Surprised by Calvin
Arnold D. Froese, Sterling College


Many Christians hold dualistic views of reality, separating the natural from the spiritual. The implications of these views are not easily or frequently considered because such dualistic thinking has become so habitual. Direct discussions of this philosophical issue are difficult because even in academic circles, people have limited exposure to the competing camps. After colleagues in a discussion group requested that we cease discussing the dualist question because they didn't understand it, I decided to try to write a paper that would create understanding of the dilemmas inherent in dualistic thinking without using the philosophical jargon. I found in Carlos Castaneda an expression of dualistic thinking that was structurally similar to that of Calvin. Because Castaneda's views of reality would be easily rejected by Christians, illustrating the structural similarities between Castaneda and Calvin could stimulate serious reflection about dualistic thinking in Christianity.

I approach this issue from the perspective of an experimental psychologist. I have been heavily influenced by the writings of C. Lloyd Morgan, the British comparative psychologist known best for his "canon" which is an application of Occum's razor to explanations invoking mental attributes in animals. I consider his most important influence to be his lifelong commitment to working out the difficulties between his belief in divine providence and his astute biological understanding. I have used Morgan's ideas to develop a unifying theme for the General Psychology course I teach at a Christian college.

This paper asks how we understand reality and what means are available for that understanding. If approached dualistically, science and theology present competing tracks for understanding reality. I show that we easily reject this structural duality when we see it in systems to which we are not wedded (Castaneda) and that we should be able to apply the same structural critiques to dualistic Christian thinking. Readers will be challenged to reconsider the underlying assumptions of dualism in Christian thought. The result should be greater openness to critical assessment of the "assurance" we receive from faith, permitting us to more honestly use reason as we examine the evidence we receive through our senses and integrate it with our faith commitments.

Surprised by Calvin

The poem's title, "Chicken Guts," (Janzen, 1995) elicited memories of my early commitment to simpler lifestyles. My children had learned some anatomy as together we eviscerated rabbits and chickens for our freezer. As I began to read, I was prepared for more of those earthy memories. The poetic images merged with my memories and I chuckled at the poet's cleverness. Halfway through, though, she denies that the poem is about grizzly details of the butcher's work and surprisingly lifts our spirits as she shifts to the power of those guts, transplanted into stringed instruments, to touch our emotions.

The reflective intersection of memories with our new experiences was described clearly by C. Lloyd Morgan (1930), a British comparative psychologist. Our reflective work at this intersection produces surprise when these memories are disconfirmed, or when we find new connections, particularly, as in the "Chicken Guts" example, when the connections occur between unusual events or ideas. We can not avoid such surprises as we reflect on what is for us new territory.

A group of faculty members at my college experienced such surprises as we read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Our common connection to Calvin was that we taught at a Presbyterian college; otherwise, our divergent backgrounds created the context for varied surprises. Several of my surprises illustrate these principles of a challenge to prior expectations and new connections among disparate ideas.

The First Example

My expectations about Calvin's notions of "keeping the Sabbath" arose from several events connected to Presbyterians. I worked on the college's Student Affairs Committee and one issue about which we struggled was scheduling student activities on Sundays. The committee explored previous college policies and even looked in the Presbyterian Church's Book of Order (Office of the General Assembly, 1993) to ultimately conclude that activities, at least during regular church worship times, should not be scheduled. Another incident supported this expectation. A cousin once interviewed a Reformed Presbyterian farmer about his business and Christianity. My cousin said that in this person's thinking, keeping the Sabbath was one of the true marks of a Christian. Here a conservative Presbyterian stated a position that I judged would be close to Calvin's.

My doubly confirmed expectations were challenged as I read Calvin's explication of the commandments. A general interpretive principle he employs is that the deeper meaning of each commandment involves knowing the principle behind the behavioral requirement and living inwardly by that principle. The underlying truth of the fourth commandment is to lay aside our work so that God may work in us. The Jews had made the Sabbath a ritual, a superstitious day, so that the day became the object of their activities instead of the principle it was to convey. Thus, Calvin says, we do not keep the Sabbath to demonstrate that we have thrown off superstition. However, if we substitute another day for the Sabbath and treat it the same way, we perpetuate the same superstition. Calvin encourages Christians to meet regularly for worship, but argues there is nothing holy about any day. My surprise was at this shift in focus from days to meanings which Calvin clearly articulated, though many may have lost in the subsequent 400 years.

