Symposium Introduction

This book bristles with creativity. It is structured as a careful interpretation of a single work—John Calvin’s Institutio Christianae Religionis—but Sanchez’s ambition is broader. She shows that Calvin is extraordinarily sensitive to the power of writing, the wonder of the world, and the danger of sovereign authority. By tracing her own way through the text, Sanchez develops a fresh contribution to debates over religion, politics, and our post-secular age.

The book’s key interpretive claim is that Calvin reoccupies an Augustinian understanding of signification. As Sanchez describes, Calvin insists on the difference between the signs that constitute Christian sacraments and the divine object they signify. Calvin develops this Augustinian idea by arguing that signs mediate between God and the world, tying all creation into God’s signifying action.

Sanchez sees Calvin as a pedagogue more than an ideologue. She argues that, much as God reorients human bodies through signs, Calvin seeks to shape his readers’ dispositions. Rather than seeing the Institutes as a series of abstracted theological claims, Sanchez attends to what Calvin’s writing does as well as what it says. She shows that Calvin’s Institutes is performative rather than flatly declarative, and in this way she expands the reader’s sense of what writing can do.

By drawing Calvin into conversation with ancient and contemporary interlocutors—from Seneca and the Stoics to Nietzsche and Agamben—Sanchez situates Calvin in context and clarifies his significance today. In contrast to some readers, she refuses any arbiters for what the text might mean other than the text itself. This results in an interpretation that allows the tensions present in the Institutes to persist. With Sanchez we discover a Calvin who is all the more compelling because he reckons with questions that can’t be cleanly resolved.

In response to Calvinists who take the doctrine of providence to guarantee churchly authority, Sanchez argues that the Institutes refuses to distinguish the reprobate from the elect. Since Calvin insists that the ecclesial signifier remains radically distinct from the divine signified, Christians possess no special authority. On this reading, every assertion of sovereignty is idolatrous, and so all of us are left to reckon with the ambiguous meaning of worldly life.

Given my own preoccupation with the peril and potential of political theology, this dimension of the book drew me most deeply. In describing the importance of theological humility, Sanchez describes a politics that is boldly self-critical. Since Calvin destabilizes the superiority of theology itself, one could even call this a negative political theology—one that opens the affirmation of particular projects by relativizing every claim to authority.

As Sanchez performs it, this critical gesture is clearly expansive. (Among its other virtues, this book is dense with ideas.) The five responses that follow reflect this imaginative potential by tracing a diverse set of themes.

Noreen Khawaja explores the book’s counterintuitive claim that Calvin writes theology in a fictive mode. Amaryah Shaye Armstrong asks how resignification, as Sanchez describes it, might address the resignification of bodies through racialization. Constance Furey probes Sanchez’s reading of Calvin as a refugee who unsettles modern sovereignty, imagining alternative models of embodied life. Rubén Rosario Rodríguez reads the book as a model of non-totalitarian theology. And Ted Vial reflects on the pedagogy recommended by Sanchez’s Calvin, a practice of affirmation and joy beyond church and state.

Early in the book Sanchez observes that many ancient texts (and modern ones as well) operate on the body as well as the mind, preparing for action in a given domain. This symposium suggests that Sanchez’s book should be read with this insight in mind. The responses ask what Sanchez’s work allows us to see but also what it helps us to do. This book is worth reading for many reasons, but here is another: by sharing her honest curiosity, Sanchez invites us to attend more closely to the world and our work in it.




This is an illuminating study, carefully researched and incisively written. I learned a lot about Calvin, but also found many broader contemporary debates reframed in helpful light by Sanchez’s fresh approach to issues of political theology and particularly to the intricate relations between semiotics, sacramentality, and power in Calvin’s thought. I also appreciated Sanchez’s crystalline way of presenting key arguments from theoretical interlocutors from Schmitt to Foucault to Butler. A gift to the reader.  

A central achievement of this book, it seems to me, is in showing how supple and useful the frame of “resignification” is for getting at key features of Christian piety. Sanchez’s account is focused on devotional movements often described as renewal, conversion, or rebirth. By theorizing them as events of resignification, Sanchez is able to tease out subtle connections between piety and signifying practice across the Augustinian tradition, as well as to set up thought-provoking connections between Calvin’s approach to Christian piety and Nietzsche’s seemingly antithetical interest in a revaluation of values. 

There is a performative bent to the reading of Calvin, insofar as Sanchez argues for the embodied, affective, and pedagogical character of his theological concepts themselves. The primary way in which the concepts of the Institutes operate, for Sanchez, is not to describe or refer to some stable body of meaning which might be analyzed intellectually and made into a coherent theoretical system; rather, Calvin’s concepts are meant to induce an affective posture in the reader, to bring her into a particular type of relationship with divinity. At the social level, this performative reading inclines toward a process ecclesiology: “In fact, because the church only exists performatively—in its obedient exercise of Word and Sacrament—the church literally exists as perpetual reform.” (256) 

At the heart of this reading is what Sanchez calls Calvin’s “subjunctive” or “fictive” approach to theology. Rather than asking us to evaluate whether a given doctrine is so in the sense of being coherent or disposed to demonstration, theology written in the subjunctive mood asks the reader first to take it as so, to put it on or assume it as a distinct way of being disposed to the world–– which Sanchez calls an “affective reorientation” or “resignification” of world and self. Words here do not simply refer but act as a kind of “veil” which the reader adopts, and thereby becomes able to see “the world as if willed by God” (138) and to perceive “nature as if creation” (139). 

In his book on Paul, Agamben (a central interlocutor for Sanchez) follows Heidegger in pointing out the curious and central role of the subjunctive in the Pauline idea that the Christian live in the world “as if not.” The theological function of the as-if construction has also long fascinated me in relation to Luther, who uses it conspicuously in “The Freedom of the Christian,” where union with Christ is repeatedly figured along subjunctive lines, drawing on the legal fictions of marital and property law (Christ assumes the Christian’s sins “as if they were his”). When we add in the subjunctive character of key claims in Kant’s architectonic and philosophy of religion (memorably theorized by Hans Vaihinger’s 1911 The Philosophy of the As If), we can see Sanchez’s argument contributing to a fascinating portrait of the as-if construction’s wider role in Protestant thought, one meriting further systematic historical and theoretical attention. By bringing this picture into focus, as Sanchez indicates (pp. 192-3), we may also help unsettle the ossified association of Protestantism with sincerity, not exactly by refuting it, but by examining the performative and poietic dimensions of sincerity itself. 

Sanchez anchors the fictive interpretation of the Institutes in close readings of passages in which Calvin either makes explicit use of an “as-if” construction or qualifies an idea by setting it in the subjunctive mood. In some of the passages the subjunctive is less salient than others, but overall, I was convinced of the merit of this frame and its ability to get at important questions about what it means to practice as well as to think an idea. 

One confusion I had was that at times, it seemed there was little if any distinction being drawn between seeing the world as if willed by divinity and seeing the world as willed by divinity. For example, Sanchez argues that “Calvin thinks the exercise of seeing the world as if affirmed and then engaged by God will generate forbearance, reverence, expectation, and even love—all staging for pursuing the knowledge of God and ourselves.” (148) A page later she writes, “Through such practices, believers could repeatedly exercise naming themselves and other events under the sign of God’s care, which—according to the logic laid out in Book One of the 1559 Institutio – enables the materialization of the world as the theater of divine glory.” (149)

My question is about the difference between the as and the as if. Taking-as, arguably, is the structure of any semiotic activity, any conscious act. My mind does not perceive the table I am currently leaning against in a simple, comprehensive gulp; context, purpose, history, and relationships all inflect that and how and what the table means. So, I take the table as desk when it allows me to spread out my papers, as obstacle when I bump into it walking by, as theorized object insofar as it serves me as an example in this essay, etc. 

However, to take the table as if table, obstacle, or theoretical object seems to involve something else. I’d argue this sort of perception involves a rather more conscious sense that even as I take the table in a given way, I am also distinctively aware of the possibility that things might not be what they seem. Does this distinction—between the as of any signification and the as if of more explicitly fictive signification––matter to Calvin? To the reader of Calvin? Or is Sanchez asking us to consider that for Calvin to see the world as divinely created and to see the world as if divinely created are one and the same thing? It was hard for me to get a sense of Sanchez’s view on this point as she moves fluidly between the two constructions throughout the book. It is only in the conclusion that this ambiguity seems to be addressed: “Certainly, Calvin treats these privileged signs as true—as true. To appreciate the performative technology of Calvin’s resignification, it is important to hold both parts of the signature together in the tightest possible oscillation. On the one hand, these signs are revealed, which means they are unverifiable. The words that present them to the imaginative faculties of the reader do so through the operation of a language that is also fully ordinary and unable to shed itself of its vulnerability to context in which truth claims can never be more than ‘as if.’” (270) 

As I understand this passage, Sanchez does seem to be arguing for a continuity between as/as-if constructions in Calvin’s theology. If that’s so, one way to go would be to say that while ordinary acts of signification may not be expressed in the subjunctive mode, as (!) instances of taking-as, they do involve some subtly fictive element operating beneath the surface. This seems a plausible, and to me rather interesting claim. At some moments, it feels aligned with what Sanchez is trying to do: “Because the Word encounters us in flesh, it is by virtue of that appearance that the Word can also encounter us as ‘word’—as fictive mediation capable of recasting the terms through which we recognized ourselves.” (254) But if this is how all language operates––if all signs are seen as fictive mediations capable of recasting the terms through which we recognize things, others, ourselves––then it is not clear what the alternative to the fictive signification would be, nor what would make Calvin’s approach to pedagogy and writing distinctive.

Moreover, I am not at all confident that this is Sanchez’s claim or where she wants to take her interpretation of Calvin. Sanchez’s focus is not on Calvin’s theory of language but on his approach to theological language, indeed, on the moments where he is addressing the thorniest and most ambivalent points of providential doctrine.  On second read, I noted that a number of the subjunctive markers Sanchez isolates––“as if” but also “so to speak” and “as it were”––bear a strong resemblance to markers associated with apophatic theology. These tropes, as Michael Sells once argued, are used in apophatic writing to manifest the ineluctable failure of the human mind to grasp divine reality. In this way they serve as a caveat or check on claims to know. I take it as part of what is innovative about Sanchez’s account that she sees these formulations not as markers of unsaying, however, but of saying––albeit in a performative and poietic, rather than indexical, way. Here, unlike for Sells and perhaps Cher Horowitz, “as if” means more yes than no. So I am not sure where this matter stands for her.

