This post and those that follow in this short series are of necessity longer than normal. So I will gave a spoiler alert at the beginning. If any of the following applies to you then you need not read these posts any further.
- You are happy to live inside your closed universe.
- You have no interest in any spiritual aspect of life outside your universe.
- If you are religious and you believe your church, denomination, tradition or group is the only true one.
- You do not have any nagging questions about your belief system.
- You are happy to be told what to think.
On the other hand if you have questions about any of the above – perhaps this post will be worth reading.
At the beginning of this journey then let me make clear that I speak as one who, for a long time, and perhaps even now, in a subconscious way, has lived in a closed universe. I speak as one brought up in a religious tradition that may loosely be referred to as Calvinistic Evangelical Protestantism. If that means nothing to you at this point it doesn’t matter much – but those reading from a religious tradition will understand where I am coming from. All I ask at this point is that, whether you are religious of not, you do not judge me in regard to the way I was raised – I had no control over that.
The first point I want to make is that each of us, religious or otherwise, are brought up in a tradition, although we may not call it that, and that tradition affects the way we will live, behave and believe. We are prisoners to our upbringing, good or bad, we cannot escape that. Yes, we may rebel against the way we were brought up – we may go on to believe things other than those instilled in us as children and young people – but we cannot change where we have come from. From my perspective, grappling with this issue was something of a problem. I remember as a youth, when standing up for my religious tradition, a person said to me that if I had been brought up as a Muslim I would be a Muslim and not a Christian – or if I had been brought up as a Catholic then I would be Catholic and not Protestant. I flipped his comment aside with a negative answer – but was he right? With the benefit of hindsight and perhaps a bit more objectivity I am certain he was. And this fact remains an issue for me – because it opens up the possibility that by dint of where I was born, and the family into which I was born and raised, I am what I am. That may be difficult for me to accept – but it is true nonetheless.
The impact and influence of upbringing and tradition cannot be overstated. I have observed in life, more than once, people brought up in a narrow religious tradition who have rebelled against it totally and become the opposite of all their family, friends and religious tradition had stood for. However, some, or perhaps many, years down the road, they have had an experience of the reality of God and their lives were changed as a result. Nine times out of ten guess where they return to? You guessed right! And that surprises me – but perhaps it shouldn’t. The draw of our early life tradition as well as family fold loyalty is almost irresistible.
But let me return to the relative safety of my closed universe for a moment. Although I was brought up in the tradition already referred to, my parents came from diffident denominational traditions. My mother’s heritage was Calvinistic Presbyterian and my father’s an Independent Church tradition – with a Calvinistic bent. So as a child I attended both Presbyterian and Independent churches. This fact gave me, I believe, the gift of being able to think outside the even smaller universe of some trapped, by virtue of birth and upbringing, within even narrower religious traditions. As a result, early in life, I began to explore why religious traditions, generally within the fold of Protestantism, differed from one another. At that point the Catholic tradition was far beyond my universe and the consciousness of others traditions such as Eastern Orthodoxy simply did not exist for me.
However, as I began to research and understand a little of the history of my tradition it was not long before I had serious concerns and questions about how all of it had come about. For instance early on I discovered that the Protestant/Lutheran/Calvinist tradition initially persecuted those of other religious traditions with whom they did not agree. To my consternation, I would go on to discover that Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, strongly supported the slaughter of Peasants at the time of the Peasants Revolt (1524–1525). After his death some of his friends reported Luther as boasting that he had personally commanded their deaths and took full responsibility for their slaughter stating -‘their blood be upon my head’. But perhaps the worst atrocities carried out by Luther and, later, Calvin and their followers were reserved for the independent religious groups, of various names, but which generally came under the heading of ‘Anabaptists’ (those who rejected the baptism of infants, believing in the baptism of believers only). In 1526 the ‘Christian’ authorities in Zurich ordered the drowning of Anabaptists. Others elsewhere suffered a similar fate. For instance Balthasar Hubmaier was burned at the stake in Vienna in 1528 for his views on baptism. Three days later his wife was thrown into the Danube with a stone tied around her neck. These are but two examples of multiple incidents of how the early Protestant Reformers treated those with whom they disagreed. Hundreds if not thousands died as a result of such persecution.
John Calvin, credited as the founder of Presbyterianism, and who followed in Luther’s footsteps, the hero of the ‘Reformed Faith’ (my tradition) was also in the persecution business. Nor was this against lawbreakers, but again against those with whom he disagreed theologically. It was with his consent and support that the Spanish theologian Servetus was burnt at the stake in Geneva by Calvinists in October 1553 . That Calvin had urged that Servetus be beheaded instead of being burned at the stake is of little comfort to me! His crime – a disagreement with Calvinists over the Trinity and infant baptism (again)! It remains a mystery to me that the issue of what is termed ‘believers baptism’ or a rejection of ‘infant baptism’ remains, even today, one of the only things over which a minister in the Reformed tradition, if he becomes so convicted, will get kicked unceremoniously out of his job!
