How do you celebrate the 500th birthday of anyone – much less someone as influential, controversial, beloved, and misunderstood as John Calvin? Part of the problem comes with figuring out who to invite to the birthday party: the sheer diversity of religious institutions and denominations held within the spectrum of traditions called “Reformed” is mind-boggling. On the one hand, you can look to someone like Rick Warren whose Purpose Driven Life is classic Calvinism 101: God has a purpose for you and it is to be made in the image of his Son and living in loving community and mission to serve others and spread God’s love. On the other hand, you can look to Sharon Watkins, the General Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who is on the other end of the political spectrum from Warren, but who preached a sermon in the National Cathedral the day after Obama’s inauguration, espousing classic Reformed principles, calling the President to be accountable to God as the true master of all and not to fall prey to the idolatries of power. Or you could turn to Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, who preaches powerfully about the need to call ourselves to collective accountability, recognizing the profound depths of our sinfulness and refusing to judge others or create new margins of exclusivity, but instead, opening ourselves up to the grand gifts of God. Or you could turn to Jeremiah Wright, who speaks from the liberation prophetic end of the Reformed spectrum of new social movements and God’s justice righting human wrongs, drawing on the traditions of Calvinism that have called the state to account for the treatment of the oppressed and marginalized.
Not only do we have this vast array of religious voices speaking some semblance of a common Reformed cadence, but if we’re making a birthday list, we can’t forget the secular humanists, who also have a legacy in Calvinism. The profound notions that govern the political center in this country – democracy and public accountability – come straight out of the humanism that was born of Calvinist roots: the originally theological claims against idolatry and totalitarianism as the product of human sin and pride fund the constraints of democracy that insist on checks and balances and common rule for our common flourishing.
So what does it mean that three of the most significant voices in our cacophonous republic – the religious right, the religious left, and the secular center – all drink from waters drawn from the same pool of reflection? With this much diversity, is there anything that unites all these traditions besides criss-crossed lines of origin in some now-murky intellectual history? I want to propose three core commitments that continue to mark a Reformed way of being in the world, and I want to suggest that these ways of being matter immensely precisely in a world that is not full of Calvinists alone.
Secondly is the claim that when you engage the world you have, at one and the same time, to be an ardent realist and (again, a paradox) to have utopic expectations. We can’t be afraid of the rough and tumble of the world or think that somehow religious engagement means we can delude ourselves about pain and suffering, greed and pride. And yet at exactly the same time we have to nurture utopic expectations: we have to cultivate relentless hopefulness and always envision what we can be that is beyond what we are.
Finally, and perhaps when it comes to the question of politics most importantly, the Reformed tradition calls us – in the name of our founding iconoclasm – to recognize that one of the greatest dangers that we confront as people of faith is turning our religion into an idol that we worship and that stops us from seeing the truth of the God who, in generous, unbounded love, unceasingly reaches out to us. This is the claim that our own pretensions to religious purity can be the biggest demon we fight—and a reminder that the Reformed tradition is always reforming.
Realizing these shared Reformed commitments might help us think differently about the terms of our public conversations. We might recognize a more sophisticated language to talk about things like human nature and public goods, about the possibilities and limitations of institutions and the need for protections and regulations, about our greatness and our fallenness and our common human flourishing. We might also find common ground for thinking about the relationship between religion and politics that doesn’t just fall back into the usual church-state discussions, but involves real discussions about what we think the truth of the world and ourselves really is.
But if you take seriously these Reformed commitments – our simultaneous goodness and brokenness, our need for realism and utopic hope, and our capacity to make idols out of even our own best intentions – we can begin to see how small the religious world of North America is if it’s represented this way, and how many voices we are not including if these are the only terms by which we can figure religious and political discourse. Perhaps, then, the greater challenge is to broaden the conversation beyond the religious left, the religious right, and the secular humanist. The challenge becomes learning to drink from different wells and reflect seriously on the insights we might learn from Islamic Sharia or from Buddhist notions of silence and breath. Reformed. And always reforming. What better gift to bring to Calvin on his birthday?