Science in Christian Perspective



Books and Bread: 
The Christian Academy and the Christian Lifestyle


From: JASA 28 (March 1976): 27-32.


Throughout this conference we have been discussing what our calling in Christ requires of us in our present world situation. We have been examining the moral requirements of our religious commitment. Furthermore, I am confident that we have been serious about all of this and that we will not be content with the temporary guilt-relieving catharsis of our own rhetoric. We must sincerely hope that whatever understanding of the issues addressed at this conference may have been achieved, will now he communicated to the broader community of Christians as they and we engage in the day to day struggle to be obedient and responsible. But who are "we"? Although Calvin College is the host institution for this conference, "we" obviously and properly are not all from Calvin. "We" aren't all from Christian institutions for higher education, nor are "we" all either students or teachers. Who then are "we"?

The Christian Academy

I should like to submit that "we" are all members of the Christian Academy. This is not to be confused with my secondary school alma mater in New Jersey, Eastern Academy, nor with any national academy in this country or in any other. The Christian Academy is not an institution. It does not have a campus. It is not an academy of higher or lower anything. The Christian Academy is not Reformed, Catholic or Evangelical. The Christian Academy is not just another name for the Christian church universal. Rather the Christian Academy is but a fragment of that Christian church universal. The Christian Academy is an idea and an ideal seeking fuller embodiment and realization.

The distinguishing characteristic of that fragment of the Christian church universal which we are calling the Christian Academy is its calling. The vocation of the Christian Academy is to study the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ and to apply that study to the ever changing circumstances of the secular. "We", the memhers of the Christian Academy, have that vocation. "We" are that fragment of the total community of Christians who are called to use our reading, our research, our training, and our experience to instruct the total community. "We" are called to speak prophetically on the Christian's personal and communal responsibility to today's world. "We" may be theologians, housewives, philosophers, poets, politicians, doctors, artists, astronauts, and yes, even historians. But none of these kinds of specific callings is essential to our being part of the Christian Academy. Rather what is essential is devotion to Christ and a total commitment to integrate our faith with our learning and experience. The Christian Academy exists whenever and wherever such a vocation is manifest.

Obviously, not all Christians have such a calling. The Church of Christ consists of many who are legitimately and honestly serving God in factories, fields, homes and offices who have neither the inclination nor the opportunity to read or study extensively on the intellectual and moral dilemmas of our times. They properly hope, or piously expect, that their fellow Christians who have the talents and the time to spend with books and in study and writing will do so to the advantage of the total community. All Christians are responsible to discover God's will for their lives and to apply that discovery to their everyday circumstances. But there are special responsibilities that arise out of the talents and the opportunities to fulfill those talents that God gives only to some. Those who have these special responsibilities within the Christian community, who have the vocation of study and the like, are members of the Christian Academy regardless of their occupation. Thus "we" at this conference are members of the Christian Academy regardless of how we make our bread.

I have chosen to speak of the Christian Academy for several reasons. First, the term academy is now virtually devoid of specific meaning. The idea of an academy is now evoked only vaguely in the variant forms of the 

Colleges and universities and institutes are all limited by their peculiar historical origin and situation. None of them, therefore, is adequate to express the universal and timeless vocation of the Christian Academy.

term such as academic-to refer to an attitude, or academics-to refer to persons professionally engaged in research or scholarship and occasionally even teaching. But the academy as such no longer exists. In its place we have such things as universities, colleges, and institutes. These are institutional forms of what among the Greeks was referred to as an academy. This is my second reason. The term academy can yet express an idea and an ideal without being identified with institutional limitations. Colleges and universities and institutes are all limited by their peculiar historical origin and situation. None of them, therefore, is adequate to express the universal and timeless vocatio of the Christian Academy. The third reason arises out of the first two. Since the academy does not exist and is, therefore, not limited by any set of institutional characteristics, it is free directly to influence lifestyle. Colleges, universities, and institutes are themselves products of lifestyles, and they tend to serve the lifestyles of their historical situation. The academy is free to transcend prevailing lifestyles because it is not a product of them. Thus it is, conceptually at least, free to be faithful to its vocation in Christ.

The service such a non-institutional form as the Christian Academy would he able to render is significant. It would serve the entire Christian community by helping it to transcend the usual self-serving shortsightedness of that community's own historical particularity. More importantly for our present purposes, the Christian Academy would serve Christian institutions of learning by helping them to transcend the usual defects of elitism, professionalism, specialization, and provincialism or parochialism that otherwise limit their vocation in Christ. But there is a paradox lurking behind these observations to which we must be sensitive. I will be suggesting in what follows that the Christian Academy become more of a reality than it presently is; but it must never be institutionalized. The moment the Christian Academy becomes institutionalized would be the very moment that it would become a university with all its defects and limitations.

