Teaching predestination at Berkeley

Teaching predestination at Berkeley September 26, 2016

The New York Times has a fascinating article by Berkeley history professor Jonathan Sheehan about how he teaches John Calvin in his secular classroom.  Specifically, he uses the scary stuff in Calvin–particularly, double predestination–to blow the minds of his students and to teach them their limits.  Read the article and a response to what he says from someone else who teaches Calvin to secular students (linked and excerpted after the jump).

We Lutherans believe in predestination, though not Calvin’s double predestination.  But we certainly believe in the limits of human beings, a message considered salutary today.  Maybe teaching Luther’s Bondage of the Will would have a similar effect.

What do you think of this use of Calvin?  Is it really accurate to his thought?  Do we take away from this that it’s okay to teach Law to secular students, just not the Gospel?  (The emphasis here is on those who are not chosen to salvation, I guess a group the secularists identify with.  But what about those who are?)

From Constance M. Furey, Calvin’s questions: A response to Jonathan Sheehan « The Immanent Frame:

In “Teaching Calvin in California,” a recent piece in The New York Times, Jonathan Sheehan argues that students in secular college classrooms can learn a lot from studying theology. The example he uses to make the case is predestination. Sheehan is not teaching the comfortingly vague idea that each person’s fate is in God’s hands, however, but instead the disturbingly specific version insisted upon by the sixteenth century Christian reformer, John Calvin. According to Calvin’s teaching, often referred to as double predestination, God selects a chosen few and actively damns everyone else, for reasons known and knowable only to God.

Tech savvy students in sun-dappled classrooms in California are not the only ones who predictably find this theology offensive. Even Marilynne Robinson, the acclaimed novelist who has done more to champion Calvin than any non-theologian writing today, emphasizes the offending features of this aspect of Calvinist theology in a scene in Gilead in which her main character, the wise preacher John Ames, is asked to explain predestination. “I hate this conversation a great deal,” Ames’s friend Boughton—also a pastor—says when the topic comes up, “and I’ve never seen it go anywhere.” Ames himself wants to leave it alone: “I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that’s what people who talk about it normally do.” In this scene, as in so many discussions of predestination, freedom has the last word. “A person can change,” Ames’s wife Lila says simply. “Everything can change.” Lila’s reassuring denial of determinism ends the conversation. “Thanks,” the questioner replies. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

John Calvin, by contrast, thought we should want to know more. Sheehan follows Calvin’s lead, dwelling on the lessons Calvin lays out in Book III of his 1559 “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” As Calvin explains it there, predestination is a valuable doctrine precisely because it violates our sense of justice and fairness. We humans are naturally inclined to put ourselves at the center of the world and judge everything against our own standards of what makes sense. This is the problem, according to Calvin. “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin observes, in one of the lines Sheehan directs his students to ponder. Left to our own devices, we will keep repeating this mistake: only the shock and awe of predestination can counter the power of self-absorption. “A taste of this doctrine,” Calvin explains, is unparalleled in its ability “to make us as humble as we ought to be.” This is why, as Sheehan tells his students, the anger that predestination provokes can teach them what Calvin wants them to learn. It is “exactly here,” Sheehan observes, “in this rejection and anger, Calvin insists, that you finally feel in your gut the greatness of God. You finally feel the difference between his Majesty and your limitation.”

[Keep reading. . .]


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