So my first venture outside the closed universe of my tradition to infinity and beyond was very troubling to say the least! Some years later I recall very clearly bringing up the subject of Luther and Calvin’s behaviour with a friend who later went on to become one of the foremost Reformed Theologians in our country. He was a man who wrote many books and lectured nationally and internationally. His only response was that Luther and Calvin were but men of their generation and acted accordingly. That was his strongest and only argument against the stain of murder and conspiracy to murder which still taints the character of these men – men who were his theological heroes . The exchange with my friend troubled me greatly and still does.
The problem is that if a denomination or organisation is born out of such a belief and behaviour, which appears to me to have little to do with a God of love and grace, what will it look like when it is fully formed? The answer to that is long and tortuous – but, if you are interested, read the history of Presbyterian Calvinism in Scotland from an unbiased perspective. It is not a pretty picture and appears as remote from the simplicity and non political stance of Jesus Christ as the East is from the West. Of course this is my opinion – others may disagree. However, it is without doubt that the story is one of political and religious intrigue, fighting and infighting, bullying, abuse and murder. For instance James Sharp, Archbishop of St Andrews, was assassinated by Calvinistic Covenanters in 1679. That is not really a long time ago in the great scheme of things. And remember also that it was only in 1727 in Dornoch, here in the Highlands, that the last person in the UK was burnt to death for witchcraft. Janet Horne, an old lady with a daughter and a husband, was disabled and possibly senile when she was accused and convicted of being a witch. The final nail in her coffin was mispronouncing one word in the Lord’s Prayer when asked to repeat it!
Over time other questions regarding such matters continued to trouble me. One of these these regarded the nation of Germany, the home of Luther and Protestantism and, arguably, the most ‘Christianised’ nation of the world. But it gave birth to one of the most evil men in history. Nor was the behaviour of the majority of Christians during his reign, commendable – to say the least. Of course there were notable exceptions. Then more recently it is alleged that both Catholic and Protestant churches in Rwanda, perhaps the most Christianised nation of Africa, helped to make the genocide in that country possible by supporting the killings. This seems inconceivable – but there is strong evidence to support the claim. In 2016, the Catholic Church in Rwanda released a statement signed by nine bishops apologising for the role of its members in the genocide of 1994.
And yet – in spite of what we have said above – both in Germany and in Rwanda there were what we might call, for want of a better term, – ‘Genuine Christians’, who suffered and in some cases died in order to protect and save others – even those outside their own belief system. Of course others outside any religious tradition did likewise – that is not in question.
So I believe we see a divergence and a dichotomy. There are religious people who are Christlike in their lives and behaviour and those who are not. Indeed, some are the polar opposite – and that is the hard thing to take – especially when they use the tag ‘Christian’. And, sadly, the same spirit which approved and encouraged the assassination, execution and persecution of their opponents in the past still exists within ‘Christianity’ today. Of course it is, at least in most of the western world, tempered by the laws of the nations. However, I have no doubt, that if such was not the case, some religious people, including Protestants and Calvinists, would return, at least in a measure, to the persecution days of their founders. That may shock you – and you will say I am being over dramatic. But I have personally experienced the vitriol and hate of such men and have no doubt that if they were allowed by law I might myself have been burned at the stake! I have also had Reformed Calvinists say to me that if they were ever to gain political power they would return to the laws and punishments of the Old Testament. That is one reason I will never vote for a religious party – however remote the possibility of their ever coming to power. I accept that this view may be extreme and not mainstream within the ‘Reformed’ church of today – although there is certainly historical precedent for it.
I should say very quickly that I also have many friends who march under the banner of ‘Protestant and Calvinist’ who are men and women of grace, mercy and love – ‘Genuine Christians’ to use our previous term. You see that’s the problem. Much as we would like to, we can’t tar everyone with the same brush! Yet the question remains for me – does the past, the attitudes and behaviour of the founders of our chosen attachment or religious affiliation have any relevance or impact on us today? I know what most of my Calvinistic friends would say to a Jehovah’s Witness if they asked the same question! But to God and God alone each will give account. I stand before God with my conscience as you do with yours.
Having said all I have said, and although today I stand outside the tradition of my upbringing, am I grateful or bitter of my own heritage? I am without doubt grateful. Why, you might ask? Firstly, the negatives I have openly and honestly spoken about were, I believe, hidden from most of the common people within my tradition. Their leaders may have been aware of much of the negative history spoken about here – the people were not, at least for the most part. Secondly, I knew and admired many of the Christian people within my tradition. The were, IMHO, to use that term again – ‘Genuine Christians’, who, despite the history of their tradition showed and revealed to me in a very practical way, the love, mercy and grace of God. I also now recognise that the upbringing of my parents and their peers, within their respective traditions, had impacted their own lives and, as a result, the manner in which they brought up their children. That some of the harsher aspects of this they lived to regret I have no doubt. But I attribute no blame for that – and will be forever grateful that they encouraged me on a journey towards a God of love who I later discovered to be my constant friend, companion and refuge through the good and the bad days that life throws at us all.
To be continued ….