The Second Example

I developed another expectation about Calvin related to my work in the behavioral sciences. Elizabeth Packard, the wife on a 19th century Presbyterian minister, was committed to an "insane asylum" by her husband. Ms. Packard spent three years documenting her experiences and on release spent much energy campaigning for reform of state laws for commitment. Ms. Packard (1973) describes some of the tension she caused in her husband's church as she challenged "orthodox Presbyterianism." In a Bible class, she argued against the prevailing notion that God materially blesses those whom he elects. When others objected, she suggested that, when they completed their harvest, they bring the receipts to church so that all could judge their moral character. The sociologist, Max Weber, made this notion of material blessing a central part of his analysis of the rise of capitalism. While I have not read Weber's original works, I developed the impression that Calvin must have established this connection between election and material blessing. My surprise was that Calvin repeatedly denies that material blessings follow election. Consider this statement:

or this one:

That I am now curious about Weber's use of Calvin and the source of his argument should come as no surprise.

The Third Example

People generally develop habitually comfortable patterns of social interaction. At our small college, we have an amicable group of colleagues and decent relationships with administrators. We have ways of being publicly discrete about disagreements: We speak civilly, we loathe direct confrontation and we restrain our criticisms until we are in more private quarters. We even come to think that these ways of interacting are the "right" ways, so that when colleagues overstep the boundaries, we shun them. Calvin is no model of such civility. His language is vitriolic. He calls people names, including less than desirable animals ("venomous dogs", "rude" and "ignorant asses", "wriggling" and "viperous snakes"), less than desirable objects ("blockheads", "slime", and "dung"), from less than desirable schools or philosophical positions ("pestilent" and "deluded Sophists," "stupid Sorbonnists"). He belittles their positions ("half-papists," "priestlings", "big boys," "little men") and describes their activities in harshest terms (they "yelp," "belch forth," "babble," "snarl," "carp," "wantonly infect," "hawk," and "pollute doctrine"). There is more, but you have here a small sampling of at least the English translations of Calvin's strong descriptors.

The Fourth Example

We live in an advertiser's world. We see claims that cannot be what they appear to be (remember the Publisher's Clearinghouse envelope)? We are duly skeptical of the disingenuous techniques of some ruthless operators. We even know that "bait and switch" techniques are illegal and we trust we have some protection from the advertisement that promises one thing to attract us, but sells us something else for greater profit for the proprietor. I found in Calvin a description of God using bait and switch. Please understand, I am not accusing God of deceptive strategies. However, at times Calvin presents God in this way.

Calvin begins the truth-in-advertising issue with an adamant claim that humans are totally depraved. There is no good in us except what God accomplishes. Thus, we have nothing about which to boast. Judged by merit, none are worthy of anything but condemnation. Why then, asks Calvin, does Scripture teach about rewards for good works? In a section with the heading, "The purpose of the promise of reward," Calvin answers his question in this way.

Therefore, let us not consider that the Holy Spirit approves the worthiness of our works by this sort of promise, as if they merited such a reward. For Scripture leaves us no reason to be exalted in God's sight. Rather, its whole end is to restrain our pride, to humble us, cast us down, and utterly crush us. But our weakness, which would immediately collapse and fall if it did not sustain itself by this expectation and allay its own weariness by this comfort, is relieved in this way. (p. 824)

Thus, rewards lure us in, since we are not strong enough for the medicine without the "false" promise. Once again, Calvin surprises me with his reasoning, though he admittedly claims that God will do what God will do and we are simply too limited to be able to make any judgment about God's action.

These examples illustrate that expectations derived from "common" knowledge of historic figures are subject to much error. We experience surprise as we encounter those historic figures in their original writings and find that the common knowledge was at least incomplete.

