In “Teaching Calvin in California,” a recent piece in The New York Times, Jonathan Sheehan argues that students in secular college classrooms can learn a lot from studying theology. The example he uses to make the case is predestination. Sheehan is not teaching the comfortingly vague idea that each person’s fate is in God’s hands, however, but instead the disturbingly specific version insisted upon by the sixteenth century Christian reformer, John Calvin. According to Calvin’s teaching, often referred to as double predestination, God selects a chosen few and actively damns everyone else, for reasons known and knowable only to God.
Tech savvy students in sun-dappled classrooms in California are not the only ones who predictably find this theology offensive. Even Marilynne Robinson, the acclaimed novelist who has done more to champion Calvin than any non-theologian writing today, emphasizes the offending features of this aspect of Calvinist theology in a scene in Gilead in which her main character, the wise preacher John Ames, is asked to explain predestination. “I hate this conversation a great deal,” Ames’s friend Boughton—also a pastor—says when the topic comes up, “and I’ve never seen it go anywhere.” Ames himself wants to leave it alone: “I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that’s what people who talk about it normally do.” In this scene, as in so many discussions of predestination, freedom has the last word. “A person can change,” Ames’s wife Lila says simply. “Everything can change.” Lila’s reassuring denial of determinism ends the conversation. “Thanks,” the questioner replies. “That’s all I wanted to know.”
John Calvin, by contrast, thought we should want to know more.