Stained Glass, III: Why I Am a Presbyterian
in church I would rather speak five words with my mind than ten thousand words that mean nothing.
—I Corinthians 14:19
My son was predestined to attend the University of Michigan. His mother and his grandfather graduated from Michigan; at birth he came home from the hospital in a maize and blue onesie and never wore any other color scheme thereafter. It was predestined; it was inevitable.
This did not stop Kathy and me from conducting a thorough search for the right college, just in case. You know, Michigan is like the University of Illinois—50,000 students. We went to look at smaller schools.
During spring break of Michael’s junior year in high school, I took my kids on a college tour of the south; we visited the University of Richmond, Duke, Elon, Wake Forest, and Davidson. Maybe you’ll notice that every one of these fine institutions was founded by a Christian Church: a Presbyterian school, a Congregational, a Methodist, and two Baptist schools.
Of those five schools founded by churches, all but one have severed their ties with the Mother Church, and after you’ve been through several of these little college tours it becomes clear that the Admissions Department teaches the campus guides to deny, instantly and passionately, any current denominational affiliation. They trip all over themselves disowning their Baptist or Methodist founders. My kids and I made a game of betting on which school could do it the quickest and loudest.
They even poke gentle fun at their religious origins. The mascot at Wake Forest, formerly Baptist, is the ‘Demon Deacon,’ and at Duke, formerly Methodist, it is the ‘Blue Devil.’ Oh, it’s true, they’re all very proud of their chapels, often the most impressive building on campus; in fact, at Duke, no building, by charter, may be taller than the chapel spire, although I am told that the next highest spot on campus is occupied by—can you guess?—Mike Krzyzewski. God up here, Coach K next, then the President of the University.
Oh, by the way, I’m proud to say that of the five, the only school that remains proud of its denominational affiliation is Davidson, the Presbyterian school.
I think this flight from sectarian affiliation is mostly a good thing, on campus and elsewhere. Even churches are disowning their denominational affiliations. One of the largest Protestant churches in Connecticut had been the Valley Community Baptist Church near Hartford until they dropped the Baptist part of their name and began calling themselves simply the Valley Community Church. That sectarian word ‘Baptist’ discourages visitors, you see. Maybe it’s time to do away with the ugly, fractious practice of American denominationalism.
Still, let me tell you why being a Christian in a Presbyterian way and with Presbyterian style, is a good thing. Here is The Character Reason. That is to say, it’s fun and instructive to notice what kind of virtue or character emerges from a specific faith tradition after a lifetime of living in and from that tradition. After 50 years of attending Catholic mass, what kind of person do you become? After 50 years of listening to long Presbyterian sermons, what kind of person emerges from that habit? After 50 years of praying from the Book of Common Prayer, what does a specifically Episcopalian spirituality look like?
So here are some famous Presbyterians: Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson (the son of a Presbyterian preacher), Jimmy Stewart, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Mr. Rodgers (a Presbyterian minister), Ronald Reagan, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I don’t know what went wrong with that last one.
There’s also The Political Reason. I’m a Presbyterian first of all because of the Presbyterian political style of shared leadership and decision-making. The Political Reason is so important to Presbyterians that they’ve chosen to label themselves by the way we exercise our polity; we are Presbyterians; presbyter is a Greek word which means ‘elder.’ Elders are to Presbyterians what Trustees are to Kenilworth Union. Elders are so important to Presbyterians that that’s what they call themselves.
By the way, here’s a little trick to help you remember what the word ‘presbyter’ means. It is a close cousin to the word presbyopia, which means ‘old eyes’; presby—‘old’—and opia—‘eyes’. If you are too young to know what presbyopia is, you will find out shortly after your 43rd birthday when you go to church and discover that your arms are too short to read the hymns. Presbyopia keeps Walgreens in business because we all need those reading glasses we keep losing over and over.
I love the flat hierarchy: No popes, no cardinals, no bishops, no priests, just elders, just the likes of you and me. I love it that everybody in the church gets to decide who decides. I love it that if you’re an American, you instinctively understand how Presbyterians do things because Session—the Session is what Presbyterians call their governing board—the Session is just Congress writ small, and Congress is just Session transposed from the ecclesiastical to the federal key.
That’s where the founding fathers got all their ideas, you know; they watched the Presbyterians. Jefferson and Madison were Episcopalians, but the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution are crammed with Presbyterian principles. It may be a dubious gift. You have heard the pointed question “If ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con,’ what is the opposite of ‘progress?’
Do you understand that John Calvin arrived at his representational political philosophy because of his grim anthropology? That is to say, Calvin thought all human beings were pretty shabby.
