I had a long talk about theology with a Calvinist friend the other day. While we disagreed on some really basic points — he doesn’t accept universal salvation, I don’t accept the need for belief in God — we really had quite a bit in common. As the descendant (both literally and religiously) of the Puritans, I’m quite comfortable talking with Calvinists. They believe human beings are fallen beings who are made in the image of God; I’m quite sure that human beings are utterly fallible and basically irrational beings who are also capable of astonishing goodness. Calvinists believe that God elects some persons for salvation regardless of what those persons do with their lives; as a Universalist I’m quite sure that if there is a heaven, we all get to go there regardless of what we do with our lives because love will overcome all obstacles (Universalist compost theology refines this point by saying we all get to break down into our constituent organic components and re-enter the ecosystem after death).
I think most of all I’m comfortable with Calvinism because of Calvin’s ideas of worship. He believed in simplicity in worship in order to emphasize what it is most important. and to remove extraneous distractions. He believed that everyone in the congregation should be able to see and hear everything in the worship service. He insisted on congregational participation in worship, e.g., congregational participation in singing rather than just having worship leaders sing. None of this came up in the discussion of theology I had with my friend, but in my mind it was always in the background.
Another way of saying all this is that Unitarianism and Universalism began as reformations of the Reformed tradition that traces its roots back to John Calvin. We have gone off on our own, but there’s a clear family resemblance.
In an article titled “Where’s Your Church’s Money? : Banking for the Common Good,” in the September 21 issue of Christian Century magazine, Scott Bader-Sayre quotes John Calvin as saying that “Usury [i.e., lending at interest] almost always travels with two inseparable companions: tyrannical cruelty and the art of deception.” Calvin was willing to allow lending at interest, however, as long as such lending adhered to moral principles; thus, Calvin said that if you lend money to the poor, you should not get interest.
Calvin’s words seem prophetic in light of the recent banking crisis, which exposed the immoral and predatory practices of the banking industry. Bader-Sayre then asks, What can we do about this? He believes that part of the answer is that local congregations should place their money in places where it will do good, e.g., in banks that invest locally:
Few … have any lingering questions or qualms about usury. Perhaps we should still worry that interest as such fails to serve a good human economy. But given that there are faithful precedents for brokering just loans in service of real need and given our practically inescapable participation in an interest-based economy, the relevant question may not be “Should Christians* loan at interest?” but “What would it look like today to participate in lending and borrowing in such a way that it served human good and benefited all parties involved?’ Such a question might, in fact, lead us to more radical proposals for social change than would come from simply rejecting capitalism from the sidelines.
* Obviously, this statement also applies to religious liberals who are not necessarily Christians.
Bader-Sayre points us to an organization called Move Your Money, which is encouraging people to move their money out of the six biggest banks into local banks. Here’s a video from Move Your Money, featuring George Bailey and Mr. Potter:
The problem with local congregations moving their money into locally owned banks is that many congregations have become overly dependent on receiving high rates of interest in order to fund their operating budget. If our congregations are going to use their money responsibly, maybe we’ll all have to start giving 5% of our gross income to our congregations to support our moral goals.
So why do we sing in worship services? My Unitarian Universalist tradition comes out of Calvinism, and we started singing because John Calvin said we should sing the Psalms — you know, sing because it’s in the Bible. Well, now we’re post-Christian, and some of us are very critical of the Bible, so why do we sing in worship services?
I think many Unitarian Universalists sing in worship services because it’s a chance to promote their favorite theological doctrine. Shades of John Calvin! The humanists in our midst like to sing songs that extol the virtues of humanism, and they pout when there are songs that mention God. The theists and Christians in our midst want to hold on to the tradition of Unitarian Christianity and Universalist Christianity, and they pout when they have to sing songs that don’t mention God.
Maybe this is why I like to sing with the Pagans and the New Age types. They just sing, and it’s powerful, and changes the way you think and feel. They know that “sustained singing is an ancient technique for creating altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, elevated blood oxygen, and cranial and somatic vibration” (Marini, Sacred Song in America, 93). They know you don’t have to be a trained singer to get all these benefits. And the Pagans know that you when you sing about topics like birth and death and the ultimate meaning of life, you will be transformed. I also like to sing with Sacred Harp groups for exactly the same reasons. Not because I am in complete doctrinal or theological agreement with Pagans, New Agers, or Sacred Harp singers, but because I want to sing with people who don’t care what you sound like and who know that singing is supposed to transform you.
Today’s New York Slime, er, Times has a kind of fluffy article on the celebration of John Calvin’s 500th birthday in Geneva, Switzerland. The story, titled “A City of Mixed Emotions Observes Calvin’s 500th,” mentions in passing some of the ways that John Calvin has been consumerized:
But the show [“The Calvin Generation,” a musical,] was one of a vast program of commemorations — theatre, a film festival, conferences, exhibits, even specially concocted Calvinist wines and chocolates — described by some who have tasted them as somewhat bitter — of the birth of John Calvin 500 years ago.
OK, I can understand exhibits and conferences. But a musical about John Calvin? What, does Calvin fall in love with one of the heretics he’s about to burn at the stake? Calvin commemorative wine I can sort of understand (maybe you could use it at communion?), but Calvin chocolates I find incomprehensible, bitter though they may be.