The University

The study of history, Livy has told us, is the best remedy for sick minds. In the late 1960's there was a radical re-awakening of some historical commonplaces about the university (read schools, colleges, or institutes as appropriate to the context). A medieval European innovation, the university was designed to serve the interests of the community which supported it whether that was the Church or the secular state. A reciprocal relationship of service and dependence has always existed between the university and society. That students at Columbia and elsewhere made this historical discovery in 1968 is testimony to the deterioration of historical studies and to the deceptive power of traditional rhetoric about the university. The university has always been a mirror in which the prevailing values of society have been reflected, although with widely varying degrees of clarity. When these prevailing values of society are in crisis, so too is the university which reflects them. The hysteria about the "politicization" of the university, which came about as a consequence of a crisis in the prevailing value system of European and North American society in the late 1960's, has now subsided. However, this means little more than that the university is again perpetuating the dominant value system, and lifestyle, of European and North American society. To use the prevailing jargon, it has again been co-opted.

The instrument through which the university attempts to perform its service to society is the curriculum. Some universities, typically American, supplement the curriculum with opportunities for counseling, recreation, entertainment, housing, eating, and worship; but the curriculum is still central. What is a curriculum? It is a set of discrete and disparate, hopefully intellectual, experiences to which the student is subjected during the period of his or her enrollment. There may or or may not be an organizing principle to these experiences. The case in which an organizing principle can be seen most clearly is in those technical studies which are cumulative and lead to a problem-solving competence or skill such as engineering or medicine. For the rest it seems most appropriate to invoke some sort of "invisible hand" theory. It is piously hoped, even if not confidently expected, that when each professor and each discipline has done its thing, there will be some integrated positive product realized within the student. Even in the best of cases, where there is a conceptually integrated curriculum based on disciplines, no one would claim that graduates are better persons. Probably less than-10 percent of Calvin College's graduates do any serious and systematic wrestling with the kinds of moral dilemmas addressed in this conference, and the stimulus for about half of that ten percent is probably extra-curricular. What possible influence, then, does the university have on the lifestyles of its members, both faculty and students?

Purposes of Learning

An approach to answering this question may be to examine two alternative ideas about the nature and purpose of learning. The one is the contemplative and the other the active. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance these were simultaneously lifestyles and philosophies of education.

The contemplative ideal is the disinterested pursuit of learning. Goodness, truth and beauty are sought for their own sake; not because they have some extrinsic value or use. To be fully human is to desire them. The ideal sage or scholar is one who subordinates everything in life to the acquiring of wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom are intrinsically good. There is no specialization or professionalism that is compatible with the detached pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. The tradition of the liberal arts is part of this ideal. The study of grammar, poetry, history and moral philosophy are central to the realization of every person's human potential. They are liberating even if they have no extrinsic use or value in the market place.

The active ideal, on the other hand, holds that there properly is a use for all studies quite apart from their intrinsic merits or interest. The test of the validity of

M. Howard Rienstra is Professor of History at Calvin College. A graduate of Calvin College and the University of Michigan, Dr. Rienstra has studied in Italy on three occasions and published several articles relating to the Academy of the Lynxes (Rome), the world's first scientific society. On the faculty of Calvin College since 1957, he has also held elected office as a Grand Rapids City Commisioner since 1970. Among many civil rights involvements, he is currently secretary of the Michigan Advisory Commission to the United States Civil Rights Commission.

learning is the use to which it can be put in society, or, to put it more crudely, its market value. The test for grammar and rhetoric, for example, is in their application to the end of some political or social good. All learning must be interested, practical, and useful, and experience is the final criterion of whether it has worked. The emphasis falls on practice rather than theory.

However, neither of these ideals as they have been realized in the modern university have enabled that institution to be either truly detached or truly useful. It is neither. The university remains a subservient institution of society, contributing its specialized and technical competencies to that society which maintains it. Even the active ideal is distorted into a superficial pragmatism or mindless busy-ness. To the degree that the university orients it's curriculum toward "careers" the new in-term which means little more than getting jobs for its graduates that pay more than the jobs of non-graduates--it abandons detachment in favor of service and subservience. To the degree that it seeks detachment it confronts both the criticism of those who wish it to be politically and morally engaged, and the criticism of those who wish it to guarantee jobs for it's graduates. There is, therefore, little more that the modern university does than serve the cultural and social expectations of the society which maintains it. Not even the occasional riots and the allegations that universities are seedbeds of revolution are convincing evidence to the contrary. In both developed and underdeveloped countries these phenomena arise more out of the anxieties of late adolescence of some students and faculty members than out of a truly revolutionary commitment. They are more romantic than revolutionary.

