Neocalvinism . . . Yes, but . . .

Formerly an anabaptist, in neocalvinism Janel Curry has found an intellectual framework that allows her to negotiate between the pitfalls of both Enlightenment modernism and postmodernism, and find a cohesive solution to the problems posed by both in her discipline. But . . . while positioning herself as a scholar operating from the neocalvinist tradition, Curry offers a warning and issues a challenge to 21st-century neocalvinists.

Appears in Summer 2006 Issue: Reading the Bible
June 1 st 2006

Recently, I was struck by how far I have drifted from my Baptist and anabaptist roots in terms of the intellectual framework that I use to understand the world. The neocalvinist intellectual framework has so influenced my intellectual journey that I cannot remember how to view reality without this tradition's tools of analysis.

I am a geographer in the human-land tradition of the discipline. I study the relationship between society and the "land," or environment. The main focus of my research has been to understand worldviews and natural resource policy—connections between land use and worldviews among Iowa farmers, comparisons between U.S. and Canadian societal paradigms and forest policies, analysis of swine production systems through a relational worldview, and views on the nature-culture boundary in constructing ocean management policies in New Zealand.

The questions that have driven these research interests have included:

  • What is the nature of the connection between people and land?
  • What does it mean to truly "know" a piece of the earth?
  • How do society and government policy either enhance that connection and "knowing" or inhibit it?
  • How does the Christian faith speak to these issues?

The neocalvinist tradition has given me a theological home and a community of colleagues to help me in my thinking on the relationships among God, humans, and the earth. The key challenge in my faith and intellectual journey remains the full development of an understanding of humans as placed simultaneously within societal structures and within nature, in a way that does not negate the uniqueness of humans, created in the image of God, nor denigrates the value of God's good earth. The challenge is the full integration of humans, society, and the earth into the vision of shalom that God intends.

More than twenty years ago, as I was writing my dissertation, I began to ask questions about the assumptions underlying natural resource policy in the United States. Policy always seemed structured within a set of assumptions related to views of the person—people as autonomous individuals and society as the sum of these individuals. This assumption structured our imaginations in terms of the solutions we could pose to natural resource management problems. The neocalvinist intellectual tradition was crucial in helping me understand the source of these assumptions and develop my ability as a Christian intellectual to build an alternative, more biblically-informed view of personhood. It helped me "think outside the box" in terms of imagining all possible worlds. For example, our agricultural production choices are not as neutral as they appear, but rather are grounded in particular views of human nature. The dominant viewpoint on which industrial agricultural production is based is that humans are fundamentally autonomous individuals. This assumed notion of personhood restricts notions of justice to questions of regulating actions among self-defining individuals. The result is that individuals, each pursuing their own interests, especially their own economic interests, evaluate public institutions by how well they facilitate or contribute to their own advancement.

Governing resources and relationships

Within this framework of human nature, based on individual autonomy, variables such as community attachment, community vitality and richness, and environmental "fit" cannot be incorporated into policy. A neocalvinist critique of this Enlightenment view of the person, and a neocalvinist emphasis on the covenantal nature of reality, opens up the possibilities for how we could construct agricultural policy. It asks us to start with the assumption that humans are fundamentally relational. Any system must be economically viable, but this is not the only acceptable characteristic. A system must also be chosen based on whether or not it enhances the relational aspect of reality. This would allow for questions of community health, ecological fit, generational sustainability and stability, attachment, and connection to become issues of public policy. In such a system, government's role would be the promotion of healthy relations among people, and between people and nature rather than as merely the neutral distributor of resources. Research and policy could include the question of which farm systems and structures promote healthy relations and which do not.

This relational reality, articulated in the neocalvinist tradition, finds expression not just in human relations, but also in the relationship between humans and land. This relationship has been particularly difficult to articulate for many Christian traditions which tend to assume a dualistic view of humans where individuals have both a body, which belongs to the "natural," and a soul which is spiritual. The clear identification and critique of this dualism has meant that the neocalvinist intellectual tradition has helped me to address a major intellectual question of our times: how to conceive of nature and culture as a whole. Yet our reductionistic, Western tradition, and most Christian traditions, hardly have the language or concepts to conceive of these. The neocalvinist lenses emphasize the creation, and put forth a framework that views creation in relationship to human society. Both are creations of God and dependent on God alone for their existence. Hence, no matter how hard scientists try to isolate aspects of reality, all of them continue to display unbreakable connections to all the others.

The resurgence of "place"

A neocalvinist lense has also been helpful in understanding the major questions facing my discipline. Like all others, the discipline of geography is situated within the context of the general worldviews that have dominated historic eras. Presently, it sits between an Enlightenment-positivist worldview, grounded in a search for universal laws—and one increasingly dominated by postmodern thought and its emphasis on context and locale. The former emphasizes regional or global analysis of large-scale trends. Scholars with this perspective tend to use quantification in order to find generalizations that apply across space which can simplify human experiences in order to isolate those aspects deemed most essential.

In contrast, the emphasis on context is especially evident in the resurgence of interest in "place" within geography and other disciplines as well. Those who emphasize "place" have focused on uniqueness and understanding that go beyond those explored by a narrowly defined scientific method.

A neocalvinist framework has shown an alternative to the polarization of the universalizing orientation of positivism, and the relativizing and localized perspective of postmodernism. Neocalvinist philosophy has been no less critical of the fundamental notions of modernism than postmodernism, however that critique has not led to the absolute relativism of postmodern perspectives. Instead, the tradition has held on to both notions. God is viewed as the source of diversity, relationship, and nature. Yet the neocalvinist, Christian tradition has placed the notion of the creational order as a central concept for understanding this diversity of social structures and their interrelationships, recognizing the relatedness of all forms of diversity. Thus, an emphasis on the unique, or on "place" does not require the elimination of some type of universal normativity. What humans experience as order, pattern, structure, coherence, and regularity in the world is a concrete expression of God's will for an ordered and coherent world. And what humans experience as individuality or the unique is an expression of the rich diversity of the creatures, each with its own unique calling, all known by God and by us as irreducibly real in their own right. A neocalvinist framework allows these two aspects of my discipline to be held together in a coherent fashion.

"Yes, but . . ."

If the neocalvinist intellectual tradition has been so helpful to me, why the "Yes, but…?" I have but a short disclaimer. The themes that I have picked up within the tradition have been broad. They have helped me to engage with a broader secular literature that is struggling with similar questions, but they have also allowed me to understand those questions from my Christian faith perspective. Thus, the intellectual tradition has given me the tools I need to write for an academic audience in a covertly Christian manner, increasing my engagement in my field of research and deepening my theological understanding of these questions along the way. Where I hesitate in my support of neocalvinism comes from particular expressions where it has become a tradition that only critiques, does this in language that is very technical and esoteric, and only talks to itself. This is often evident in the publications within the tradition that are not in mainstream academic presses, but "inside" publishing for "insiders." In order for the neocalvinist tradition to survive, thrive, and contribute to Christian thought it must move beyond mere critique of culture and society, to become a leader in the shaping of intellectual thought and society. This means the movement needs to do more intellectual bridging rather than internal bonding!

Topics: Religion

Dr. Janel Curry is Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Christian Perspectives on Political, Social, and Economic Thought at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a graduate of Bethel College in St. Paul, MN (B.A., 1977). Dr. Curry did her graduate work in geography at the University of Minnesota (M.A., 1981; Ph.D., 1985) and taught at Central College before joining the Calvin faculty in 1996. Her interests range from natural resource management to the geography of the U.S. and Canada.