Thoughts on the Calvin commencement

Christianity Today has an excellent analysis of media coverage of the Bush commencement and accompanying protests at Calvin, my alma mater. Although I’ve followed this whole chain of events closely, I wanted to wait until the commencement had come and gone before commenting on it. Now that it’s over, I have two observations.
First, while I disagreed with their views, I was deeply impressed by the attitude of the protesters as evidenced by the much-publicized ad they took out in the local paper:

We, the undersigned, respect your office, and we join the college in welcoming you to our campus. Like you, we recognize the importance of religious commitment in American political life. We seek open and honest dialogue about the Christian faith and how it is best expressed in the political sphere. While recognizing God as sovereign over individuals and institutions alike, we understand that no single political position should be identified with God’s will, and we are conscious that this applies to our own views as well as those of others. At the same time we see conflicts between our understanding of what Christians are called to do and many of the policies of your administration.

This is, in my opinion, a rare thing of beauty in our world of nasty politics: an expression of both genuine respect and serious disagreement. I almost want to print out this historic document and frame it as a model for reasoned political discourse. To the crafters of this ad: I salute you, and am glad you’re a part of the Calvin community.
My second observation is a bit harsher: at least one Calvin professor’s public statements during this event were rude and inappropriate. This is Ken Pomykala, chair of Calvin’s Department of Religion, quoted in the Washington Post:

Calvin is confessionally Reformed/Presbyterian (in other words, Calvinistic — no surprise there, I guess), with a much more positive view of the intellect and participation in the broader culture than is characteristic of American evangelicalism, much of which is anti-intellectual (e.g. ‘creation science’) and escapist (e.g. the Left Behind series), not to mention morally barbaric (e.g. opposition to stem cell research; anti-gay)…. As a faculty member, I’m required to attend commencement, but I plan on reading a book during the president’s speech — probably My Pet Goat.

This is the most vicious, elitist, and insulting partisan comment to emerge from the entire affair. (While you’re at it, read Bush’s commencement address and then re-read Pomykala’s comments above, and ask yourself: who is really guilty of using the commencement event as a platform for making partisan political statements?)
I have several extremely serious questions in the wake of Pomykala’s statements. First, why is the chair of Calvin’s religion department publically voicing such open disdain for a large swath of his brothers and sisters in Christ? Wouldn’t the position of Religion department chair place upon its holder an extra responsibility to be tactful, discerning, and respectful of other beliefs, especially other Christian beliefs? Are conservative-leaning students in Mr. Pomykala’s classes taught that it is “morally barbaric” to disagree with his views on ethically difficult issues like stem cell research?
Calvin is an amazing Christian institution of learning precisely because of its strong roots in and support from the evangelical community, conservative and liberal and everything in between. It is not an excellent institution because its “enlightened” views on political and theological issues have somehow elevated it above the huddled masses of evangelical Christendom.
It is true that politics brings out the worst in people. I’m glad that those disagreeing with Bush’s presence at the commencement did so honorably and in a Christian manner. I am sorry that Calvin’s religion department is chaired by somebody who holds me and millions of other evangelicals in contempt.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Calvin commencement

  1. Ed Heil

    I can’t speak for Mr. Pomykala, but I have to say that in this day and age, in the wake of “Justice Sunday” and the Baptist pastor who kicked Kerry voters out of the church, and all that stuff, it’s not often one is called upon to feel sympathy for the plight of the political *conservative* feeling potentially excluded from Christian fellowship because of his political views.
    I mean, you’re absolutely right — his statements *were* offensive, but weren’t they an atypical reversal of a type of discourse that is considered absolutely normal when it goes in the opposite direction?
    I imagine that as a political liberal in a basically conservative college and community the professor takes a lot of flak for his “un-Christian” liberal beliefs from a lot of people, and while it would be nice if that gave him the insight to know better than to give back what he was given, well, people don’t always do their best.
    I’m guessing from his statement that he is very proud of and faithful to the Reformed tradition, and resents the pressure to conform it to general American evangelicalism on the one hand, and perhaps with other American evangelicals like Jim Wallis, resents the assumption that their faith forces them into a particular political mold.
    So he hit back. This is not a good thing, and it’s very reasonable to take offense at it, but surely it’s clear that if you hit somebody hard enough they will probably eventually weaken and hit back? And that liberal Evangelicals take a lot of shit from both sides — from secular political liberals, and religious political conservatives?
    I don’t want to gainsay, invalidate, or belittle your reaction in any way; please don’t take me as saying that. I just wanted to give it some (speculative) context that might make it seem less outrageous than it comes off as at first.

  2. jrau

    Thanks for the response. I see what you’re saying and pretty much agree with you. I can see why somebody in Pomykala’s position would react the way he did, assuming it’s an issue he feels strongly about and probably doesn’t feel comfortable voicing a lot around campus. But still, he’s the chair of the religion department–if there’s one person on campus I’d like to see maintaining a balanced and thoughtful attitude towards this all, it’d be him.
    If his words didn’t stand in such stark contrast to the thoughtful ad that so many faculty signed, I probably wouldn’t have given Pomykala’s words too much thought. Ah well, topics like this can coax even the most mild-mannered person into the occasional poorly-thought-out rant. I just wish it hadn’t been the religion chair–he should’ve known better.