We must now ask what possible influence the university may have on the lifestyle of its graduates? A satisfactory answer to this question will be hard to find because all possible answers have been the subject of controversy for centuries. We might begin by gaining unanimous consent to the proposition that it would be the ultimate in naiveté to assume that words of truth are automatically translated into acts of truth. To assume that persons act consistently with what they know to be right or just is to fly in the face of reality. Surely no Calvinist would make such a mistake. But what about other kinds or degrees of possible influence of the university on lifestyles? I must confess that I am not acquainted with the research that has been done on this question. I would be immodest enough to guess, however, that the impact of the university as such, apart from the specific impact of one course or of one faculty member, is either neutral or negative. There are so many other influences on a person in the building of his lifestyle that the university must be seen to have only a fragmentary and limited role. One hardly need be a cynic to suspect that the philandering and alcoholic lifestyles of some faculty and administrators may have a greater, although negative, impact on students than all their books and exhortations. The scant ability of the university to have a positive impact on values and life styles is due primarily to the simple fact that it does not represent or embody a unified idea, ideal or commitment. There is no moral commitment apart from a vague academic one or the personal moral commitments of the members who compose it. Nor does it have a positive religious commitment unless it be a vague secular humanism. But even this would be contradicted by the individual commitments of particular faculty members in the direction either of absolute libertarianism or of sectarianism. But in neither case is there a unified commitment which would be expected to influence lifestyles positively.

The Christian University

We have been using the generic term 'university' to refer to all colleges, universities, and institutes. We must now consider the Christian university, and to do so we will examine Calvin College specifically. Does Calvin College as an example of the Christian university have a positive influence on the value systems and lifestyles of its graduates? Is Calvin College an exception to what is true about the modern university? The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes and no.

The curriculum of Calvin does have a conceptual unity at its base. The student is exposed to the several kinds of intellectual disciplines so that he or she may emerge, regardless of vocational interest, reasonably well informed and equipped to understand life in all its complexity. This is a good starting point for possibly influencing students' lifestyles through curriculum.

Long before the design of this recent curriculum was the basic religious commitment that led to the establishment of Calvin College. That commitment, which has permeated the teaching of all the disciplines from the inception of the college, has often been referred to as the Calvinist life and world view. The Christian's calling in life is one of total obedience and total service to Christ within the context of the historical. All learning was to be brought into conformity with the revealed truth of God in Scripture and in Creation. Although variously formulated in different periods of the history of the college, the basic commitment has been to God-centered learning and living. The life and world view is a total commitment in the classroom and out.

Honesty and historical fairness require, however, the admission that the faculty has not always fulfilled this commitment with equal thoroughness, equal theoretical consistency, nor with equal competence. Some members of the faculty were and are mere professional technicians, some were and are unexcited by the vision, and some were and are doggedly holding on to their salaries while devoting their primary energies to other activities. Similarly, we must acknowledge that Calvin's students have not all been equally receptive to this religious starting point for their studies. Some impatiently have wanted to attain their professional goal or job; others have hated grammar whether it was to God's glory or not; and still others found the greatest issues of life coming to expression on a weekend date or on the basketball court. But given these frailties of both faculty and students, the religious distinctiveness of Calvin has still with remarkable consistency come through in the classroom, studio, and laboratory. Although sometimes dimmed by the press of everyday reality, a religious commitment has been evident, and a life arid world view has been articulated and expressed.

Note, however, that the college did not invent this commitment or this life and world view. Rather Calvin was given the responsibility within the historical context of a denomination to develop and communicate that commitment. There was a broader community of Christians who created the institution and asked that institution to serve them by being faithful to the religious commitment and by creatively applying that commitment to the complex world of learning. This was a practical responsibility. That community of Christians wanted pastors, teachers, doctors, and the like. The college was to provide the technical studies appropriate to these callings in life, but more than the technical studies. The community wanted pastors, teachers, doctors, and the like who were committed to the life and world view. The religious commitment of the college was to be integrated with its practical service. Neither without the other would be Calvin College, or any Christian college for that matter.