A final point, touching on the stakes of the as/as-if question––Sanchez argues that one merit of grasping Calvin’s poietic approach to divine signification is to recover Calvin as a resource for contemporary critical projects aiming to redefine the relations among sacrality, signification, and sovereignty. Engaging throughout with Victoria Kahn’s call for a self-consciously fictive approach to power, Sanchez shows how for Calvin, “if the revealed will of God is fictive, and its power is the power of the signifying Word, it is performative––it makes things.” (146) While Sanchez admits in the final pages of the book that Calvin will likely not take us as far into the fictive as Kahn might like our politics to go, I find this connection insightful and appealing.

My concern, however, is that the critique of sovereignty Calvin offers seems to be inextricably bound to a critique of idolatry (see, e.g., passages cited on pp. 71-72, where idolatry is figured along with “artificial religion” as temptation). On one level this makes sense; to treat the relative as absolute can conduce to a politics of tyranny. But it is difficult to see how one would (or why one would want to) distinguish an as-if theology from what Calvin calls an artificial religion. Indeed, a merely selective acceptance of the fictive dimensions of power has long been at the root of Christianity’s imperializing attitude toward non-Christian gods and devotional practices. As J. Lorand Matory’s work on the history of the fetish has helped show, the idol is first of all a term for other people’s gods. And the illegitimacy of the fetish is not just about its status as a finite or material concentration of spiritual power, but also and especially about its having been made. In other words, if Calvin can help us in a critique of sovereignty and of the concentrations of worldly power only on the basis of such formations being seen as idolatrous, I worry about how this account will make sense of other sorts of claims and ways of practicing divine power in the world. It seems to me a lacuna in Sanchez’s wide-ranging account that the traditions once dismissed and oppressed by Christianity for the precise reason of their being fictive should not play some role in the attempt to recast a major work of Reformation theology, and with it Christian piety and the revealed will of God itself, as operating in a fictive key.  

On this note I am reminded of a line I underlined from Sanchez’s introduction: “What matters is not just how we treat those signs – whether as serious truths or as unserious tools. But also who gets to wield those tools and treat them as if truths.” (17) With this quote in mind I am fortified in my sense that Sanchez will have a way of helping me out of these distinct if related confusions, and I look forward to her response.


  • Michelle Chaplin Sanchez

    Michelle Chaplin Sanchez


    Sanchez on Khawaja

    Let me begin with sincere gratitude to everyone involved in bringing this forum to fruition over several—extraordinary—years. My profound thanks go to David Newheiser, who remained enthusiastic about organizing this project over so many of his own life hurdles. I am also grateful to Sean Larsen at Syndicate for his ongoing commitment. And, of course, I am in the debt of these five responders whose care, generosity, and insight encourages me that this kind of work matters. 

    I would like to begin each response by flagging a passage from each essay that stood out to me. In the case of Noreen Khawaja: “I take it as part of what is innovative about Sanchez’s account that she sees these formulations not as markers of unsaying, however, but of saying––albeit in a performative and poietic, rather than indexical, way. Here, unlike for Sells and perhaps Cher Horowitz, ‘as if’ means more yes than no.” 

    I love this observation, not just for the obvious reason that it has forever integrated the archives of Calvin and Clueless, but also because it reveals to me precisely why the question of periodization was unavoidable to me as I worked on Calvin and the Resignification of the World. There were times I feared too much was going on in the manuscript and wondered whether I really needed the conversational thread tying Hans Blumenberg’s and Victoria Kahn’s accounts of distinctly “modern” poiesis to Kathleen Davis’s critique of such accounts. But the argument never felt complete without the input of this debate. 

    To briefly reiterate, Kahn reaffirms Blumenberg’s urge to mark the emergence of the modern around a kind of self-consciousness over the poietic use of language, asserting merely human control over the making and unmaking of the world. Davis, in turn, alleges that the historians’ gesture to periodize in this way functions as a surreptitiously sovereign gesture to decide, in advance, who counts as modern, mature, emancipated, and who doesn’t. She thus ties the urge to periodize as constitutive of a colonial imagination that views geographical others as effectively “stuck” in a European “past” and in need of benevolent tutelage. 

    This mattered for a reading of Calvin precisely because Calvin’s uses of language cannot be pigeonholed into either the “as” or the “as if.” That is, the 1559 Institutio demonstrates considerable self-consciousness over poietic uses of language without viewing such uses as excluding faith that God, as the creator, is the giver of language. Realizing this with ever-greater clarity is the gift that Khawaja’s essay offered me, but as with Jacob’s divine wrestling match, the blessing comes with a limp.

    First, the blessing. Khawaja’s reflection begins by assuming, at least for the sake of analysis, the mutual exclusivity of the “as” (which I take as a marker of the power of divine creation) and the “as if” (which I take as a marker of the poietic use of language). Khawaja then wonders whether my repeated use of both constructions is the result of a confusion on my part. Reading Khawaja, l began to wonder this too—at least until she quoted me back to myself (p. 270) and reminded me that I may have been onto something here, and also reminded me why those periodization debates were so important.

    Calvin’s significatory poetics present a theological strategy that troubles existing periodizations of the “modern” because those accounts often presume a linear story about the emergence of fiction over and against the “premodern” genres of theology, allegory, and myth. For someone like Blumenberg and Kahn, premodern writing is thought to be serious (or sincere, or metaphysically grounded) in a way that literature is not. And it is with the emergence of literature in a general sense that we get modernity: a counterfactuality that amplifies human possibility over and against the putative conditions of nature. Calvin’s argumentative style, both as a writer and as a reader of scripture, is resonant with longer and older traditions of writing that use language to trouble the assumption that representation (of God, or the self, or really anything) can be uncomplicated. Yet it is also resonant with putatively modern strategies that render human agency as mediated through the construction of “legal fictions” that make and unmake a habitable world. The difference—and, perhaps, the connection—is that these fictions are to be apprehended by Calvin’s reader as given (by God): not only as if true, but as true. In Khawaja’s helpful terms, this yields an “as if” that is more yes than no. In my words, it is more yes because it signals faith in a divine affirmation of the creative and counterfactual function of human language. 

    So, on my reading, Calvin’s semiotic use (both explicitly and structurally) of both as and as if is a feature, not a bug. On one level, Calvin treats scripture as a repertoire of “as” claims. It makes claims about the nature of God and of God’s relation to the world that we should take as trustworthy. On the other hand, the believer wears scripture as a lens, a pair of spectacles that can be removed. Faith, then, means living as if those claims are, in fact, true. 

    Claims about God are inherently unverifiable. To speak of “verifiability” is, in some ways, anachronistic to Calvin’s text, yet the text suggests something like this when it constantly forbids speculation on what lies behind claims about God’s nature or the reason behind God’s decrees. These claims and decrees are not the kind of things that can be justified or explained by recourse to something else, which means that they should be received as a special kind of tool for (grace-enabled) human use. Instead of providing cognitive access to transcendent realities, they instead behave by acting on the imagination to effectively add a layer of significance to that which is perceptible and explorable through the senses. In other words, to the world. On this account, the trained believer sees with a kind of double division: what is and what is not, what is present and what is absent, together with a kind of simultaneity (or “oscillation,” as I argue on p. 270). 

    Now, the limp. After giving me occasion to more clearly articulate a central feature of the book’s claim, not just about Calvin but about the status of periodization and its relation to language and fictiveness, Khawaja hones in on what I take to be the real, pressing question the book leaves unanswered. That question is what precisely distinguishes Calvin’s account of language from other generalized performative accounts of language with which it overlaps, and whether the obvious answer to that question—namely, Calvin’s focus on the specific force of Christian revelation—undoes my timid suggestion that there is some vein of a deeply open affirmation of bodily difference at the heart of Calvin’s doctrinal teaching. As all five of the responders note in various ways, there is something shocking and unpersuasive about my “open affirmation of bodily difference” reading of Calvin. (This is Calvin we’re talking about, after all!) Khawaja, who is as sharp a reader as any author could hope for, hones in on whether the Christianness of this semiotic generosity fundamentally undoes its generosity on a philosophical level. The embrace of the “as” is a great deal more constraining than the “as if.” The “as” resignifies the world around a given set of signifiers that putatively hold a monopoly on truth. The “as if” presents at least the prospect of a more responsive and epistemically humble form of Protestant religiosity. If Calvin does not want to dispense with the “as,” then does this render the “as if” just as constraining and insidious as any colonial project of resignification?  

    Khawaja points to the historical legacy of idolatry discourse, which cuts precisely to the risks of the intervention I’ve attempted. Like others who have flirted with mobilizing Protestant resources for critical projects, I have been drawn at times to that tradition’s anti-idolatry language, hoping to recover something forceful that can be retrieved without also retrieving anti-Catholicism and nascent ideologies of European supremacy. Calvin, after all, gives a tantalizingly cognitive account of idolatry that focuses on the mind itself as the “factory” of idols—specifically, as a marker of any mind’s fallen temptation to fuse sign and signified. If the fusion of sign and signified is at the heart of familiar accounts of, say, commodification or fascism, then Calvin’s critique would appear to coincide in a way that could prove ethically persuasive for Christians. 

    Yet there are risks, the most obvious being the inability to merely slough away the historical and material accretions of anti-Catholicism and anti-Blackness that idolatry accusations carry. The inability to abstract from these concrete histories is ultimately dubious, not because I think abstraction is fundamentally impossible (that is a question for another day). But because of precisely what Khawaja, with Matory and others, have noted. It is a feature of the “naming” exercise that anti-idolatry discourse entails, one in which idols are too often just names used to demote other people’s gods. To dance from one fraught discourse to another, this reminds me of the trap Jesus describes in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Despite boasting every appearance of a righteous life, the Pharisee who prays in the temple commits a de facto sin the very moment he names himself as “righteous” unlike those “others.” Meanwhile, the Tax Collector receives approval when he names himself a “sinner”—that is, names himself as someone in whom sign and signified are in a state of performative disruption. The lesson that applies both to this parable and to Calvin’s account of idolatry is that when one indexes their own cognitive humility to a specific set of signs, they conserve a specific arrangement of sign and signified and thereby verge into idolatry itself. In other words, the sin is in the naming. And this presents a challenge to any attempt to retrieve idolatry discourse.