None of us, he said, not even the best of us, are good enough to make decisions for the rest of us. So Calvin said, “Since none of us are good enough to make decisions for the rest of us, you share leadership in a communal system of checks and balances. If one person runs amok, as kings and popes are wont to do, there is always someone else, with equivalent authority, who says, “Not so fast, Buster!”
Calvin was convinced that many of us make better decisions together than the best of us can make alone. That’s how Calvin got from Roman bishops and French kings to Presbyterian sessions and federal congresses.
So I’m a Presbyterian because of The Political Reason. I’m also a Presbyterian because of The Intellectual Reason. That is to say, what I find among the Calvinists is this careful, unrelenting stewardship of the life of the mind. Oh, I know we can overdo it sometimes. Our thinking about God, our worship of God, our life with God can seem awfully flat and dry and boring. H. L. Mencken once observed, “The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is the massive proof that God is a bore.” You probably know what Mencken means, but still…
I love the fact that more Sundays than not the Presbyterian preacher proclaims the Gospel by arguing a rational case and supporting her convictions with a block of evidence denser than lead.
Don’t you think St. Paul was really, beneath it all, in his heart of hearts, a Presbyterian? “What should I do then?” he writes to the bickering, cantankerous Corinthian Church, where the more emotive Christians, with their vivid and dramatic spirituality of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, were looking down on and feeling holier than the quieter, more contemplative Christians among them. There were Presbyterians in that Corinthian congregation who just didn’t get all that speaking-in-tongues business.
Their fellow congregants thought these quieter, more intellectual Christians were lacking something, missing the boat, missing the Holy Spirit, but St. Paul writes, “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit, but I will sing with the mind also. In church I would rather speak five words with my mind than ten thousand words in a senseless tongue.”
A few years ago, someone wrote a book entitled How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It. Now that is a brazen book title. But this is what he means, these are the things the modern world owes to the Scots:
James Clerk Maxwell
You know how they did it? Well, some say they did it because the weather is so bad; what else you gonna do but read and study? Others said they did it because the Scots have no natural resources so you better know a lot or you’re gonna starve. But really, they did it because they’re Presbyterians.
When John Knox returned to Scotland from his little scouting visit to Calvin’s Geneva, which Knox called the most perfect school of Christianity the world has ever seen, he made education the absolute first priority in this remote corner of an offshore island so that every Presbyterian could read the Bible. Ever since, one of the poorer nations of western Europe has spent more on education than any other. I’m a Presbyterian because of this careful, thoughtful, 400-year-old stewardship of the life of the mind.
So I’m a Presbyterian because of The Character Reason and The Political Reason and The Intellectual Reason, but there’s a better and more substantial reason for being Presbyterian. Don’t worry, I’m almost finished here. There’s no way to cover this, so I’ll make it short. The best and most substantial reason to be a Presbyterian is The God Reason.
That is to say, I am enamored with Calvin’s large, grand, uncompromising, unfailing commitment to the idea of the majesty of God. Oh, I know, Calvin didn’t invent the idea of a sovereign majestic God, but Calvin was the one who trumpeted the idea with a sort of relentless, unnerving monotony. Over and over and over again, Calvin kept saying “This, it, all of it, nature and history, the Church, Rome, Geneva, the United States of America, the Taj Mahal, Kilimanjaro, the Grand Canyon, the globe, the universe, 46 billion light years across, all of it is, says Calvin, “the theater of God’s glory.”
Well, so what? What’s the point? Why is that so great? It’s because Calvin’s grand, large idea of God relativizes and trivializes every subordinate loyalty. Presbyterians give so much glory to God there’s hardly any glory left over for anybody else, and that, I think, is as it should be. Someone put it like this: “The early Calvinists feared God so much they could never fear any human being.”
Do you see how that fear and that loyalty can bequeath an invincible integrity? Do you see how folk who are committed to that concept are never for sale, are never beholden to cheap, puny earthly authorities with their own small and unworthy agendas? Calvin would just scoff at the naked jingoism Americans are wrangling over just now.
Do you think of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the Presbyterian preacher from Alton, Illinois, who started the Civil War with his abolitionist printing press?
Do you think of Abraham Lincoln with his Emancipation Proclamation, the most unpopular and distasteful mandate any politician has ever made in the history of America?
Do you think of Karl Barth sending his dangerously subversive Barmen Declaration to Hitler’s headquarters: We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church would and could acknowledge any earthly Fuhrer alongside Jesus Christ.
“What is the chief end of humankind?” asks the old catechism, and the Sunday School student answers, “The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” That’s why we’re here, that’s the point of our existence, to glorify a glorious God, and to have a blast doing it.
Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Crown, 2001).
Karl E. Meyer, “The Genius of Scotland,” The New York Times, June 15, 1997.
This is actually a rough paraphrase for clarity. The Declaration itself reads: We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.