Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A fantastically busy week!

Here is the second of my talks on Calvin.

Talk Two: Calvin’s Big Idea

This year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of the French born theologian and reformer, John Calvin. I expect some of you, at least, will have read Marilynne Robinson. She is a prize-winning American author. Her latest book, Home, has won the 2009 Orange prize for fiction. She has also written Housekeeping and Gilead - all books I would recommend if you are looking for a good and thought-provoking read. She has written and spoken of the influence of Calvin on her and on her writings. She is an example of a modern day Calvinist turning up in an unexpected setting.

There is on the BBC in the UK a radio programme called Desert Island discs. It is a long-running and very successful one. A guest each week is invited to choose 8 discs that they would like to have with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island. At the end of the programme, they are also invited to choose a book apart from the Bible and Shakespeare, which they are given anyway, together with a luxury item. It is a simple, but effective format, and a good game to play at home with friends. It tells you quite a lot about someone!

Certainly on my shortlist of books to have on a desert island would be Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is Calvin’s most influential piece of writing. It underwent several revisions before reaching its final form. Calvin intended it for pastors to teach them about the Christian faith and to be used by them as a resource for teaching their congregations. It begins with what one Calvin scholar has described recently as Calvin’s big idea. Let me read it:

‘Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.’

What Calvin is saying and what he continues to elaborate on is that we can only know the truth about ourselves and find our place in the world when we know the truth about God. And we will only seek to know the truth about God when we know our own inadequacy and need of God. This is important. For Calvin, knowing ourselves, does not mean what it means in self-help books where we are encouraged to tell ourselves each day how great we are. Rather it is about knowing how great our need of God is.

For Calvin, it is the greatness of God that is the focus of his writing, theology, and worship. For some people, this is something that he takes too far, but even if we don’t want to go all the way with him, this is surely a message that we need to hear today more than ever. God in too much that passes for Christianity is no more than a genii in the lamp: there to serve us and to grant us what we wish for. Someone to make us feel good about ourselves and wanted. For Calvin, the truth is the other way round. Calvin believed that everything begins and ends with God and that we will only understand ourselves and the world in which we live when we come to know God.

Calvin was an admirer of another of my own favourite theologians, St Augustine, who said: ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’

We were created by God for God and can have no peace without God.

We desperately need to rediscover this truth today if our lives are to have meaning and our existence is to have purpose. Too many of us are drifting, not knowing where we came from, why we are here, or where we are going. We sense that there must be more to life than frequent visits to the mall and greater goals in life than owning the latest designer handbag or the newest gadget, but how to find what it is alludes us.

Calvin encourages us to get back to basics. To come to know the One who created us and loves us and wants us to know Him. Strangely, it is when we lose ourselves to find God that we come to know our true selves and find real meaning and purpose in life.

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