    So where does this leave Calvin’s obvious—and exclusive—preference for Christian revelation? On one level, by way of a provisional conclusion, I want to offer the unsatisfying suggestion that this should remain a perennial problem. Which is to say that we should recognize it as the kind of problem that teaches us something if we accept its perenniality and allow it to remain a problem without solution. If one shifts too hard toward the specific defense of Christianity, one veers toward one kind of sovereign decree. If one shifts toward that which is merely generalizable and never specific, one veers toward another: the construction of the kind of “universal” subject that has been no less implicated in supremacist and colonial projects. 

    There is more to say in response to Khawaja’s very rich response, but I will pause that discussion here and pick up with Amayrah Armstrong’s and Constance Furey’s variation on the same set of questions.



Handbook to a Racialized World: Calvin and Resignification After 1492’s New World View

The hour of theology is come when a mythical configuration breaks down and its symbols that are congealed in a canon come into conflict with a new stage of human consciousness. When the symbols coined to express man’s encounter with the divine at a unique moment of history no longer coincide with his experience, theology tries to interpret the original symbols in order to integrate them within the context of the new situation: what was present in the myth is then only ‘re-presented’ in the theological interpretation.

(Jacob Taubes, “On the Nature of the Theological Method: Some Reflections on the Methodological Principles of Tillich’s Theology,” 195)

If Jacob Taubes gives us insight into the why behind theological signification—it’s function as a procedure that emerges in the crises between human consciousness and a symbolic order—then Michelle Sanchez clues us into to the specific style that Calvin brings to this process through his innovations on providence and incarnation in the 1559 Institutes. Attending to an element of Calvin’s situation that doesn’t typically inflect interpretations of his theological claims and practices, Sanchez sees his status as a refugee as significant for understanding how Calvin offers more than doctrinal concepts of providence and incarnation, but writes so as to inspire an embodied and exiled form of life in the world that is caught up in perceiving the world, church, and self through its source and sustenance in God. 

Calvin’s crisis of life in exile, experience of fragmented community, and suffering of displacement thus gives rise, on Sanchez’s reading, to a novel iteration of Christianity’s “original symbols” of providence and incarnation. This is Calvin’s style of resignifying the world in light of God’s creating, redeeming, and sustaining work. In addition to contextualizing Calvin in terms of his status as a refugee, Sanchez works throughout to situate Calvin within an intellectual history that spans ancient Greek thought, patristics, medieval scholasticism, and contemporary political theology. Thus, Sanchez seeks to connect Calvin’s theological formation with the very real sufferings and catastrophes that have been identified as an effect of sovereignty and its legitimation of exceptional social bodies through the identification of the body of Christ with the body politic of a sovereign state. 

Calvin and the Resignification of the World is a book that rewards careful reading and rereading. Much like the argument Sanchez forwards regarding the transformative effects of reading as figured in Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between the Word and the World, CRW is a book that clearly believes in the transformational power of reading, writing, and engagement with the world. The book’s rereading of the genre of Calvin’s Institutes characterizes them as a pedagogical text whose arrangement is crucial to the effect it is meant to have on readers. The Institutes serve as a means of embodied knowing as the reader is guided to the feel how the knowledge of God as creator leads to the knowledge of God as redeemer through the posture the reading of the institutes invites from its reader. And this twofold knowledge not only places humanity and the world in proper relationship to God’s sovereignty and the world, it also establishes the means of locating God’s sovereignty, not in the body of Christ, but in the natural world. The question that the book raises and that persisted in my own reading: what are the outcomes of such formation for rethinking key ideas of sovereignty and embodiment in political theology? To do so, Sanchez takes up doctrines of providence and the incarnation in the Institutes to consider how this transformative practice of reading aligns or diverges from recurring arguments about political sovereignty and the social body.

Much of one’s sense of the book overall will rest on what one thinks of Sanchez’s move to read Calvin’s situation as a refugee and his recasting of the relationship between exile and election as one that potentially sets him at odds with the state’s sovereignty. For my part, I think the approach is both illuminating and somewhat unconvincing. The set of questions generated by examining Calvin’s thought and life in this way absolutely clarifies and opens critical lines of question regarding the relationship of theology and politics to the formation of subjectivity at the affective and perceptive or psychic levels. However, the extent to which this style of resignification and subjective formation attests to a counter to sovereign power seems indecisive. This indecision need not be a disappointment of the text. In fact, I find that if one displaces the need for attention to this style of resignification and formation to radically undermine or displace the sovereign power of the state, the book becomes a helpful handbook in its own right.

Part of the gift of this book is that it is clear that Sanchez is using it as an occasion to think through something she herself remains open to understanding and investigating. The book and analysis has the air of catching wind of a curious and fascinating line of thought. This posture allows the reader to follow her lead, being guided through Calvin, perhaps as an intentional iteration of the process she explores in Calvin’s own writings. One question that emerges in my reading is, to what extent Sanchez thinks such practices of theological resignification are operative even when the modern reader doesn’t suppose them? The overlap of my writing this response with my rereading of Henri de Lubac on “spiritual understanding” seemed particularly serendipitous as it helped me clarify my own attempt to understand how ideas of order at the scriptural level are related to questions of embodied participation, sovereignty, history, and belonging. In this sense, Sanchez’s deep dive into the formative effects of Calvin’s sense of writing providence and incarnation also allows us to see its resonances throughout Christian theology. Sanchez makes apparent a kind of universal quality of creedal confessions of Christian theology in regards to the correspondence of the writing and its arrangement to a process of formation and resignification that shapes how one lives in the world. 

While scholarly attempts to replace “bad theology” with “good theology” sometimes seem to think theology does more than it can or equate the announcement of liberative theologies with their historical actualization, Sanchez offers another approach predicated on the cultivation of attention. And it is this attention to Calvin’s style of writing that gives insight into how theological formation happens at subjective, affective, and creaturely levels. At some level, the providential organization of everyday life sits at the heart of Calvin’s thought and sense of how the social world is constituted. On my reading, one might say that Sanchez’s book highlights an everyday or ordinary sensibility, a comprehensive perspective, and a historical enfleshment that makes Christian order not simply a conceptual frame, but the incarnation of a Christic symbolic order expressed in the world. This enfleshed order thus encompasses a field of sensibility, inhabitation, and vitality. The notion of a “living image” and related ideas of gestural forms of incarnation recurs in Sanchez’s book and Calvin’s thought as she foregrounds the visual pedagogy as a guidance of the attention to properly perceive the dynamism of creaturely life in light of God’s power. My own study of Christian figurality led me to wonder to what extent Sanchez see’s the resignification of the world in Calvin’s writing being congruent with figural readings more generally?

While Sanchez acknowledges how this form of resignification can serve unjust sovereign power, she also offers, contra Agamben, an argument that Calvin’s theology and its sense of glory is rooted in a providential affirmation of the world that “[effects the world] not by invading or overriding material conditions, but by assuming an intimate and active relationship to them” (169). As illuminating as this counter interpretation of Calvin is, I kept thinking of Christina Sharpe’s Monstrous Intimacies and its troubling of ideas of intimacy and domesticity as somehow extricable from political economy and the state. The question of intimacies that are established through theological resignification of the world emerges as a pressing one. Rather than reading sovereign logics of mastery and joining as at odds, what happens when we understand forms of intimacy, joining, and continuity as part and parcel of sovereign rule as dispersed through a racialized social body via mastery? In this way, Sanchez’s book seems to provide a clearer view of how we might understand the theological at work in resignifying Africans and “New World” Indigenes so as to supernaturally convert them into “natural” slaves and savages, producing a political status of non-belonging or erasure through assimilation that nevertheless was predicated on a racial distribution of intimacy, joining, attention, and sustenance.

Sanchez highlights how the convergence of the providential and the incarnational arms of Christian order present a unique set of tools for governance. By making Calvin’s approaches manifest as tools or technologies of ordering the world through practices that educate perception, inscription, and desire, Sanchez also allows us to understand these tools of resignification as one of the means by which the New World projects rearrangement of flesh along a racial economy of redemption is established and perpetuated. The need to reproduce and perpetually renew the significance of this racialized world is an effect of the crisis of Christian order and Christian finitude in New World view. The ongoing history of the world in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection generates an ongoing anxiety of order. And it is precisely these anxieties of order and finitude that seem to drive Calvin’s sense of providence and incarnation. 

As Sanchez argues, “providence is a discourse that has often emerged precisely when the figure of the living face the inevitability of death” (85). While we only get glimpses of attention to the topic in this text, I couldn’t evade the sense of domesticity that seems to underlie the text. The question of belonging, which I think stands as an ongoing question in Christian theology is apparent here: where does one belong, who does one belong to, what are the benefits of this belonging? Sanchez writes that the “formation of a new mode of existence,” (9) the formation of a new people, particularly as attested to in Geneva, is not a matter of creation from given forms of existence, but emerges “out of nothingness” (8). The questions of blackness and indigeneity would seem to trouble the “nothingness” out of which this new form is created. The point here is not that Geneva, itself, fashions a racialized nothingness, but that the means of people-making it offers depends on obscuring how the novelty it announces is actually a rearrangement of already existing materials. If this form of a people is announced as a new form but in practice depends precisely on the resignification of the world that also resignifies through racialization, then the fact that “creation offers an entirely new world to house a ‘people’” (9) through a sustaining affirmation of the world might provide “a different logic of sovereignty,” but one that illuminates how the oikos, particularly the Christian household of faith, depends precisely on obscuring how its practices and formations serve the production and reproduction of the political order and, vice versa, how the household of faith gains legitimacy precisely through the ability to evoke the difference between love and mastery on display. Given how creation and estrangement are resolved by understanding the world as a home for the exiled-elect, the questions of domesticity emerge precisely as they appear to trouble a political economy predicated on sovereignty and rupture or interruption. 

