Pushing the Limits of Theology

An Interview with Michelle Sanchez

Assistant Professor of Theology Michelle Sanchez joined the HDS faculty in 2014. Her work puts the histories and theologies of the Protestant Reformations, and John Calvin’s writing in particular, into conversation with both a rich tradition of past scholarship and fields which, until now, have not engaged deeply with Reformation material. Her interests stretch from the doctrine of providence and Calvin’s concern with signification to political theology, law, secularization, and modern politics. Professor Sanchez spoke with the journal about the overlap of theology and lived experience, as well as about her relation to her field, her pedagogical goals, and the legacies of the Reformations.

I wanted to start with a general question. How would you describe your project and interests, and where do you see them going in the future?

Michelle Sanchez: I am officially in the field of theology, and I have great interest in theology as a discipline. My project, as it stands now, is my dissertation, for which I am actively working on getting a book contract. It’s the kind of thing that—when you get a job, if you get a job—right out of grad school, you spend the first year or two trying to find the right publisher and to re-craft your dissertation into a book. In a very logistical sense, that’s what I’m working on.

But I guess the way I’m approaching this answer is by thinking about kinds of publishers. It’s another thing you don’t really think about as a grad student. I didn’t think about it; I just thought, I’m going to write about what I’m going to write about and respond to my committee. You look at publishers—they have very specific agendas. My work is in the field of theology, but I’m interested in rethinking what theology is, disciplinarily. That has to do with having a more capacious view of how theology functions in society, one that includes things many people wouldn’t necessarily label theology but that, if you study the tradition, resonate with religious practice and thought. I’m interested in, for example, political theology, and the crossover between theological conceptions of law and the way law gets talked about outside of theology. There are a ton of terms that get transferred and complicated in interesting ways. So my work is interested in challenging these boundaries, and in challenging the boundaries of theology—but when you pitch that to a publisher that doesn’t do theology, even if they do literary theory, ethics, religion, or politics, they’ll say, “Oh, your work sounds really great, but we don’t do theology.”

I am interested in remaining within the field of theology, but also in always pushing those boundaries a little bit. It’s a problem when these fields get treated as so distinct from one another and hermetically sealed. I think we all benefit from sharing methods, especially when there are all kinds of questions circulating about where the humanities fit. One of the ways the humanities can make a contribution is by realizing the very porous boundaries between all of these different fields as well as the way that, in working together, we can contribute to our understanding of society. That approach can shed real light on thorny questions we all face in politics, public life, the economy, or ethics.

How do you see your work in relation to scholarship on the Reformation, as that’s such a huge body of work? And how do you see that dynamic as working out with Calvin in particular? Those are such canonical texts.

MS: That’s a question I think about a lot. When I first started working on Calvin, I was very self-conscious about working on Calvin. I didn’t want to be seen as just another Calvin scholar, and I didn’t want to have to define myself strictly by the terms of that field as it exists. I was uncomfortable with the idea. But over the last several years—writing my dissertation, and now on the faculty—I’ve tried to build relationships with people in Calvin studies and to know them personally. I find that their work is really helpful, even though the places I want to take Calvin, and the circles in which I want Calvin to be read and thought with, are not necessarily the ones Calvin studies scholars have already created. They’ve still done a lot of really helpful work, and just because I might want to find ways to move beyond the scope of their work doesn’t mean it’s not excellent work on which I rely heavily.

In some ways, I feel more comfortable in that circle: I need them, I like them, and they have been gracious to me. Sometimes, before you know any better, you’re afraid that people who have an establishment don’t want newcomers, but I think that sells most people short. Many people are interested in thinking beyond existing boundaries, and Calvin scholars also care deeply about how theology matters today, or why people should continue to read Calvin. There could be some fuddy-duddy who doesn’t want things to be done differently, but I don’t think that accurately describes most people. What they care about, and what we should care about, is that you’re doing your work well. If they have a critique about how I’m writing, I want to know that critique; I don’t want to be doing bad scholarship. Then we can have a discussion about whether other methods are useful, but that can be—and it has been for me—a mutually beneficial discussion.

