Michael Servetus, for whose burning John Calvin is held responsible.

Calvinism, the form of Christianity he spawned, allegedly shares its fatalism with Islam. It is a church of prigs and wowsers, of Talibanesque idol-smashers and woman-haters, of middle managers and bean counters. It is a faith that broods on the depravity of humankind rather than celebrating its glorious capacity to build, to create and to redeem. It is the religion of Ned Flanders and the ironically named Reverend Lovejoy.

In his famous series of novels, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman placed the headquarters of the demonic anti-church in Calvin's city, Geneva.

Oh yes, sock it to me. Yes, yes, yes, you've got it in a few brief paras Michael. Goody goody gumdrops, that reads fine and just and true and righteous. Give me Voltaire and Philip Pullman any day, or perhaps the actual words of Christ, instead of promoting the claptrap that some of Calvin's followers have been the greatest promoters of republicanism and democracy in the modern era. 

Sure, democracy, provided you don't think or act like a Servetus. Republicanism if you're in a republic dedicated to Christ, with anyone else cast out of paradise into one of the many layers of hell reserved for the damned. Tolerance isn't high on the scale of Calvinists, whatever they might vow.

And that dear brethren is the sermon for the day, and thank the lord the Calvinists continue in retreat to this very day.

(Below: the Reverend Lovejoy and the healthy corrective of Philip Pullman leading the world's children to benign, tolerant atheism).


michael jensen said...

Hey, you know: your history needs some adjustment. That's the issue. You are just plain historically mistaken here.

I don't want Calvin as a saint. But I do want the truth about him -not this repetition of the ole cliches.

michael jensen said...

And what is more: Time magazine claimed the 'New Calvinism' as one of the 10 most influential contemporary movements. So there! :-)

dorothy parker said...

Hey Michael, thanks for dropping by. No harm done, and never mind what a rampant atheist thinks of Calvin :) But you did do a nice job of summarizing the cliches. And as John Ford said, when the facts become the legend, print the legend.

michael jensen said...

I aim to please!