Our theme for the month of June is “older and wiser.” Writers were asked to write a response to one of their previous pieces. Today, Josh responds to his March 2022 post, “Calvin, Redacted.”

This was a classic phone-it-in post. It was late in the evening on March 7, I probably had a paper due the next day, and I was looking for something I could throw together quickly without too deeply engaging the “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.” Without, you know, writing.

I got the idea from a theology professor who’d had us make blackout poetry from the Nicene Creed on the first day of class. For months, my entry—”We believe in … seen and unseen … We look for … resurrection”—had hung on our fridge door, amusing some guests and worrying others. (Anticipating some of this worry, I had left “We believe in Jesus Christ” in.)

I’ve never really read much Calvin. I knew him simultaneously as the wide-eyed humanist of Renaissance literature courses and as the orthodox, heretic-burning autocrat of Geneva. I wasn’t that invested in reconciling the two, nor in figuring out the historicity of either. Calvin was, to me, a guy who’d said and done some cool things and some shitty ones, who probably got more blame than he deserved for some of Reformed-dom’s worst sins but whose honor I felt no need to defend. 

But I did have a two-volume set of Calvin’s Institutes on my bookshelf, which I’d purchased in a fit of freshman-year Reformed enthusiasm and had since used mostly for checking citations while copy editing other people’s work. Might as well make some more use of this, I thought. And what better source text to choose than our humble blog’s indirect namesake?

I don’t remember why I chose the words I did. I was trying to string together vaguely grammatical phrases as quickly as I could, like one of those “the first three words you see describe the next year of your life” memes on Twitter. I squinted at the screen and wrote down what I saw.

I’m still pretty happy with most of it. I don’t know what “knowledge is merely daylight masquerading as God” means, but it sure sounds true. Same with “ruin rebellion compels,” or “wonder comes low and lowly in dust and rottenness and sun and ourselves, right?”—though that last one wanders off near the end.

But one three-word phrase, forged in the crucible of a looming low-pressure deadline, has stayed with me more than the others. It’s a summary of one of Christianity’s—one of life’s—least orthodox, most liberating, and most challenging truths: “purity is misery.”

Purity is misery because it imprisons our attention, turning it only to the sins or harms we might be committing instead of the lives we are actually living. Purity is misery because it demands we be not only infallible but omniscient, knowing when our thoughtless actions might spin out in unforeseen ways. Purity is misery because it transforms us into God’s surveillance agents, waiting (and maybe even hoping) for the weak among us (and maybe even ourselves) to err and incur our holy wrath.

Later this month, we will again watch the champions of purity try to tighten their grip on the Christian Reformed Church, despite (because of?) whatever misery it causes those they deem impure. But the misery, we know, also belongs to purity’s enforcers, because it is a joyless quest to invent and tally the sins of others.

Let those gathered at Calvin University hear what John Calvin once said: “Purity … is … misery.”

I just finished reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for the first time (very late for a English-major medievalist, I know). In one of the final scenes [mild spoilers ahead], the wise monk William, sent to investigate a murder at a fourteenth-century monastery torn by accusations of heresy, diagnoses the villain’s problem:

The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets … and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them. [He] did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood. …. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth. (526–27)

Purity is misery because purity is impure—it demands a “lewd” allegiance to a fantasy that does not exist, and it enacts indiscriminate violence in response to its inevitable frustration. We live in a world of chaotic joy and ridiculous blunders and unforeseen consequences both tragic and delightful. In some other universe, perhaps God speaks through inquisitors and heresy trials and synodical discipline decisions. But here, in this world, I think God might laugh at them.

I don’t care if John Calvin would agree. But I know another John Calvin—the one I found while laughing at the Institutes, while making the Institutes laugh—would.


  1. Isaac DeBoer

    This is great

  2. Sophia Medawar

    Loved this. Glad you finally got around to The Name of the Rose!


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