Calvin, Graveyards, Consumption
June 24, 2009
I’m hostile to Calvin. Always have been. Always will be. This isn’t to deny the man has his charms: I still remember how struck I was by Institutes of Christian Religion the first time I sat down with it… His argumentative style sticks with you, both because of its lucidity and its lawyerly precision. Nonetheless, that style and the outlook that underpins it is ultimately what damns him for me: thinking about the Bible as a legal document isn’t just epistemologically unsound, it ultimately leads to a very deeply poisonous mode of being in the world, one which inevitably extends the legalization of the Word into a legalization of the World, and a reconceptualization of our place in the world as a stipulation of the cosmic-judicial order than as an act (even a gift) of love. And though I hesitate to draw a straight line from that mode of thought to capitalism or to our distaste for cultural and environmental givens, it’s impossible not to see echoes between the current order and that of, say, Puritan New England, or Geneva under Calvin’s thumb. Both our world and his require a universe where mystery is dispersed, either through an unseen transcendent order or by a technological solipsism… And both deny the world as an ongoing site for revelation, whatever that might mean.
None of this, I recognize, is new. Still, I was really struck by it after reading this great post about Puritan graveyards out east. Take a looksie:
The primary ethos of their community were piety, hard work, education, and a morally upright, ascetic lifestyle, with harsh punishments for trespassers. Their religious views included bans on anything considered extravagant or “popish”, including ‘graven images’ or religious symbols. They also had strict views on who might qualify to enter to heaven, with most people doomed to merely rot. What followed was some creative solutions in tombstone design.
Carved in slate, greenstone, or occasionally marble, the most common motif in the early headstones is the winged death-head, and simple inscriptions: either just the name with birth and death dates, or the simple phrase “here lies the body of. . . ” Later, more festive arrangements of skeletons and Father Time disporting themselves, winged hourglasses, and winged cherub heads appeared. There is a lot of variation in the design details, as if each carver put his own spin on the theme. Some of the more elaborate stones have intricate carvings and rhyming poetry, usually about the inevitability of death, designed to scare visitors into piety.
I’m unable to find it at the moment but there was a great First Things article about graveyards a few years back… It’s core argument, if memory serves, was that the degree of importance funerals and graveyards carry for the culture is indicative of how seriously life/the past is taken, and that the slow removal of those rituals/places/meanings from the center of our culture indicates a severing of our commitments to the past. Viewed through that lens, the Puritan insistence on death’s sole relevance for instruction, and the concurrent belief in life as a predetermined stage for the already-damned and the already-saved can be seen as a predecessor (though perhaps not as direct ancestor) for our current denial of mortality (and hence the past) as a regular feature of life: requiring death be articulated outside the sacred order and that the bodies of the dead be treated as essentially meaningless both have parallels under scientific consumerism, albeit from quite different premises and to an ultimately different conclusion. One demands obedience and sees death solely as an aid to that end, the other demands consumption and never brings up the subject. But both, for all their differences, see death unmoored from memory and mystery, and on that point they form a continuum, however distant their other commitments may be.