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The Christian Reformed theobros are laying in ammunition for their assault on heretics such as I at this June’s meeting of Synod, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. Maybe in a future post.
We need a broader, and calmer, take—not on the substantive issues at hand in this controversy, but on the role that issues, particularly professed beliefs, play in religious life and organizations. For that I want to share the analysis, at once winsome and penetrating, that Kristin Kobes Du Mez recently posted on her Substack site, Du Mez Connections.
I first got to know Kristin as a colleague in Calvin University’s History department, and many, many more have gotten to know her since by virtue of her bestselling anatomy of white American evangelicalism, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright 2020). None less than Jon Butler, former dean of Yale University’s graduate school and eminent historian of American religion there, has judged it to be “one of the most important books on post-1945 American evangelicalism published in the past four decades”— that is, since the 1980 appearance of Fundamentalism and American Culture by Kristin’s mentor (and mine), George Marsden.
Kristin has received thousands of responses to her book—from the laudatory and grateful to scathing invective, and everything in between—conveyed by email, on Twitter, or at one of her daunting schedule of podcast interviews and personal appearances. Through it all she has retained her equanimity, an open and honest listening ear, and a graciousness that proves her sanctification to be quite further advanced than my own. In short, she offers a model for how to act and react amid controversy and personal attacks, and so also a guide for the upcoming assault of the theobros.
Who’s a Calvinist?
Back to her recent posting—again, about the way formal beliefs play out in religious life, what they do, what they don’t do, and what they hide. And about the broader reach of nurture and communal participation in shaping our religious life and identity—in her case, and in many of our own, an avowedly Calvinist identity.
Kristin begins by reflecting on her reading of Beth Moore’s All My Knotted-Up Life (Tyndale 2023) and its record of a long struggle to break free from a type of Christian faith defined as an alienating list of boxes to check to one open to the fresh revelations brought by the Holy Spirit.
“I was reminded about the preference for labels and categories over lived experience a couple of weeks back when I offhandedly mentioned on Twitter that I was Calvinist. Coming out as a Calvinist is one of the more controversial things I’ve done, but the pushback is usually from those who don’t like Calvinists, not from Calvinists themselves. This time it was different. It all started when I posted about Beth Moore’s talk at Baylor that I attended. . .Within minutes, a self-declared Husband/Father/Orthodox Presbyterian/Monarchist took issue with me:
‘Feminism denies essential truths within the Reformed faith.’
“To which I replied: ‘Nah.’
“At which point he pulled out a quote from Luther on how women lacked spiritual competence, thus suggesting that I could not be Reformed and feminist.
“At which point I assured him that I differ with Luther on a few points, antisemitism being one of them.
“At which point he persisted in attempting to write me out of the Reformed faith.
“To which I responded: ‘I hardly need to defend my Calvinist credentials. I’m a lifelong member of the CRC, my most formative course in college was Calvin’s Institutes, and my intro to Calvinism was through the Kuyperian tradition, one that emphasized restoration, Shalom, and human flourishing.’
“This he dismissed as an ‘argument from authority’ and assured me that when I ‘disagree with Calvin and the reformers on fundamental theology about nature and pastoral leadership, you are a far cry from reformed orthodoxy. No disrespect intended.’
“I assured him that I wasn’t claiming to be an exemplar of ‘reformed orthodoxy’ or any such thing. In the end, I was a Nicene Christian who happened to be deeply shaped by Reformed conceptions of sin, redemption, and covenantal theology, influenced by Calvin, Kuyper, and Dooyeweerd. ‘Call me a bad Calvinist but this is what I’ve got.’
What Makes a Calvinist?
“It became clear to me that we weren’t just disagreeing on issues, but on the nature of religious faith itself.
“Which is to say, you can call me a bad Calvinist and I won’t fight you on this. But my ideas about who God is and who humans are and how to read the Bible and how to study the book of nature and how God’s ways are above our ways and nearly every metaphysical concept I can think of have been deeply shaped by the theology of John Calvin and those who stand in his Tradition.
“I wasn’t identifying as a Calvinist as a badge of pride. Goodness knows, in the circles I move in, identifying as a Calvinist is more a confession than a bragging right. But if being a Calvinist requires agreeing with everything John Calvin ever uttered, I doubt Calvin himself would qualify.
“Religious identity is about doctrine and beliefs but cannot be reduced to a 100% match of every stated doctrine and belief. Religious identity has to do with being profoundly shaped by doctrines and beliefs, and by living in community with others shaped by those same ideas, and by the long practice of seeking truth and meaning imperfectly through those vocabularies, methods, and doctrines. If that’s the case, then Husband/Father/Orthodox Presbyterian/Monarchist is stuck with me as a Calvinist, whether either of us likes it or not. You can try to take the girl out of Calvinism, but you can’t take the Calvinism out of the girl.
Check-Boxes. . .and Life
“In my exchange with Husband/Father/Orthodox Presbyterian/Monarchist, I was reminded of Kathryn Lofton’s insights in her essay ‘Why Religion Is Hard for Historians (and How It Can Be Easier),’ Modern American History 3/1 [November 2019]: 1-18. Another Yale Dean and scholar of American religion, Lofton describes how the study of religion is hindered in part by a Protestant insistence on the primacy of belief. Protestants come by this honestly, and Protestants have played an outsized role in writing religious histories, at least in this country.
But when it comes to defining and describing religion, Protestants are outliers in the emphasis they place on belief rather than on practice, belonging, and community. “Among evangelicals, I would argue, this is even more the case. But it is clear to those who study religion that religion is about more than mere assertions of belief. As Lofton puts it, ‘the last decades of critical theorizing in religious studies demonstrate conclusively the theological and historical contingency of belief,’ even as ‘a certain kind of belief-speaking Christian’ continues to privilege belief as a universal category, often with the backing of institutional and political power.
“Instead, careful historians ‘know just how richly complicated, contradictory, and varied are the ways human beings understand what they do and what they think.’ And this is a primary role that historians of religion can play: ‘This capacity to complicate our contemporary senses. . .is where history as a practice thrives.’
“Beth Moore is no historian,” Kristin continues, “but her book is a testament to the ‘richly complicated, contradictory, and varied ways’ that Christians understand God, the world, and their place in it.
“And here Beth articulates a deeper truth, an unpopular truth among evangelical gatekeepers who have a direct interest in denying this reality, but a truth that resonates powerfully among evangelicals themselves, and among her non-evangelical readers: None of us live our lives inside neat boxes.
Christian Reformed folks, too.