“Those Years …”

JUNE/JULY 2012: ESSAY

by Richard J. Mouw

At a seminary in Asia, the dean of the school introduced me to one of his faculty members. “This is the president of Fuller Seminary,”; the dean said. I think the dean expected the faculty person to be impressed by my present institutional role, but his faculty colleague obviously had other credentials in mind. Extending his hand, the faculty member remarked, “But you were also at Calvin College.” A little later he commented to me privately: “I have been reading Wolterstorff on justice,” adding: “That must have been a wonderful time–those years when all of you were together in Grand Rapids!”

“Those years” is a phrase I hear frequently these days. It refers, roughly, to the Calvin College of the 1970s, along with a few years on either side of that decade. If I had the opportunity to pursue it with the Asian scholar, it would have been interesting to find out which “all of you” he had in mind. Sometimes when folks refer with a sense of reverence to that period in Calvin College’s history they are thinking specifically of the philosophy department. And that certainly was an “all of you” worth celebrating. When, near the end of my PhD program at the University of Chicago, I told one of my professors, a secular Jew, that I had just been appointed to the Calvin philosophy department, he replied with enthusiasm: “Terrific! That’s the best undergraduate philosophy program in the country!” But often people are thinking of a group of younger scholars, representing several disciplines at Calvin in the 1970s, who were viewed as the core of a new movement of evangelical public intellectuals. They were all solid scholars, but they also addressed broader issues, and they did so out of what they saw as a common mind. And then, as things moved into the 1980s, the group scattered: George Marsden went to Duke and then to Notre Dame; Ron Wells, one of Marsden’s history colleagues, left to direct Maryville College’s Faith and Learning Symposium; Paul Henry was elected to the US Congress; Steve Monsma joined the Pepperdine faculty; Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen took up responsibilities at Eastern University; Al Plantinga moved to Notre Dame; Nick Wolterstorff began, in the early eighties, to teach half time in Amsterdam, and then moved on to Yale. The group never held an election for its leader, but if we had done so, it is clear that Nick Wolterstorff would have won hands down. He was, for all of us, the model of what a Christian public intellectual should be–both for those in the philosophy department proper and for those in the larger “movement” group.

During the 1970s we members of the Calvin College philosophy department met for a couple of hours every Tuesday afternoon to discuss–usually in great detail–a draft of something one of us was writing at the time. But we would also meet on occasion to discuss how we were doing in our overall efforts at being responsible academics. Nick was the convener of those more general conversations. They would take place in an evening at his home.

High on our list of items to review in those sessions were the general obligations having to do with our teaching and scholarship. Were we serving the Calvin College student body well, our majors as well as those who took philosophy courses as a part of their general liberal arts education? And what about our contributions to the world of academic philosophy? Were we doing enough by way of publishing books and essays in professional journals?

But our discussions ranged even more widely. Were we doing our part as members of the Calvin faculty to strengthen the overall mission of the college? What about addressing issues of concern for the church? Were we making significant contributions to the broader world of Christian higher education?

For me, in my early formation as a full-time faculty member, those discussions were a crucial part of my overall formation in the academy. Our more technical seminar-type departmental discussions of works-in-progress were crucial to our sense of our mutual support and accountability as philosophers. But those informal sessions about our multiple departmental “callings” provided the larger context for those more technical endeavors. They gave us a sense of being participants in a shared–and exciting–academic mission.

We hear much in the Christian community about the diversity of gifts. Many sermons are preached about the notion that Christians are members of a Body, and that bodies have different limbs and organs. However, most of the time this kind of imagery is applied to congregations. Many functions, many gifts. Some sing in the choir; others make the coffee; and there are deacons, elders, pastors, committee members, Sunday school teachers, custodians–and so on.

But the message about diverse gifts applies to service within the academy as well. Not all faculty members in a given institution have the same mix of gifts. Nor should they. Some folks are at their best communicating on a highly technical level of scholarship. Others do a fine job of making the best of that highly technical content
available to students and colleagues in other fields who need a bit of “popularizing” of the technical matters. Some faculty members combine good teaching with helpful mentoring sensitivities. Others excel in committee work. Still others function magnificently as “public intellectuals.”

Nick Wolterstorff has always been keenly aware of these multiple tasks. And he was for all of us, philosophers and nonphilosophers alike at Calvin, the embodiment of that multiplicity. While each of us was fairly good at more than one thing, none of us could match Nick at being good at almost everything we saw as our many-faceted departmental mission. Nick not only contributed much to the world of professional philosophical scholarship; he was also known for his leadership in shaping the curricula of Christian liberal arts colleges. Nick not only taught and wrote about church liturgy; he was instrumental in founding the Church of the Servant–a Christian Reformed congregation that was seen in the 1970s as a trendsetter. He was an editor of the Reformed Journal, an outspoken defender of Palestinian rights, and an art critic. And he was one of two “finalists” as a candidate for Calvin College’s presidency in 1976.

I have already referred to the fact that as the 1980s arrived a number of us departed from Calvin College for other academic environs. I have to be clear about the fact that those departures were not in any way due to disillusionment with the college and its mission. Quite the contrary. When we meet each other these days and get into talking about the times when we were Calvin colleagues together, there is a clear sense that we had in some important sense been “gathered” there for a purpose, and then we became a diaspora, taking what we had learned in our years together to other arenas of service.

