The other guy

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.

31 thoughts on “The other guy

  1. You are right to be wary, Corinna. The pastor you reported on seems be confused in his thinking. He may need some lessons in logic and philosophy. The slavery and mistreatment of human beings were evil. The Christianization of those slaves was another issue, but the former cannot be justified in terms of the latter.

  2. I look forward to the report of your visit. So far an interesting journey from a Catholic Retreat Center to Luther and now Calvin (kind of). So many others seem to have sprung from their theological persuasions. It seems interesting to me that although they sprang up in Europe, interest in religion in Europe is practically nil compared to the U.S. I wonder if our penchant for forming new sects that debate one teaching or another has provided a fertile growing ground for interest in spirituality. I know that religion and spirituality are not always considered the same and yet one develops from the other.

  3. In my seminary education, I spent a whole year studying the history of theological development from the Patristic period (the first 500 years), through the Middle Ages to the Reformation and then from the Reformation until now. I found it to be fascinating. It has helped me to understand, not just the development of Christianity, but society in the West and much of the East as well. There are positive and negative aspects to every influence. For instance, I appreciate Martin Luther’s bold zeal and rediscovery of Augustinian salvation by grace through faith alone, yet his culturally popular anti-semitism was not good. The Anglican spiritual traditions (read “The Book of Common Prayer”) are deep and rich, and yet the break from Rome was based on Henry VIII’s personal desire to control the church’s position on divorce–subjecting the church to the crown. Of course this led to the pilgrims and the American desire to allow people to freely practice religion without state interference–and eventually the First Amendment. This became the perfect recipe for the proliferation of denominations–religion meets consumer-driven free-market competition. Compare our environment to Europe, which has long ago entered a post-Christian era. The fact that the “Nones” are a growing segment of American society is merely a reflection of the movement, with Europe, towards a post-Christian culture. Since I am a pastor and a follower of Jesus, I am saddened by the trend. But your blog gives me hope. I’m not sure this even makes sense to anyone, but thank you for your blog and keep it up.

    • Mark: what you wrote is great. My understanding was that Luther was mainly influenced by his study of the New Testament, especially Romans, where Paul writes particularly of salvation by grace through faith alone, even though Augustine wrote much on it as well….ironically, Augustine was claimed by the Catholic church as one of its own, even though they did not agree with the “alone” part……

  4. I continue to enjoy your weekly blog and enjoy a renewed look at what reminds me very much of my first college “Religions of the World” class. It is always good and important to look at the basis for what we believe. In your case it is interesting discovery; in the case of a believer (such as myself), it is keeping the polish on what your heart has already accepted as true metal – Jesus Christ.

    Please know that my prayers are with you as you continue your journey. And I recommend “Surprised by Joy”, by C.S. Lewis. When I was making my journey back to faith (not quite your situation, but marginally similar), it gave me first a heartfelt “Aha!” and then gave me an intelligent reasoning to go along with that emotion.

    Keep up your ‘Noning” journey and I keep you in my prayers.

    • Thank you Patricia, I appreciate your company on this journey. Thank you for the C.S. Lewis recommendation. I’ve read Mere Christianity and the entire Narnia series, but I haven’t gotten to that one yet. I will pick that title up.

  5. “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.”
    I’d guess you didn’t learn about Calvin’s influence on the framers of the Constitution as it is, as far as I can tell, a fairly marginal, recent and dubious claim, primarily favored by conservative Christians (like the members of the Texas Board of Education who wanted to remove Thomas Jefferson from textbooks in favor of Calvin and Aquinas). The founders of our government were influenced by thinkers from the Enlightenment, not the Reformation. In any event, I certainly don’t think we can trace our founding back to Jesus. As the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams, proclaimed: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

    • Hi Matt, I spent quite a bit of time trying to sort this out. What I’ve gleaned from the history books is this: basic democracy (one man, one vote) was developed/promoted by the ancient Greeks (as far as modern historians can tell) but the U.S. model of democracy in the legislative branch–which is based on picking a representative from a particular area and then all the representatives come together and they pick a representative to head them like the Speaker of the House in the House of Reps of Congress–that very specific design was first laid out by Calvin. That’s not to say our framers accepted any of the religious aspects of Calvin or that they weren’t influenced by tons of other things. I guess what this suggests to me is that by trying to expunge all traces of religion from government history, we might be missing some of the story. I’m just interested in as full a story of our past as possible.

