I'm no historian, but it seems to me that the most significant battle ever fought at my alma mater--and the college where I taught for 37 years--was one I missed, a battle waged between restraint and change, between fear and hope, between tradition and discovery, between yesterday and today.
And the winner was today. It's now forty years in the past--perhaps the smoke has cleared sufficiently for some talk about it, even though most of those who care about the place probably couldn't care less. Back then, 1973, profs departed--some by choice, some not. Men--and women--drew breath from emotions that bellied up closely to hate, emotions fired by the determination to live by first principles.
Here's an anecote no historian of the era has ever recorded, but I'm told it happened. One of the lieutenants of the forces of restraint walked into the office of the President, armed with a particularly lethal weapon. "Mr. President," he said, after an argument that was going nowhere, "I pray every day for the future of this college."
What he was saying is that God is most clearly on our side, and not yours.
The President reportedly said, "____________, those prayers never get past the ceiling."
It's hard to imagine a more impious answer. (My sources are unimpeachable--or were.)
That's how pitched the battle became, perhaps inevitably because two visions of the college's mission were so decidedly different. When the fighting ceased, the old pietism had lost; what won was a wider view of both the college and the world. What lost was what had been; what won was what might be.
The whole tussle was a miniature of the battles being waged elsewhere in American culture, religious culture and not so, in the intemperate wake of the late 60s, when we all went to war about race and war itself, the Vietnam War. Dordt College was a victim of all that strife, landmines planted all around.
I think it's N. T. Wright who says that, in order to prosper, the church has to place one foot firmly in the past and the other just as firmly in the present. Sounds easy, but things get tipsy when either foot gets too much weight. He might well have been talking about a college or a business. He might well have been talking about a family. He might well have been talking about each of us. Most of our lives require a balancing act, in biblical language our being in the world, but not of it.
What exactly does that mean? Talk amongst yourselves.
In James Bratt's impressive Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvuinist, Christian Democrat, he quotes Kuyper, an spiritual lieutenant in the 1973 battle for the soul of Dordt College even though the man never heard of the place and had died long before the first building had a cornerstone. At the turn of the 20th century, Kuyper was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, a politician extraordinaire, a preacher of great renown, and a journalist like few in his day or ours. He gathered a following as all such powerful personages do, and those disciples carried his influence to North America in two separate immigration movements--at the turn of the 20th century, and then again, after the Second World War.
Kuyper's views of politics and the Christian life were extraordinarily fresh. In many ways, he reupholstered Calvinism, Dutch Calvinism at least, taking what had atrophied and building new strength with fresh ideas and thoughtful principles. When he did, he created a movement some of those 1973 combatants saw as a battle plan. His forces were those who fought for change, for a broader vision, a more pronounced role for the Christian soldier in the pitiched cultural battles of Siouxland and even the world.
Bratt's biography offers a portrait of the Abraham Kuyper, warts and all. Not all that glitters is glorious in the man or his life, we discover. But what this incredibly learned intellectual history illustrates plainly is how Kuyper rose to the power he did and why.
At an 1896 synod of his own orthodox Christian denomination (the GKN), Kuyper offered the church a renewed role in the world. "Brothers," he said, "I believe in the future. I believe in it with all my heart. . ."
What a shocking thing to say for an evangelical. Yesterday, in church, a wonderfully warm preacher began his advent sermon on Christ as the Prince of Peace by asserting something most of them already believed--that the times are treacherous, are perilous, are dark with sin and sadness. His intent was to light the way for his own exploration of Christ's gift of peace, especially during this advent season: thank goodness that in this sin-darkened world, Jesus Christ offers us peace otherwise unattainable.
Most in that small crowd would assent, of course: things are bad, bad, bad. Many evangelicals today are convinced we are in the last days, "the world" as overrun by Satan's minions. It's really difficult for me to imagine some TV preacher standing up and saying what Kuyper did: "I believe in the future. . ."
There are many reasons to study Abraham Kuyper's influence, but one certainly has to be what seems the treacherous boldness of actually believing in the future. "As Reformed people we have not just the Netherlands alone," he went on to say, "but on the great world scene still a future, still a calling, still a holy task entrusted to us."
To me, all of that is fascinating--and no small part of the impulse that created the battle at Dordt College in the early '70s.
Oddly enough, it sounds today a great deal like the voice of someone in the news, another religious man, someone vastly more prominent in the strange, pointed hat he sometimes wears, a man who lives in Rome, a pope who it seems want to throw some new light on our being in the world, but not of it.
Or so it seems to me.