The “gathering” itself was an interesting phenomenon. When I arrived at Calvin in 1968, I was one of the very few members of the faculty who did not have either a Christian Reformed background or a Calvin undergraduate degree. In the tightly knit CRC subculture of earlier decades, it was often considered an expression of communal loyalty that someone who sensed an academic vocation would aim for a faculty position at Calvin College or Seminary. This meant that the community was blessed with an unusual number of fine scholars who had chosen to return to their alma mater rather than accept positions at other colleges and universities. It also meant that when I arrived, the faculty was still quite homogenous, both ethnically and ecclesiastically. Even those of us who initially came from the “outside” had not traveled very far ecclesiastically or theologically. I came to Calvin from a Reformed Church in America background. George Marsden, who was already on the faculty when I arrived, had Orthodox Presbyterian roots. Evan Runner had studied at Westminster Seminary and the Free University, and was fluent in Dutch. And so on.

But in the 1970s the influx increased, and the newcomers had often traveled greater distances. Paul Henry, for one, was a genuine outsider—he had a Baptist background. Others came from, for example, Pentecostalism and Anglicanism.

These days it is widely taken for granted that we have seen what Alasdair MacIntyre and others have identified as “the failure of the Enlightenment project,”with its presumption of an intellectual-scientific quest guided by a “neutral” rationality. For many of us who spent time on university campuses in the 1960s, that presumption was attacked in very concrete ways by the radical student movement. Students for a Democratic Society and other groups loudly proclaimed that the scholarly agenda in the university world was pervasively guided by racial and class biases, as well as by the unacknowledged economic interests of “the military-industrial complex.”

Without necessarily embracing all that the radical student movement had to say on the subject, many of us saw in that kind of critique a confirmation of the insistence by Abraham Kuyper and other Calvinists that the intellectual life is inevitably guided by prerational faith commitments. We could celebrate, then, an emerging climate of opinion in which our kind of Christian perspective on the intellectual life, one that had thus far been developed on the margins of mainstream scholarship, could now be reworked with the realistic expectation that it could gain a new hearing in the larger intellectual community–which Nick himself facilitated with his much discussed Reason within the Bounds of Religion.

Nick had been at Calvin before many of us arrived. And even though he was only a little bit older than the rest of us, he was already seen as a senior statesman in the community. He had been, for example, a chief architect of Calvin’s newly instituted curriculum. And it was precisely because of this senior status that we younger types saw him as our champion.

For one thing, he and Al Plantinga were beginning to formulate the systematic philosophical ideas that would later comprise the increasingly influential school of thought associated with”Reformed epistemology.” But Nick in particular always linked these ideas to a broad intellectual agenda, spelling out the implications for, for example, Christian grammar and high schools, artistic activity, global economics, and public policy. He was for many of us the public intellectual who led the way in demonstrating how careful scholarship could inform a larger perspective.

Two concrete ways that Nick led us deserve special mention. One was the manner in which he waxed eloquent—and with a far more authoritative voice than the rest of us could claim—about the need for Calvin College to open up to the larger Christian community. While we are indeed different in significant ways from the rest of evangelicalism, he would say, this means that we need actively to contribute our unique perspective to the larger mix. Calvin College, he would argue, should see itself as called by God to offer important gifts, not only to the American evangelical community, but also to the larger Christian world.

The second way was with a bold “intra-Reformed” gesture that had the effect of strengthening, and to some degree unifying, the Kuyperian cause. In 1974 Nick gave a speech at a Grand Rapids church in response to some criticisms, aired in the pages of the denominational magazine, of the views associated with the “Dooyeweerdian” version of Kuyperianism set forth by Toronto’s Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship (now the Institute for Christian Studies).

Nick’s speech, which he was soon invited to deliver again in Toronto and which was published in both the Banner and the Reformed Journal, was seen as a major “happening” in Christian Reformed environs. He distinguished among “doctrinalists,” “pietists,” and “Kuyperians” in the Dutch Reformed community. And while he criticized what he identified as some of the more “triumphalist” attitudes and “imperialist” practices of the Canadian disciples of Dooyeweerd (and of our Calvin philosopher colleague Evan Runner), the overall effect of his presentation was to forge a new sense of a common bond with the Toronto movement. His advocacy of a broader, and less doctrinaire, Kuyperianism took further shape when, as the first to deliver what was to become the annual Kuyper Lectures at the Free University (Nick’s lectures were published as his still influential Until Justice and Peace Embrace), Nick set forth the Kuyperian project as a prime example of “world-formative Christianity.”

I have to add a very personal tribute. I have learned much in my intellectual journey from many people, but there is no one from whom I have learned more about as many things as Nick Wolterstorff. And the learning took place in many contexts: social evenings, Reformed Journal editorial meetings, travel to conferences and shared speaking engagements together—and, not least for me, in the ways he reached out in concerned friendship during two times of crisis in my own personal journey. And then there was, of course, the period of intense grieving for Nick and Claire, when they lost their son Eric in a tragic accident—a time of deep sorrow for them that taught us all by very personal example how to process grief in a manner that struggles with agonized honesty before the face of God.

Public intellectuals often work at making their reputation beyond the academy without expending much energy in promoting collegiality, and a common sense of purpose, within the academy. Not so with Nick Wolterstorff. He is of a different order. There are many of us who testify to that fact with eternal gratitude.

Richard J. Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.