  6. I enjoyed your current article, but it left me with a downer feeling– dread of Sunday Morning Service. I can’t imagine William Least Heat-Moon had fun every day as he traveled through back-roads on his scenic route while writing his book “Blue Highways”. But then I would not have had the fortitude (or the writing skills) to accomplish his feat! Are you opening your hands before entering each church and remembering you are strolling from steeple to steeple, setting in pews, some softer than others?

    Who knows, you might start a whole new trend? Now that pubs are becoming smoke-free and more people are health conscious of things like sugar and alcohol, there could be a new move toward “Church Crawls”!

    I’m waiting for your first enthusiastic report like when you found your “Mr. Right”. And frankly, I think our famous religious leaders were “Mr. Rights” only out of cultural tradition. I really enjoyed the Public TV special on Aimee Semple McPHerson. I believe she was legitimate despite her controversy. She embraced true, pure showmanship and she had the winds blowing in her sails. Now she was upbeat and I’d look forward to going to her service because she had the fire I desire in the pulpit! God could actually heal people through her among other things.

  7. Corinna: just read this new post and looking forward to your thoughts on the conference (if you’re going). You already know, I think, that I was involved in a church for many years that eventually became strongly “Calvinistic”….which means they bought into something called the “5 points of Calvinism,” abbreviated TULIP. I don’t know if your guy believes that…..from what I know of how that came about, I’m not sure just how closely it reflects Calvin’s actual views….The ‘tulip’ came about after Calvin’s death when some followers were disputing the teachings of another popular pastor in the Netherlands…..There are many who speak in a very authoritative way about John Calvin without ever having actually read what he wrote…..I’m a bit guilty of that myself, but have eventual plans to rectify that (though it may not be this year). As an historian (among other things), I try to go to the horse’s mouth, which is why I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Gospels lately……Have a good time!

  8. One nice little short book by Calvin is the “Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life.” It’s worth reading. It summarizes what he wrote in the 1,000+ page “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” He really had an understanding of the love of God which is displayed in Jesus, and writes about our spiritual union with Him through the Holy Spirit. That’s one of those really special things about the Christian faith.

    Often people describe Calvin through the TULIP illustration of his theology as Walt mentions, but it doesn’t begin to describe what he experienced in his relationship with Christ. He did get deeply into politics and city government as you have mentioned, and designed a whole system of government based on his understanding and study of the Bible, which spilled over into the development of our government. The time and place in which he lived was very unique, and he was brilliant. You seem to have a gift for exploring these things with an open mind. That’s one reason I am drawn to your blog.

  9. OUCH! That was the sound of me being dropped into the bin of the “spiritually complacent,” along with the other nones in your life. I would caution you to not draw too many generalizations about those of us who choose to not be affiliated with any designated church or religion. Just as you have found a great complexity of beliefs and differences in details among the churches you have so far attended, I think that you would also find great complexity and differences in those of us who identify ourselves as being a “none.” This your journey, so you are not necessarily asking your friends about their spiritual and religious beliefs, but I am almost certain that each of them has their own story to tell, especially if they have reached mid-life. I am a deeply spiritual and religious church goer, but I still identify myself as a none. This is not a simple yes or no issue from my point of view.

    And while I am on my point of view, I wish to say that I am horrified that any person of conscious would (allegedly) say that knowing about Christianity triumphs over basic human rights. Although this instance might not be true, this is the kind of Christian rhetoric that led me away from Christian churches. I do not like the righteousness of some ministers and congregations in knowing the RIGHT way for everyone….. and this doesn’t seem to match the teachings of Jesus….or others like him. Be watchful of this man. Big egos might fill pews, but they don’t necessarily represent the best of Christian thought and behavior.

    Corinna, I am very much enjoying the exchange of ideas from those folks who are reading your blog. We don’t all agree, but I appreciate the respectful tone of those who reply. I especially enjoyed Mark Maki’s thoughts today. Very mindful.

    • Thanks for the positive mention of my comments Merrill. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, if you are interested, I also have a blog at (And I’ll be publishing my 100th entry next week!) I am not a “none,” but I am finding the honesty and thoughtfulness of many here to be inspiring and I plan to be a regular reader.

    • Hi Merrill, Your comments reinforce (what I hoped was) my point: that for a bunch of so-called spiritually complacent loafs (myself included), we are actually very, very curious about religion and matters of spirituality. We’re hungry for information but also very wary and cautious because of our perceptions about the type of people/viewpoints among what we think of as “the religous” (mostly coming from a few outliers who make the news headlines). I agree, the comments section is great and I hope we’re working toward more communication, acceptance, and love.

