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Thanks to Jason Lief for covering for me yesterday. I spent the better part of a week earlier this semester in Amsterdam and it seems I’ve been scrambling to catch up ever since. I was over there partly to talk about my new biography of Abraham Kuyper—not that I’m exactly conducting a book tour, but interviews and talks keep popping up. With them, as sure as sunrise, comes a reference to “every square inch.” It’s the interviewer or an audience member who brings it up, not me. Me? I’d like to see the phrase retired for five to ten years, if not forever.
Let’s set the background. In his famous speech opening the Free University in 1880, Kuyper said, “There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!” This has become Kuyper’s most famous statement, at least in North America. So popular that most people don’t get the quotation right, sometimes not even close. But the sentiment’s attractive, and the line’s becoming something of a mantra among culturally engaged evangelicals. I worry lest it join other phrases on what I call the evango-babble list. Like haveyouacceptedtheLordJesusChristasyourownpersonalsavior. Like juswanna: Lordwe/IjuswannathankyouhereLordforyour/my/ourfillintheblankitude. Everysquareinch—Kuyper doesn’t deserve that fate.
My friend and one-time professor Richard Mouw said at our Amsterdam event that the square inch statement might need to be retired for over-use in Dutch-American precincts, but that out in regular America it’s still exciting, a breath of life. Ok, I get that. Over against any kind of body-soul, nature-grace, fulltimeChristianservicevs.secularwork dualism, Kuyper’s words insist that God can—must—be served anywhere and everywhere. No better jobs or worse jobs before the Lord by how “spiritual” they are. No writing off whole sectors of culture or society as inherently worldly, or privileging others as inherently good. No more traditional pietist (Victorian?) hierarchies. I get it, and endorse it.
Here’s my beef. In announcing that any work can be God’s work, we run the risk of saying that any work is God’s work. That whatever we want to do, we may do and put a God stamp on it. Wherever, however, with whomever, with all the standard rewards in that field. You don’t need Kuyper to crown the main chance with piety; all sorts of Christians in every tradition have been at it for centuries. Plus the inference is a whole lot short of what Kuyper said, and what the Gospel teaches. So if we’re going to intone “every square inch,” let’s have some riders attached.
First, let it be recalled that Kuyper called these God’s square inches, not ours. Thus, no career ambitions quickly baptized with Jesus talk. Rather, another occasion for obedience and cross-bearing and counting the cost and such like practices that Jesus used to describe the life of faithfulness. Ok, joy and fulfillment too, but alongside of—in tandem with—the others. In fact, I’d personally insist that Rider #2 be the marching orders that the Master gave to the disciples as they were empowered and sent out into the world (Matthew 10). You will be as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
Let the full Kuyperian mantra then read: welcome to God’s square inch, sneaky bird. As you check out the circling hawks, you jolly well better have some critical theory at hand, grounded in the Gospel if you please. But you have to use it for, you have to walk all the while in, the ways of peace. This would be a fair facsimile of what Kuyper’s thought and career came to. Granted, he had some issues with “the ways of peace” but you get my drift. No riders, no “square inch.” “Every square inch” with riders? Let the hard thinking begin.