The Big Issue

Background Expectations

I come from a fundamentalist background. During my college years I found the discrepancies between what I was learning and what I had been taught at home and at church intolerable. I rejected my earlier "faith" and became an inwardly rebellious cynic. Toward the end of my graduate training, I met a person who challenged me to rethink a faith commitment that might allow consistency with what I was learning. I re-established my faith commitment and was pleased to think about and openly discuss issues of faith and learning with a group of similarly-minded graduate students in a small Sunday School class. When I interviewed for my present position, I asked whether the college was open to considering issues which had arisen from my scientific understanding and was assured by the faculty dean that, as I expected from my minimal exposure to things Presbyterian, such issues were legitimate for teaching and discussion. Since then, I have continued to develop expectations about how Presbyterians view intellectual inquiry and higher education. The Presbyterian Church (USA) supports many colleges/universities, some even though no specific Christian identities are evident in mission statements or faculty personal commitments. This openness and eagerness for education reflects the phrase which, in my mind, has come to characterize a major theme of attempts to integrate disciplinary knowledge and faith commitments"All truth is God's truth". I thus came to expect that Presbyterians were open to all issues in academics.

A colleague in the Religion/Philosophy Department has presented talks on the reformed tradition and other related issues over the years, and the message that came through was the same message that he posted on his door in the form of a cartoon. One character says to another something like, "Just when I finally figured out the answer, they changed the question!" This colleague modeled for the entire faculty how much the reformed tradition embraced reason and scholarship. His encouragement to probe, to question everything, and to reason even with the toughest questions confirmed my expectations of the Presbyterian commitment to using our minds, exploring all issues, and giving a reason for the faith that we hold. Anselm's phrase, "faith seeks understanding" further characterized my image of a Presbyterian approach to intellect.

My expectations about Calvin thus centered upon this love of reason for which he must have established a clear base. Our group read Leith's Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (1981) before we read the Institutes. This reading further confirmed our expectations as we learned about Calvin's commitment to education, scholarship, and expression in the arts and sciences.


Calvin indeed presents strong supportive statements for scholarly pursuits. Regarding knowledge required for social organization, Calvin says, in spite of human mental frailty, "Yet the fact remains that some seed of political order has been implanted in all men. And this is ample proof that in the arrangement of this life no man is without the light of reason." (p. 273) Regarding the arts, he states, "sculpture and painting are gifts of God"(p. 112); furthermore,

He includes science thus: "If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God" (pp. 273-274). And later,

Calvin affirms the lawful order of nature in several sections about Christ. Calvin criticizes those who claim that Christ's nature was not human. Some held that the "seed" for new life comes from man only. Since Christ did not obtain his seed from a human father, they argued, he had only a divine nature. Calvin taunts such thinkers, saying "thus they overturn the principles of nature" (p. 479). In a discussion of Christ's body as represented by the bread in the Lord's Supper, Calvin inveighs against literal interpretations of Christ's words of institution: "This is my body". "But these trenchermen think no power of God exists, unless the whole order of nature be overturned by a monster fabricated in their own brains" (p. 1392).


So far, you say, there is no surprise. Calvin's statements confirm the expectation of high regard for scholarship and reason. But even more frequently than the kinds of statements quoted above, I found statements of a very different kind. Calvin admonishes his readers to close their minds, to confine their inquisitiveness, and to restrain curiosity. For example, after describing the trinity, Calvin says, "I trust that the whole sum of this doctrine has been faithfully explained, if my readers will impose a limit upon their curiosity . . ." (p. 159), for "let it be remembered that men's minds, when they indulge their curiosity, enter into a labyrinth" (p. 146). He even pokes fun at the limitations of human attempts to understand the trinity in comments like the following:

Calvin's mind-closing message emerges for other issues as well. I recall a faculty colleague inquiring from a faculty candidate how she explained the process of atonement. Calvin faced similar questions and responded, "it is not lawful to inquire further" (p. 469) and "all those who propose to inquire or seek to know more about Christ than God ordained by his secret decree are breaking out in impious boldness to fashion some new sort of Christ" (p. 469). On questions of the human condition--sinfulness, election, and the intermediate state of the body after death, Calvin provides the following warnings: "For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself" (p. 923). He further suggests that we restrain "inordinate curiosity" (p. 254) for "it is foolish and rash to inquire concerning unknown matters more deeply than God permits us to know" (p. 997). In perhaps his strongest warning on the issue of the human condition, he admonishes, "let us willingly refrain from inquiring into a kind of knowledge, the ardent desire for which is both foolish and dangerous, nay, even deadly" (p. 923). When confronted with questions about God's will regarding election, Calvin's comments are not unlike those of some of my students. He suggests that pious people can stop these thoughts "by the one consideration that it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God's will" (p. 949).

The above examples all revolve around theological issues. Calvin's restraints are not all thus constrained. He warns us to restrict our speculations and inquiries about the limits of time and space (cosmology): "Therefore let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go astray" (p. 161). He illustrates his concern and the lesson he is giving with the following statement attributed to Augustine. "When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious" (p. 160).

Where is integration of faith and learning in such statements? Where is the powerful acceptance of the fruits of rationality that we cling to when we utter that "all truth is God's truth"? Where is the seeking in the statement, "faith seeks understanding" if we are to restrain our inquiry about God, about Christ, and about the human condition? My surpriseand confusionincreased as I repeatedly found such contradictory elements in Calvin's bold words and style. Calvin was brilliant. He must not have seen these positions as contradictions. But how was this possible? I found a key in Calvin and that key corresponded with another book I read this summer.

Parallel Journeys Tripping

My Senior Seminar students select a book to read together during the spring semester each year. Several times, classes have chosen Marvin Harris's (1974) book, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, an anthropologist's speculations on the causes of what we call "bizarre" lifestyles. Harris criticizes Carlos Castaneda as a contemporary prophet of lifestyles as mysterious. Having read the criticisms several times, and seeing a collection of Castaneda's books (Castaneda, 1995) in a Quality Paperback monthly listing, I decided to read the "misguided prophet." Castaneda describes his slow process of learning to be a sorcerer from his mentor, don Juan, a Yaqui Indian from a group that sought hallucinogenic experiences through plants. Castaneda begins his lessons with mescalito, peyote buttons, and devil's weed guided by don Juan, though don Juan suggests that these products are only temporary aids that won't be needed when Castaneda learns to "see." Castaneda experiences the visions, the feelings of transport, floating, and separation from his own body, as expected, while don Juan interprets. Castaneda's "seeing" develops as he comes to recognize these hallucinatory-like events as part of normal reality and his notions of the nature of reality are shattered. Castaneda says, "I had begun to lose the certainty, which all of us have, that the reality of everyday life is something we can take for granted" (p. 208). At one point, don Juan has Castaneda watch a leaf fall from a tall tree. Castaneda experiences one leaf fall, then another and another, soon "seeing" that the same leaf is falling over and over again. Castaneda tells don Juan, "according to my reason that was impossible" (p. 505) and don Juan responds, "You're chained to your reason" (p. 505). Reason only works for part of reality.

Castaneda later learns that there are two parts to every person. The tonal includes what we would call all material substance. Reason works in this part. The other part, the nagual, cannot be bound by reason. It must be experiencedfelt. Thus, when Castaneda "experiences" a friend, don Genaro, leaping instantaneously 100 feet into a tall tree and walking horizontally up its trunkall without benefit of hallucinogensit is his nagual that experiences these feats and for them there is no explanation. Castaneda asks don Juan how one moves from one part to the other.

Castaneda learns about two worlds and we shake our heads as we read. "Flashbacks," we suggest, from those earlier experiences with fungus, smoke and unguents. You now understand Harris's (1974) critique. He looks for explanations for the bizarre in the common events of a group of people. Like us, he finds them readily, though at times we suspect that these explanations remain "armchair speculations." But Harris makes a further leap that brings us back to Calvin, for he applies the same critical and material analysis to Christ, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace in a Jewish world occupied and oppressed by the Romans. Now, my purpose is not to evaluate the validity of Harris's argument. Rather, I wish to address whether Calvin is more like Harris or like don Juan. Does Calvin apply the same principles for knowing to all parts of realitylike Harrisor does he change the rules for knowing for different aspects of realitylike don Juan?