      • Actually, I was going one step further, and saying that your friends well might have a sense of who they are spiritually, but it doesn’t appear so as they are non-affiliators. I would expect that they are a well-educated bunch, seeing as you are affiliated with NPR, and have an interesting, broad work background. And the fact is, you can tell a good story…..which makes the rest of us want to know more… follow your journey. And it is an intriguing proposition: to “find religion” by going from one church to another…and by supplementing that visit with research and personal experience……and of course, with a blog entry or two. I can’t say why others are reading your blog, but I am just intrigued by your process…the proposition. I am not seeking to become one of those church-goers at the Methodist or Lutheran, or Calvinist churches. I am secure in my spirituality and religiosity. And actually I am rooting for the possibility that you will find that being a “none” is not a terrible thing…..given the broad variety of possibilities that this can mean. Searching for the deepest meanings in life: why are we here…who am I and is this the best that I can be in this life… does take work and can be made easier, perhaps, if you are a part of a faith community. And perhaps that is what you are most seeking: a community of believers. It keeps us from feeling so alone.

        What is it, really that you are seeking?

      • Corinna, Merrill: I too appreciated Merrill’s comments about being complacent. I am afraid that ‘we’ (here I count myself in with Christians who seem to fight about all kinds of things that have little to do with following Jesus and what he taught) have done a ‘good job’ of fostering the complacency by turning people away from Jesus and toward a more post-modern mindset. Again, I quote Gandhi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” We in the ‘church’ will have a lot of explaining to do one day…….Oh yes, another quote, from an old Dutchman: “Ve are too soon olt, und too late schmart.”

      • Corinna,

        Funny you mention “outliers who make the news headlines.” I can imagine Jesus was one of those outliers at the inception of his mission 2,000 years ago! I’m sure we’ve all seen a fair share of real fruitcakes cross our paths.

        I admire your diplomacy and skill in writing that shows respect for others beliefs.

        So we seek a religion that mirrors our own desire for social acceptance and what is comfortable? I believe a true religious path and religious leader will show us the way to a personal relationship with our spiritual side and get out of the way. Personality cults abound.

        Spirituality can seem so illogical to the highly educated? In the Christian tradition, Jesus tells us unless we be like a little child we cannot find the kingdom of heaven. I think it’s the innocence we need.

        I hope you never turn back. You never give up. I hope you find your own path. There are too many who have settled for a country club church.


    • Hi Merrill, I’m intrigued by your statement, “I am a deeply spiritual and religious church goer, but I still identify myself as a none.” Would you care to say more about what you mean, and how you got there?

      • Shelley, hello. I am not sure exactly what you are asking, but I will respond as best I can.
        I grew up in the Methodist Church, and it was a good place for me at the time, but as I grew into my teens, I became unable to believe and accept the Christian theology….the Trinity…Burning in Hell….Communion….Eternal LIfe….I’m just using code words here, so I hope you understand that they represent the fuller ideas. Anyway, I also did not appreciate the hypocrisy of the people who claimed to be Christian. So in my early twenties…through the help of a college professor and, strangely enough, my Mother, I found the Unitarian Universalist Church. I was searching for my own truths and this church encourages this journey. They promote human dignity and the ideas of justice and peace, among other things. Each Sunday, I sit with avowed atheists , agnostics, Buddhists, humanists, transcendentalists, and those who identify themselves as Christian, among others! The sermon tomorrow is on Immigration reform which reflects the social justice ideas of the church; next Sunday it may be about Gratitude or Hope or some other more spirit driven subject. I also appreciate that my congregation is a self-governed group….the democratic process in action. I am a “deeply spiritual and religious church goer”…..but I don’t identify my self as Christian. That often puts me in the “none” category, although I am far from that.
        So, Shelley, I wasn’t searching for the belief system when I went looking….I was looking for a community of people who would support who I was and what I believed. This is why I keep cautioning Corinna when she refers to her “none” friends as complacent and looking for religion. They might, in fact, have firm moral and spiritual beliefs….and they are looking for a place to be where they are safe and comfortable as part of a faith community……or they might just be happy to make this life journey one their own.
        Hope this answers your question! Merrill.

