Calvin: Fasting

Did people in your church ever do the Daniel Fast? I’m showing my heritage here – in the States you’d associate it with the evangelicals. It’s very much a pop-Christianity phenomenon. I didn’t think Calvin would have anything interesting to say about fasting, to be honest, but here we are. In Book 4, Chapter 12 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin describes fasting as a type of humiliation (s16). That’s the first thing that stuck out to me – again, I’m used to it being a very ‘wow, much faith’ kinda exercise. You’re not really fasting unless everybody knows about it. Calvin, on the other hand, quite rightly says that “there is nothing which God more abominates than when men endeavour to cloak themselves by substituting signs and external appearance for integrity of heart” (s19). It’s a very basic run on Matthew 6. An external performative faith is false, unless it is matched by integrity of heart.

But Calvin actually runs his argument a little further. Integrity of heart is important, he says, because the external act of fasting has absolutely no merit in and of itself. There is no advantage or good merit to the act of fasting. It is exclusively about the inward state of the heart. “Another evil … greatly to be avoided is to regard fasting as a meritorious work and species of divine worship … it is a thing which is in itself indifferent” (s19). This idea gels with Calvin’s previous arguments about the difference between the internal conscience and the external action. It’s the same logic, applied unsparingly to fasting. The external action matters less than the state of your heart.

But! It gets funkier. If we follow that logic, there wouldn’t seem to be much difference between somebody who actually physically fasted and someone who did not physically fast but who really felt very strongly about the idea of it. If the act of fasting is meritless, and if it’s all in the mind, then having a fasting heart should be meritorious regardless of whether or not you carry out the action. Calvin gets around this problem by saying that the actions of the body are a genuine and in fact necessary expression of your state of mind. Back in section 15, he affirms that fasting is “properly a feeling of the mind.” But, he says, “when the mind is effected as it ought, it cannot but give vent to itself in external manifestation.” So the important thing is the mind, and the body’s not important, except in that when the mind is truly affected by something, it manifests through the body. You feel a compulsion to fast in your brain, and your body reveals that compulsion by fasting. So it’s not that the physical act of fasting is unimportant, it’s that the actions of the body are manifestations of the mind. This idea helps to clarify that first quote about substituting signs for integrity of heart. Imagine: you get all these people going around, being genuine and doing things out of the kindness of their hearts, and then some dumbass turns up and goes hey, if I do the things they’re doing, I’m good too. And then he does them out of a sense of box-ticking rather than out of the genuine goodness of his heart, and suddenly he’s corrupted the whole process. He’s turned it into a merit or performance game instead of renewing his inward being and allowing his actions to flow naturally out of that.

So we can see how it’s a pretty compelling argument. It’s definitely something that circulates in our culture today. We might point to the concept of authenticity – you know, you’ve got to be authentic, you shouldn’t be fake. Shouldn’t be doing things just for how it looks. That’s the whole premise of people hating influencers, who pretend to enjoy things for money. We can’t trust that an influencer’s actions are a genuine manifestation of their true inner being. On the other hand, maybe this approach is a little too simplistic. Maybe it’s giving too much to this mysterious inner self. Let’s pose a couple of other scenarios. Say, for instance, you’re really stressed. Say you’re anxious – panicky, even. Is it really a good idea to express your inner truth by screaming and running around and having a panic attack? Or is there maybe some value in rejecting what your mind is doing, taking some deep breaths, and calming down? Similarly, I’m not sure what this theory would do for impulsive people, or with people who have bad instincts. Those groups seem like people who shouldn’t be told to be true to their hearts, because they’ll go off being impulsive and just wreck things.

I’m not saying that the existence of these people sinks Calvin’s theory – we could probably bolt extra bits of theory on and keep it together in a real ad hoc kinda way. But the idea that your outside ought to reflect your interior truth – it’s not as true as Calvin might like it to be. Sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it shouldn’t, and sometimes we actually do things to our outsides in order to calm or regulate our insides. We exercise, for instance. Similarly, sometimes what’s on our outside creates the identity that we have on the inside. Take skin colour, for example. It’s something that in all likelihood has played a major part in your upbringing, something that’s shaped your identity and selfhood in a really significant way. In that instance, what’s outside of you gave rise to what’s inside of you, rather than vice versa. Plus, actually, it would be weird to try and argue that being Asian (for example) is an external expression of some inner truth – unless you want to argue that race is actually primarily spiritual, and that Asian people manifest certain physical characteristics because of their inherently Asian souls.

We’re starting to get away from Calvin’s thought here. He does argue that the mind necessarily manifests itself in an outward expression, and that fasting, done properly, is the natural physical expression of a penitent mind. However, he also talks about fasting as a way to mortify and subdue your flesh, and therein better focus your mind towards God: “we certainly experience that after a full meal the mind does not so rise toward God as to be borne along by an earnest and fervent longing for prayer” (s16). That sounds like the body influencing the mind – similar to the exercise thing. So it’s not entirely a one-way street. However, what I will point out here is that the influence of the body on the mind seems entirely pernicious. Calvin wouldn’t vibe with the exercise example – for him, the body only influences the mind in bad ways. It stops you praying earnestly. It needs to be subdued, mortified, brought under control. At best, a well-regulated body can accurately manifest the inner spiritual truth felt by the mind. At worst, it’s a grubby bloated distraction, taking you away from the contemplation of God and further entrenching you in your base, corrupt existence. There’s still a hierarchy between body and mind, specifically in the spiritual capacity of each. In Calvin’s view, the body isn’t all that spiritual. And if you mistake it for spiritual, and try and reproduce spirituality by copying the actions manifested by true believers, you’re committing the highest form of abomination. It’s a lot more than I expected to get out of a chapter on fasting, anyway.

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