catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 7 :: 2005.04.08 — 2005.04.21


Men are prigs

As a Calvinist?no, that?s not right. As a Calvinian (ah, much better), I was delighted to hear Marilynne Robinson explain in a recent interview with NPR?s Terry Gross why people?s faith had such an influence on the 2004 American election. I almost hugged my car stereo, buttons knobs presets notwithstanding, as Robinson came within inches of saying what I?ve been longing to hear in American political dialogue?that all of life is religion, that every human being acts out their religious convictions when they vote, whether they consider themselves ?religious? or not!

Robinson didn?t go quite that far, so I refrained from planting a big wet one on the dashboard. But I did check out her award-winning book, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

, at the library and I can assure you she goes much further there. Drawing from her Calvinist Congregationalist Church upbringing, Ms. Robinson reveals the injustices done to John Calvin and other influential people in American history. In the process of defending the merit of John Calvin as well as the Puritans, Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson, it becomes clear that Robinson is also launching an offensive against historians who discount certain historical figures and movements because of their own (religious?) biases.

In the essay, ?Puritans and Prigs,? Robinson tries to free the Puritans from their ?puritanical? reputation. She shows that critics of the Puritans in actuality are more puritanical than the Puritans were themselves. Instead of holding to a doctrine of the elect, which humbles the recipient of God?s grace, these Puritan-spurners hold to a doctrine of the elite, which disparages all those who don?t confirm their own belief in their own goodness. Instead of blaming exclusivity unjustly on the Puritans with the term ?Puritanism,? Robinson suggests we call this elitism by its real name, priggishness, which she defines as ?a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.?

Historians who banish people like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards from the contemporary conversation have adopted this priggish attitude, Robinson claims in her introduction. In the case of Calvin, the damage was done by British historian Lord Acton and sociologist Max Weber. Lord Acton blames Calvin for a ?theology of persecution? that encourages submissive citizenship. Acton proves his own point, however, by omitting the parts in Calvin?s Institutes where Calvin supports the freedom of people to rise up against intolerable governments. Weber?s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism takes a similar track, asserts Robinson. ?They both argue that a social group defined by them as the people who adhere to or have been acculturated by a particular theology, are, with generalizable and world-historical consistency, peculiarly inclined to behave in ways precisely contrary to the teaching of that theology.?

The dismissal of people like Calvin can be explained by this historical method, Robinson suggests. It is a method of cynicism. Though the bulk of Calvin?s writing and life were dedicated to overcoming persecution, historians discount all of it on account of the one incident where Calvin (reluctantly) approved the burning of Michael Servetus for heresy. Instead of being awed by the mystery and complexity of the human struggle evidenced by Calvin?s own life, these historians discard Calvin as a mere hypocrite and assume his theology, therefore, is of no account.

?Now when we read history, increasingly we read it as a record of cynicism and manipulation,? Robinson says. ?We assume that nothing is what it appears to be, that it is less and worse, insofar as it might once have seemed worthy of respectful interest. We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it.?

Though Robinson?s book was published in 1998, her perception seems increasingly valid. The same kind of elitist revisionist history that discarded Calvin can be seen most clearly in Michael Moore?s Fahrenheit 9/11, particularly in the scene where Bush sits in a Sarasota school room for several minutes after learning of the terrorist attacks on New York. Rather than ushering us into the truth of the moment, into the mystery and profundity of the scene—the leader of the strongest nation in the world, with access to unsurpassed military might, sitting in a grade school classroom, stuck in the same condition of helplessness as every other human being?Moore talks over the image. Moore tells us his truth, making Bush out to be the bad guy who sat stupidly while we all watch knowingly, confident in our own goodness and ability to judge right from wrong action. Nevermind that Bush has his own reasons for what he does, that?s not important. Whatever Bush?s reasons, the caricature we have set up to confirm our own goodness holds more weight.

Robinson?s point can be driven home on both sides of the American political debate. A culture of cynicism pervades to such a degree that issues are not debated on the merit, the truth, of the ideas presented. Instead, what he is saying is discarded because he?s a liberal. Her words aren?t taken seriously because she?s a conservative. When this cynicism is applied to the historical movements of our day, we do not engage the actual ideas that need to be debated. ?We know what they mean better than they do, so we only listen to hear them condemn themselves,? Robinson says at the end of Puritans and Prigs.

In a culture where an American president?s rationalization for war is rejected not on the grounds of the ideas or principles he presents but because he?s a conservative Republican who always wants what?s good for big business, the Christian right and his own political career, cynicism has won. In a country where a presidential candidate is rejected not because he lacks the skills to lead, but because he?s a liberal, the most liberal of liberals, cynicism has won. This appears to be the same cynicism that drove Acton, Weber and others to pronounce John Calvin irrelevant and the Puritans puritanical. Such cynicism discourages people from really reading Calvin or trying to understand the Puritans. It snobbishly advises not to waste any time on those people because we?ve already determined what they had to say. Such an attitude is the very elitism that Calvin and the Puritans—with their doctrine of election?are often wrongly criticized for, Robinson remarks.

The cultural elite?s dismissal of Calvin is based on this very attitude, maintains Robinson. It assumes that our judgments about the value of something are correct because they are our judgments. And if our goodness is confirmed by our own judgments, which most often happens to be the case, our judgments take on a certain authority that cannot be challenged by the people we are judging.

Calvin?s focus on the natural depravity of human beings no doubt rubs most people in our culture the wrong way precisely because his theology does not confirm our own goodness. The election Calvin accepts as true does not support an elitism that finds its own truth and self-righteously snubs its nose at anything that doesn?t fit in. That?s no reason to rub him out of history as unimportant or no longer relevant, says Robinson. In fact, she includes these passages from Calvin at the end of ?Puritans and Prigs? to show the injustice of leaving the old Reformer out of contemporary American dialogue.

But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors. Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: Whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.

The truth of humanity accepts the mystery of man?s evil nature, Robinson suggests, and we cannot discover the truth of our past if we only accept that which confirms our own goodness.

Though many of the essays in Death of Adam try to revive Calvin as a figure of continuing importance to American history, Robinson touches on many other issues including fiction and reality, Darwinism, the notion of family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Psalm 8. An accomplished fiction writer (Housekeeping, Gilead), Robinson does not write for an academic elite. She responds to contemporary theories and ideas not as another theorist, but as a person interested in great ideas, a spirit engaging other spirits in the great dialogue of humanity. In Robinson?s own words, her essays ?assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made.? Robinson?s humanism demands that all aspects of the human condition be examined, admired, appreciated and critiqued.

As a Calvinian who?s concerned that calling himself a Calvinist might give people the wrong idea, I?m glad to find a friend in such an unlikely time and place.

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