“Calvinism is a bleak, oppressive form of Christianity.” The sentiment is a common one. Finding quotations like this one from John Calvin’s letter to the Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto may seem to confirm it. “Whenever I descended into myself or turned my eyes to you, extreme terror seized me, which no expiations or satisfactions could cure.” Here, we surmise, is the rotten heart of Calvinism: the lost soul searching for some kind of mercy only finds endless self-examination compounded by a terrifying vision of a merciless Creator. Powerful pieces of literature like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies have helped to perpetuate this negative image, inserting it firmly into the modern consciousness.
Though common, we might still take a moment to scrutinize the sentiment. Calvinism is robust Augustinianism. It is confessional in character. By that I mean it encourages looking back at the work of God in one’s life and marveling at that work; confessing that God has faithfully brought the believer through arduous difficulties up to the present day. Calvinism, then, takes this assurance into its assessment of the future. God has been faithful in the past, and will continue to be.
So Calvinism encourages self-examination. But it does more than that. To self-examination it adds God-examination. Calvinism happily embraces the sentiment expressed by Augustine: “I desire to know God and the soul. Nothing besides? Nothing whatsoever.” Calvin himself put it this way: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess,” he said, “consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Jonathan Edwards said the same thing in The Freedom of the Will. It is a Calvinist axiom.
This two-fold knowledge produces “extreme terror”; as Calvin said. This rather-startling fact requires some explanation. Calvin’s words (which may or may not be autobiographical) relate to an individual’s entrance into this knowledge and explain the effect this knowledge initially has on a person. Calvinism contends that true self-knowledge is profoundly humbling. Human beings are naturally arrogant. The first thing such knowledge impacts is their sense of well-being. This manifests itself in various ways depending on a person’s temperament, but a strong response of the kind mentioned by Calvin is not uncommon.
But this two-fold knowledge is, ultimately, the source of human happiness. So, Calvinism recognizes a movement from despair to contentment. The puritans, many of whom were Calvinists, used to write extensively about this. They described a good kind of sorrow arising from self-examination and distinguished it from harmful sorts of sorrow (which they often called melancholia). They produced what were called morphologies of conversion, plotting the steps through which a person would go on their way from sorrow over their sin to regret, despair, and misery, and then eventually to hope, faith, and joy.
Later Calvinists also talked about this. Nineteenth-century preachers and theologians like Robert Murray M’Cheyne, W.G.T. Shedd and Robert Lewis Dabney, used to warn against excessive and incautious self-examination. It was, they said, dangerous and should be avoided. Instead, they counselled: “For every one look at you take at yourself, take ten looks at Christ,” so M’Cheyne used to tell his parishioners in Dundee, Scotland.
To Calvinists, human happiness does not take the form of uninterrupted euphoria; rather, it is quite different. Marilynne Robinson, the American Calvinist author who wrote Housekeeping, Gilead, and most-recently Lila speaks in a 2008 interview in The Paris Review about her life, reflecting at one point: “The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world.” Robinson continues in this vein throughout the interview, communicating the idea that a kind of deep contentment pervades her life alongside the trials, exhilaration, and boredom of this world, to which she does not feel particularly wedded. This sense of detachment from the world has nothing to do with her politics, income level, or choice of profession. It does not leave her distraught or anxiety-ridden. Rather, she knows a contentment that is felt on a plane below that of the humdrum of daily life.
We see this in Calvin as well. Commenting on Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?,” Calvin asserts that the Psalmist’s lament is not an expression of resignation or unbelief. Quite the opposite. It reveals an unshakeable hope which is confirmed by the rest of the Psalm. The believer laments, Calvin says, because she knows that her Father loves her and will hear her. Thus, the most despair-inducing, dehumanizing experiences she can go through cannot silence her.
So, to the Calvinist, it is not her religion that is bleak and oppressive; rather, life is. Life is hard. Human sinfulness is pervasive, intransigent, blinding. Calvinism just tries to take these facts seriously. It does, however, offer profound joy and a peace that is bottomless and enduring, with the proviso that “the ancients are right.”
Featured image credit: Interior of the Oude kerk in Amsterdam (south nave) by Emanuel de Witte (1617-1692). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.