But if we don’t assume joining or the affirmation of the world as counter to mastery and the sovereignty of exceptional body, what emerges then? The book seems to posit a way that formation in Christian belonging of the sort that Calvin offers provides an alternative to “logic of mastery and submission” (210). In Sanchez’s view “learning is more akin to belonging… . Faith is the originary response to the suggestion that this kind of belonging might, in fact, be possible” (210). But, on my reading, we then have a problem of entanglement that exceeds Christian remedies precisely because Christian redemption and its production and reproduction of belonging through resignification is the re-ordering of existence that creates the problem it needs to solve. The Christian ordering of the world depends on the intimacies that its timeline creates to narrate both its proximity and distance to others. Though many read Christian supersessionism in terms of a rupturing sovereignty and exception, as a break or replacement, one can also read it (and assertions of post-supersessionist or soft-supersessionist theologies) as producing and reproducing the intimacies that Christianity depends on to make itself legible as that which governs the proper sense of the world. Just as the sequencing and ordering of Calvin’s Institutes reflects God’s providential and redemptive sequencing and ordering of time and space, Christian governance is meant to ensure the proper order of reading precisely because it is crucial to securing the promise of Christianity and its sense of fulfillment. 

My great enjoyment of Sanchez’s book and the richness of analysis and insight allowed me to wrestle with Calvin’s thought at a deeper level, and so gain a better appreciation of his impact as well as a more concerned perception of the extent to which the resignification of the world might leave some stranded in an unknown world. Forced to become legible in the terms of belonging that this order posits as legitimate, forced to come to terms with one’s own displacement and dislocation as an effect of a mission to reorder the world, what tools may be found here that would aid in addressing that theological resignification of the flesh through racialization? If nothing else—and there certainly is so much more than this in the book—Sanchez gives us attention as a starting place that we would all do well to carry with us.

  • Michelle Chaplin Sanchez

    Michelle Chaplin Sanchez


    Sanchez on Armstrong

    Amaryah Armstrong begins with several observations that made me feel seen, which of course means that I took them initially as praise—as, “yes, Armstrong gets it!”: 

    Calvin and the Resignification of the World] is a book that clearly believes in the transformational power of reading, writing, and engagement with the world…. While scholarly attempts to replace ‘bad theology’ with ‘good theology’ sometimes seem to think theology does more than it can or equate the announcement of liberative theologies with their historical actualization, Sanchez offers another approach predicated on the cultivation of attention.

    Armstrong perceives the very doubts about contemporary theology that have driven what, for me, is a self-conscious tweak in method toward something that cannot be better summarized than through the word “attention.” When I talk about what I do, I often describe it as “close reading.” But “attention” may capture this scholarly practice more accurately, flagging something of the devotional quality that I do think is incorporated into my methodological ambitions. As I understand it, my theological work attends both to the material shape of texts and to the complicated histories and socialities that couch and cast texts as well as those who read them. The critical disposition that wants to historicize and unveil can also, at the same time, be part and parcel of a scholarly kindness toward the fragile “all-too-human”-ness at play in the writings we produce—writings that, despite our intentions, present our best inclinations in-with-and-under our worst tendencies. 

    And yet Armstrong’s larger point rightly and incisively identifies the dangers of the faith that I place in attention: 

    Sanchez’s book seems to provide a clearer view of how we might understand the theological at work in resignifying Africans and ‘New World’ Indigenes so as to supernaturally convert them into ‘natural’ slaves and savages, producing a political status of non-belonging or erasure through assimilation that nevertheless was predicated on a racial distribution of intimacy, joining, attention, and sustenance.

    One way of returning this critique to myself might be to question the distribution of scholarly kindness. To whom do we choose to give our attention? This means asking myself (for example) why I choose Calvin as my recipient: as the subject to whom I would devote years of my life and the resources of a university press and for whom I would request the time of other scholars. Constance Furey asks this question directly, and it is one that gets to the heart of my most enduring anxiety regarding my decision to put this book out into the world. So for now, I’ll save further reflection on that for when I respond to Furey’s essay next.

    Another dimension of this critique, which I will consider here, has to do with Armstrong’s reminder that the production of intimacy is also the production of monstrosity. Calvin became my interest in part because his legacy represents a return (to flash autobiographical for a moment) to my own originary sense of domesticity. If Khawaja asks me to consider whether idolatry critique is ever worth it (and my shortest answer was “probably not,” though I do see merit in continuing to meditate on the complexity of the question), then Armstrong asks me to consider whether the pursuit of belonging is ever worth it. 

    Recently—yet shortly before I had begun reading these series of essays—I had a conversation with a doctoral student on some of these very topics: the status of idolatry, and the general capacity of theology to ever actually do the kind of ethical and critical work that interests many of us. I asked whether the fundamental problem with the theological genre is that it preserves the urge to protect something. It makes a case, however implicit, for the rightness and worthwhileness of the tradition, assuaging the feelings of those who are committed to that tradition. So when you mobilize a Calvinist anti-idolatry argument against, say, capitalism, you are effectively inviting Calvinists to reconsider their views on capitalism while—and by—retaining their sense of religious belonging. Armstrong puts this better than I can: “Christian redemption and its production and reproduction of belonging through resignification is the re-ordering of existence that creates the problem it needs to solve.”

    Armstrong presses me to consider the possibility of a scholarly attention that aims for an analytic of how theology works while letting go of all semblance of protection. As I noted above, Armstrong appreciates the “clearer view” that my reading of Calvin gives of the role theology has played in the resignification of “Africans and ‘New World’ Indigenes so as to supernaturally convert them into ‘natural’ slaves and savages.” While this may read like a backhanded compliment to anyone who has not read the book, I take it as an indication that Armstrong has noted one of the book’s stated intentions: to articulate the stakes of what I called the “interpretive crossroads” and better appreciate the practices and choices through which theological signs either reinforce or disrupt sovereign forms. For example, part of my goal was to show how a doctrine like providence could be wielded by a refugee community either to sustain a longstanding critique of the corpus Christianum form (from which they were excluded) or to rebuild a different corpus Christianum in their own image. The different would turn, I argued, on whether Christian signs were indexed to a rendering of worldly existence that forever exceeds cognitive mastery, thus “minding the gap” between words and things; or whether Christian signs were indexed to the legible markers of the new community: its leaders, its laws, its institutional infrastructures, its familiar cultural habits. Insofar as Calvinists have opted for the latter, they have tended to sacralize settler-colonial practices. But, I’ve suggested, there remains a vestige of hope for the former, visible perhaps in counter-histories of Calvinists who have engaged in unlikely alliances with solidarity movements of various kinds.

    Yet, would this have been a better book if it veered away from the suggestion of desire-fulfillment as mediated by Calvin’s writing or Christianity more generally? If, in other words, it refused to venerate the draw to belong in the world and with others or to experience comfort? This is an honest question. It may recall Khawaja’s question over the fraught relation of a general theory of performativity to the particularity of Christian language. My hesitation to outright reject Christian devotion is that this would also mean rejecting some key elements of human life, a life that (for better and worse) has been formed by its situation, by its vectors of belonging; subjects who have become themselves through specific kinds of words and scripts given to them by their traditions. 

    I wonder, then, whether we can conceive of a kind of devotion—an action that aims to belong, or an attention to something beloved—that is not protective. This is something that I have glimpsed in the way Calvin treats signs. For example, when he writes that the significance of eucharistic bread has to do with the material elements of bread that are beneficial for bodily nourishment, it’s true that he is refusing an account of transubstantiation that focuses exclusively on the substance of Christ’s body. But he is doing so by way of a larger claim that multiple vectors of significance lie at the very heart of sacramental significance, and that one of those vectors has to do with attention paid to worldly things as worldly things. In other words, if we want to grasp spiritual profundity, one operation we must perform is a quasi-scientific bracketing of the spiritual. We must ask what bread is composed of and what it performs in certain biological contexts. This is a necessary feature of Calvin’s sacramental sensibility. From there, I’ve argued, we perceive in Calvin’s writing an approach to the significance of materiality itself, including human others, that “attends” to what is particular and unique about them, treating this particularity as a sign of their divine relation rather than of their lack.

    Armstrong’s essay has further persuaded me that theology retains a crucial role as an analytic of power, the power by which peoples and their intimacies and monstrosities are made and unmade. On the question of devotionality—or, I could add, ethical persuasion—Armstrong has reminded me that additional care is required, and perhaps renewed reticence. Simply identifying the “interpretive crossroads” and then proceeding along “the good path” is not sufficient. However—to answer one question that Armstrong asks pointedly—I do think that “such practices of theological resignification are operative even when the modern reader doesn’t suppose them.” That is, I think that the shape and form of writing works on readers in ways that shape them holistically, not just intellectually, and perhaps to a degree commensurate with the attention given the text. If the scholarly task involves the practice of giving attention, not just to the text but to its potential impacts (as a thing with a “shape”) on the world and self, then it may be possible for a kind of devotion to perpetually defer the urge toward redemption.

Constance Furey


Life as a Refugee

How Calvin Reconceived Political Theology

Is it possible to reimagine political theology from within the Christian canon? Can we reconceive sovereignty by reinterpreting one of the greatest theorists of divine power? Is there a way to affirm this world, as humans and all other elements that make up Gaia live and breath, emit and decay, destroy and generate within it, without passively accepting its problems or, conversely, seeking to imposing our will to transform upon it? These are the questions raised by Michelle Sanchez’s brilliant, ambitious, and challenging book. Calvin and the Resignification of the World: Creation, Incarnation, and the Problem of Political Theology in the 1559 Institutes aims at nothing less than a new vision of political theology, shaken free of transcendent power as well as its immanent counterpart by a resignifying theology that equates divine sovereignty with incarnate—materialized—creativity. 

What is this materialized creativity? It is poetics, Sanchez says. World-making. The Institutes as a pedagogic, participatory text that works on and with its readers “in a dynamic continuum between language and local bodily activities” (24). This signifying process is not abstracted from the material conditions of the language users. Crucially, for Sanchez, Calvin’s own material realities inform a theology that refuses to privilege particular corporate bodies and persons. This claim that Calvin does not privilege particular corporate bodies and persons may startle readers who associate Calvin with theocracy and election. One of the delights of Sanchez’s work, however, is the way it repeatedly suggests we should think again, that our assumptions about the logical implications of Calvin’s teachings might be wrong. 

