Geneva’s Calvin

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

How the mightily Protestant have fallen. Almost five hundred years after Geneva deposed its (absentee) bishop and declared for the Reformation, there are nearly three Catholics and two agnostics/atheists for every Protestant Genevan. This, the city of John Calvin, acclaimed by his Scottish follower John Knox as the “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles” (qtd. in Reid, 15), revered (and reviled) as the “Protestant Rome.”

Of course, a lot changes in five centuries, as well it should. No longer a fief of the House of Savoy or a satellite dependent on the military might of Bern, Geneva has become the epitome of a global city, home to more international organizations than any other place on the planet. The rich diversity of twenty-first-century Geneva is a transformation undreamt-of in the days of Calvin—and one reflected in the astonishing diversity of the reformed tradition in contemporary Christianity, whose adherents are more likely to hail from Nigeria and Indonesia, Madagascar and Mexico, than from Geneva or Lausanne.

In a sense, I came to Geneva looking for John Calvin, as a student of the Reformation and more particularly of the city Calvin remolded in his three decades as the spiritual leader of Geneva. I came to participate in a summer course offered by the Université de Genève’s Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, whose very existence owes much to the special relationship between this city and the religious transformations of the sixteenth century. I came, too, to immerse myself in Geneva’s exceptional archives—principally the Archives d’Etat de Genève (the cantonal archives) and the Bibliothèque de Genève (a public research library operated by the city government)—to understand how Calvin and the structures he created maintained the vision and the day-to-day realities of a godly city.

So my eyes were peeled for the footprints of the reformer, far more than the average visitor to this beautiful city at the far western edge of Lake Léman. And as much the intervening years have changed the city, I did not need to look too far. For Calvin remains the most iconic (how he would have hated to be called iconic!) figure of whom Geneva can boast (though he was born some four hundred miles to the north and west, in Noyon). One of the city’s most famous tourist attractions is the International Monument to the Reformation, usually known as the Reformation Wall, a massive relief that spans one side of the Parc des Bastions on the grounds of the Université de Genève. Erected in 1909—the quatercentenary of Calvin’s birth and the 350th anniversary of the university’s foundation—the centerpiece of the memorial is a larger-than-life sculpture of Calvin flanked by three of his associates: Guillaume Farel (the French reformer who convinced Calvin to stay in Geneva), Theodore Beza (Calvin’s protégé and successor as the leader of the Genevan church), and Knox. The Reformation Wall offers a curious vision of Calvin: the gaunt, dour likeness of the reformer, in Bruce Gordon’s felicitous phrase, “casts him to look like some forgotten figure of Middle Earth” (147).

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The central relief of the Reformation Wall

The Reformation Wall is the most prominent monument to Calvin in Geneva. There is a memorial in the Cimitière des Rois at a grave long thought to be his, but the true location of his remains has been unknown since his death in 1564. There is the Auditoire de Calvin, a chapel next to the cathedral where the great man taught Scripture every morning. There is the Rue Jean-Calvin, running through the very heart of the Old Town. And, in a more diffuse fashion, there is Geneva’s abiding relationship with the Reformation: the Musée International de la Réforme, the Ecumenical Centre housing groups like the World Council of Churches, and the reformed services that take place each Sunday across the city.

IMG_4212Yet what has struck me in the past month has been the extent to which Calvin’s presence in Geneva slips the bounds of Reformation Studies, the early modern period, and even the persona of the reformer himself. Thus a restaurant in the Eaux-Vives neighborhood, whose logo traces out the features of its namesake. A learned friend mooted the possibility—which I suspect have not been actualized—of a restaurant run according to Calvinist theology: “One’s choice of dish is not conditional on how good the dish actually is.” Thus, too, Calvinus, a popular local brand of lager. (The man himself was certainly fond of good wine, at least [Gordon, 147].)

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Spotted in the gift shop of the Musée International de la Réforme

But perhaps my favorite sighting of Calvin came in the gift shop of the Musée International de la Réforme. In the children’s section, in pride of place among the illustrated biographies and primers on the world’s religions, were several volumes of that sublime theological exploration, Calvin and Hobbes.

It is worth noting that Bill Waterson, the peerless thinker behind said magnum opus, chose the names of his protagonists as deliberate nods to the early modern thinkers (1995, 21–22). And in their turn scholars have taken Waterson’s pairing as a jumping-off point for analyzing early modern thought: next to one of the albums of Calvin and Hobbesin the gift shop—rather incongruous in the children’s section—was Pierre-François Moreau, Olivier Abel, and Dominique Weber’s Jean Calvin et Thomas Hobbes: Naissance de la modernité politique (Labor et Fides, 2013), one of several scholarly works to juxtapose the authors of the Institutesand Leviathan. Charmingly, the influence occasionally flows in the other direction, as another friend flagged with the delightful art of Nina Matsumoto.

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Nina MatsumotoJohn Calvin and Thomas Hobbes, used by kind permission of the artist.

Calvin is by no means unique in having his image and persona coopted by the new devotions of consumerism and mass media. Nabil Matar ended his keynote lecture, “The Protestant Reformation in Arabic Sources, 1517–1798,” at this year’s Renaissance Society of America meeting with the use of Luther’s likeness to advertise cold-cuts. Think of Caesar’s salads, King Arthur’s flour, Samuel Adams’s beer.

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Calvinus

I hasten to say that this post should not be taken as a lament for the (mythical) theological and intellectual rigor of yesteryear. I may not be thrilled that many Genevans will know Calvin first and foremost as the face on a bottle of lager, but nor would I particularly welcome a reinstatement of the kind of overwhelming public religiosity the man himself enforced on this city. Things change. Calvin’s Geneva is long gone, for better and for worse, and as a historian it is no bad thing that I can—must—look at it from without.

More to the point, the demise of Calvin the theologian is easy to exaggerate. The very fact that Calvin is used to sell beer and to brand restaurants indicates the enduring currency of his cultural profile. Furthermore, countless visitors to the Reformation Wall, to the Musée International de la Réforme, and to Geneva’s historic churches are devout members of one branch or other of the Calvinist tradition, coming to pay their respects to, and to learn something about, the place where their faith took shape. For millions of Christians across the world, John Calvin remains a towering spiritual presence, the forceful and penetrating thinker whose efforts even now structure their beliefs and practices. God isn’t quite dead, certainly not in “the most perfect school of Christ.”

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