An Interview with Julie Canlis: Part 2

Yesterday we introduced you to Julie Canlis and her award-winning book, Calvin’s Ladder. Today we continue the three-part interview and highlight the significance her work has on scholarship and daily life.

Julie Canlis
Julie Canlis

Part 2

Q 3: Is your book just for scholars, or can ordinary folks learn from it as well?

I hope that the Christianity Today award testifies to the fact that this book is written for ordinary people! Scholarship must be in service of the church! When I was writing my PhD, I found that having a young family put healthy boundaries on my project. I learned when and how to switch off. I could come home from my office and not yearn for what unfinished thoughts I had left behind, but I felt as if I was entering the real world. I learned that theology needed to be life-giving . . . because if my husband was back at home changing nappies and doing laundry, I had better be pursuing something that would make a difference to everyday people in the real world. There wasn’t time for academic indulgence.

That being said, my husband has yet to read the book, but that is because he has adapted the Pauline principle that as long as one person in the marriage has read a certain book, it covers both of us. Like the efficacy of sanctification in 1 Corinthians . . . almost . . .

Calvin's LadderQ 4: You place John Calvin within the Christian mystical tradition. Why do you think this is important?

Mystics have been given a bad rap over the years as individualists who are all about their own personal experience of “union” with the divine and whose spirituality has no need of the cross. Yet some of the earliest understandings of the word “mystic” have to do with those who were immersed in the “mysteries” — the church, its people, and its food. “Mysticism” was not a private thing, but a public, shared experience of God’s grace, as given through his ecclesial body and his Eucharistic body. Calvin uses the term “mystical union,” and it is in this latter sense — of that incredible mystery by which we are included in Christ — that he intends it.

Alternatively, the term “mystical” today is used against the term “dogmatic,” and Calvin is placed in the camp of the “cold dogma” as opposed to those who over the years nurtured the lived, “mystical” side of the faith. But Calvin was all about the “inmost affection of the heart” and allowing our Christian faith to penetrate to our emotions, even to the point of transforming them. Calvin’s “mysticism” comes from how seriously he took the Trinity. He knew that the personal nature of his faith came not from the intensity of his emotions, but from the personalness of the triune God. It is when we are invited into the fellowship of God that we can begin to “own” our faith and our emotions can be genuine.

Q 5: What practical difference can your theology make in people’s everyday lives?

Once I stopped reacting to Calvin, I found myself in a place where I could really learn from him. Perhaps most surprising is his emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the one who secures our identity. My generation is obsessed with “finding” oneself and “being authentic,” and this deep longing has entered into the church. I wanted to explore how “discipleship” is about “becoming human” in Christ, but in a way markedly different from how our culture prescribes this to be done. Contrary to popular opinion, becoming a Christian is not becoming less human. Rather, it is being put back on the road to becoming truly human again.

Walker Percy asks, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?” We think of our uniqueness as something deep within us — buried, needing to be unlocked. We think of our identity as something for which we are responsible, like a Facebook page in which we market ourselves to others. But Calvin comes at this from a completely different understanding, because he has allowed the notion of being “in Christ” to transform his sense of identity. He has not added Christ onto himself, but he realizes that he has been taken up into the life of Christ — where his identity is “hidden.” (This, as opposed to a Facebook page, is a much safer place for our identities to rest!)

Calvin’s Institutes is written from this new sense of self-understanding, and Calvin’s main point is to help his readers see that they have a new identity — that because they are “in Christ” they share Christ’s Father as well. They are now children with a loving Father. But Calvin knows firsthand the difficulties in believing that we are beloved children, in acting like children, and in praying like children. He therefore assigns this issue of our identity to the Holy Spirit, who “alone can witness to our spirit that we are children of God.” This is such a miraculous revelation, thinks Calvin, that it must happen by the Spirit over and over again. It is not something of which we can convince ourselves.

It is these core issues of identity that I think are so compelling in Calvin. He challenges our individualistic assumptions about who we are, and he invites us into the transforming fellowship of Christ. It is only when we understand this framework that his more celebrated discussions of justification, sanctification, and the rest find their true place.

Click to read part three of our interview with Julie Canlis.