    • The problem I have with the idea of “spiritual complacency” is that it seems to take the value of spirituality as a given. I agree with Merrill and Corinna that just because you reject traditional religion doesn’t mean you’re complacent about metaphysical issues. Indeed, for many of us nones, our rejection stems from a deep investigation of and/or experience with religion. But atheists generally are troubled also by the “well, I’m not religious, but, of course, I’m spiritual” stance. As if there’s something inherently wrong with not having some connection to the supernatural. The stereotype is religious/spiritual = moral/good, lacking in faith = immoral/evil.

      • Atheists and Agnostics abound in my spiritual tradition: Buddhism. I’ve also met “non-literalist” Christians focusing on the social justice message.

        A spiritual experience doesn’t have to relate to the supernatural. Our bodies and minds may experience something transcendental through meditation or prayer. Buddha was attacked by Mara, either a demon or his own psychological projections. When our psychological projections are confronted and changed, a “supernatural” expression may be felt. Sometimes ritual is needed for our brains to process this shift in being.

        • The problem with using “spiritual” is that your meaning can be unclear. When you say “I’m a spiritual person” or “I had a spiritual experience” many (most?) people will think you’re talking about a relationship with something not of the natural world. This is what I assume when a person self-describes as spiritual, unless he/she tells me differently. So I’m certainly not comfortable using the term to describe myself. Some naturalists, like Tom Flynn, the exec. director of the Council for Secular Humanism, recommend that nonbelievers scrub their language of all things spiritual, including phrases like “team spirit” and “spirited talk,” to make it perfectly clear that they have no truck with the supernatural. This might be excessive. But some uses of spirit/spiritual can, indeed, be misleading.

  10. Just one suggestion for you that you might find interesting. Google How old is your church. It might clear some things up. God bless you on your ongoing journey.

  11. Did Calvinist thought really influence the organization of the U.S. Government? I missed that lecture. We always focused on the older Greek influences of our Republic. I don’t recall reading anything by Madison, Jefferson, and others discussing the Calvinist influence. Which book is this from? I am interested in reading it. Thanks. Good blog post!

    • I don’t think the framers ever said publicly “I was influenced by Calvin” (or at least not that I’ve read). It’s more that in retrospect the parallels suggested themselves to those who look for such things (so, perhaps, you can take it all with a grain of salt). Here are the books from which I gleaned the majority of my Calvin information:
      Selinger, Suzanne. Calvin Against Himself: An Inquiry in Intellectual History. Archon Books, 1984.
      Parker, T.H.L. John Calvin: A Biography. The Westminster Press, 1975.
      Van Til, Henry R. The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. Baker Book House, 1959.
      McKim, Donald K. The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge University Press, 2004. (relied on this article mostly: Olson, Jeannine E. “Calvin and Social-Ethical Issues,” p. 153-172)

      • Thanks for the sources, Corinna. I’ll have to check these out, as well. I suppose this is what I was getting at in my original post above (and I apologize if that hurried reply came across as somewhat brusque, as, rereading it, it seems it might have) — I’m not sure we can draw a straight line from Calvin to the framers, even if the structure of our Congress is similar to what Calvin came up with.
        You bring up an interesting point, however, by suggesting that, since our national character has been so influenced by Calvinism and other religious thought, often in unrecognized ways, none of us can really call him- or herself a none. I think those of us who reject traditional religion can still rightly call ourselves nones. But your point illustrates the importance of understanding religion, if for no other reason than to make ourselves aware of how religion informs our leaders’ decisions (and, perhaps, our own) in ways we may not be comfortable with or feel is beneficial. Many of us feel that religion (and Christianity, especially) is afforded too much privilege in this country. The recent presidential inauguration provided a great case in point. From the songs to the prayers to the stacks of Bibles and the “so help me God” (which is not part of the required oath) this welcoming ceremony for the highest elected post in our country sent a strong message to nonbelievers and non-Christians alike: “you are not truly American.”

  12. Corrina et al. Wow! fantastic stuff from “all of the above!” Your blog of Calvin was fascinating but where does Jesus come in? How do you compare his views of Christianity to Luther’s and Catholicism? What is it about the Jesus myth that has survived over 2 millennium in Western civilization and is now spreading quickly in Africa? Why is Europe post Christian? Why is LDS so successful? At 63 I’m moving away from a dogmatic view of Jesus to an admirer of many of his teachings. Your writing is so provocative and your journey compelling. You’re building your own discipleship. Kudos to all!

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