The faculty too was to embody these dual qualities that for brevity we may call competence and commitment. Excellence was sought in both, but in crisis commitment took priority. While there have been variations in the quality of both commitment and competence, there was clearly more variation in the latter than in the former. There have been many instances in which highly qualified scholars have either not been considered for appointment, or after consideration have been rejected because their religious commitment was not adequate to or compatible with the demands of the college. On the other hand, the demands of commitment together with denominational loyalty have been strengths helping the college achieve academic excellence. Many have come to teach and to study at Calvin, precisely because of the centrality of commitment, who otherwise would have been attracted to more prestigious and better paying institutions.

We have, therefore, a college that expresses a particular religious commitment not only in the curriculum, but also in the approach to each of the disciplines and in the conduct of every classroom. From the perspective of the modern university this is not merely different, but probably a disaster. Merely to mention that we really are still a denominational college is to evoke laughter or cynicism. The picture typically conjured in the viewpoint of the modern university is that we must be an authoritarian, narrow-minded, un-American, sectarian, middle-class, racist and bigoted throwback to the Middle Ages. To have an institution of higher learning subservient to a denomination and to a specific religious commitment is simply stupid.

There is an interesting and important element to this point of view whether it is politely or crudely expressed. Calvin College is what its support community both demands and permits it to be. If Calvin were not such a reflection of the religious commitment that gave it birth, and of the denomination that supports it, it would then be a classical example of deception and hypocrisy. Just as the university reflects the character of the community that supports it, so too does a Christian college such as Calvin.

What is Calvin College? Descriptively, it is a denominational liberal arts college known for the rigor of its academic program and for theological conservatism. It has a suburban campus which generally exudes an atmosphere of White, Protestant, Middle Class morality and respectability. In all these respects the college mirrors either the character or the expectations of the denomination that maintains it. Calvin thus reflects and expresses the prevailing commitment and the prevailing lifestyle of the broader community. Calvin builds on the commitment and the lifestyle already established in the Christian homes, schools, and churches that have previously been a part of the lives of its students and faculty. How could it do otherwise? How could it change or create positive alternatives to these original and prior expressions of the commitment? Calvin's role is to strengthen, enrich, deepen, clarify, and expand the commitment, not to change it. Calvin, just as the modem university, is limited by its historical situation. We might almost say that it is compromised by that situation. The very commitment that is central to it-the very life and world view of Calvinism-is an historically contingent expression of the Christian faith.

The vocatio of the Academy

Since it is conceivable, at least, that total obedience to Christ may demand something other than the comfortable pew and the middle class conformity of our present situation, we should return to our definition of the Christian Academy. Central to the Christian Academy is the vocatio to serve Christ in the midst of the ever changing circumstances of our secular condition. That vocatio is to work for a specifically Christian understanding of the whole creation, and to give leadership to other Christians on what such understanding entails for the Christian's service to God in his daily life. Everyone participating in this conference has expressed this vocatio in some way. The next question is how can Calvin College more fully realize, or even embody, the vocatio of the Christian Academy? Will such fuller realization produce a more positive faithfulness of Christians in their lifestyles? Are either of these even desirable?

There are three grounds for an affirmative response to these questions. First, Calvin's faculty has attained a level of scholarly activity within their respective disciplines that is quite simply impressive. The college has consistently, in recent years at least, encouraged faculty members to develop their specialized research potentials. There may be heard a grumble or two that the policies promoting professional development have been too cautious, but such comments are much less commonly heard these days. But there is another kind of scholarly activity of the faculty also consistently encouraged, and that is scholarly work in the integrating of commitment with competence, faith with learning. Here too some impressive things have been produced. Both kinds of scholarly activity are essential to meeting the institutional goals of the college, and to perform its service. But there is a weakness.

The weakness may best be explained by reference to what on all accounts is a dramatic demonstration of the competence and the commitment of the faculty. I'm referring to the work of Nick Woltersdorff in the Philosophy department. Other examples could be chosen from members in that or other departments in the college, but Nick's work is most recent and best known among us. His exciting work on the relationship of religious commitment to all theory building activities has been a positive stimulus on this campus and on the campuses of several other Christian colleges, and most recently at the conference of Reformed institutions of higher education held at Potschefstrom. In preparing this theory of theories Nick has enjoyed the stimulus and the critical encouragement of his colleagues in the Philosophy department. The operation of that department in giving critical encouragement to each other is unique with the college. But despite all of that, the theory is still Nick's. It is his idea and before it can become a part of all our thinking, it demands further criticism, elaboration, and application to other disciplines. Our enthusiastic applause when he had done speaking about it is not enough. There must be a continuing forum in which an individual's contribution can become a part of our communal understanding and commitment. Here is our weakness. Even on scholarly projects which specifically relate faith to learning we have been too individualistic. A beginning of a communal activity in this regard has been made with Nick's contribution, but that beginning must he encouraged, expanded, and applied to other areas. Calvin merely does what universities do when it supports and encourages individual scholarship. Calvin must encourage communal study of problems relating commitment to competence and lifestyle if it will he true to its Christian vocatio and potential.