I see myself as a kind of an ambassador from Calvin studies to outsiders. Not to promote Calvin in any kind of confessional sense. Sometimes people get confused about that, and as any scholar of religion knows well, working with religious writers can lead to that kind of confusion. Occasionally people think I’m an apologist, but I definitely don’t see myself that way. What I do think is that Calvin’s writing is interesting enough that more people should care about it, much in the same way they care about someone like Augustine. Plenty of people read Augustine as a political theologian, or as a major figure in the late Roman Empire, or as a philosopher, and they don’t feel they have to be a Christian, or agree with all of his work. But because of the way Calvin has been talked about in public life, people do get the idea that if you like him, it must mean that you are a Christian or are within the Reformed tradition. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to test the waters by publishing outside presses that do theology, and that’s why it was important at least to explore. I want people who are not self-consciously doing theology but who are interested in the intellectual history of the modern West to think, “Oh, he’s an interesting thinker.”

Everyone across the board will admit that Calvin is influential. But they think they already know why he’s influential, because they’ve read Weber, or they’ve read a number of other people who have some generally Weberian take. Weber’s been critiqued from a number of angles, but he still persists. They say death by a thousand cuts—Weber’s got a thousand cuts and somehow his argument about Calvinism hasn’t died. There is something obviously compelling about the connection between Protestantism and capitalism: you look around and all the Calvinist societies are at the forefront of a certain kind of capitalism. I think that’s why Weber’s argument still lives, but that doesn’t mean his analysis is as full as it should be. That’s in part what I’m trying to offer. We all agree that there’s a resonance here, but if we read Calvin more closely as a philosopher, as a literary artist, or as a community leader, we’ll get a much more complicated view of this connection. It will resist Weber on some level, but it will also help us understand why that resonance is there.

Could you talk a little more about how your rereading of Calvin interacts with Weber’s work?

MS: One of the major angles from which I read Calvin has to do with his interest in language and in the function of words, or what I more generally refer to as signification. Sometimes the term signification comes off as a more recent, theoretical, “postmodern” term, but Calvin actually talks about signification a lot. It’s an important term in theological history—Augustine had his famous theory of signs, for example. One of the fascinating things for me is that interest in signs, signification, and language drops out at some point in early modern or modern philosophy. Kant, who is hugely important in almost every area of understanding what it means to be a modern philosopher or think in modern categories, doesn’t talk a whole lot about language. He talks about concepts, understanding, senses, and yet he doesn’t put a lot of weight on how language works communally to shape or obscure our concepts of things. That’s been a growing interest in philosophy more recently, but it’s not new.

Readings of Calvin suffer from not attending to the complicated ways he’s using language. For example, when people read Calvin as emphasizing the use of scripture, it’s very easy to read him anachronistically as taking scripture and trying to impose it on the world, or as setting up a theocracy through the rule of scripture. But a close reading, I think, compellingly reveals that he’s got a much more complicated view of how words relate to the world—it’s much more of a negotiation. If you recognize the complex way that language is working to shape the world and the reform of the world—especially for Calvin, as he’s interested in reforming Earth, the city, and the church—then it’s hard to read his views of predestination, or any doctrine, in such a stringent, authoritarian way.

It could be true, and I think it is true in some cases, that Calvin’s complicated view of how language and teaching works got simplified, and that it became something like, “God is determining everything, and you’re either saved or not saved.” People were anxious about that, and maybe it did make them work harder to look for signs of their salvation on earth, as Weber argues. I don’t contest that this kind of reaction might have happened, more than once. But if Calvin’s own writing is more philosophically and theologically complicated than that, then there’s a good chance that other more complicated stuff happened, too. People still read his writing, and writing works in complicated and unpredictable ways. Part of my project is to show that there are other effects of this body of writing that carry within them an internal critique of what has become the dominant interpretation of how these doctrines worked.

If we want to critique the way capitalism works today, or the way we view authority or revelation, it is helpful to see how complicated these views were in a major thinker, and then to use that reading as an immanent critique. I think it’s important for some forms of critique to be embedded in a living tradition that has already been forming societies in complicated ways for hundreds of years.

Could you talk more about the stakes of this, of going back and rereading Calvin, especially in relation to people in political theology or similar fields?

