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Kuyper’s Legacy

By January 18, 2014 3 Comments

Last week (in “Get Out Much?” January 11) Debra Rienstra asked me to weigh in on the question of what might be the appropriate image capturing Abraham Kuyper’s prescription for Christian engagement in the world. Bunker? Encampment? Plaza (meaning mall? Definitely not that.) Arena? (Better.) I find her concluding preference for orchard, or vineyard, particularly winsome, and I think Father Abraham would appreciate it too, especially because it’s so biblical.

Kuyper himself favored military images. His newspapers were named The Standard and The Herald, and he often used metaphors of combat, titanic struggle, desperate battle. Of course, it was an age of heroic language, the era of muscular Christianity. Lead on Oh King Eternal (1887). Onward Christian Soldiers (1865). Dare to Be a Daniel (1873), which he quoted on the floor of Parliament! Two world wars and the whole bloody twentieth century have taught us to be wary of such language, though we must in fairness remember that Kuyper and his contemporaries lived prior to all that. The man was stunned and deeply shaken—not to mention financially bankrupted—by the outbreak of the first war, now exactly a hundred years ago.

The legacy of separate Christian institutions that grew out of Kuyper’s work in the Netherlands the Dutch labeled “pillarization”—each religio-ideological group inhabiting its own column of consociation, cradle-to-grave. At another place Kuyper imagined Dutch higher education as a collection of ideologically defined universities that were hermetically sealed off from each other, communicating not in person but only via a “post office.”  But then again, he pictured the universe of knowledge as a tree, everyone sharing a common trunk and root system, but different schools of thought—including Christian—diverging ever farther apart from each other as branches the greater growth and maturity they attained.

Pillars. Armies. Islands. Branches. Not much hope of colloquy there. Not much of a truly engaged conversation with religio-ideological rivals, an ideal or expectation that we entertain—realistically?—today. Kuyper witnessed the rise of a truly comprehensive secular naturalist worldview that was confident—with good warrant—of defining and being deployed through a complete, hegemonic standard of university training. He didn’t foresee that tide receding, coming into self-doubt, or leaving any room for “faith-based” rivals—or partners—in thought. In that light the “triumphalism” often ascribed to his name doesn’t fit very well. “Faithful witness” is much more appropriate—“faithful witness” zealously deployed, ardently proclaimed, but (on his expectation) not sweeping on to grand victories. Enough for him, much of the time, for believers to realize and live up to the full scope of their calling. As it’s happened, the Christian cause in Kuyper’s native Europe has been spare of victories for a century. It’s been quite otherwise in the global south and east, but those were lands that the (on this point) Hegel-saturated Kuyper dismissed out of hand with respect to future world significance. From that angle “God’s comedy shop” might be the label we’re looking for.

With all this we should not overlook how apropos another entry on The 12 this week is for capturing Kuyper’s conception. That’s Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s wonderful tribute to “Funeral Women” (January 13). Kuyper always did retain and reiterate an affection for the quiet witness of ordinary Christians, his famous “little people,” living out their convictions in ways unnoticed by society but providing the lifeblood of that society all the same. A quiet grace, common for all. This theme, recurring most often in his weekly meditations, stands psychologically at some distance from the grand game of the geo-historical combat of worldviews that he exercised in his orations and great tomes on theological encyclopedia, common grace, and the kingship of Christ. But it can fit with them all the same, and belongs with them as part of the whole counsel of God, and the full work of the church in the world.

I don’t think we can capture Kuyper’s purpose or legacy in one image. We need to deploy the whole fleet and let people find the one appropriate to their occasion and circumstance. Kinda the way the Bible plays it, no?

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.


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