Levi-Strauss, Calvin and the Good News

By Greg Jones

Claude Levi-Strauss died recently at age 100. Perhaps the most influential anthropologist of the 20th century, Levi-Strauss revolutionized Western thought before his own lifetime was half-over.

His major contribution has been to undo an earlier notion popular in Western civilization that ‘civilized’ people were categorically different types of human beings from ‘savages.’ He argued that all humans have the same kind of brain, and all human societies are deeply complex and rich in meaning and significance. These days, we all recognize that ancient cultures, prehistoric cultures and modern cultures each have great depth, complexity of meaning, etc.

Levi-Strauss believed that beneath all human societies are structures and forms which are universal to the human being wherever and whenever he may be found.

I probably agree with him on these two points.

I disagree with Levi-Strauss, and many of his scientific disciples, when it comes to their fatalistic or deterministic beliefs. Yes, Levi-Strauss was committed to the idea that human beings are inexorably fated by nature, genetics, and other impersonal forces of the universe, to fairly determined outcomes in life.

I believe in free will, on the other hand, and I believe it is part of human nature just as much as our DNA.

In a couple of ways, Levi-Strauss reminds me of another famous Frenchman — John Calvin. He also changed everything in his time and place, and many to this day consider themselves his disciples.

Calvin also saw a universal structure beneath all human order and society — and that God put it there.

Like Levi-Strauss, Calvin believed humans were equal — but in his particular way of seeing us all as equally depraved, hateful to God, and bound to produce societies and systems of meaning all sinful and bent away from God’s love.

Calvin was also a determinist who believed that an Absolutely Sovereign Lord God had determined before Creation that some would be born to live, die and be condemned to Hell — while others would be born to live, die and be saved.

Now, I agree with these fellows on certain points.

Again, I too agree all humans are equal — from caveman to Frenchman, every man to any woman.

I also believe there is a deep structure to the cosmos, and our human essence carries it within us.

But, unlike Levi-Strauss, I believe the structure of things is not soul-less material, and I don’t believe we are but pawns of natural fatalism.

Like Calvin, I think God has created the cosmos and is the author of its forms, structures and laws. (And I believe mathematics and science are capable of discerning what many of these are.)

But unlike Calvin, I don’t believe human beings are created equal only in our capacity for sin.

We are not merely alike in sin and mortality — but as bearers of God’s image — and owners of sacred dignity and an inborn likeness of God as persons capable of choice, of free will, of a capacity to love and serve; just as God chooses to love and serve us.

You see, I believe Scripture teaches this revelation about human nature — and that Christ himself is the fulfillment of God’s wish for human nature — and that Christ is in fact the deep structure of the cosmos. Yes, I believe that human beings are beautiful vessels made by God to carry on His structure and essence, and that far from being worthless, we are priceless to God — which is why he loved us so much that he took human form, died on a cross, and redeems us from sin and death.

Yes, I believe Scripture teaches all this, and Jesus fulfilled it, and that in fact Christ has already forgiven us, defeated the long-term goals of Satan, and is now like a mother seeking to gather us up who wait for Him.

To me — the deep face of the cosmos is not that of an angry despotic sovereign, or a distant swiss watchmaker, but a humble mother who suffers the loss of everything, but keeps the faith, adopts a new child who has also lost it all, guides her in love, and becomes the forebear of a redeemed human family. Like Naomi.

I believe the deep order of the cosmos isn’t reduced to earthly laws and requirements, but is in fact the beating heart of the Holy One who gives mercy, hope and love to we who so desperately need it.

The old widow who gives all she has in faith is more like God than John Calvin or Levi-Strauss — who seem to believe either God is all-controlling or non-existent.

The old widow who gives up every last bit of power and control that she has (and it’s all only worth but two small coins) and yields it to this God of mercy — and says, “Lord, I’m giving you all I have, and now I am trusting that you will take care of me.”

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ, my friends, is that He will. And it is in our thankfulness for God’s loving mercy that we begin as disciples. Our thanks for God’s mercy is the basis of our life in Christ – as disciples and missionaries of the Gospel.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones (‘Greg’) is rector of St. Michael’s in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

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