MS: My interest in going back to a canonical figure like Calvin came from reading Foucault, Derrida, people who are working on genealogy—in the general, less technical sense of the word—or writing a history of the present and how we came to hold as central the categories that we use today. The question, then, is how we learn to critique those categories that exclude much of what human life and human embodiment entail. I see myself as contributing a tool for rereading Calvin in a complicated way. Part of the project of genealogy is looking at the nuances of signs and signification, with a certain kind of confidence that these signs have effects in shaping the world. Likewise, we can trace the way they’ve been negotiated and shifted incrementally to give us the world we have today. If I can do a more exhaustive study of how the signs work in Calvin, of how the text is shaped, and of how the arguments are made, that’s precisely a way of bringing out the complexity of the present. Part of the goal here is to remember other ways of being beyond the ones we take for granted. They’re often embedded in these traditions that are still living, but that these traditions themselves have forgotten. It’s a project of memory, a project of recovering.

If you look at Derrida, for example, many of his books are, in a sense, commentaries on some canonical work. The Gift of Death is on Fear and Trembling, and he rereads Kafka in Before the Law. In some ways, I see myself as doing a similar task, rereading a major figure who, for whatever reason, hasn’t yet been reread by contemporary figures. I think this is a project that we will benefit from continuing for some time, until we’ve exhausted its usefulness and moved on to something more useful for the future.

Agamben, for example, does a lot of this kind of work. He recently wrote a book on providence, right at the same time I was working on providence. Lucky for me, he didn’t mention Calvin at all, and Luther only in brief. He’s writing a history of the present around the terms of economy and governance, looking at historical views of providence, and somehow he doesn’t talk about the Reformation at all. There are probably complicated reasons for that—I don’t presume to know what they are. Maybe he didn’t think it was important, maybe he wanted to tell a story that was older than the Reformation. But that still leaves open a space to say, “if I agree with your methods, but then I read these other texts, what does that do to your argument?” That’s part of my project, too.

You teach about the Protestant Reformations, but you also teach about modern questions, the religious right, and more current topics. How do you see those two areas relating to each other in a topical sense, or even in a pedagogical sense?

MS: Usually when people ask me what I teach, I say I teach on the Protestant Reformations and their legacies. So in some ways, that’s the encapsulation of how these things connect. The religious right class that I taught is specifically focused on recent appropriations of Calvinism that have come to be known as Christian Reconstructionism, and which have affected the American religious right intellectually in complicated ways. That’s actively changing, even as we speak—I need to think more about where that movement stands now. But it was a huge force in the 1970s through the 1990s. Even if its relevance is decreasing on the political landscape in the United States—which I’m not entirely sure is happening—the intellectual roots of the movement remain an important piece that’s often missing in public rhetoric. In other words, understanding the way a certain appropriation of Calvinism gave, and continues to give real intellectual weight to the religious right. Often, the religious right gets written off as anti-intellectual and undereducated, which is just not true; it’s a different type of logic. So that’s my stake in that class.

But there are also other classes. For example, I’m teaching a course coming up called “After Luther.” It starts with Luther, moves through Kant, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, and ends with Bonhoeffer. That is also a legacy of the Protestant Reformation and it’s also interested in politics. You can’t not be interested in politics and theology when you end up with Bonhoeffer. He’s taking a very present political and ethical crisis and thinking about it with his own theological tradition. In a way, it’s a course that was conceived backward, because Bonhoeffer brings together Kant, Nietzsche, and Luther, in order to think through what it means to take part in a plot to execute a head of state. How do you as a pastor, a Christian theologian, conceive of that? He draws on all of these resources, all of which point back to topics that Luther helped to make important. Luther was at least one well-known, early modern public intellectual who shape these topics about which everyone had to care. Take the question of what it means to follow the law or not follow the law. How do you relate to the law? Can you even follow the law? How do you think of a form of goodness outside of the law? How do you deal with your own inability to be a good person in relationship to an unknown and uncontrollable entity such as God, an unpredictable sort of overseer of your world?

That course is an example of a legacy question as well—what are the varieties of ways in which early Protestant theologies were negotiated, rejected, and re-appropriated? But in all cases, whether it’s the religious right or the impact of Luther and Calvin on mainstream modern philosophy, it has to do with, once again, this question of how theological ideas are deeply inscribed in questions that concern everyone, whether or not they identify as religious, or Christian, or even Western. In part due to globalization, and in part due to the colonization that preceded globalization, many people have some stake in being familiar with the complexity of questions so that they can find ways to be effectively critical of their effects.

