Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Contempt of Calvin and the Bare Minimum of Faith

To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, it is to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine, they killed a man. - Sebastian Castellion, Contra Libellum Calvini

I am currently reading a provocative book by Perez Zagorin entitled How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 2003) for which I must thank my dear friend and fellow Francis-Clare Community member Leecie Doyle who continues to bring me articles and book reviews to aid my ongoing study and reflection. Among the many interesting points that Zagorin provides his reader is his history of Sebastian Castellio whose battles against the zealous, vindictive and murderous John Calvin are well detailed. If I thought I disliked Calvin before with his distant, disapproving father, er, god, whose smug, self-affirming elect regularly demonstrated their condescension toward the many damned (translation: those who didn't agree with them), I think my ability to look with much human kindness toward Calvin has been definitely strained beyond repair.

Catellio was quick to point out that there are very few genuine articles of faith upon which a case of heresy could be made. As he regularly said, contempt of Calvin was hardly heresy. It simply meant people disagreed with him about their faith, a pattern, he noted, that is much more consonant with Christian history than any appearances of agreement, most of them coming under the coercive power of tyrants like Calvin. In one of his many works taking Calvin to task, Castellio said, "After a careful investigation into the meaning of the term heretic, I can discover no more than this, that we regard those as heretics with whom we disagree." [De haereticus] Castellio repeatedly asserted what today seems obvious: the fact we don't agree about religion does not mean religious holders of power are somehow invested with a "Kill One Heretic Free" card.

What has struck me repeatedly as I've read Zagorin's book is that notions of orthodoxy are readily used to prevent the critical consideration of ideas the asserters of orthodoxy consider sacred to them but which may or may not have much to say to others. There is a myth pattern buzzing around just under the surface of most notions of orthodoxy that goes like this: At some point in Christian history, everyone believed the same things, liked each other and got along famously. Of course, that's a common myth pattern called "the Golden Age" and versions of that myth pattern can be found in most human religious myth systems including a fall from an idyllic past which accounts for the conflicts of the present. It also is often accompanied by notions of the need to appease a tyrannical deity in order to get back to the idyllic past. It's a pattern well developed by Calvin and his Reformation era revisionists who posited a pure "early church" from which the corrupt Roman Catholic institution devolved.

The reality is that the followers of Jesus did not agree among each other about who he was and what he was about. The followers of Paul - who himself never knew Jesus - agreed even less, as his letters to the various churches readily reflect. A common thread in those letters goes something like this: Would you all at least try to get along? Would you try to act like you like each other? Would you exercise a little humility upon occasion and consider that your take on things might not be the final word but perhaps one of many words one could say about the matters at hand? People don't write letters like that unless they need to. The reality is that the movement which emerged around the figure of Jesus who quickly became the christos through the hagiography of Paul was never monolithic, never univocal in their statements about their faith and were at least as contentious among each other as Christians are today.

There was no Golden Age despite our most cherished wishful thinking, just a very contentious human phenomenon that continues today. Our battles within Anglicanism and other churches today are much more like the early church than the mythical "early church" constructed out of whole cloth by the Reformers. Hence, when we hear people using words like "orthodox," which by implication means
  1. that our position is consonant with that of "the tradition" and thus by implication carries the imprimatur of G-d himself, and
  2. that those who disagree are heretics,

what we're hearing is simply an attempt to play a trump card, to remove the ideas from discussion and to prevent their examination in the light of critical thought. It's easy to have all the answers when one prevents any questions from being posed. Notions of "orthodox" are thinly veiled self-affirmations, attempted end runs on the question of credibility and, given the complex history of Christian thought, little more.

So, what difference does all this make to me? Maybe a lot. I find myself on the other side now of a dark night of the soul in which for a time I saw myself alternatively as post-Christian if not ex-Christian. I had for awhile thrown up my hands and excused myself from further wrestling with the phenomenon of having Jesus and his ensuing faith tradition normatively defined in the public eye in the most superficial and superstitious manner. My recent journey to the spring meeting of the Jesus Seminar has helped me recognize that I am not alone in my unwillingness to either simply buy into what is largely unmindful patent formulae or alternatively excuse myself from the table. Misery likes company, I guess. But it's a hell of a lot more authentic than buying into a given paradigm simply for the cheap mutual affirmation and superficial existential security it provides.

