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Transforming Kuyper

By November 8, 2013 One Comment

Had a great discussion with faculty colleagues last night about my biography of Abraham Kuyper. Some of the people in the room had been reared in Kuyper’s tradition, some had come up against it from other parts of the church world, and everybody had their own questions about this or that strand in its program. I went away from the conversation pondering two themes, and what they implied for each another.

First, from his own program and from personal testimony in the room, it’s clear that Kuyper was profoundly appealing to people of modest means and background, not least because he sympathized with their state, valorized their potential, and inspired them with a big picture of what they could do—of what they could be—in the service of the Lord. On the other hand, lots of Kuyperian invocations today come from fairly well-heeled people in pleasant places who feel pretty comfortable about the world and their prospects in it. Talk of Christian cultural activism in such circumstances can readily morph into claims about transforming culture, then take on tones of triumphalism, even boasting. Leading to the question of whether you can induce desirable phenomenon A without warranting noxious syndrome B.  

I’m not sure. To get people into, and keep them at, the long hard slog of work in academy, politics, business, the lab, the arts, etc. with a Christian motivation, Christian consciousness, and a supple, ever updating Christian critical outlook is difficult, to say the least. Take the Christian out and substitute any program of integrity—same thing. You have to have a few triumphs and the prospect of more to come to keep you at it. In the current American context, of the big nation that can’t except for blowing up brown people on horizons far away, it’s enough to make you give up, cultivate a piety or mysticism that allows (the illusion of) a pure self or separate peace, or just go for the big bucks so as to have more money to give to folks busy saving souls for eternity.

One important corrective, a colleague argued, is to cultivate a far more robust ecclesiology than most Kuyperians favor—one more in keeping, in fact, with that of the master’s early career, when he took the incarnation very seriously as the wellspring of the church as the continuing body of Christ in the world. I very much agree with the sentiment, except that sooner rather than later that church is going to have to get serious about bearing witness to God’s call for justice in the world, and God’s wish that we celebrate and enhance the goodness and beauty all around us. That is, even the church refurbished will have to get into the cultural, political, and scholarly action game, which throws us back on the question of how to motivate for the aforementioned long hard slog.

Another option is being enacted by college students today, another colleague offered: think local, seek small victories, live out a testimony of integrity in relationships and the details of the daily round. No grandiose Kuyperian fantasies here of world-historical movements which Christians can harness and ride and steer toward Kingdom come. Rather, small people realistically tuned to the hard prospects of a narrowing future in a harrowing world. This has a lot of my sympathy too—the honesty, the keen eye for the delusions of those who would fight the Lord’s battles better than the Lord could, leaving no little wreckage along the way. But it’s not just Kuyper who didn’t work this way. It was also King and Mandela and Gandhi who never underestimated the grand potential in small beginnings—and then worked to build from the small to something much larger, breathtaking, epochal.

Does transformational necessarily spell triumphalistic? Maybe so, but maybe less if we keep the danger in mind as we go along. Is transformationalism even Kuyperian? I came across the concept very rarely in the man’s writing, and then as ‘metamorphosis,’ an organic process that happens beyond the intentional powers of the being so in process. The T word is more clearly rooted in the confidences of the Protestant mainline in mid-20th century America; it was H. Richard Niebuhr who coined it from the heights of Yale Divinity School between calls to his brother Reinhold in upper Manhattan. They could then go on to call up the Secretary of State, the director of the CIA, and the head of the nation’s preeminent communications complex (that would be the Dulles brothers and Henry Luce) without leaving their common denomination.

Perhaps our proper aspiration, then, should be to enact a faithful witness to the ways of God in the world, which are corporate as well as personal, and which—duly seen and broadcast about—will work enough in the mysterious way that seems to be God’s favored mode of operation in the world. Sufficient to each day, and age, the mutations thereof.  

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One Comment

  • I think you've arrived at James Davison Hunter's model of "faithful presence" (in To Change the World)–which I've always seen as resonant with a non-triumphalist Kuyperian vision. What most folks miss in Hunter's proposal is the centrality of ecclesiology. I think this is a deeply Augustinian stance.

    Thanks for a rich conversation.

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