My second ground for answering in the affirmative that Calvin should seek more fully to realize the Christian Academy comes from a totally different direction. Orlando Fals Borda is a Protestant sociologist from Columbia who is best known in scholarly circles for his work on peasant life in his native country. He has an international reputation, but I wish to speak about him because he has expressed with such clarity the tensions that his scholarship and his Christian faith have produced in his life. His view of the university is devastating. In both North and South America he sees the university as devoted to justifying the social order of a given historical moment. (See a summary of his ideas in Denis Goulet, A New Moral Order. New York: Orbis, 1974. Chap. III) The same is true of professional scholarship. Thus he found his Christian commitment to social justice to he incompatible with his aspirations to scholarship and university teaching. He had to choose between being a detached scholar or an active revolutionary intellectual. He could not be

The articulation of a Christian vision and of Christian answers to the moral dilemmas of our age is the responsibility of the total Christian Academy - both Protestant and Catholic.

both. He had to choose between being an institutionally successful professional or a marginalized outcast. Why did he have to make such choices? Why don't we? The answer lies in his situation as a Third World Christian. But the painful tensions he has faced may also be instructive to us in our apparently more comfortable accommodation to scholarship, professionalism, and the like.

Orlando Fals Borda is one of many Latin American scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, who have developed what is being called Liberation Theology and Development Ethics. For several years now I have been reading in this literature and having fragments of conversations with colleagues and students about it. I am troubled by it. I am uncomfortable with some of their exegetical and theological studies. I am conscience-stricken by the totality of the demands of their ethics. I am attracted to their goals of social justice. They seem to he reading the Bible out of a totally different historical perspective than mine. Is this an authentic orthodoxy which may lead to an authentic orthopraxis? To whom can I turn for answer or discussion? To books? What is the perspective of those who comment on Liberation Theology? Some denounce it as vaguely concealed Marxism. Others praise it as the first steps toward the realization of the Kingdom of God historically. The truth doesn't necessarily lie somewhere between. This fragment of the body of Christ institutionalized at Calvin College must become engaged with those fragments with like faith-commitments throughout the Third World. We need each other and need to understand each other. To transcend the limitations of our specialization, professionalism, and the very historical perspective that informs most of our studies is the vocatio of the Christian Academy. Obedience and faithfulness to Christ require this kind of transcendence of its own historicity even of Christian institutions.

A third ground for an affirmative response is to note a newly emerging sensitivity to the global dimensions of the Christian faith. That which Christ inaugurated is coming to fulfillment in new and exciting ways in our own times. The life and world view that I came to understand during my student days at Calvin had a very small world at its base. It was a Western Civ. world with some romantically enticing involvement with Greenland's Icy mountains and Africa's sunny clime. Furthermore, it was a Protestant world. Now Nick Woltersdorff can return from South Africa and tell us with a sense of discovery about struggling Calvinists and struggling Christian colleges and seminaries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. To our embarrassment, the faculty shared the excitement of his discovery because our world view had been too small. There is a growing body of both Protestant and Catholic thinkers about history who are insisting that Christians must be working to realize the Kingdom of God historically in acts of love and deeds of justice. In all of this new sense of unity, expectation and urgency there is a challenge to the older and more affluent Christians. Are we so attached to the comfortableness of our historical situation that we cannot discover how to help our brothers in Christ who are physically and politically oppressed? How can we make sense out of the confusing and contradictory reality of history? Is Christ still the Lord? What are we then required to do? For Calvin College to be able to handle the ecumenical and global scope of such inquiries, it must bring together within itself representatives of that global faith coming to realization. For this purpose it needs the Christian Academy to transcend institutional limitations.


In order to fulfill the potential of its own history, and to more fully realize within itself the vocatio of the Christian Academy, Calvin must gather within itself a community of Christian scholars and activists to address themselves on a continuing basis to the intellectual and moral challenges facing Christians in this age. Conferences are but beginnings. The curriculum is too fragmented and professionalized. Individual scholarship, however worthy and relevant, does not influence lifestyles until accepted and applied communally. The articulation of a Christian vision and of Christian answers to the moral dilemmas of our age is the responsibility of the total Christian Academy both Protestant and Catholic. The acceptance of that responsibility by Calvin College and other Christian institutions will enable them more fully to integrate life and learning, competence and commitment, books and bread.