31 Flavors

Princeton Theological Seminary, nestled next to its Ivy League sibling university, has never welcomed my advances. Although I’ve long ceased keeping the myriad rejection letters I’ve received over the years and now prefer to throw them in the recycle bin unopened, in my recollection I’ve applied to Princeton Seminary more times than any other school. Given the historic connection between the seminary and my alma mater of Edinburgh University, I often wondered why I never even merited an interview. After all, I live less than 20 miles away and they wouldn’t even have to pay for gas. So it was that I found a recent reference to “Princeton Theology” so interesting. Not every seminary gets to name its own brand of poison.

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Princeton Theology refers to a movement that helped establish the culture that would give us the dubious gift of Fundamentalism. I have never been a Presbyterian, but I have attended their institutions, and one of the characteristics I’d often noted is that Calvin’s thought, in particular, often left me chilled to the theological bones. Assured of his own place in heaven, his theology seemed designed to keep others out. People, being what they are, naturally want to be on the winning team, especially in the eternity game. Reformed thought, therefore, was often perceived as cold and somewhat unfeeling. Predestination is, after all, determinism. Princeton Theology, beginning in the early nineteenth century, was intended to try to introduce a somewhat cozier evangelicalism to the sternness of Presbyterian theology. You may be condemned to Hell, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t feel good about it. After all, the divine plan trumps human need every time.

The approach of the twentieth century saw an increase in evangelical fervor throughout the United States. The growing number of flavors of Christianity led many to wonder what the true vanilla was. The answer, self-proclaimed, to be sure, was Fundamentalism. If you’ve never attended a gathering of theologians, you might not shudder as much as I do while typing these words, for such a conventicle has enormous power. Indeed, the Niagara Bible Conference was able to do what the Council of Nicaea was not—distill the essence of true Christianity that could be accepted by all believers. Unless, of course, one was raised in a Catholic or Orthodox tradition. Princeton Theological Seminary is not a Fundamentalist institution, but even a well-meaning attempt to make Christianity more palatable might lead to too much vanilla. In a world of 31 flavors, perhaps paradise tastes different to everyone, depending on the formula.

New York Calvin

So I’m standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, gazing at Marble Collegiate Church, of the Reformed Church in America.  A cold breeze is blowing, and I wish I’d thought to dress a bit more warmly.  Although the building in front of me was erected in the nineteenth century, the church was founded in 1628, making it among the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in the New World.  It is regularly passed by tourists and shoppers who give it nary a glance, not realizing that the Dutch who gave us New Amsterdam also gave us a Reformed Church that has stood the test of time in an increasingly secular New York City. 

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I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Calvinist.  That may seem odd coming from a religion scholar who attended a very Presbyterian College and earned a doctorate at a Presbyterian department at the University of Edinburgh.  Nevertheless, despite the many belief systems I’ve indulged, the Reformed wing has never appealed.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what Calvinists have to offer: where would we be without the many good things Presbyterians have brought to us?  In any case, I was recently considering how I automatically equate Calvinism with Presbyterianism, and how I really need to get over that habit.  The Swiss reformers were a far more fragmented sect than the Lutheran contingent ever became.  That still shows in the many historic Calvinistic traditions out there.
 
Presbyterianism, on its own, is not a uniform denomination anymore.  For the time being, however, if we consider all Presbyterian groups as one stream of Calvinism, we need also to consider the Reformed groups.  Although all Calvinists are reformed, the Reformed Church had its historic stronghold in the Netherlands.  Doctrinal differences continued to fracture the Reformed Church into several denominations, two of the most prominent in the New World being the Reformed Church in America and its splinter, now larger, of the Christian Reformed Church (not to be confused with the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ)).  Congregational churches, which have no overarching governing body, frequently fall into the Calvinistic theological tradition, although that is not necessarily the case.  Other Protestant denominations, such as Methodism, have equally diverse origins.  Others, like the Baptists, have an early history that is unclear even today.
 
The Calvinist theological family tree is well studied, and it stretches back from where I’m standing to Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin and their peers, some five centuries ago.  Although it never reached the size of the Baptist and Methodist growth spurts during the Great Awakening, Calvinism did make a lasting imprint on the landscape of North America, and still continues to bring some of us out on a chilly day just to look and wonder.

