Charles Taylor Thursday #3: How Calvinism eats itself.

Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and social theorist. His book A Secular Age is an examination of modern secularism and the cultural conditions that gave rise to it.

Last week I wrote about the kind of story Charles Taylor isn’t telling about the rise of : namely, a “subtraction story” in which modern secularism is simply what happens after the disappearance of certian religious commitments. Now I’d like to turn to some of the elements of Taylor’s positive account. One fascinating irony that recurs in Taylor’s story is the way in which certain key moves towards secularism were made not by skeptics or freethinkers, but rather by devout Christians. For example, Calvinism:

Puritan spiritual life moved between a Scylla and a Charybdis. On one hand, one had to have confidence in one’s salvation. Too much anxious doubt amounted to a turning away of God’s gift, and could even be a sign that one was not saved after all. But at the same time, an utterly unruffled confidence showed that you were altogether forgetting the theological stakes involved, forgetting that one was a sinner who richly deserved eternal damnation, and was only saved from this by God’s gratuitous grace.

Now I think one can see how all this disciplined order-building prepared a great reversal. On the one hand, we have people who develop the disciplines of character, so that they can put some (for the time) impressive degree of moral order in their conduct. On the other, some of these people in association find ways to impose an unprecedented degree of order on society, or at least come to believe that they can do so, given the right conditions.”

But the reversal is prepared in the fact that an order is built in conduct, and at least seen as within our power to encompass in society, and more crucially, as people learn the secret of a kind of motivational equilibrium whereby they can keep themselves on the track to both of these external orders [i.e., personal and social], the possibility is opened to slide de facto, without even feeling it, into the Scylla mentioned above, that is, into a confidence that we have these things under control, we can pull it off.

-Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (83-84)

I’m not going to assume that all the readers here are familiar with Calvin, so I’ll try to provide quick background information. John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was a second-wave Protestant Reformer. Clearly a man of some genius, Calvin took Martin Luther’s principle of salvation by grace and tried to work it out in the context of a strong view of God’s sovereignty. The city of Geneva, Switzerland, invited Calvin to take leadership of the municipal government; there, he tried to build a society in accordance with his theology.

Calvinist Geneva looks wildly authoritarian to almost every modern: compulsory attendence at seventeen sermons each week, strict prohibition of Roman Catholicism, home inspections, a spy network, and the execution of a notable heretic. So, actually, “authoritarian” is the objective description of Calvin’s Geneva. But it was a center of Protestant intellectual life, and after some time there John Knox took Calvinism back to Scotland, where the Presbyterian church built its authority structure on the model in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans eventually brought their theology to the United States, and the official confessions of all the Presbyterian denominations bear out the influence of Calvin. He’s the major figure in what’s usually called Reformed Theology.

Certain distinctive elements of Calvinist theology are summed up in the famous Five Points of Calvinism. You know, TULIP.

  • Total Depravity: human beings are born sinful, stained by sin in every part of their being, and can do nothing to make themselves worthy of salvation.
  • Unconditional Election: the “elect” (those that God chooses for salvation) are chosen with no regard for what they do or have done.
  • Limited Atonement: not all will be saved, since Christ died only for the elect.
  • Irresistible Grace: those who are elect cannot refuse the call to salvation.
  • Perseverance of the Saints: once saved, there’s no way to lose your salvation.

The particular challenge of Reformed Theology is always to find a way to show that the system containing these points is not monstrous, or else to modify the system so as to make it non-monstrous. But it should be clear that the key question for Calvinists is: “Am I part of the elect?” The history of Reformed Christianity revolves around attempts to answer this question.

The other relevant feature of Calvin’s theology is really just a general feature of Protestant theology: that all Christians are on an equal plane in terms of what is required by religion. So there are no monks that go above and beyond what normal Christians have to do. A Calvinist society enjoins its members to follow a high standard of behavior, and constructs a society that facilitates good living and prohibits immorality. Initially, any achievements are credited to the grace of God. But the stunning success of such societies — for example, changing Scotland from a backwoods run by warlords into one of the greatest intellectual societies in Europe — leads people to wonder if perhaps this sort of thing was within merely human potential after all. And so, as Taylor says, “Arminianism arises after a time in all Calvinist societies.”

The irony that Taylor points to, then, is that a theology aiming at a highly theistic state ends up laying so much groundwork for the secular state. Intensified devotion, rather than a falling away from Christian belief, marks what we see in retrospect as a major shift toward secularism. (Though I admit that our Catholic contributors will see this intense devotion as heretical.)


As a closing note, I’m sorry that this entry comes so late. I’ve been travelling today. Also, would anyone prefer that I switch to a slower League day, like Saturday, Sunday, or Monday?

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

3 thoughts on “Charles Taylor Thursday #3: How Calvinism eats itself.

  1. I don’t think it’s proper to say ‘Calvinism eats itself’.’ However, I’m not qualified to proffer a critique simply because I don’t concur with a number of the Calvinist tenets, perhaps out of ignorance.
    The truth is we live in a tension defined by the poles of immanence and transcendence. The truth of this tensional existence is that it is a whole, not a separate immanence, nor a separate transcendence rather a completion of being existing in reality and non-reality, cojoined with the arche (the Divine ground). What the Greeks called the ‘metaxy.’

    Another consideration perhaps applicable to Calvinism, from Stefan Rossbach’s classic study, “Gnostic Wars,”: “Accordingly, the myth comes in the literary form of the ‘system, ‘ an all-encompassing totality, a ‘fullness’ in itself that memorises the loss of pneumatic fullness and thereby contributes to its restoration….The ‘systems’ of Jonas’s ‘Gnostics’ are descriptive, logical or ‘ordering’ systems. They were not used as analytical devices to symplify what it otherwise chaotic reality.”
    Consequently, the question is Can we look at Calvinism, or elements of Calvinism, as a gnostic derailment seeking, “a ‘second’ reality which is the ultimate answer to all questions for everyone?”
    One of the primary ‘self-descriptions’ of Gnostic associations is the idea of the “selected (the ‘elect’) of God, etc.
    WB, I’m not preaching here, rather mulling about ideas and concepts. Feel free to point to my flaws, errors, and miscues.

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  2. One of those old sweeping theories that I still quite like was the idea that Calvinism paved the way for psychology by putting adherents in a position that they had to search their behavior for clues to their inner state. I think this goes with what you’re saying about Calvinism tying in to secularism because somehow or another Freud will come along and replace the local priest with the local therapist for much of the west. It could be that there’s an sbsurd conflict between this intense Calvinist worship and it’s disconnect from election which pushes people away from the church and towards self-scrutiny. But, of course, that’s all speculation.

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