Consider, for example, the first line of the book’s introduction: “John Calvin lived life as a refugee” (1). This unusual description of Calvin—whose movements from Paris to Basel to Geneva to Strasbourg and back to Geneva are key details in any biographical account, but rarely assessed as evidence that Calvin was a displaced person—is the provocative premise for Sanchez’s project. Inspired Nicholas Terpstra’s account of how the ubiquitous “body” (corpus Christianum) metaphor influenced all notions of corporate belonging as well as Christian logics of expulsion and migration, Sanchez reads Calvin in light of J. Kameron Carter’s challenge to Giorgio Agamben’s theory of sovereignty. Agamben, Carter explains, highlighted the importance of the homo sacer but failed to reconsider sovereignty from that vantage point—the position of the abject, the inglorious, those “denied the position of the master…marginalized or denied the place of the center around which all difference is to be organized and governed” (4). 

Responding to Carter’s prompt, Sanchez considers the possibility that the abject who reorient the very notion of sovereignty include, in early modern Europe, Christian refugees within Europe. People like Calvin. Calvin himself. “If the early modern Corpus Christianum was itself constituted through the institutionalized management of narratives and practices materialized at the level of the body, then the abject of that body would be the refugees who were not executed, but whose position with respect to the health of the collective body was expunged as a peripheral impurity” (5). Sanchez gives us another chance at this challenging point, this time restating it as a question: “If such figures might reveal something of the underside of sovereign glory—or the extent to which that sovereignty is itself constructed and ritually perpetuated through the expulsion of the inglorious—then is it possible to harness a critique of modern sovereignty by beginning with the perspective of an early modern refugee?” (5, see also the version of this question on 146)

Reading and rereading this book, I have often paused at this question, always with the temptation to respond with a flat “no.” She’s talking about Calvin, I remind myself. Certainly Calvin is more complicated than his theocratic authoritarian caricature would suggest. But to align Calvin with the abject, the inglorious, those who view power from a position of exclusion. That feels like a reach. And all the more important for exactly that reason. What deconstructive readings do with texts alone, Sanchez seeks to do by reminding us of the multi-faceted realities of daily life, even, or especially, for those now canonized in positions of authority. 

For this reason, my skeptical “no” is always accompanied by an inquiring, uncertain “yes.” I am impressed by what the question reveals about Sanchez’s project, and method. It is no easy thing, to imagine and articulate alternatives to hegemonic models of corporate embodiment. Calvin’s 1559 Institutes does just that, she argues, but not if we read it for what we expect to find. It is difficult to affirm the world while disavowing the easy comforts of hope in a better future. Perhaps—a tantalizing perhaps—we will learn to do just that by participating in the Institutes’s pedagogic process. By the end of the book I was persuaded that Calvin’s Institutes persistently disrupts familiar assumptions about sovereignty, responsibility, and the relationship between human creativity and the world’s matter, and mattering, precisely because Sanchez’s own account of the Institutes repeatedly unsettled my own ideas of each in turn. 

Sanchez wants more, however—not just disruption, but a new reality, “a new materialization of creation” achieved “by resignifying it” (145). I am accustomed to thinking of Calvin’s Institutes as an exercise in perspective, as a work that prods and shocks and entices the reader to recognize the limits of their own perceptions, to shift their gaze from themselves to God, and to see then everything anew, through the “eyes of faith.” It is more challenging to experience this perspectival change as a new materialization of creation. I am not (yet) living my material reality differently as a result of reading Sanchez’s book. (Nor have I embarked on rereading the Institutes with Sanchez as my guide). But it is a testimony to the provocative ambition of the project that I judge it—and now the Institutes—against this standard, not just of the new perspectives it conjures for its readers, but by this question: what are the material effects of this pedagogic process? 

In thinking about, and aiming to experience, this new materialization of creation, I am helped especially by Sanchez’s alternative to Victoria Kahn’s argument about the world-making power of language. On Kahn’s account, this is a quintessentially modern premise, made possible by thinkers like Hobbes and Vico, who freed language from its servitude to theology and metaphysics, declaring it a self-sufficient form of creativity. Literature subsequently acquired a new authority, not because literature becomes the only way language is used creatively but because literary creativity reveals the fictionality of all language use, including theology and politics. In a regime structured by the conviction that we are the creators of the world we inhabit, fictionalized sovereignty superseded theological sovereignty. God in the sky was replaced by a guy with a pen. 

Sanchez points out that Kahn—like the modernity she celebrates—thereby rejects theology only to replace it with a creative power made in the image of the God it denied. The problem is not that Kahn or others fail to recognize the persistence of this particular theological structure. Instead, this failure is symptomatic of a persistent inability to see modernity’s insidious effects: it privileges the self-making individual over bodies marginalized or abjected by the power of personal and political self-creation. Two versions of fiction thus come into view. In Kahn’s version, language makes the world. In Calvin’s, language has the capacity to resignify the world. Kahn’s mode of fictionality abstracts from the material world. Calvin’s, by contrast, triangulates human and God with creation. And here, if I tilt my head (as Sanchez rightly suggests a reader might need to do), I have not just a glimpse but something approaching an embodied understanding of what Sanchez means by materialization, and how and why it is in play with Calvin in a way it is not for most theorists of language. For Calvin, knowledge of self and knowledge of God—each impossible without the other—both depend on divine revelation in and through the material world. The Institutes’s many references to material conditions and perceptions, are not incidental but essential. Calvin’s pastoral voice, his work’s innumerable invocations of human experiences of suffering and grief and joy and pride and uncertainty and despair, of actions and consequences and situations lamented or celebrated or disdained or embraced, all testify to Calvin’s insistence that the world should not be denied or escaped but experienced differently, offering the reader of the Institutes a “performative materialization” (140n50), “enabling new forms of participation within creation” (145).

Considering, finally, what these new forms of participation entail, and enable, it is worthwhile to peruse again the last few pages of Calvin and the Resignification of the World, where Sanchez returns to a comparison of Nietzsche and Calvin foreshadowed from the beginning. This incongruous pairing offers the reader the opportunity to consider how the book has provided new spectacles (to borrow one of Calvin’s favorite metaphors), the possibility of recognizing that “Nietzsche’s life-affirming asceticism and Calvin’s worldly asceticism” share not only “a way of using signs to cultivate the responsibility of the self to the world” but also “the insistence that the world—not the church, not the state, not conventional norms—offers the proper domain of signification and the proper site of the emergence of glory.” Calvin the proto-Nietzschean is no more familiar than Calvin the refugee and might well provoke the same initial resistance or dismissal. But if this is the reaction, it should give us pause, for in resignifying each of these thinkers, and their possibilities, Sanchez is practicing what she argues the Institutes teaches: poiesis, a fiction-making that is not unreal but, on the contrary, the ever-changing site of humanity’s created reality. 


  • Michelle Chaplin Sanchez

    Michelle Chaplin Sanchez


    Sanchez of Furey

    Constance Furey cuts to the heart of my most acute anxiety over the argument of this book and what it meant to release it into the world. Can, or should, I even pose the question of whether Calvin’s refugee status is analogous to figures of abjection today: victims of genocide and apartheid, the enslaved, imprisoned, stateless, migrants, unhoused? Those who are, in Judith Butler’s words, ungrievable: “An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all.” This description resonates with J. Kameron Carter’s critique of Agamben’s homo sacer, a figure who represents the exceptionality that props up a sovereign body politic insofar as their mode of life is both uncategorizable and intrinsic to the system itself in the way that the exception proves the rule. For Carter, Agamben’s critique of sovereignty can only take us so far because it effectively maintains the staticness of the abject “slot” rather than rethinking the operation of sovereignty from the vantage of those deemed abject. In other words, a static account of the homo sacer maintains the lie of what—of who—is incidental to the healthy body. Carter wants instead to begin from the accounts and experiences of those deemed incidental in order to rethink the very concept of “health.” I have suggested that because Calvin was, in fact, a refugee, Calvin’s Institutio can stand as one of these texts, as a record of the experience of abjection that both critiques the conditions of abjection and poses an alternative.

    Furey writes: 

    Reading and rereading this book, I have often paused at this question, always with the temptation to respond with a flat ‘no’. She’s talking about Calvin, I remind myself. Certainly Calvin is more complicated than his theocratic authoritarian caricature would suggest. But to align Calvin with the abject, the inglorious, those who view power from a position of exclusion. That feels like a reach.

    While Furey does proceed to reconsider her “flat ‘no,’” I want to sit with it for a moment. And not just because my own version of the “no” frequently tormented me at 3am, especially during the first six months after the book had been given a life of its own away from my computer, leaving me powerless to change it or take it back. When I thought about what faceless and nameless others might think of it, I felt ashamed. My greatest dread attached to how this suggestion might land for those refugees who did not receive the support of wealthy patrons and alternate networks of power, who were not able to relocate to a position of privilege and power in a nearby city where the same language was spoken, who did not enjoy the wide intellectual recognition of both allies and enemies in his own time, and so forth—the list could go on. And this is not to mention those potential readers whose direct or generational associations enslavement or genocide stripped them of even the barest hint of self-determination that may yet be accessible to a refugee. If those readers reject the suggestion that Calvin can represent abjection, I receive that humbly.

    I also want to sit with the “no” because it reminds me of what this manuscript looked like without the refugee frame, without the question of abjection, without the risk of opening itself to the kind of critical force that it might yield by virtue of listening to Carter’s argument. The first question that led me to this project, as a new doctoral student in 2009, was why Calvin presented providence as a doctrine of comfort. Who would be comforted by a God who omnipotently wills both good and evil? Assuming for the sake of argument that Calvin was neither stupid, wildly quixotic, or sadistic, what could he be after with this claim? This led me to the exploration of Stoicism and the concept of philosophical exercises. But it was not until I spent a year reading Nietzsche in 2011 that I perceived a philosophical, even a structural echo in the idea of an affirmation of the world that is capable of breaking the logic of resentment, a logic that upholds socially-constructed hierarchies of value that often go by the name “morality.” For Calvin, God is the figure who affirms the world and, in so doing, breaks the causal logics by which humans impose their own valuations on it. Piety, as a philosophical exercise, invites the reader to follow that gesture of affirmation and experience the world according to a kind of non-human logic through which existence itself is at the root of joy. Around this same time, I also spent a long time studying Augustine and began to discern another structural similarity with a crucial difference. Calvin follows Augustine in so many ways when it comes to pedagogy and semiotics. But where Augustine constantly points to the church as the material site of habituation—the place where one learns to live by the rules of faith and love—Calvin points to the world. Of course he does! His position, as a church reformer with no viable alternative institution as of yet, demanded it. 

    This, in sum, was my 2014 dissertation. Yet, as I continued developing my facility in both early modern history and political theology, I began to appreciate not just the way in which Calvin’s world assumed a deep intimacy between church and state as a social fact, but also the very contemporary stakes attached to the way scholars continue to locate the power attached to Calvin’s teachings. In other words, if those teachings for which Calvin remains best known—providence, predestination, discipline—remain indexed to the assumption that divine power looks for and legitimizes institutions (of church and state), then those teachings become what, in many ways, they have: identities that mark one as a member of a social body, as a “citizen.” If, however, those teachings are indexed instead to a divinely creative power that is always being materialized and rematerialized, that is never static, and that constantly unsettles institutionalized identities—well, then the question of the citizen is not just left open but constantly delegitimized as the question. This suggests a small window into something like planetary thinking. Insofar as God providentially affirms the world at every moment, willing a good beyond the institutional valuation of good and evil, divine power resides always-outside of social bodies. 

    It was only at this point in my living, teaching, reading, and revising, that Carter and Terpstra brought to my attention the profound significance of the fact that Calvin experienced exile from the corpus Christianum at a pivotal time in his life and career. It was something I could not “un-see.” It helped to address my initial question, the question of why this frightening reading of providence might comfort someone. It underscored the fact that Calvin’s distance from the church into which he was born was not merely intellectual but also deeply physical. And it gave historical substance to what I think it is fair to say has been an under-appreciated current of Calvin’s own legacy. Calvin has inspired a wide array of political praxis, but among these are liberationist causes and subversive modes of recognition. So, the only thing worse than putting a book into the world that suggested Calvin be read as a figure of abjection was to intentionally withhold that idea, and with it the historical force of Calvin’ critique of sovereignty.

    When Furey reconsiders her “flat no,” she observes that “what deconstructive readings do with texts alone, Sanchez seeks to do by reminding us of the multi-faceted realities of daily life, even, or especially, for those now canonized in positions of authority.” This, I think, is what gives me peace about the work I’ve put out there, even as I retain reservations that will likely never be quieted. There is an ongoing debate in our field—theology, and religious studies more broadly—over the status of the master’s tools, over whether (and how) we should keep teaching the dead white man canon. I’ll address this in greater depth when I respond to Ruben Rosario Rodriguez and Ted Vial, who both helpfully foreground the question of pedagogy. But in closing, I’ll simply note that a “both/and” on this question cannot mean simply widening the syllabus. It must also refer to how we read the canon. And the call here is not just to read the canon with a hermeneutic of suspicion, but to read it with ever-more historical rigor, a rigor capable of undermining the mythical and ideological power of the canon by drawing out the vulnerability, fragility, material relationships and even the physicality of these figures. I may not wish for every reader to rematerialize the world the way Calvin likely wanted—say, in strict adherence to exclusive scriptural devotion. But I do hope that a reading like the one I offer yields precisely the kind of re-materialization that Furey professes to have experienced: a new inability to “un-see” a fuller range of “material effects” stemming from Calvin’s “pedagogic process.”

Reuben Rosario-Rodriguez


The Engagement of Secularization in Michelle C. Sanchez’s Calvin and the Resignification of the World

Audacious. That is my immediate assessment of Michelle Sanchez’s bold and creative use of John Calvin as an interlocutor for modern political theology—especially Agamben—in an effort to weave a narrative other than Carl Schmitt’s tiresome fetishizing of authoritarianism through the misappropriation of divine sovereignty. And yet, I have some misapprehensions.

Sanchez chooses quite a stellar cast of modern and postmodern interlocutors when interrogating Calvin’s sacramentology to tease out a theoretical framework that is understandable and relatable to the secularizing discourse of modern political thought. Don’t misunderstand. I accept that the Protestant Reformation—and in particular John Calvin’s efforts to drag Christian spirituality out of the cloister and into the public square—contributed to the rise of secularism and the dominance of Enlightenment rationalism.

In fact, the appeal of Sanchez’s argument is that she provides a carefully contextualized historical analysis for understanding the political dimensions of Calvin’s understanding of the Body of Christ in its time and place while simultaneously constructing a viable political theology for the twenty-first century. Yet, there are certain temptations any scholar engaging the theology of John Calvin ought to avoid.

The biggest temptation is to read Calvin as a proto-modernist. I write this as someone whose engagement of John Calvin has been criticized for projecting a proto-liberationist reading onto Calvin.1 Therefore, it is vital to accept certain axioms when reading and interpreting John Calvin:

  1. God is an agent in human history. More than that, God is the prime agent in human history for those who have eyes to see. By contrast, Enlightenment rationalism is built on the premise that what pre-moderns identified as divine action in the world modern science can explain by purely material means.
  2. The Word of God enables us to see God’s action in the world. The image Calvin offers in Book 1 of the Institutes is that Scripture, as Word of God, serves as corrective lenses for our tired and defective eyes. In other words, Calvin addressed the Institutes primarily to those who have been reborn in Spirit, and not to the perpetuators of the secularized discourse of modern political philosophy and theology.
  3. Whether in matters of theology or politics, Calvin was not a fan of unilateral decision-making. Calvin’s critique of kingship, hinted at in the prefatory letter to King Francis, underlying the chapter on civil governance in the Institutes, and expounded at length in his sermons on 2 Samuel, is that no human authority can wield absolute and unquestioned power. Therefore, while Calvin was not a proponent of armed revolution, he did advocate the removal of tyrannical rulers by duly appointed magistrates (serving as God’s anointed agents).
  4. This distrust of authoritarianism is grounded in his theological critique of idolatry. Whether speaking about spiritual matters (the church) or temporal matters (civil government), Calvin accepts that the will of God is embodied in both the church and the state, but not identified or limited to either or both. In other words, God is present sacramentally in both the church and the state, for those with eyes to see, but to twist the doctrine of divine sovereignty to justify the unilateral and absolute power of the state (Schmitt) is anathema to Calvin’s understanding of God’s presence on the world.
  5. John Calvin was very much a product of the sixteenth century. Thus, while a defender of human dignity who envisioned a role for the church in instructing and guiding civil governance, he was not a defender of modern political liberalism, egalitarianism, and universal enfranchisement. Simply put, Calvin believed we are all born into our divinely appointed station in life and there we ought to find our vocation and contentment, so while he contributed much to the formation of the modern state we ought not to judge Calvin by contemporary standards of emancipation, enfranchisement, and social mobility.

Michelle Sanchez has accurately identified John Calvin’s critique of idolatry (265) as the guiding principle behind Calvin’s theological analysis of civil government and the reason why rather than view the state as the embodiment of divine authority on earth—or for that matter locating the same power in the church, as the medieval Church advocated—John Calvin employs the metaphorical language of sacramental presence to describe the dual nature of divine action in the world. In Sanchez’s language, Calvin never conflates the sign with the signified, but always struggles to preserve the uncertainty, open-endedness, and fluctuating aspect of divine manifestation in earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7).

As Michel Foucault, one of Sanchez’s many interlocutors brought into conversation with Calvin, has noted, practices that help liberate can very easily oppress. To counter Schmitt, divine sovereignty does not manifest itself in clear, unquestionable terms so authoritarian forms of government—whose ideal form is absolute dictatorship—cannot possibly originate in the divine will. John Calvin follows Augustine of Hippo insofar as he views civil government as a necessary vehicle for maintaining social order, and like Augustine would never argue that the state is the means by which God overturns our fallen condition.

And it is here that Sanchez’s book gives us a glimpse into the modern—or dare I say it—the postmodern Calvin. The kind of universal truth and objective certainty that Enlightenment rationalism strives for, especially in the natural sciences, lies forever beyond reach when discussing divine freedom and agency. Consequently, matters of theology and politics alike remain contestable and debatable, which is where Michelle’s book overlaps with my current interests.2.

Namely, how can we speak about divine agency—the concrete and real presence of God in the world—without confusing the sign for the thing signified. In other words, without making false idols of our theological constructs. David Tracy has opined, “Fragments are our spiritual situation.”3

In the modern era, the coherence and sweeping scope of theological systems has been called into question by the exactness of the natural sciences, so that Christian dogmatic claims no longer occupy a central place in Western intellectual thought. This dislocation of systematic theology in the post-Enlightenment era calls to mind one of the parables of Kierkegaard:

A thinker erects an immense building, a system, a system which embraces the whole of existence and world-history etc.—and if we contemplate his personal life, we discover to our astonishment this terrible and ludicrous fact, that he himself personally does not live in the immense high-vaulted palace, but in a barn alongside of it, or in a dog kennel, or at the most in the porter’s lodge. 4

The ambitious projects of systematic theology now stand mostly empty. Perhaps it is time for the discipline of theology to abandon the Platonic paradigm, which views knowledge as eternal and unchanging, and embrace the Heraclitian by acknowledging the open-endedness and provisional nature of dogmatic claims.

We are witnessing the gradual collapse of the Enlightenment’s grand narrative, described by Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel as an “ideological Totality” that facilitated the conquest and colonization of America, Africa, and Asia by disguising “oppression” behind the promise of “progress,” a reality mourned by some and celebrated by others. While the demise of the modernist metanarrative is all but certain, the question still undecided is whether some other metanarrative will rise to take its place. The fragmentation of knowledge need not signal a collapse of social order, though conflicting narratives can generate political upheaval and social unrest—even violence—as evidenced by the Capitol uprising on January 6, 2021.  

Most postmodern religionists recognize theology will never again ascend to its former place as “queen of the sciences,” yet still view the collapse of religious certainty into innumerable revelatory fragments with some degree of hope. Some theologians, especially those identified with Radical Orthodoxy like Catherine Pickstock, pursue the postmodern reassertion of a distinctly Christian metaphysics: “we live in an era in which pre-modern metaphysical approaches to truth are returning to view, and to a renewed viability.”5 Instead of forcing these tensions to fit the old and worn out narrative—pre-modern religion versus Enlightenment rationalism—a different story needs to be told; one that embraces religious plurality while transcending sectarianism. 