So, here's where Castellio has helped me most. As Zagorin reports, Castellio, much in the vein of Erasmus (one of my all time heroes) saw the essentials of the faith as few. While I have long heard the line from the 39 Articles quotes, "all things necessary for salvation" in relation to scripture, I had never really considered that "all things" might be a handful or less.

When I was ordained deacon, my service booklet cover contained the wisdom of the prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with G-d?" That would be a good minimalist credo for certain. Over the years since ordination I find myself coming back to the two Great Commandments of Judaism which Jesus would certainly have known and is quoted in Matthew's gospel as repeating: Love G_d with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. That also seems like an adequate credo that does not require the ongoing contextualizing in one's head and crossing of one's fingers that the weekly recitation of either the Apostles or Nicene Creeds require of anyone with the ability to critically reflect upon their faith.

Monday morning as I was awakening, my small still voice was whispering in my ear the following "essentials" that perhaps reflect where I am in my faith journey today:

  • Love G-d
  • Follow Jesus
  • Be the Kingdom

As I've thought about those three terse assertions, I have realized that they are neither self-evident nor self-validating. So, here is an initial attempt at apologia for this new tentative minimalist credo:

By "Love G_d" I mean that one recognizes the intimacy with which creature and Creator are related. G-d is as close as the ruach, the very breath we breathe and everywhere we look around us, we see the divine, as Francis taught us. Most indigenous religions are religions of gratitude, of recognition of the goodness of the Creator and humanity's contingency upon that goodness. To be grateful, to recognize and value our intimate relatedness to our Creator, is to Love G_d.

By "Follow Jesus" I mean that Jesus provides an example of a particular way of life marked by awareness of those in need of human attention - the poor, the sick, the outcast. Jesus' life is marked by post-conventional moral reasoning - forgiving one's enemies, forgiving debts, resisting imperial evils. Jesus recognizes that the relatedness to which human beings are called as the means of being fully human can only be maintained by forgiveness of human imperfection. Moreover, the myth pattern around Jesus and resurrection embody the very human hope for life after death, a hope I share even as I recognize there is little empirical evidence to suggest that hope will be realized. Jesus knew hope to be essential to human welfare. Following Jesus provides human beings with a means of being fully human in this life and hope that a life to come will follow.

By "Be the Kingdom," I mean that the Way of Jesus existed then and now in a web of social relatedness. If the poor are blessed, there are implications for socially constructed politico-economic systems which perpetuate and exploit poverty. If enemies are to be forgiven and not combated, there are implications for imperial systems that invade other countries and destroy other peoples. If the value of being neighbor to the other requires transcending self-interest and historical-cultural prejudices to assist the non-Samaritan on the road to Jericho, there are implications for an unlimited consumerist system which teaches its pupils "It's all about me."

So what of the stuff of ordinary orthodox/heretic conflict? What of Jesus' divine nature, of Trinitarian theology, of original sin and atonement, of the validity of the sacraments and religious orders? Like Castellio, I recognize those concerns to be highly important to the holders of institutional power as well as to those whose primary concerns are for existential security. But, ultimately, they are not the essentials of a faith worth professing nor are they subjects upon which followers of Jesus have ever agreed upon. Salvation is G-d's business, not ours, and one I am happy to leave in G-d's capable hands. The church on a good day is a means of following the Way of Jesus and living into relatedness with G-d and each other but never an end in itself. And notions of "validity" in regard to orders or sacraments are, well, just plain silly and self-serving. These are the matters over which well-intentioned people may readily disagree, as Castellio observed, but they are hardly matters of an ultimate nature upon which the orthodox may cast the heretics into outer darkness, much less feel empowered to kill another child of G-d.

Clearly there is more to say about these ideas but not today. My grading is calling to me and I've feigned deafness this morning long beyond its plausibility. Besides, somehow I missed the "revealed truth" gene and inherited instead the "work in progress" gene. This is a reflective beginning point at a time in my life when I am examining from whence I have come, where I am now and where G-d might be leading me in the future.

Stay tuned.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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