Today is Jean Cauvin’s 502nd birthday. Karl Barth famously called him
a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological.
Even though you all have a vague idea of who he is, your understanding of him is likely to be a crudely sketched fairytale (where he invariably plays the role of a theological ogre). Even though there are few thinkers in the last freaking millennium with more of an influence on the life you live, you probably have never picked up one of his books. It is a strange cultural myopia that the most significant American author of our times, Marilynne Robinson elaborates in her essays “The Death of Adam“:
In several of the essays in this book I talk about John Calvin, a figure of the greatest historical consequence, especially for our culture, who is more or less entirely unread. Learned-looking books on subjects to which he is entirely germane typically do not include a single work of his immense corpus in their bibliographies, nor indicate in their allusions to him a better knowledge than folklore can provide of what he thought and said. I have encountered an odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned him. One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him. The prohibition is more absolute than it ever was against Marx, who always had the glamour of the subversive or the forbidden about him. Calvin seems to be neglected on principle.
This fine portrait by the Oliver Crisp is probably my favourite image of Cauvin:
Cauvin would have despised any move towards beatifying him. He was a man deeply aware of his faults and his frailties. He probably wouldn’t even have cared all that much about the fact that the opposite has happened to his reputation- his name has become a shorthand for dour, sex obsessed prigishness. But let us not fall into such easy and crude ignorances. He rocked. He still rocks. Check him out; he’ll show you just how grand a God we have.
Your Correspondent, Thanks God for the joyless puritan who could declare, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice”