Tuesday, October 18, 2011

the class Calvinist: a historian's (?) dilemma.

In my (too many) years in higher education, I haven't yet been in an environment where I felt completely at home in the school's mainstream. I've already talked about that on this blog, with reference to Yale. I think it's somewhat true at my current school, too. But what I'm particularly thinking of is my Reformation class. I think part of the weirdness is that it is a history class, in the history department, so people are not necessarily asking theological questions all the time. I'm not sure how to negotiate that difference.

But, today, when we were discussing parts of Richard Baxter's A Christian Directory of Practical Divinity (a great text, by the way), I found the drift of the conversation really odd. Baxter was an English Puritan pastor, and in this work, he's advising pastors on how to care for church members who suffer from a "melancholic" personality. It's quite interesting reading. But the argument that got raised in class was, "Well, no wonder Protestants got depressed. Catholics can do something about their salvation, but when you're Protestant, it's all about your faith." There seemed to be a consensus that Protestantism (at least in the early generations of Reformers) is sort of gloomily introspective and subjective whereas Catholicism is concrete and active and good for the less theologically inclined common people.

I'm not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that I go to a Catholic university. Especially in the history department, one's personal affiliation doesn't get brought into discussion so much. But I still felt the pressure of being (as far as I know) the class's only Presbyterian, or at least known to my classmates as someone who's working on Reformed topics in my research. Obviously, I disagree with that sweeping assessment of Protestantism. One of the chief joys of my faith is that it is not purely subjective. It's not about my ability to believe in Christ, but about Him, and the means of grace given through Word and sacrament. And yes, there is a subjective aspect to my reception of those things. How could there not be? And why must that be bad? Ultimately, I know that it's not about me (or at least, that's the thing I am struggling to learn!).

I'm not making this post a Catholic versus Protestant thing, understand. I'm just thinking about the weirdness of my position -- like, to what degree is it appropriate for me to try to "defend" my faith in this particular context? Do I need to? The discussion was not, at least on the surface, about the theological validity of one position over the other. To be honest, my instinct is to try to let these things roll off my back because it isn't a context where apologetics feel appropriate (and I am bad at apologetics anyway. I can tell you about my faith, but if you expect tidy, well-thought-out argumentation, you'll be pretty disappointed; it isn't my gift). I don't think I have to feel offended or defensive.

Sometimes, it does get to me, I admit. More in a tiring way than an angering one. I dislike being forever on the defensive, and I don't think it's a very healthy posture. Sometimes, though, I wish I felt less like an odd,  half-mythical critter being studied as a historical curiosity, and more like a person who actually believes the stuff.

Don't get the impression that it's a hostile environment, because it isn't. And I bet I'd be surprised to learn who else feels that way, if from a slightly different standpoint. (And let's be honest, there's likely no learning environment that is fully "safe" in this way...)

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