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Calvin in the Classroom

By September 14, 2016 One Comment

Did you catch that John Calvin made the New York Times this week? History professor at UC Berkley, Jonathan Sheehan, wrote an opinion editorial on the importance of teaching Calvin in his liberal arts university setting.

Sheehan writes “We spend a great deal of time worrying about theology these days. From extremist violence to the American culture wars, the theological imagination can feel like an existential threat to liberal democracy. Or more simply, just to common decency. No surprise that many believe that theology has no place in the secular college classroom.”

How often does theology get referenced in the news much less John Calvin? So I kept reading…

Sheehan discusses how his students have passionate reactions to John Calvin. Which probably isn’t too surprising for many of us. Many of us have come to Calvin’s readings and found our blood boiling, or passionately nodding in agreement, as we follow his logic and engage in the theological conversation he lays out for his readers. That is one of the reasons why I keep coming back to Calvin, the man was bright. His logic draws me in. He provokes modern theologians to have care in their God-language. Whether one agrees with Calvin or not, Calvin makes us reach for precision in our theological conversations.

Sheehan says that there are three lessons that Calvin can teach his classroom.

The first lesson that Calvin teaches his classroom is “about the power of an idea, uncompromisingly expressed and shrewdly argued.”

The second lesson that Calvin teaches, Sheehan, says is that “secular and religious, is this: Be careful what you believe in. Consider the consequences of your commitments. Investigate what your own views demand. These are lessons neither of secular reason nor of Christian reason. They are lessons about reasoning itself.” This can only be a good thing. In Sheehan’s classroom, Calvin welcomes students to reflect on their own belief system.

Finally, Sheehan argues “that we don’t need to take Calvin’s bait. Religious and secular students both come to this on their own, examining Calvin’s text more deeply than perhaps even he did.” Readers of Calvin are invited into a conversation, perhaps even an argument, to reflect on his words and the meaning of his words.

I was struck by Sheehan’s concluding thoughts “His theology spurs secular and religious students to discuss issues of common concern, to delineate differences and similarities, to build a community of inquiry.” Could reading John Calvin really help teach our society to build a community of inquiry? If that is the case then I want to assign the Institutes to each and every passionate political American this election season. Could Calvin teach us how to be compassionate to each other and curious? If reading the Institutes helps Sheehan’s students become better thinkers (does that lead to better people?) then let liberal arts Universities take heed of Sheehan’s wisdom. Perhaps, let us take heed of Sheehan’s wisdom. When was the last time you cracked open the Institutes? Maybe it’s time for us to open the Institutes back up and participate in this conversation of inquiry that takes place at UC Berkeley. Maybe that might just help our Reformed denominations think better together and approach one another with curious inquiry.

Jes Kast

The Reverend Jes Kast is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament and serves West End Collegiate Church as their Associate Pastor.

One Comment

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    Leave it to Californians to actually READ Calvin! Sheehan is right about JC’s uncompromising, passionate logic. What is ironic is that, for centuries, people dug themselves in over Calvinism–what it was and what it wasn’t–without ever having read Calvin; they read others who wrote about what Calvin said, or about what others said about what Calvin said. John Wesley, who famously declared himself an Arminian, probably never read Calvin nor Arminius. Then generations of Reformed theologians avoided the Methodists, also having not read Calvin nor Arminius. Imagine if Reformed folks, even today, employed such rigorous inquiry and discussion . . .

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