Great Caesar’s Cost

College has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Thinking back to my own experience, I chose a school, as a first-generation college student, based on what I knew at the time. It wasn’t much. I chose a school close to home, and safe. A place friendly to, in what I believed to be a world in open hostility to, “Christianity,” by which I meant the conservative, Evangelical variety. The school I settled on, Grove City College, was at the time a selective school. This was the early 1980s and the “Religious Right” was just beginning to appear on the political horizon. Grove City was a Presbyterian college, and the Reformed, although sometimes theologically conservative, have generally been a bit more socially progressive. I recall the admissions numbers being trotted out to the incoming class, about how elite we were (something I’ve always denied and find personally objectionable) at having been admitted to a selective, private enclave such as GCC (“God’s Country Club” as it was locally known). Many of the kids did come from monied families, but I was there on the basis of government subsidized (and unsubsidized, as if I knew the difference) loans.

When my daughter was considering colleges she had been warned about Grove City. One of her friends was contemplating it, but soon wisely cast her thoughts elsewhere. Nevertheless curious, I picked up the Princeton Review’s The Best 376 Colleges, a kind of Bible for the collegiate-bound, to see if my old alma mater rated a mention. Sure enough, Grove City was present. For those wishing to make it in the heartless world of business, it can be a good training ground. What caught my attention, however, was the acceptance rate. According to the 2012 edition, 74% of applicants were admitted. So much for selective! This figure swirled around my gray matter for some months as I started to sort out the implications.

Over the past few decades, Grove City College—which was always conservative—has allied itself closely with the posturing of Tea Party types. Herein lies a true dilemma for the educated bourgeois: how to be intellectually progressive and socially repressed at the same time. To accomplish this difficult trick, a non-negotiable bedrock is required, and since even the earth is spinning crazily on its axis the only true solidity in the universe is religion. Claiming that, despite the 14.5 billion years of this universe’s elapsed lifespan, only one thing never changes and that is a particular interpretation of Scripture, you can go ahead with your science and your arts. But most of all, with your business. Although black holes may exist, and textual criticism may indicate Scripture has its own gray areas after all, nothing counts much at the end of the day if you don’t have capital to back you up. Open admission policies can be interpreted in more than one way, depending on your point of view.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

Burning Faith

1528. February 29. St Andrews, Scotland. 24 year old Patrick Hamilton was burned to death for espousing the teachings of Martin Luther. St Andrews University is the oldest of Scotland’s four ancient centers of higher education. Heterodox religious teaching was considered a very dangerous thing in those days, especially in the halls of academe. Once infected with Lutheranism, like a zombie, you had to be burned so that the rest of the world could be safe, the virus contained. Only the problem in this case was an all too human one—difference of opinion regarding religion. The Thundering Scot, John Knox, would’ve been all of about 14 at the time, and reformation for the Catholic Scotland was still years in the future. Now, one of the largest European cathedrals, in St Andrews, lies in ruins because of that very reformation.

Religious bickering has a tendency to move beyond the ridiculous to the insane. Burning young men, after decades of burning hundreds of young and old women alike throughout Europe, was one of the most heinous symptoms of a horrid madness that had grown from religious fervor and fear. Religion itself is not to blame as much as the human tendency to use it as a weapon against those who are perceived as different. Some five centuries later and the physical stakes are gone but the fervor and fear are as strong as ever. As we hear politicians and televangelists lash out against those of whom God disapproves, the smoke still rises from the spot where Patrick Hamilton, late of the University of St Andrews, was sacrificed for his faith.

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Ironically, as I sat on the quiet morning train from Edinburgh to Leuchars, from the headphones on the young man behind me wafted AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Was Patrick Hamilton aware that he was on a literal highway to hell as he returned home to Scotland? Did he have an inkling that his own people would torture him to death because he taught such dangerous ideas as salvation by faith alone and Scripture as the instruction for that salvation? Could anyone have guessed that the then teenaged John Knox would introduce what was to become an even less forgiving form of Christianity to Scotland by the time young Hamilton should’ve reached his dotage? Religion is funny that way. Even those who give their all to defend it easily become its victims. And a few yards down the road the Society of Biblical Literature meets in a university building dedicated to the sciences. History’s ironies never end.