The other branch of courses I teach has to do with doctrinal categories. Those are a little less connected to the Reformation in particular. I’m teaching a course in the fall on providence, called “Life before Death,” and I’m teaching a course in the spring on arguments for God’s existence. My providence course starts with Job, Plato, and the Stoics, and it moves through Christian theology and modern philosophy to several novels and ends with contemporary film. It passes through the Reformation, but is far from limited to the Reformation. Similarly, the existence of God course starts with early arguments and asks, “What are these arguments hoping to achieve?” I’ll say from the outset that most of the time I don’t think the authors pictured someone who didn’t believe in God suddenly believing because they read the argument or heard the argument. So the question is, what’s actually going on with the attempt to provide an argument? But similarly, I start early and move through the Reformation—which for the most part didn’t actually attempt to prove God, the reformers weren’t concerned with that—before looking at more contemporary debates over God’s existence, and how they differ from the more ancient project or medieval project of talking about confidence concerning God’s existence.

What films are you using in the providence course?

MS: Melancholia and Hugo. They came out roughly at the same time, but they’re very different films. One is animated; one is super realistic, mythically realistic. Part of my choice of those films is idiosyncratic—I watched them when I was working on the early part of my dissertation, and I thought, “There are so many connections here!” Both of them deal with the question of how meaning is constructed in the absence of what would seem to be an outside intelligence giving us meaning. When they hear the term providence, people think, “I know that term, it’s a theological term. It has to do with Christian theology.” When I ask people, they answer that providence is the Christian belief that God orders the world and gives it meaning and its final conclusion. But if you look at basically any text that deals with providence, it’s a lot more interesting and layered than that. Providence—especially for the Stoics, who deeply influenced the way Christians talk about it—has to do with giving human beings the resources they need to face questions that they can’t ultimately answer. In the absence of knowing, how do you deal with calamities? What are the practices you do to organize your world so you can face the next day? Maybe you’ve been given a diagnosis that you’re going to die. How do you properly live those next three weeks? Maybe there’s life after death, maybe there’s not; I’m sure very few people who are facing death are absolutely certain. So how do they live and how do they draw from these resources? Melancholia is about the absence of any kind of meaning in the universe at all, and then the end of the world. What does it matter how you die? Does it matter if you have a good death or a bad death? Does it matter if you commit suicide? Hugo is about the modern view of the world as a machine, and finding your place in this machine. Can being part of the machine provide meaning in the way we want?

How did you arrive at Calvin and the Reformation, and what drew you to them originally?

MS: The obvious answer—and if I gave any other answer and somebody researched my past, they’d say I was lying—is that I grew up in a Reformed church, where Calvin was the main guy, the one everyone cared about. But that fact actually made me not study Calvin for a long time. When I went to college, I thought, “I already know that, I want to study all these other people.” When I was doing a master’s, during my third year or maybe at the end of my second, I took a course on Reformed Christian thought. I didn’t intend to take it, I just went the first day to see what it was about. The way it was presented intrigued me, so I took the course.

Even though I grew up in a Reformed church, I had never read Calvin. I know now, from talking to other people, that this is pretty common experience. You think Calvin is one thing, because you hear him talked about in a certain way, usually in very conservative communities. And then you read him, and you realize he’s way more interesting and complicated than you thought. I didn’t, however, necessarily come into my PhD thinking I was going to work on Calvin, but as time went on, I realized I had a unique perspective. Most people who don’t have the familiarity with the community don’t care about Calvin, or they think everything has already been written. But growing up in the community, having the exposure to that alongside the academic world, gave me a kind of ability to see the complexities of Calvin’s theology and his influence.

Why should somebody care about the complexities of a community of which they’re not a part? Sometimes people can generate that, but it can be hard to generate when the community has gotten so much ugly press. Why would somebody want to study Christian Reconstructionism sympathetically, for example? Unless, like me, you grew up in it and you constantly—even though you’re very critical of it—have a sense of the human beings who are part of it. I felt I could bring this to the table and that it gave me a head start with already having a kind of ethnographic familiarity. I don’t write ethnographically about these communities in a formal sense—these are memories I’m dealing with, and to a certain extent ongoing relationships. But I’ve found that it’s always helped my academic writing to have a sense for the humanity of all involved.

I don’t know what other people say about how you come to your topic. It’s a snowball. You start working on something, people find it interesting, you work on it more. Pretty soon you have a project. You’re not going to go start another whole project when you’ve got a snowball waiting here. But I like it, I’m glad it happened the way it did. It wasn’t anything I had by design.