Theology is afloat and rudderless on a Sargasso Sea of competing, sometimes conflicting narratives; it needs to navigate a distinctly theological yet non-totalitarian course that meets the challenges of our fractured existence. Instead of building comprehensive systems, theological work ought to be fragmentary, occasional, and open-ended; scholarly yet public facing while engaging the pressing issues of the day. In my own work, I have identified five loci—problematic “myths” that still shape the intellectual, political, and religious landscape—the discipline of theology must engage in order to contribute meaningfully to the postmodern discourse: (1) The myth of human uniqueness, (2) the myth of the free market, (3) the myth of political sovereignty, (4) the myth of Christian uniqueness, and (5) the myth of materialism. While by no means exhaustive, this brief list identifies the major existential crises confronting humanity and accentuates the need for an explicitly theological narrative voice within the dominant secularizing discourse. Michelle Sanchez’s wonderful book, Calvin and the Resignification of the World, serves as a guidepost and model for others like myself to follow.

  1. See chapter three of my first monograph, Racism and God-Talk: A Latino/a Perspective (New York University Press, 2008)

  2. See Dogmatics After Babel: Beyond the Theologies of Word and Culture (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018)

  3. Fragments: The Existential Situation of Our Time: Selected Essays, Volume 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020), 22

  4. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 176–77

  5. Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), x

  • Michelle Chaplin Sanchez

    Michelle Chaplin Sanchez


    Sanchez on Rosario Rodríguez

    Upon reading Rosario Rodriguez’s first sentence, my first impulse was to imagine myself in a t-shirt emblazoned with a new personal slogan: “Audacious.” My second impulse was the opposite: to wonder what was audacious about my project, and whether the audacity Rosario Rodriguez spots is in fact the audacity I would want to be known for. So, that is the theme of this response. Audacious for what, to whom, and to what end? Rosario Rodriguez’s reflection on the state of theology specifically and the humanities more generally invites consideration of the disciplinary context of audacity, and that’s what I will focus on.

    Rosario Rodriguez seems to suggest two ways that Calvin and the Resignification of the World might be considered audacious. One points to the kind of audacity a serious scholar would want to avoid: the potential for presentism, which Rosario Rodriguez gestures toward in his five rules for what any Calvin scholar must avoid. Here, Rosario Rodriguez suggests that there is a methodological risk in even posing a conversation between contemporary theorists (of secularization, power, signification, etc.) and an early modern theologian like Calvin. Calvin’s putative motivations and convictions are so vastly far removed from the ones that I bring to my reading that I cannot even proceed without rendering Calvin as a prop for my own interests. Here, the audacity is presumably that I would be so bold as to do this with such a venerated and impactful thinker.

    The second kind suggests a more salutary audacity rooted in my re-reading Calvin apart from grand narratives bequeathed by modernity. I take this to refer, more broadly, to a reading that challenges the norms of disciplines in which those narratives remain sacrosanct. For example, some of the best scholarship on Calvin—whether reading him with a positive or negative valence—has heretofore fallen victim to its own kind of presentism by approaching Calvin with assumptions over power, orderliness, reason, truth, and progress that are quietly indebted to a kind of post-Enlightenment European triumphalism. By recovering a sixteenth-century Calvin who had idolatry firmly in his argumentative crosshairs, and who read human aspirations to systematicity as a mode of idolatry, I successfully critique the urge to system-building within the theological disciplines more broadly. Here, Rosario Rodriguez identifies an ally for his own project that asks “how can we speak about divine agency—the concrete and real presence of God in the world—without confusing the sign for the thing signified. In other words, without making false idols of our theological constructs.”

    Holding these two examples of my work’s alleged audacity side-by-side captures the ambivalence of “audacity,” or the way the term can signal both courageousness and offensiveness. To be audacious is to speak or act in such a way that norms are challenged. In that sense, the feeling associated with the recognition of audacity reveals something about norms, shared and often unspoken norms that govern the way things are done. Here, Rosario Rodriguez’s reflections get at a kind of Scylla or Charybdis quandary that feels familiar to me, to the feelings that in many ways set the trajectory of the project I felt was worth doing against the backdrop of existing Calvin scholarship. 

    The Scylla is the danger any scholar faces of fashioning a new object, a kind of facsimile, out of their object of study, which connotes a failure of doing honor to the difference and particularity of that object. This is a risk that attends to the power of the scholar as a representative, as someone who speaks for something or someone that is otherwise unrepresented in a discourse. Disciplinary norms, the norms that mark scholarship as “rigorous,” exist to lessen that risk. 

    The Charybdis is the fact that the disciplinary norms enabling a scholar to claim things like “objectivity” or “accuracy” are themselves subject to historicization. They are representations of the values of a given time and place that is itself not the time or place of the object. They are, for example, the values of the university, the church, the seminary, and so forth, in which the scholar was trained. 

    Both the Scylla and the Charybdis risk doing violence to the object by superimposing an alien subject (of the scholar as a person or as a representative of a disciplinary norm) onto it. Rosario Rodriguez’s two senses of audacity capture this double bind perfectly.

    When I was struggling to conceive the method of this book, such a double bind was never far from my mind. On the one hand, I knew I could not—indeed, had no interest in trying to—construct a strict and accurate portrait of Calvin-the-sixteenth-century-person. Others have done this task well. On the other hand, I also felt strongly that Calvin’s impact on intellectual and political life over the last five centuries had not been adequately characterized, that the portrait of an exacting visionary dogmatically committed to the authority of scripture, the sovereignty of God, predestination, and strict ecclesio-social discipline was missing something crucial: namely a compelling account of why these positions were persuasive to readers and to someone like Calvin himself. Here, it’s true that an array of theorists who are usually lumped in the “postmodern” camp (Foucault, Hadot, Derrida, Butler, Mahmood) helped me to think about things like rhetoric, habit, and philosophical exercises, and in so doing to reconsider the very terms through which subjects are fashioned. This implies that the very depiction of Calvin as a certain kind of agent who “asserted” certain doctrinal claims—as historically sound as those claims may seem within the bounds of certain disciplinary norms—is itself the product of sixteenth-century sensibilities grafted onto a liberal subject. Yet to open the question of the way Calvin’s own subjectivity was constituted leads to a series of impasses that can all be summarized in the perpetually-frustrated desire that stems from a Romanticized focus on Calvin the person. 

    This is why I ultimately turned not to Calvin the person, but to the book he produced as an object in itself, with shape, extension, texture, manifestations of various signs. It is an object that can be studied like any kind of artifact, with an eye to its shape and structure, its signs and signatures, and to the way it yields a complex history of uses and interpretations. It is an object with a sui generis kind of life, one that lasts as long as the book continues to be read, one that continues giving in different ways in different contexts, producing new insights and giving new gifts when encountered by readers who bring their own times, places, and concerns to it. By centering the text I was able to do three things simultaneously: (1) to think about the question of “broad impact” without presuming access to minds, whether Calvin’s or any privileged readers’; (2) to think about contradictory impacts without devolving into mere relativism, or the claim that a text can mean anything; (3) to avoid a reductive notion of belief, instead paying attention to how the text itself generates the conditions for its own persuasiveness. The focus on the text is at the core of the book’s claims, much like a metaphorical buffering agent that enables Calvin’s impact to be studied according to academic norms without slipping into bald presentism or a mere deference that reproduces existing academic norms. At the same time, I did not invent this method. There exist academic norms for how to read texts. Scholars of literature are careful to avoid confusing the text for the author, instead attending to shape and structure, repeated metaphors and turns of phrase, and reading “truth claims” in the context of the conditions set up by the text itself. These norms guided my reading, hopefully preventing it from devolving into a mere record of my own idiosyncratic response to the text.

    As Rosario Rodriguez has given me occasion to reflect on what I was trying to achieve on a disciplinary level with this book, I’ve actually become less convinced that my work is audacious at all. All I’ve done is take an object, bracket out some features that have already been studied and attended to other features that have been less studied, and done so with the aid of existing theories and methods. This, it seems to me, is a fairly mainstream description of what academics do. Yet I understand it is hard to avoid the feeling that a reading like this has somehow “changed the past,” which, as any time-travel plot reminds us, is the height of audacity. I have not changed the past. I may, however, have changed a reader’s sense of what the past was like, simply by practicing the absolutely ordinary art of academic description: by bringing some features to the level of “notice” that were, in fact, already there.

Ted Vial


Calvin and the Cultivation of Joy

Because my job at Iliff School of Theology is to teach the history of theology, I have had many occasions to be painfully aware that I was the only person in the room or on the zoom who didn’t despise Calvin. (A friend who is quite a good Calvin scholar wished me “good luck with those Arminians” when I took the job at Iliff. She has also referred to me, in a play on Peter Gay’s book on Freud, as a “Godless Calvinist.”) The issue is not simply free will and predestination, but the fact of moral repugnance at everything my students have heard about Calvin. And, at Iliff, it counts strongly against him that he is the deadest and whitest of the dead white guys. The argument of my dissertation advisor, B. A. Gerrish, that the central doctrine of the Institutes is not election but providence, that in fact Calvin places his discussion of “that dreadful decree” (Calvin’s own words) in Book III, which is about the benefits of faith, and not in Book I, which is about God, is a hard sell.

Michelle Chaplin Sanchez’s brilliant book operates at many levels: history, theology, political theory and political theology, secularization, among them. Perhaps most prominent is the level of pedagogy, and so I want to frame my comments in that register. The first practical result of this book in my life is that it gave me the courage to put Calvin on the syllabus of my introduction to theology class this winter. Can my students wrap their minds around Calvin, not the progenitor of American genocide (pilgrims, Thanksgiving, etc.), but Calvin the refugee? Sanchez’s central argument is that Calvin is not, or not just, a spinner of doctrines. Rather he offers his Institutes as a pragmatic interpretive guide to another interpretive guide (scripture). His project is that of an itinerarium, a pilgrimage or journey he takes the reader on that “enables a certain kind of living formation by activating memory and desire in the context of a teacher and a school” (62). 

I hope that the way Sanchez frames her argument will appeal to my students. The book begins and ends with fascinating discussions of political theology. In the world that Calvin is born into, the Corpus Christianum (the body of Christ) is a complex theological and social metaphor that operates on at least three levels. The church is the body of Christ (the Roman Catholic Church because it everywhere and always teaches truth consistently, and it can do this because of apostolic succession). The bread is the body of Christ (through transubstantiation, which makes this not a metaphorical but literal body of Christ). And the society is the body of Christ (the king being a human but also the earthly manifestation of divine rule). To quote Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, V, Proem, v. 10, (1596):

That power he also doth to Princes lend,

And makes them like himself in glorious sight,

To sit in his owne seate, his cause to end,

And rule his people right, as he doth recommend.

