For a bunch of spiritually complacent loafs, my None friends sure are hungry for religious information. They know I’ve set out on this quest, and now every time we see each other they want to shake me down like I’m some giant tree of knowledge. But I’m not even a sapling yet.
“Where are you now!?” my friend Kelsie cried when I ran into her at a party.
To prepare myself for the next Sunday’s service, I visit the church’s website. There’s an advertisement for the church’s upcoming conference. Using a medieval-looking typeset (where “u” looks “v”), the title reads, The Institute of Awesome: Keeping Calvinism Sassy for the Next 500 Years. I chuckle: a bit of Protestant reformer humor and I’m in on the joke.
Going to the library to find books about John Calvin, I scratch my head at how many there are and how broad the titles: The Calvinistic Concept Of Culture, Calvin and The Foundations Of Modern Politics, Calvinist Roots Of The Modern Era, Calvinism and The Capitalist Spirit…several shelves that include Calvin but then expand into social concepts much bigger than any single individual.
I had no idea Calvin was credited with developing the foundational structures we in the United States hold dear—you know, little things like our version of democratic representation—and how closely these are tied to the history of Christianity. If such basic activities as voting and accumulating wealth can be considered derivative of Jesus, can any of us really claim to be a None?
Calvin, who was just a few years younger than Luther, entered the picture just as many Europeans were expressing a growing disenchantment with the church’s current leadership: its bishops and Pope. In a classic instance of “right time, right place,” the detail-oriented Calvin decided it was up to him to develop a new governing structure for the churches. He would create a system that could take the place of Rome and allow the gist of Luther’s ideas to be practiced on a wide scale sustained over many years.
His idea was for each region to have a church guided by a group of elders (“presbyters” in Greek—which is why churches modeled in this vein are often called “Presbyterian”) selected by the congregation; a few chosen elders from each church would meet in a larger body to discuss issues on a regional scale. A leader would be selected from these chosen elders to head the whole operation. It was a bottom-up structure versus the old top-down—an embodiment of Luther’s “priesthood of believers.” Basically, he developed the blueprint colonists used when they formed the U.S. Congress—a wee fact you’d think I would have learned as a political science major who was employed for several years by the federal government.
While the church I’m visiting shares theological roots with Presbyterianism, it goes by the more generic Calvin-inspired label of “Reformed.” This label suggests devotion to Calvin’s theology, but permits a dodge from the overarching governing structure he developed. Instead, this church belongs to a looser affiliation of like-minded churches that seems to better suit its maverick pastor. He is something of a local celebrity, heralded by many as a true and righteous leader, but infamous among my peers for allegedly having gone on record suggesting American slavery may not have been such a bad thing because it exposed Africans to Christianity. Of all the churches in my local Worship Directory, this one has me the most wary.