Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns is the kind of work that leaves one’s head spinning because it manages to bring so many analytic categories and theoretical literatures into conversation with each other. But as is often the case with such ambitious and imaginative attempts at synthesis, there come some nagging particulars to address. In this case, I want to re-affirm the concerns about the status of belief that were voiced in recent posts by Danilyn Rutherford and Tanya Luhrmann. In particular, I want to extend Luhrmann’s emphasis on the importance of the Holy Spirit to consider how it affected the views about signs and agency of the Dutch Calvinists whom Keane studies.
When discussing the importance of sincerity in conversion, for example, Keane states: “real conversion requires that a speaker’s words be sincere expressions of ideas that are truly understood […]. At stake is not just the transmission of correct doctrine but also production of human subjects who are (relatively) free because they fully grasp the agency that is rightly theirs.” To a Calvinist, there was indeed more at stake in real conversion than the transmission of correct doctrine, but an important measure of sincerity was that the speaker’s conversion not be the product of the agency of human subjects. On the contrary, a sincere conversion could be performed only by the saving work of the Holy Spirit. To this end, some varieties of Calvinists developed extensive theories of signs designed to weed out apparent conversions attained by merely natural or human means. In short, human beings were free and responsible without being agents in their own conversion. If this sounds difficult to understand, Calvinists thought so too and spent lifetimes of intellectual effort trying to work out the technical subtleties and nuances that distinguished their view of Christian freedom from Catholic ideas of free will, or from the kind of individual autonomy advocated by Enlightenment liberalism or other varieties of Protestants.
To his credit, Keane is an insightful enough reader to understand this, and is careful not to impute his reading of Calvinist discourse about signs and agency to Calvinists’ own stated views about signs and agency. Thus, there are a number of statements in the text and footnotes that say something along the lines of: “Of course in some sense one defers to the agency of God.” But these concessions to ideas about human depravity, the sovereignty of God, and the saving work of the Holy Spirit are usually followed by qualifiers like “but in practice” or “however,” which reassert the connection to modern agency. Keane defends this on the grounds that he is “trying to make certain background assumptions easier to see.” This is a reasonable move, inasmuch as anthropologists should not be the passive amanuenses for historical actors, but it does bring up some tricky methodological problems for an assessment of Keane’s reconstruction of Calvinist semiotic ideology. For example, one could note that despite their critiques of institutional mediation, Calvinists in practice constructed coercive civic and ecclesiastical institutions designed to further their vision of a Godly society—just ask the residents of Calvin’s Geneva or the Puritans’ Massachusetts. But Keane decides to accept Calvinist critiques of institutions and chooses to doubt Calvinist critiques of human agency. To this end, he draws on the classical sociological theories of Weber and Troeltsch, but these theorists were working with their own background assumptions, which presumed that Protestants (as opposed to, say, Catholics) would have to have been the ones who shaped the process of historical development that bridged the gap between Christendom and secular modernity. Thus, what mattered was where Protestant agency ended up, and this made the sovereignty of God, the saving work of the Holy Spirit, and the critique of free will into vestigial ideas that were destined to disappear. But it is important to consider that the jury is still out about whether these classical sociological theories were necessarily right about the telos of secular modernity.
Furthermore, it seems to me that these assumptions are different from those guiding Keane’s own attempt to grapple with the complexity of Calvinist explanations of the relationship between words and things. Thus, Keane devotes careful attention to Calvinist views about the Lord’s Supper, in which he points to the rejection of Catholic and even Lutheran sacramentalism on the grounds that any such ritual should be regarded as merely symbolic. He then extends this insight to do a fantastic job of unpacking the semiotic ideology that Dutch missionaries used to attack idolatry and to convince the Sumbanese that their material objects and practices were symbols and metaphors. These symbols, in turn, were not innocuous, because external and counterfeit forms were the means Satan used to deceive people.
Keane’s account here is convincing, but it is important to contextualize this semiotic ideology. I could be misreading Keane here, but it struck me that he reads Calvinists’ views of the Lord’s Supper to glean how they imagined Christian truth. But I would argue that in the hands of Calvinists, this semiotic ideology would only be employed to explain other people’s false religions. The Lord’s Supper was downgraded to the status of metaphor because, like all works, it could play no instrumental role in salvation. What Catholics and idolaters shared in their formal prayers and ritual performances was an overvaluation of human agency and institutions at the expense of the sovereignty of God and the surprising work of the Holy Spirit, which could not be contained in any external institutional, material, or linguistic forms. Against empty forms and rituals, Calvinists sought the real, active, vital presence of the Spirit that animated and invigorated the human body and the social order. According to the Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper (whom Keane often cites), “It is He who dwells in the hearts of the elect; who animates every rational being; who sustains the principle of life in every creature.” To this end, the Holy Spirit worked through what can be described as a metonymic operation that stressed immediate contact and presence. To return to the question of sincerity, words about conversion that were animated by the presence of the Spirit were sincere; words that were derived from natural or human means in the absence of the Spirit were counterfeit and insincere, even if they were the exact same words (and this goes to the point made in Michael Warner’s post about the significance of speech). The Calvinists’ message to Sumbanese pagans thus would not be that religious truth is metaphorical, but that “your spirits are fake; our Spirit is real.”