  3. Ed Heil

    That’s true; I’d rather have seen the same even-handedness in his comments as in the ad…. Well, let’s remember it was reported in the media. For all we know that rant was the edited soundbite version of a mostly even-handed, well-thought-out letter. 🙂

  4. bcp

    At first I was confused when reading your post, as I did not remember being nearly as impressed with the ad, though the snippet you provide does show the respectful and mature political discourse you are describing. After digging up the ads in the paper, I realized the source of my confusion: I was remembering the ad taken out by “alumni, students, faculty and friends of Calvin,” whereas you were referring to the ad placed solely by “Concerned faculty, staff and emeriti.”
    There were 2 different ads that ran (one on Friday and one on Saturday), and after reading them both once again, the contrast between the two is stark. While I disagree with the views expressed by the faculty and staff, I respect the wording and tone of their ad. My views of the ad placed by the alumni and students, however, are fairly well summed up by portions of this editorial by Chuck Colson.
    I simply wanted to point out there were 2 different ads, as much of the coverage of them has lumped them together (and I had obviously done so in my memory.) Thanks for pointing that out.
    A “morally barbaric” Calvin alum,

  5. Brit

    I had to shiver a bit when I read the title of Chuck Colson’s article: “Honoring those in authority” and again at this quote, “John Calvin, the great reformer for whom this once proud school was named, said, “The first duty of subjects towards their rulers is to entertain the most honorable views of their office, recognizing it as a delegated jurisdiction from God.” People in office should be held in “esteem and veneration,” and he added that we are to “bear patiently their failures.””
    John Calvin sounds like he’s promoting the divine right of kings here (ug!). (In case anyone venerates John Calvin too much, they should look up his comments on Copernicus: “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”) I also had to wonder, “Would religious conservatives be promoting such an pro-authority view if they didn’t like the current authority, or is a case of insult the liberal with some objective-sounding principle because of the real-world ramifications?”
    It also reminded me of one of the observations that came out of the “Stanford Prison Experiment”. One of the things they noted was the fact that the more religious someone was, the more willing they were to follow the orders of authority figures, even in cases where it was morally questionable (ug!). I’ve never been a big fan of “respecting authority figures”. In fact, I can and do stand up to authority when they are wrong. I would, instead, argue against this whole “respect authority” idea, and instead, promote the idea of “respect other people and other ideas with some degree of dignity”.
    That said, I thought the religion professor’s comments were pretty poor.

  6. Brit

    BTW, just to clarify, my comment about the Stanford Prison Experiment wasn’t to say “what Bush is doing is immoral, yet the religious are following him”, it was more a comment on the general attitude that somehow found its way into religious culture which says, “Respect authority and do what it says to do”; a kind of “yes men” culture which is more common among the religious than the non-religious.

  7. RHB

    Rich here. I am BCP’s father-in-law, and have been following this discussion with interest. Having just done a couple of lessons on science and faith for our adult church school, the quote in Brit’s post that has Calvin criticizing Copernicus caught my eye. Just for the record, the veracity of this quote is doubtful. It was made famous by Andrew Dickson White in his book “History of the Warfare of Science with Theology.” White, the first president of Cornell University, claims Calvin uttered these words in his commentary on Genesis. In fact, Calvin made no such statement in his Genesis commentary, and as far as I know, no one has been able find where Calvin said this. Brit, if you have a source for this quote I’d be interested.

  8. jrau

    Wow, thanks for the comments, everybody.
    BCP, I’m based my opinion on the ad on what I was able to find in media reports about the ad and the protests. I don’t actually get the local paper in which the ad(s) appeared. Thanks for the clarification, and I’m sorry to hear that the other ad was incredibly poor.
    Brit, interesting comments, but I’m too worn out from our Ohio trip to dive into them 🙂 Maybe in a future post…
    Rich, thanks for the Calvin clarification! Very interesting stuff.

  9. Bill

    Not being an alum or in any way associated with the college, I have no particular love for Calvin College, but I can’t say I was overly offended by the protests. At least not any more offended than I usually am with protesters who are in opposition of my particular viewpoints. But I don’t think you are disrespectful of the President’s office or authority if you express dissent. Obviously, dissent can be expressed in disrespectful ways, but dissent itself should never be seen as disrespect per se.
    I think protesters have a legitimate point when they say that a particular political position cannot be said to be God’s position. I heartily agree. But it often seems that these same people will go right ahead and tell you what positions would be God’s positions. On issues like the poor and disadvantaged, I think that it is legitimate to make the argument (although I’d argue that the care of the poor is the Church’s business, not to be delegated to the state). I think on issues like the war in Iraq and the environment that is quite a bit more tenuous to assert what God’s positions would be. I also would take issue with whether the President has ever made a claim to make all his decisions by divine directive and no other factors.
    So my critique is more of the logical consistency of some such protests. However, I think the first quote jrau cited was right on. No political agenda will be 100% Godly and as Christians we need to wrestle with these questions. I’ll never support a political candidate because he’s “God’s guy”.
    Final historical note: I’ve seen the quote reference by Brit attributed to John Calvin many, many times. However, no one has ever been able to cite to a primary source from Calvin to support this claim. The quote has simply been passed from one secondary source to another dating back to its first (and likewise uncited)appearance in a 19th century biography of Calvin by Frederick William Farrar.
    While Calvin makes statements in his commentaries on Psalms and Joshua that can (and should) be read as supporting geocentricity, I don’t think it is legitimate to read these as anti-Copernican statements. It’s far more likely that these are simply illustrations of the pre-Copernican view of the universe held by most at that time.

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