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Him and His Calvinism

By William E. McKibben

In the Beginning

"I remember walking in my backyard when I was three and thinking about God. Looking at the green grass and the moss on a stone--that's all I can remember, but somehow it was very proto-spiritual." Twentieth-century Harvard produces few Calvinist theologians, but this morning it will graduate one Charles Dana Klingensmith '82.

Beckley (pop 20.492) sits in the southern coal-mining region of West Virginia, "not exactly desolate, but certainly way out in nowhere." Klingensmith's family has lived in the Mountain State since the 1840s, but they're not hillbillies--Charles is the third generation to earn a Harvard degree, and his father is a thoracic surgeon. Not snobs, either, though--the Klingensmith home may have been an "oasts of civility," but its younger members were taught "a deep appreciation for the people who lived around us and for fellow West Virginians."

There is coal money in Beckley now, but it's "inequitably distributed...The people who are poor are poor." Klingensmith says. "It's all government-funded poverty, and it comes largely from just shiftlessness. At least the poor in New England keep their property tidy: they don't in West Virginia. There's garbage strewn all over." And the people who are rich, mainly mine operators and speculators, "do not wear their money well." One summer Klingensmith worked on a construction crew building big private homes. Minutes after the plumbing was installed in one, the rumor spread that the toilet seat was made of gold. "They wear diamond rings next to their leisure suits, which are maybe purple or nice green."

In between there's a solid working class, and a few families like the Klingensmiths. "We learned to think critically, we were trained to read a lot: we didn't watch TV" And in a state described on its "Welcome to West Virginia" border signs as "The Closest P'ace to Heaven," a state where a town of 3000 might boast a dozen churches. Klingensmith learned about God, in the backyard with the moss and the grass, and in a relatively liberal Methodist congregation.

The Call--to God and Harvard

On May 23, 1977--Klingensmith's junior year at Woodrow Wilson H.S.--a preacher from England arrived at the United Methodist Temple, and began to preach "marvelous fiery sermons," drawing big crowds on three consecutive nights. Each evening, while the sweat cooled on his brow, the minister held question-and-answer sessions with the congregation. "I would go and just sit," Klingensmith remembers. "As I was walking out of church one night the preacher accosted me, and told me he was God's messenger to me and that I was going to be a minister. I said, 'Well, what if I don't want to?' and he said, 'I'm sorry. He will get you and you should plan your life accordingly. The next night, Klingensmith was getting a drink of water: again the preacher approached, and, pointing to his white clerical collar, said "'Remember what this means...It means you will be a slave of Christ.'"

"That's as convenient a point as any to say that I actively began to think about becoming a minister, and it soon became a very appealing idea," the straight-backed, short-haired senior says. "I was not drawn to the ministry for any reasons of pity for my fellow man, or any sense of social justice...It's the kind of story that doesn't happen much anymore."

Proof exists, in the admissions office file marked Klingensmith, of his longstanding plan to become, a preacher. "I wanted to be a minister before I came here, but I had also always been interested in pure academic studies. I came to Harvard specifically because I wanted to study Reformation history." He might have gone to Dartmouth, except that "Harvard had tutorials," and, "having grown up wearing Harvard sweatshirts. I thought this would be the place."

A Year in the Yard

"After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust." So begins an early (1643) manifesto of Harvard's aims; in those days, it was a rare graduate indeed who did not take to the pulpit once his sheepskin was secured.

In this era, despite a national religious revival. Harvard does not do much at all about the problems of the illiterate ministry. "A lot of the people who want to become a minister know that before they go to college," Klingensmith says, and "frequently, and unfortunately, religious young people are not critically minded. They're not concerned with studying things properly and being introduced to challenging ways of looking at things that could impair their own religion." And so, they steer clear of Cambridge.

For Klingensmith, who says he arrived in Wigglesworth a "wishy-washy liberal Methodist," Harvard has meant substantial shifts in his religion. At first, eager for friends who were "both religious and could articulate exactly what it was they thought about religion," he "started associating with 'religious' people." With some exceptions, though, "most of them didn't really have things well thought out, and they were not tolerant of non-evangelical Christianity. And I've never considered myself an evangelical."

That in itself is something of a story, for if West Virginia is not the buckle of the Bible Belt, it's not far from it. But evangelicalism--or, more precisely, fundamentalism--has never much appealed to Klingensmith. "My Methodist church was liberal in its beliefs, and was often attacked for it; fundamentalists are a very bigotted bunch. My father's religion is generally undogmatic, and tends toward ethical, not theological matters," he explains. "The fundamentalist God seems to be an American: if he's not white, then he's a very nice Black man. An idiot. For all their claims to profound Biblicism, I think they neglect God in all his great majesty and sovereignty, and in his right to judge. They short-change God's glory and by doing that they short-change his grace."

And so Klingensmith began to reexamine his faith, attending first the local Methodist Church and, then Harvard's Memorial Church where he eventually became head usher. The Rev. Peter Gomes' preaching, he says, is "outstanding and very helpful," but "I got involved there because I wanted to worship with my fellow undergraduates...I don't like the denominational spirit in general, and this was a good chance to escape it for four years." As well, it was a chance to watch friends who "go to church once a year, coming in unwashed, unshaven, with the sand still in the corners of their eyes." For someone who believes "the whole point of a church is to be inclusive," that was refreshing.