Now that’s sovereignty. To imagine society as a body means to imagine excrement and disease—the abject who must be expelled. The refugee. The  Institutes are an itinerarium or guide to the formation of a different kind of political subjectivity. “[T]he training on offer here is oriented around exercises of signification that train the believer to assume the right kind of posture before the sense in which the world itself signifies” (139). “Calvin’s providence reframes material creation as a domain of divine affirmation [the theater of God’s glory], as the proper site of transcendent divine glory—rather than, say, the church, and certainly rather than the state” (163). “This is not a blueprint for governmental power, but a more primary set of relationships to which governmental power must be held to account. . . . If the concept of a people—of “ourselves”—is to reemerge against a Corpus Christianum, Calvin’s text suggests it will have something to do with learning to signify our natural life the way that divine providence does” (175). This argument about bodily practices of subject formation that resist certain forms of sovereignty could not be more relevant to our current twenty-first-century context.

Sanchez’s book is paired on my syllabus with another book about formation, Willie James Jennings’s After Whiteness. I want to frame the introduction to theological education for my students not as an introduction to the history of doctrine but as an introduction to what Pierre Hadot calls the “transformation of the self.” In other words, theology not as a set of cognitive propositions, but as the “crafting of a certain kind of embodied subjectivity fit to read and navigate the material field of life” (Sanchez, 53). Jennings’s book shows vividly the possibilities of formation different than the formation towards mastery—a white male self-sufficiency derived from the plantation. Jennings, in ways that are interesting to put into conversation with Calvin, also wants to cultivate desire and attention to create academic communities that make “possible a reality of intimacy, communication, reciprocity, and mutuality that builds from a deepening sense of connection” (Jennings, 147). And so the quarter will be a balancing act in part, between Calvin the refugee and political transgressor and the critique of the kinds of Calvinist educational institutions that have exemplified and promulgated just the kind of mastery Jennings critiques.

Turning from pedagogy for students to pedagogy for myself, I want to frame the second set of reflections on Sanchez’s book by referring to the greengrocer of Vaclav Havel’s famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” The owner of a fruit and vegetable shop in Czechoslovakia in 1978 puts a sign in his window: “Workers of the world, unite!” He puts it there not because he agrees with or even thinks about the semantic content of the slogan, but because “if he were to refuse, there could be trouble. . . . He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life” (132). Havel describes Czechoslovakia in 1978 as “post-totalitarian,” not because it is no longer totalitarian, but because it is not a classic Stalinist dictatorship. It is totalitarian because of the millions of small actions individuals tolerate in silence, like putting a sign in a shop window. “For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system” (136). It is not a top-down sovereignty of totalitarianism, but a bottom-up, Bourdieu-ian one. The abyss between the “aims of the post-totalitarian system” (conformity, uniformity, discipline) and the aims of life (plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution) is parallel to the sovereignty of the modern world described by Agamben: “Modern governmentality exercises sovereignty by rendering unruly bodies manageable first by identifying their naturalized pathology (zoe) and then, by means of that knowledge, integrating them into an ever-more-refined disciplinary regime (bios) that constantly reproduces and reorganizes itself around implicit norms that are themselves naturalized through appeals to knowledge” (Sanchez, 153). Sanchez outlines three loci from which people might resist the governmentality (or providence, on some readings of that doctrine) that leaves no room for modes of human activity that prioritize human flourishing rather than production for the state or the economy. The Stoic locus is to cultivate ataraxia, calmness in the face of whatever the world throws at you. Early Christianity, in the figure of Boethius, advocates for the cultivation of hope. Calvin, who with his writings on providence and the incarnation points to God’s affirmation of the world, an affirmation that is prior to the church and certainly prior to the state, cultivates joy as a site of resistance.

I am not quite sure how to characterize our current situation. I am tempted to call it “post-democratic,” but Havel has already used this term for something very different. In Havel, post-democracy is a “parallel polis,” a non-bureaucratic, dynamic, open prefiguration of what might be the foundation of a better society. This is not our current situation. We have lots of plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, the characteristics Havel identifies as the aims of life. They are commodified and colonize every aspect of our lives. They run across lines and powers established by governments and states. They exploit global labor and data. They facilitate the doubling down on white supremacy. What is the site of resistance here?

Sanchez’s Calvin answers that we require a pedagogy of affirmation and joy beyond the institutions of church and state from which we can reform church and state. It is a pedagogy of the senses, and preaching and the Lord’s Supper play key roles. I find this a beautiful and potentially productive answer. For the godless Calvinists among us who do not keep the Sabbath and who will not be showing up for word and sacrament, I wonder where this discipline, this forming, this pedagogy can be found. I am hoping it might be found in some small way in my classroom (by which I mean online) this winter.

  • Michelle Chaplin Sanchez

    Michelle Chaplin Sanchez


    Sanchez on Vial

    Ted Vial’s description of Calvin as “the deadest and whitest of the dead white guys” (to Iliff students, who I’m sure overlap with HDS students on this) made me laugh. I thought I’d heard the full range of Calvin zingers over the several years since I started publishing on him, but this was somehow a new one for me. Coupled with the compelling image from Havel of the shopkeeper with the Marxist sign whose words had lost their power to startle, much less to liberate, I began to picture dead white guys like Calvin as such a sign, only affixed to the syllabi of systematic theology courses. Bourdeauian totalitarianism—something performed through a kind of surveilled habituation, not because the words carry their own force but because “if he were to refuse, there could be trouble…. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life.” Sometimes, when we are asked to give an account of why our courses should keep assigning the canon, this can feel like the real unspoken reason. The loss of credentialing via a set of endless citations that protect another set of perpetual deferrals, as it were. Yet as Jennings has taught us, if our pedagogical practices are perpetuating the logic of the plantation master, or of the carceral, then substituting different words won’t do much to change things. What is needed is a different relation—of vectors of desire and vulnerability, of the relation of self to land and place, to others. To texts.

    In my response to Ruben Rosario Rodriguez, I suggested that there is something important at stake in emphasizing the materiality of texts, their sense of embodiment, of continuity over time, of a capacity to give and give again, even “change” and surprise in reading after reading, in every encounter with a changing reader. Texts carry a kind of life that breaks the rules of historicism, even as historicism remains one important method through which to approach a text. Historicism illuminates a whole network of significance carried by the text that is crucial but not exhaustive. That which cannot be exhausted by historicism is that which might emerge from the kind of attention that I discussed with Amaryah Armstrong: a kind of devotion to reading that resonates with a devotion to the holy and elusive existence of another person, time, place, way of being. 

    For better or worse, texts like Calvin’s Institutio comprise a landscape that remains formative for many of us. Their pages are a stratigraphic layer, a sedimentation that comprises the stuff of a stubborn social practice. And if we are going to find some ground to stand on, beyond the reach of what is always-already commodified, it makes some sense to start with the actual ground and do our best to look at what’s actually there, holding us up. When it comes to the classroom, this should absolutely mean reading different stuff, the stuff that’s there but been ignored or excluded. And also: resisting the Bourdeauian totalitarianism must also involve actually reading what’s been there all along. Not just for its argument but for its topography, its weak spots and its beauty and its decay and its holes, even its completely unexpected power to get you over, to carry you through some kind of hard time like some kind of ghostly visitation.

    If the lie of cohesion, systematicity, and something like a pure self-consciousness that “grasps” itself via the world has been a powerful tool in the arsenal of a colonial imagination—if this, then a practice of reading that approaches a text unafraid of being frustrated or eluded, with a posture of kindness that is ready to laugh at the text’s foibles and conceits might point to another way. Recently, I’ve seen some think-pieces on the challenges posed by generative AI that gesture in this direction. Writing—once seen as a great way to learn, confronting students with the demand to rearticulate arguments in their own words and sew connections between disparate arguments—now represents the apotheosis of the kind of alienation implied in the posture of mastery, the posture that raids texts for a few talking points in order to show that you know them. That’s the kind of writing that Plato worried about in the Phaedrus, even as he took pains to communicate his anxiety in writing, crafting narrative layers to challenge the reader who might be “just trying to get to the point.” Havel’s story feels like the exact fulfillment of Plato’s worry. It depicts the way that words can be perpetuated through a practice that deactivates their force. (This is something like what Sara Ahmed in several places calls the “non-performative,” for example when utterances of anti-racism reinforce racism by diffusing the kind of material and structural changes that are needed.)

    Like many colleagues, I have made deliberate efforts to diversify my syllabi in ways that are performatively effective. In other words, I want not just to add diversity, but to upset the inherited notions of canonicity and disciplinarity that are bound up with the practice of white supremacy. However, as someone whose job description involves teaching many of the “dead white guys,” one crucial way of doing this has been to foreground the diversity the students themselves bring into the classroom. This is rooted in my aforementioned conviction that texts and readers share a mutually vulnerable and generative relationship to each other, and that students should lean into the way a text might surface their own experiences, desires, and frustrations as they read, rather than following the urge to repress their positionality in the aim of mastery. For this kind of encounter to succeed, I have found that two things are needed: the time and freedom to struggle. And I don’t think it’s overstating to say that these are radical needs. Time and the freedom to struggle run exactly counter to our contemporary economic values of efficiency and uniformity, values that encourage workers to seek the shortest route to the necessary information while being seen as a team player rather than a “problem.” These values are bound up with safety in a society that lacks a social safety net. So to make my classroom a safe counter-place must mean, for example, giving students short enough readings that they have time to read and making space for them to chew over their readings with honesty in the space of the classroom.

    But here’s the thing, and it’s strange to say, but here we are. To the extent that my own formation has entailed a “transformation of the self” away from this kind of late-capitalist subject, I kind of learned a lot of this from Calvin. Not by imbibing the arguments Calvin is famous for or even the beliefs he likely held, but by taking the time to struggle and argue with him and, along the way, noticing all the ways the text records his own struggle. His struggle to love what’s hard to love, to exist when it’s hard to exist, to keep getting up each day when it’s easier to stop, to care about something, to take wrong turns.

    What would happen if Havel’s shopkeeper (and his fellow workers) had the time and freedom to retrace and dwell with the words on the sign?