Calvin's Reality

Calvin clearly distinguishes spiritual things from physical as we see here: "The Spirit is so contrasted with flesh that no intermediate thing is left. Accordingly, whatever is not spiritual in man is by this reckoning called 'carnal'" (p. 289). Later he reiterates with emphasis that "flesh must therefore be flesh; spirit, spiriteach thing in the state and condition wherein God created it" (p. 1391). Regarding truth derived from human investigation and reason, Calvin invites it as all from the "Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth" (p. 273). A footnote explains that "his view is of one God-given truth manifested on two levels, one of which is of value for temporal and mundane concerns only" (p. 274).

How does Calvin say we arrive at knowledge for these two levels? He begins by describing two kinds of understanding: "This, then, is the distinction: that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly" (p. 272). Calvin calls earthly things inferior, and we arrive at these inferior things through perception and reason, the work of the brain. In contrast, heavenly things are specifically not known by reason. In one section, Calvin responds to critics who accuse him of relying on reason to interpret the Lord's Supper in these strong words:

The doctrine to which he refers above is about the nature of faith:

Calvin finishes the same section with these words: "From this we conclude that the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension" (p. 560). This faith is assent "more of the heart than of the brain, and more of the disposition than of the understanding" (p. 552). When things don't fit together, Calvin recommends

In these passages and many others Calvin clarifies that the rules for knowing earthly and heavenly things change dramatically. Sense and reason are for earthly things. Heavenly things are known through faith, through the Holy Spirit, and are experienced as assurance, as feeling and as assent. We thus come back to whether Calvin is similar to Harris or to don Juan. The answer must be clear by now. For Harris, the rules do not change; for Calvin and don Juan they do, placing Calvin and don Juan in the same camp regarding the nature of reality and our knowledge of it.

Strange Bedfellows

Am I making something out of nothing here? Can Calvin really share a similarity with Castaneda's mentor, though don Juan proclaims himself some kind of sorcerer? Consider the parallels between their statements:

"Seeing" for don Juan has little to do with vision. "Seeing" allows one to experience the nagualwhat is happening beyond sense experience. Don Juan drew a diagram in the ashes of a fire for Carlos Castaneda.

Calvin likewise encourages us to rise beyond sense experience, for

Thus, both Calvin and don Juan hold that reality transcends sense experience, that sense perception and reason give us some, though incomplete and distorted knowledge, that the transcendent is only known through will, assent, and feeling, and that the transcendent is higher than the temporal. Our scientific anthropologist, Marvin Harris, would take exception equally with both for promulgating inscrutable mystery.

Problems For Us

These similarities engender dilemmas for us. Most of us live in Marvin Harris's world. We watch a magician and are mystified, yet know that the mystery is an illusionthat the reality is something less, not something more than the experience. We reject the surreal mystical perceptions and non-explanations of don Juan. Our dilemma is that we then unquestioningly accept the same kind of world as presented by John Calvin. From Calvin, what we know is more than what our senses and reason convey to us. From Calvin, the mind traps us as it reasons its way to understanding. From Calvin, reality is something much greater than empirical knowledgea knowledge that is lower, inferior, temporal, mundane. Our dilemma is the contradiction in criteria for what we accept and what we reject.

Are we uncomfortable with the world presented by don Juan, with the means he uses to attain understanding of that world, or with the words he uses to describe that world? If it is the world itself, then we should be equally uncomfortable with the world presented by John Calvin. If it is the means for understanding, for both Calvin and don Juan, the essence of the means is accepting and experiencing a presented system beyond the rational. If the word differences create our discomfort, we must realize that "earthly" for Calvin bears the same meaning as "tonal" for don Juan, and "heavenly" corresponds with "nagual." How then can we resolve this dilemma?