In Keane’s account, however, Calvinists sound a lot like Saussurean structuralists. The practical upshot of this might be that if Protestants are actually proto-structuralists, and as such have shaped modern ideas of signs and subjectivity, then poststructuralist anthropologists can dust off their old arguments against structuralism and direct them against Christian secular modernity. To be clear, I think there is something to this in that Keane does identify a semiotic ideology that is indeed operative and influential in modernity. I also realize that I’m quibbling: insisting that the work of the Holy Spirit should be described as metonymy instead of metaphor isn’t that different from what Keane is saying and actually strengthens his arguments about purification and the suspicion of mediation. But quibbling about theological distinctions is what Calvinists do, and I think greater attention to the insistence that human beings were not agents in their own conversion helps to explain Calvinist resistance to the kind of modern semiotic ideology that Keane describes.
This is important because spiritual immediacy works differently from assenting to “ideas that are truly understood.” For example, Kuyper makes what he thinks to be an important distinction between Calvinist and Islamic critiques of mediation. According to him, Islam is the ultimate purifier and functions as the perfect opposite of paganism: “Islam isolates God from the creature, in order to avoid all commingling with the creature.” What is important here is not the accuracy of Kuyper’s claims about Islam as much as to understand that it matters to him to make a distinction between different kinds of critiques of mediation. As he explains, “[Calvinism] does not seek God in the creature, as Paganism; it does not isolate God from the creature, as Islamism; it posits no mediate communion between God and the creature, as does Romanism; but proclaims the exalted thought that, although standing in high majesty above the creature, God enters into immediate fellowship with the creature, as God the Holy Spirit. This is even the heart and kernel of the Calvinist confession of predestination.” In other words, the critique of mediation is not an end in itself, but lays the groundwork for a positive assertion of a spiritual immediacy that is real.
None of this is to say that the Dutch missionaries weren’t modern, in the sense that one of the ways of being modern is to feel disaffected and alienated in a spiritless modernity (consider, for example, the anxieties about form, sincerity, and spirit in modernist art and literature). But where I do find Keane’s account of a semiotic ideology convincing is in characterizing the opponents of Calvinist orthodoxy in the early twentieth century. In the American context, for example, Calvinist stalwarts joined other theological conservatives to fight against the vagaries of modernist and liberal theological movements. One point of contention was the willingness of some to read the Christian Gospel in terms of symbols and metaphors. As the American Calvinist J. Gresham Machen argued in 1923, “the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting ‘the essence of Christianity’.” According to Machen, modernists and liberals compromised the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel by reading the biblical text in terms of metaphors, symbols, and theological principles (not all Calvinists were literalists, of course, but many at least had some sympathy with fundamentalist anti-modernism). While I would second Warner’s commendation of Keane for not attributing to Calvinists an advocacy of a singular, modern liberal subject, Keane’s account does make it tricky to explain why they thought of modernity as literally Satanic.
Interestingly, the fundamentalist insistence on the literal and historical truth of the Gospel is often cast as a deficit of metaphor. On this point, a valuable contribution of Keane’s study of Calvinist critiques of idols and fetishes is that it advances a genealogy that tracks how it becomes self-evident in modernity that someone who fails to recognize the metaphorical quality of religious truth is missing something essential about religion. But rather than see this as an extension of a Calvinist emphasis on metaphor to a prescriptive, normative model of religiosity, we might just as well describe it as a movement in the other direction. What characterized Protestant modernists was their willingness to see Christianity as one religion among other religions. Thus, a semiotic ideology used to condemn other people’s false religions became transformed into a supposedly neutral hermeneutics of symbols, metaphors, and meanings. The insistence that everyone’s religions were alike and comparable could then be the basis for a tolerance that could serve as one of the markers of secular citizenship in a pluralistic society. I am just not convinced that most Protestants around the globe shared this semiotic ideology, especially those who persisted in calling themselves Calvinists.