Looking back at your time at HDS, what were the most valuable resources for you while you were here, or the things you think were most influential in how you have developed as a scholar?

MS: I wasn’t one of the more social people, partly for reasons of personality, partly just because I was busy with all the other stuff I was doing. So at HDS in particular, the resources I had were the two everybody has: classroom and professors, and Field Education. Field Ed especially was important. I switched from MTS to MDiv, and part of the reason I switched was that I wanted the chance to work in a church. Of course, Field Ed can take place at any number of sites, but for me, it was important that it was a church. The sense I had, as I was discovering who I was as an academic, was that I had a whole lifetime of experience in these church communities that already gave me conceptual tools helpful in asking questions about things like the doctrine of providence.

But also I had a sense that, even though I was an academic, I didn’t want only to remember the past: I wanted to be involved in living communities in the present. Switching to MDiv and doing Field Ed in a church turned out to be the best decision ever. I’m still involved in that church. It’s a community that’s very different from the Harvard community. It’s in South Boston, and there are a lot of different kinds of people there. I go there for a number of reasons, but it is always an invaluable experience to see how theology continues to live in ways you can’t study in a book. The way sermons that are preached get interpreted by people—people who don’t care at all whether something is correct traditionally, or from what authoritative source someone is drawing from when they’re saying things. No, that’s not on the table, but the words are still having an effect in how people form their ethical relationships. It’s an honor for me to continue to be a part of that, but also to observe it, because I can’t help but observe it.

The opportunity here at HDS to do both on-the-ground work and academic work is something not everybody has. You could go somewhere and get a really good academic education, and you can go somewhere else and work in a church, but HDS brings them together really well.

Finally, I want to ask specifically about teaching. What are your goals in the classroom, and what have you found useful in achieving them?

MS: I love teaching, and I always loved teaching. It’s frustrating the extent to which you have so many other things to do. I also get the sense that you could be a middle-of-the-road teacher and, if you’re publishing good stuff, your career’s going to be better than if you were an excellent teacher and not publishing or publishing bad stuff. On some level, I wish I could have adequate time to be the best possible teacher there is, because that’s really, in the end, what I care about.

I used to ask my old advisor all these questions. I wanted to know the meaning of theology, or how theology can be useful to the world. I was constantly worried about what every academic is worried about: how many people are going to read my book? A few other people who are in my exact field. It’s even unlikely that they’ll assign in it classes—though don’t tell publishers that. If you’re teaching a class on Calvin, there are so many secondary sources, what are the chances they’re going to pick mine to assign along with the readings? He said to me, “I always said that, on my tombstone, I would want printed my name, father, husband, teacher. Because teacher, in the end, is really what it’s about.” When you think about it, it’s not just that teaching is a joy. You also get a whole bunch of people in your classroom who might not read your book, but they will take your class. You end up with hundreds and hundreds—maybe a thousand if you’re in the field long enough—of people who you’ve been able to impact in some way, even if only five people read your book.

Teaching is really where it’s at—I really believe that, and that’s why teaching is important to me. At the same time, it’s true that there’s a real symbiotic relationship between research and teaching. Your teaching stays vital if you stay vital, and the way you stay vital is by reading stuff that’s coming out in the present because your work needs to address that as well. There’s a whole system of incentives that do work, provided you have enough time in your day to make it all happen.

Regarding my teaching goals: I want people to read the canonical sources I teach and come away being glad that they read them, having developed an appreciation as well as a critical lens through which to think about these texts’ efficacy in the present and future. I recognize that on some level I’m forwarding the tradition of reading a small number of white men, and that there are problems connected to that. But I want my students to understand that we don’t only read them because they were on top of the power pyramid. That was a huge factor in getting their name out there, to be sure, but we read them also because their ideas were, in some cases, interesting and good, and in every case influential. It’s the influence that we need to understand in the end, even if we don’t like the fact that we have to keep reading these same people. If we want to understand the world we need to understand their influence. I want my students to have a kind of critical lens through which to see how these ideas have lived on, and then also be open to taking them, and having them live on in positive ways, insofar as there is positive stuff to carry forward. I want people to think with what they’re reading, and about how language, and the organization of language and communities, affects the way we think and the way communities are formed, and bounded, and fight with each other. All of that is embedded in reading theology.