I got to Geneva too late. I should have gone ten years earlier, back when I was what is called in the Calvinist world “TR”—“Totally Reformed”—meaning a diehard, uncompromising Calvinist. I was once a student at a prominent Reformed seminary, reading the brightest lights in the Calvinist world, including, of course, the great Genevan theologian himself, John Calvin. Professors at my seminary and pastors of Presbyterian churches sang praises of Geneva, that great homeland of Calvinism that lies only a stone’s throw from the original L’Abri Fellowship, founded by twentieth-century Reformed thinker Francis Schaeffer. I yearned to see Geneva. Yet that anticipation and excitement has long since dissipated, or perhaps it drowned when I swam the Tiber for Rome. What I found, as I wandered historic Old Geneva, is a void and colorlessness reminiscent of a Reformation-era church stripped of every last embellishment.
My first stop during my pseudo-pilgrimage was the Cathedral of St. Pierre, built in the twelfth century upon the ruins of earlier cathedrals dating back to the fourth century. Presumably at one time it was full of color, imagery, and statues. Now, post-Reformation, the interior of the cruciform, late-Gothic church structure is eerily vacant, stripped of every vestige of Catholicism. There is no rood screen, no side chapels, and no decorative art apart from simple images on a few stained glass windows. All is vast, sparse, whitewashed silence—there is nowhere to aim one’s genuflection and nothing to draw the eye’s attention but empty crosses. In an irony that cannot be lost on those responsible for the building’s upkeep, one of the few extraneous items is Calvin’s personal chair, situated prominently near the pulpit where he preached. One wonders what pronouncements the Frenchman, who rejected the Chair of St. Peter, offered ex cathedra.
Next to St. Pierre is the International Museum of the Reformation. The gift shop where I purchased my ticket sold, among various history and theology texts, copies of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” comic books. The various rooms featured a summary of the successive generations of the Reformation and post-Reformation. Oddly, each exhibit included a summary noting that the epoch in question featured many who questioned traditional Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, miracles, or the infallibility of Scripture. If each sequential generation was defined by doubts regarding the core tenets of the Christian faith, no wonder there are so few Calvinists left! It would seem that an unavoidable consequence of the early Reformers’ rejection of Church authority is a skepticism towards any authority, Holy Scripture included.
Maybe the museum curators are simply being introspective and honest about the consequences of the Reformation. This certainly appeared to be the case in the final exhibit, which charted the fruits of sixteenth-century Protestantism in the modern era. Various placards attributed a broad diversity of theological and ecclesial movements as well as theologians and evangelists to the first Reformers, including Aimee Semple McPherson, the Crystal Cathedral, Joel Osteen, charismatic movements, process theology, feminist theology, Death of God theology, Unitarians, biblical criticism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich among many others. In Catholicism, it is joked that “here comes everybody.” In Protestantism, one might instead say, “Here everybody chooses.”
I told a museum employee that there was no mention of Protestants who had judged the Reformation a mistake and thus returned to Catholicism. He looked perplexed, as if this was preposterous. “In this part of the world,” he declared, “one would not see such a thing.” I cited Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, with whom he was unfamiliar. I suppose I could have offered Swiss-born Adrienne von Speyr or French-born Louis Bouyer, though I doubt it would have mattered. He simply shrugged his shoulders and remarked: “Well, anyway, all these faiths are so close together—there’s little difference.” It is a sentiment quite common in the West. Though, if true, why was a Reformation required, and what purpose does this museum serve? Is it akin to some roadside historic marker, meant less to instruct than to note “The Reformation happened here”?
In truth, the first Reformers confronted legitimate crises. The Catholic Church of Luther’s and Calvin’s day suffered under the weight of tremendous corruption and theological confusion. The Reformers, though I now perceive them mistaken, earnestly believed they were doing Christendom a great favor. Indeed, it was a time of tremendous spiritual fervor and anticipation. Yet it soon devolved into bloody conflict. The Thirty Years War took the lives of approximately one third of the population of the German states (though one cannot ignore the political motivations of both sides); the eight Protestant-Catholic wars of France resulted in the deaths of three million people. The intellectual and spiritual exhaustion that must have enveloped Europe in the aftermath of these conflicts helps explain, though it does not justify, the Enlightenment and its cynicism towards institutional Christianity, be it Protestant or Catholic.
Nevertheless, a visit to Geneva makes the legacy of Calvin and his cohorts painfully clear. There is the disturbing diversity of beliefs and traditions that stem from the Reformation (made illuminatingly clear in an ever-expanding ecclesial family tree available in the gift shop for ten Swiss francs!). One may also visit the International Monument to the Reformation in a nearby park, where, included with Calvin and other early Reformation figures, there is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan butcher who committed genocide against a fiercely independent Irish people who refused to abandon their Catholic faith. Ironically, few Calvinists (or even practicing Christians) remain in the city that once served as the center for Reformed missionary activity.
This is not to say that religion is absent from Geneva. Yet another descendant of Calvinism and its rejection of traditional ecclesial, episcopal authority is the aggressively secularist, globalist moralism of such international institutions as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the International Organization for Migration, all of which have offices in Geneva. In a way, they carry on the unique character and mission of Calvin—who, while lauding the individual conscience, demanded fealty and obeisance to his unquestioned supremacy—by arrogantly demanding the world accept their own moralistic, individualistic, tradition-eschewing worldview. I am not suggesting that Calvin would be proud of modern Geneva, though his own repudiation of tradition and authority (he even banned Christmas!) inevitably set this course in motion. What was once a spiritually vibrant city is now as spiritually impoverished as the cathedral in which Calvin once preached.
(Photo credit: International Monument to the Reformation, Geneva; Rostislav Ageev / Shutterstock)