The NY Times ran a piece yesterday (Teaching Calvin in California, by Jonathan Sheehan, The Stone Sept. 12, 2016) by a professor of History at U.C. Berkeley near my old stomping grounds. The author argues that there is merit to teaching about theology in as neutral a way as is possible. He focuses, though, on the outrage virtually all of his students exhibit when learning about John Calvin’s teaching of predestination, namely that God determined each human being’s destiny before the creation of the world. So, you may be going to Hell, actually probably going to Hell, and there is nothing you can do about it.
When taught about this claim “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.”
“’Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,’ Calvin exclaimed.” “Reasoning itself needs to come to an end before humans can experience the proper relationship to God.”
I can understand this professor’s zeal in teaching college students about theology. All religions scriptures are there for them to read if they choose (for free!), but even the most religious of us can claim to have read the scripture they are so sure has come from their god.
But Calvin clearly exposes the bone I have to pick with theists. Calvin boldly claims that “Reasoning itself needs to come to an end before humans can experience the proper relationship to God.” but I have to ask: from where does his doctrine of predestination come? It is not stated explicitly in his scripture. Accordingly he must have used his reason to winkle it out, exactly the mental tool he says we are to abandon.
This is at the heart of the problem I have with theology. I am all in favor of teaching people how to think, like the learned professor is encouraging his students to do. I am all in favor of learning how we think biologically. But theology jumps to teaching what we should think. Do not think for yourself. You cannot trust your own abilities. You cannot trust the thinking of others. Who you gonna trust? It isn’t Ghostbusters, it is theocrats.
This is thought control, pure and simple. We deplore it in books like 1984 by George Orwell, but we promote it from pulpits all over this land. Even church proselytizers are given canned scripts and told if they can’t answer an objection by a subject, they should report back before answering. Surely they are not wanted to think for themselves.
Even John Calvin, that icon of Protestantism, was using his reasoning faculties at a high level . . . but only on particular topics. Calvin referred to Satan as God’s enemy. Hello? All-powerful, all-knowing Gods cannot have enemies. A snap of His fingers and all enemies are gone, well, unless they amuse Him, I guess.
At the very least, Calvin didn’t completely throw in with the “God is all-good” crowd. (“All Good gods” don’t create things like Hell.) God was unknowable to Mr. Calvin, even though Calvin claimed to know and understand His thoughts. Also, if reason is not to be employed and God’s wishes are clearly not made explicit (why?), how is one supposed to behave? According to John Calvin, it doesn’t matter. Mr. Calvin, basically throws away the tool most powerful in controlling his followers, the threat of Hell, by turning it into a non-threat. What fool would slavishly follow what they thought to be God’s will when God had god-like reasons for declaring him to be “saved” or “damned” and that decision was made a long, long time ago. Do you think He might change His mind? (Sure, admit He made a mistake and you should be saved rather than burn. That kind of runs counter to the perfect being tag so often used to describe Him, no?)
In this case, Mr. Calvin’s reason deserted him. Even if we are predestined to Heaven or Hell, there is no value in sharing that information, especially with people inclined to think for themselves.
Oh, one would think that such a stirring piece encouraging the teaching of theology would be a prime opportunity to have a discussion on the topic. So, I wonder why the NYT closed the comments section one day later after just 295 comments? I guess I have to just take it on faith that they had good reasons.