I am currently reading Marilynne Robinson’s most recent essay collection, The Givenness of Things (2015). I bought the collection because I enjoyed her novel Gilead and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Man. Robinson is a self-professed Calvinist, and she openly admits that her faith tradition inspires her works. Indeed, nearly all of her essays deal with John Calvin or Puritanism in some way. Calvin has a fairly negative image in the popular imagination, but Robinson believes that this negative image is based more on myth than actual history. She insists that Calvin was quite a meditative writer, and many Puritans in America were abolitionists.
Marilynne Robinson is generally a great prose stylist and her writings are very thought-provoking. I don’t know a lot about the Reformed tradition, but I do know a thing or two about John Calvin’s Geneva. I admire Robinson’s courage in defending a much-maligned historical figure. I didn’t know about the prophetic/social-justice orientated history of American Puritanism before reading Gilead, which has since inspired me to read more of Robinson’s writings.
Unfortunately, Robinson has a glaring blind spot: an uncritical love for Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. In Death of Adam, for example, Robinson condemns the medieval Inquisition, but she almost sympathizes with Calvin’s decision to execute the non-Trinitarian Michael Servetus! Although she ultimately condemns Calvin’s decision, she does so only after explaining WHY non-Trinitarianism was such an attack on the Christian faith. Evidently, Michael Servetus crossed the line, but John Calvin didn’t when he protested the Catholic Church’s sacraments, religious art, etc.
I am part-way through The Givenness of Things, and so far the essays have been hit and miss for me. Robinson’s essay “Reformation” inspired a recent post on the democratizing influence of translation. I appreciate her defense of the humanities. In “Decline”, she examines and challenges our nation’s obsession with science and math education.
But while she is a careful reader of current events, she tends to have a utopian view of both Reformation history and American Puritanism.
In “Awakening”, for example, Robinson suggests that the decline in church-attendance in America is largely due to the Protestant rejection of Calvin. If only Americans had understood their Puritan forbearers, far-right Evangelicalism wouldn’t exist. Everything good in America can be traced to John Calvin’s restoration of the Gospel, and everything terrible can be traced to a rejection of this tradition.
I’ve heard from numerous scholars that Calvin was a beautiful French prose stylist. I look forward to reading some of his writings. I’m sure they are quite thought-provoking and, in parts, even revolutionary. But I don’t find Calvin’s Geneva very appealing. He had a particular vision for humanity, and he was going to bring it about, through force if necessary. I doubt Robinson would have liked living in Geneva either.
I share Robinson’s political vision, but I am not convinced that Calvinism holds all the answers. She could make the same arguments without invoking religion. Using religion to get away with murder is not unique to Catholicism or conservative Evangelicalism. The Genevan Consistory was basically the Protestant version of the Roman Inquisition, but Robinson never addresses the Consistory. She never acknowledges the millions of Calvinists who supported slavery. I don’t think a return to Calvinism (or Catholicism for that matter) would improve American society. There will always be people who use religious texts to maintain power and privilege.
In The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson tells the reader more about herself and her views than about Calvin and his views, even and especially when she is dealing with Puritan history. She presents the Puritans as progressive social justice advocates because she wants American Christians to hold more progressive views. But such views aren’t uniquely Calvinistic or even Christian. I wish she would just state her opinions without pretending that they are inspired by a close reading of Calvin or Puritan history.
But like I said, I’m only part-way through the essay collection. Maybe she will stop referencing Calvin in every other sentence. But I’m not holding my breath.