Geneva almost celebrates Calvin

calvin-flier3If you visit Geneva, Switzerland’s official tourism web site, you can easily find this awkwardly translated introduction to the city’s commemoration of Protestant reformer John Calvin:

Geneva, a town of culture and tradition, this year celebrates the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin, the humanist and churchman who not only contributed to the influence of the city but was the initiator of the 1st Academy in Geneva as well.

If you’re wondering why that paragraph doesn’t get more specific than calling Calvin a “churchman,” then you may want to read John Tagliabue’s New York Times piece, “A City of Mixed Emotions Observes Calvin’s 500th.” Apparently, some Swiss citizens would prefer to forget Calvin, who:

…if he is remembered at all by Genevans it is as something of a dreary snoop who imposed on the city an unbendingly prudish morality that some say survives to this day in somewhat muted form.

“They see him as a nasty schoolmaster, always wagging his finger,” said Pierre Grosjean, a writer whose book “Calvin World,” a collection of biographies of people named Calvin, came out this year. “There’s no interest here; in the media, yes. But the city is very secular and doesn’t trust whatever has to do with religion. In my group, no one is interested.”

The regional government (or canton) did provide $500,000 for a celebration.

But the excitement fell short of that already generated for the 300th anniversary, in 2012, of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a more celebrated Geneva philosopher and one of the spirits of the French Revolution.

“There was a hostile reflex toward celebrating Calvin; the public powers were very distant,” said Gabriel de Montmollin, 50, whose publishing house, Labor et Fides, released seven books on Calvin this year. “That was not so for Rousseau.”

Though sales of his Calvin books were brisk, Mr. de Montmollin noted that Geneva’s population had changed since Calvin’s day, when almost everybody was Protestant. Today, 40 percent of the city’s residents identify themselves as Catholic and almost 5 percent as Muslim. Only 17 percent are Protestant.

Organizers of the Calvin celebration are trying to take a lighter tone with musical entertainment, a theater play called “The Deceits of Calvin,” and even Calvin-themed chocolates and wines, “described by some who have tasted them as somewhat bitter.”

It’s too easy to caricature Calvin’s life and theology. More serious are critics who condemn his role in executing theologian Michael Servetus and otherwise opposing any believers who disagreed with him. But more context would have been helpful. Genevans may not universally embrace Calvin, but he is honored elsewhere. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches claims 75 million believers worldwide. How many of these Calvinists are making pilgrimages to Geneva? Numbers aren’t provided.

And as an American who continually tries to learn more about the status of Christianity in Europe, I would have liked to see more about the 17 percent of Genevans who are Protestants. How many are Calvinists? And how enthusiastically do they embrace the movement’s founder?

If word counts were infinite, it would have also been nice to see a sentence or two about Arminianism, a movement that arose to oppose key Calvinist doctrines and now claims millions of believers in evangelical and Methodist congregations.

Perhaps any article about subjects as complex as Calvin and Geneva must be imperfect. At least the article acknowledges this complexity, going beyond superficial stereotypes to explore Calvin’s role as an thinker, educator and man of compassion.

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  • Jerry

    Thanks for mentioning this story. When I first saw it, I was struck by the lack of any coverage of an his life given the influence Calvanism had on western history. But I guess remembering him these days is inconvenient for many.

  • moallen

    I would be intrigued to know how many books about Rousseau have been sold recently as compared to Calvin. Rousseau’s ideas that evil flows from society and NOT from the each individuals heart is absurd. Calvin rightly identified man’s nature and problem, while Rousseau denied what can be seen in anyone’s heart with minimal self-examination. To see why Rousseau is celebrated and popular is easy – the truth sometimes is hard.


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