There is yet another dilemma. At some Christian colleges, we accept as part of our academic work the task of integrating our faith with our understanding. Integration suggests bringing things togetherdiscovering how a set of systems can correspond. We search for consistency between what we "know" regarding our disciplines and what we "know" regarding our faith. Yet, for both Calvin and don Juan, integration is an erroneous task as it employs reason as its basic tool. For both men, reason deludes, because it only works within one of two aspects of reality. If the rules for knowing truly change across the boundary of these two realities, then the most we can hope for is a description of the parameters of two separate systems, not an integration of faith and learning. How will we then bill our academic task as a Christian college in a competitive market?


I do not accept don Juan's "vision" of reality. Carlos Castaneda learns to put aside reason and reliance on the senses. I believe Castaneda is deluded, tricked, maybe even by his own reason, to accept as real what is a product of his own imagination. I accept neither don Juan's teaching about the nature of reality, nor his methods for understanding that reality. I definitely am not what don Juan would call a "warrior."

Then what do I say about the same kind of reality and the same kinds of methods presented by John Calvin? I do not doubt that our understanding is and will continue to be limited. There is too much out there (object) and too much in here (subject) to hope to obtain complete understanding. Yet I believe that there is consistency and compatibility of the rules for knowing across the whole span of reality. And I believe that reason and sense experience, though easily succumbing to error, are the only means we have of understanding what is there to understand. Thus, the universe I conceive out there looks different from the universe presented by Calvin and Castaneda. It is a universe that still cries for integration as various methods and outcomes appear disparate. It is a universe full of objective and subjective aspects, of sense and feeling, capable of lulling us pitifully into unreflected boredom or of moving us powerfully from our complacency.

I am deeply moved by some Christian songs. The feelings inside me are inexpressible and they, at times, prevent me from the singing I so much enjoy. Calvin and Castaneda invite me to abandon myself to those feelings (Calvin with more reserve than Castaneda!)to allow the power of the feeling to provide the assurance of a reality that cannot be otherwise known. Yet, I have learned about classically conditioned emotional responses. I can predict the conditions that will arouse the feelings. I can explain the origin of the feelings even as I at times recognize my overt rejection of the old images the words used to represent.

A quartet sang "Children of the Heavenly Father" at my 7-year-old nephew's funeral. Twelve years later, I still can not sing those words as the music transports me to the pain, shock, and resulting family unity of that old event. I know why, and I want to know more about the conditions surrounding this phenomenon. Yet I continue to experience the feeling, maybe with even greater force because I know.

August 6, 1995, the 50th anniversary of dropping the first nuclear weapon on a war-time target, I went to church to worship. I had been immersed in Calvin and Castaneda for about two months. I had also heard and read debates about whether we should have dropped the bomb. Our closing hymn was, "I Surrender All." Do you wonder why the warning bells sounded in my mind, beginning with my first glimpse of the title? A good friend and colleague had pointed out several times that the demand for unconditional surrender from Japan was an abdication of moral responsibility.

"Let me feel thy Holy Spirit"and I wondered which reality the writer intended for me to experience. Could I explain an alternate perspective to that writerto other worshippers in the room?

"Truly know that thou are mine"and I wondered which rules for knowing the words implied to the writer, other worshippers and meCalvin's and Castaneda's "higher" rules for the reality beyond experience and reason? For me, these ethereal mysteries are still subject to examination by reason, which flounders at the abyss, but provides its own internal checks. I retain my goal of integration. I continue to seek an answer for the faith that lies within me. To this, and to the God I affirm undergirding it, "I surrender all."


Castaneda, C. (1995). The teachings of don Juan; A separate reality; Tales of power. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.

Harris, M. (1989). Cows, pigs, wars, and witches. New York: Vintage Books.

Janzen, J. (1995). Snake in the parsonage. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Leith, J. H. (1977). Introduction to the reformed tradition. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

McNeill, J. T. (Ed.). (1960). Calvin: Institutes of the Christain religion. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Morgan, C. L. (1930). Mind at the crossways. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Office of the General Assembly. (1993). The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) Part II: Book of order. Louisville, KY: Author.

Packard, E. P. W. (1973). Modern persecution or insane asylums unveiled. New York: Arno Press.