Middle Ground


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Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable that Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s cynical theologies reigned for as long as they did. Luther was a reformer, yes, but also rabidly anti-intellectual. Luther’s desire to do away with the teaching of philosophy, however, could never top Calvin’s warped worldview, which revolved around the idea of predestination. He believed that God had already selected those who would be saved. If you were good, it was not of your own doing, but because you were one of the chosen. If you were a sinner, well, there was nothing you could do about it — you were going to go to Hell no matter how much you repented or changed your ways. Calvin thought so little of mankind that he once wrote, “The best is not to be born, one should mourn and weep at births and rejoice at funerals.”

  • Unsettled Minds: Psychology and the American Search for Spiritual Assurance, 1830-1940 by Christopher G. White. University of California Press. 278 pages. $45

Calvin was embraced and allowed to run rampant. He created a theocratic state in Geneva, Switzerland in 1541 — a few years after he and his cohort were run out of town for an earlier attempt at ruling through the church — and turned the city into a nightmarish police state. Church attendance was mandatory, and repeated tardiness could result in exile or execution. Laughing, playing cards, dancing, and singing were all outlawed. Women burned at the stake. Not even Calvin’s friends and family were spared — his daughter-in-law and stepson were both executed for adultery, and he ordered the execution of former friend and scientist Michael Servetus.

While Calvin did more than just give people an excuse for crime sprees — I mean, if I’m going to spend eternity in Hell in never-ending torment, I might as well do something to deserve it. Now where is my ax? — his time in Geneva eclipses his better works. As philosopher Will Durant wrote in his history of the Reformation, “[W]e shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” It was frustration with the spread of the Calvinist version of God that ultimately forced some radical changes in the practice of Christianity, as Christopher G. White explains in his new book Unsettled Minds: Psychology and the American Search for Spiritual Assurance, 1830 – 1940.

During the era White studies, the two predominant Christian religions were Calvinist churches and passionate, evangelical revivals with their faith healings, speaking in tongues, and mystic trances. The huge middle ground between the two left a lot of believers unsatisfied. Politician and theology professor Horace Mann wrote that during his Calvinist upbringing he was taught “a certain number of souls were forever lost, and nothing — not powers, not principalities, nor man, nor Christ, nor the Holy Spirit, nay, not God himself — could save them.” If that sounds more like a lead-up to a panic attack than a comforting notion of God’s love, well, that just means it’s working. White explains, “Calvinist doctrines were intended to produce an anxious alertness, an unsettling conviction of total sinfulness. Only after achieving this state could one learn to rely entirely on God.” As for the other extreme, David Starr Jordan, perhaps best known for his defense work in the Scopes trial, commented that the revivals were “simply a form of drunkenness no more worthy of respect than the drunkenness that lies in the gutter!”

White dubs the men and women who rebelled against the extremes of Calvinism and revivals “religious liberals.” This was during the rise of new science – Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, and the birth psychology as a science was right around the corner. Men like G. Stanley Hall, William James, and Mann took their own religious experiences (or lack thereof) and began to ask questions about what was divine and what was merely superstition or a tool to manipulate followers. They turned to science in order to answer those questions.

The theory was that by studying the way people experience religion, one could find a healthier, more authentic religious practice – perhaps one that caused less fear and trembling. They wanted to discover how the divine communicated with people, what the results of that communication were, and how it could be facilitated. Hall, who had been raised in a strict religious environment, referred to their work as “draining the marshes and letting in the light.” Edwin Starbuck was the first to create a questionnaire to accrue data about people’s religious experiences. There was resistance at first, even by James, who would later rely heavily on Starbuck’s work for his own series of lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience. The academics Hall approached were afraid of turning the mystical into something measurable, of rooting out the mystery of life.

The goal was never to use science to obliterate faith. The religious liberals feared irrationality, but they were not comparable to today’s hard-line atheists. White writes, “The reduction of mind to matter destroyed freedom and moral responsibility, an intellectual move that left people in a quandary that, as even [Aldous] Huxley admitted, ‘may paralyze the energies and destroy the beauty of life.’” These religious liberals felt that a world without God and explainable merely by the cause and effect of science was just as meaningless as one in which your fate in the afterlife is predetermined and unchangeable.

They were interested in bringing about a balance between faith and science, rationality and passion. Starbuck wrote that he enjoyed the tension between these polarities, “between tenderness and toughness, between acceptance and doubt, between inner sensitivity and vigorous intellectuality.” When he was young, Starbuck had experienced a conversion of his own at a revival, only to find that he was left spiritually empty after the passion died down. The work he did on psychology and religion eventually brought him a sense of “at-home-ness in the universe,” as he called it. It was a more “mature” religion, an almost pantheistic “infusing Presence” that brought him much comfort.

Psychology was still a fledgling science at this time. There were a few dead ends, like the “science” of phrenology, but even this study influenced spiritual beliefs. While the idea of original sin — one Calvin accepted — tells us we all come into the world depraved and unworthy, phrenologist Orson Fowler wrote, “no faculty is constitutionally bad… [each] as originally constituted, is good and right, and that the legitimate exercise of any and every faculty, upon its own appropriate object, and in a proper degree, is virtuous.” Churches embraced phrenology as a way to identify and correct certain personality traits in their followers that could lead to sinfulness. Many churches had phrenology readings as part of their services. Belief in phrenology did not last long, but it made its mark on faith. Churches began incorporating James’s essays into their sermons, and the psychological well-being of their congregation became a spiritual issue. This continues today, as churches offer counseling by clergy, AA meetings, and support groups.

Once again, we live in a land of extremes. It’s sometimes hard to remember that most believers, as White puts it, “combine, harmonize, and live with ambiguity,” when the people making the most noise are yelling that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, or that God is a lie and the only truth is science. White’s book is a helpful — and delightfully written, with real warmth and wit — reminder that science and faith are not mortal enemies, but have been intermingling and cross-breeding for generations. • 31 March 2009