Fill 'Er With the Unleaded

From Akron and Columbus and Fort Wayne they come, heading down the West Virginia Turnpike to Myrtle Beach and the sun, driving all hours of the day and night. In Beckley, they get regular and unleaded at one of those big service stations that dot the interstates. And for the past two summers, Klingensmith has passed up internships and fellowships and the high-paying jobs held down by his peers, and instead squeegeed windshields and checked oil by the side of the freeway. "Every summer when I go home I make a point of getting an ordinary job." Working the nightshift--11 p.m. to 7 a.m.--with a crew of locals, Klingensmith has his "chance to keep in touch with the area," and with its people. In this case, "its people" means the filling station crew of 20, of whom one other has a high school diploma. "Basically, they thought it was a bit funny I went to Harvard. A fair number of them had never heard of the place, didn't know what it was, which suited me just fine." The others wondered why he was studying religion and Asian history, not law or business. "The good friends I had at the gas station didn't really try to understand. They accepted the fact I went to Harvard, and laughed at it, and moved on." One ex-con shared the Saturday night chores with him. "It was very slow, so he brought a chess board with him...He'd learned to play chess in prison, and he was superb. I'm a lousy chess player, and he would best me every time. But we'd play for hours, chewing tobacco, which he'd supply one week and I the next."

Dealing with "the same idiot customers" and working for the same boss helped bridge the gulfs between Klingensmith and his fellow pump jockeys. "Our topics of discussion were cars--certainly not my Honda, but the other guys' souped up Nova--and woman, especially the female customers. There was always a fight to see who was going to get the most attractive woman...We sort of lived from one attractive customer to the next."

When he left the station to return to Harvard, Klingensmith made one "solemn pact" with his friends: he would tell anyone, whenever the subject came up, that they "ought to tip their gas station attendants...Generally, only very kind people--ministers and the like--tip. Even if it's only the change on a dollar, that's fine... If they're very saucy, then there's no reason to. But otherwise, they should be tipped, and tipped generally for their work in the rain and sun.

Calvin and Kirkland House

Having followed his father to Harvard, Klingensmith decided to follow him once again, moving to Kirkland House as a sophomore. "It was the only house I wanted to come to. I liked everything about it. It wasn't ostentatious, with a huge tower like Eliot or Lowell." His freshmen roommates preferred Quincy House so Klingensmith ("I wanted Georgian; I didn't want video games") floated into Kirkland. "My Kirkland House experience has been indescribably pleasant. I wouldn't live anywhere else."

Klingensmith discovered another passion sophomore year. After convincing the History Department to give him credit, he began trekking to the Divinity School for a course on Calvin. "I thought I knew something about Calvinism, and it seemed pretty abhorrent--beliefs in predestination, election, sovereignty." Despite extensive reading, Klingensmith ended the semester still convinced it was "rot. But I also realized that if it was rot, it was also very hard to answer, very well thought out. Over the summer I began to think on it, and realized it represented a very coherent and scripturally "accurate approach to religion," not the only approach, certainly, but one that is "satisfying to me."

The sovereignty of God is at the center of his Calvinism, Klingensmith says. "God chooses what he wants to do and does it, chooses who he wants to save and saves him. It is a sovereignty of grace, a sovereignty very much tempered by love, unconditional love." Calvinism, as practiced by its originator in Geneva, was the "preeminent social religion, and I've become more socially conscious from my reading of Calvin," he insists. "Pure social action is useful, and it gets a lot done. But without religion, speaking in eternal or ultimate terms, it will prove fruitless. Because the world is at last God's."

A College-sponsored survey uncovered this year showed Kirkland House swollen with varsity athletes, and with fewer top-notch students than any House in the school. At first glance one would not expect Klingensmith--tweedy, bespectacled, soft-spoken--to fit in. But he insists the House is a home, and a happy one. "Every one I met I liked; everyone--jocks, politicos, the rest--were really friendly." Klingensmith's willingness to defy some ministerial stereotypes made the four years easier. "I think its kind of funny that people think I'm straitlaced. If they see me with a beer in my hand, they say 'Aren't you going to be a minister?' And I say 'Yes.' I don't explain anymore. Martin Luther loved his beer." And so Klingensmith travels to Wellesley with some frequency ("I'm chaste as far as it goes. But I drink a lot. I suppose it's a remedy for fornication.") and even confesses: "I've slept in puke before."

One memorable Saturday night sums up the two sides of his personality. Driving back from a Wellesley sorority with three Kirkland House buddies, Klingensmith passed out in the back seat of the car. "These guys were hungry, so they drove down to Chinatown, and parked in the Combat Zone at 4 a.m. I was too drunk to move, so I spent an hour in the back seat of the car. I remember being taken home, and helped up the E-entry steps. Miraculously, I woke up at 10, took a shower, and went to church. I was still drunk. It wasn't until the middle of the sermon that I sobered up...I was able to control myself; I wasn't wobbling. It's just like the buzz any priest would have if he chugged a glass of communion wine."

Charles (not Chuck or Charlie) Klingensmith will enter Harvard Divinity School in the fall.

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