Belief and Belonging at Calvin University: How Does a Denominational University stay Vibrantly Christian?

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Christian Courier June 8th 2020. It involves changing faculty requirements at Calvin University, but it has implications for all Christian institutions of higher education: how best to nurture a faithful Christian faculty with a common identity and purpose? How do you navigate between the polar extremes of stifling uniformity and a fragmented diversity, between too narrow and sectarian a community on one hand, and too generic and dispersed on the other?

Trustees at Calvin University voted unanimously on May 8th 2020 to approve some significant changes in faculty requirements with regards to Reformed identity. While the University webpage headlines “Calvin Deepens and Strengthens Faith Expectations,” the student newspaper declares “BREAKING: Board of trustees vote that faculty no longer required to be CRC, send kids to Christian K-12 schools.”

What is going on? Is Calvin solidifying or dissipating its Reformed Christian commitments with this new policy?

First of, one must recognize the unique nature of Calvin: it is an official ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America denomination, and this has been part of its governance structure since the beginning. While faculty are still expected to understand and affirm the three forms of unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Cannons of Dordt, Belgic Confession) the new policy expects them to be members of a CRCNA-related Reformed congregation or “a Calvin University–supporting Protestant congregation.”

This means, according to an interpretation I received from Calvin’s public relations office, any Protestant church that can support the spiritual formation of the professor, including support in the person’s faith pledge to uphold the three forms of unity. Furthermore, the new policy explains that they are “expected to demonstrate their commitment to a Reformed Christian view of education” which is evidenced in their “active support” for Christian education. This does not require their children to attend a Christian school, but like Article 71 of the Church Order of the CRCNA and current policy at Calvin Seminary and the denominational office, expects a commitment to educating children from a Christian perspective—which could be at church, camps, and other venues.

Denominational walls have become more porous these days, comments former board member of both Calvin and Redeemer, Martin Mudde. Some CRCs are not very Reformed, and other churches, like Baptists, can be very Reformed. He understands the need to open the church membership requirements wider. Yet he expresses concern: “Are we now changing the rules to attract ‘better’ teachers who do not value a Christian world and life view in day school education?”

Dilution or Diversifying?

Now this is a pivotal policy change, and although some might say it was inevitable, given changes in Calvin’s faculty needs and a shifting cultural context, it deserves some conscientious reflection. I sat on the Task Force on the Reformed Identity and Mission of the university from 2009-2010 as a Calvin board member, and there was no shortage of research, discussion, and passion over the years we met. On one hand, history seems to indicate that universities that have loosened ties with denominational roots have gradually—in the long-run of centuries—lost their particular Christian identity to increase their enrollment prospects and academic excellence. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale would be some common examples. George Marsden’s book The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established NonBelief (1994) is just one reputable chronicle of this obvious trend.

Burtchaell examines 17 universities as case studies to show how religious identity is first uncomfortable then expendable, and church bonds become historical connections that wither over time.

On the other hand, there are values around racial diversity that make CRC culture in Grand Rapids a complicated matter—even if there are dozens of CRC churches and numerous schools to choose from. Furthermore, a Kuyperian “sphere sovereignty” perspective would argue that a university should not stipulate matters of church, and neither should a workplace make demands about the education of their employees’ children. This is the parents’ God-given prerogative. Finally, some departments have had strong, faith-filled candidates for positions that are extremely hard to fill but they felt stymied by these requirements on faculty’s families.

Now the board has always been generous with exceptions to the old policy. There have been many extenuating circumstances over the decades and concessions have been made, sometimes fairly routinely. Our committee in 2010 expanded some options here, but affirmed the traditional requirements for church membership and Christian schooling. We wrote a special Statement of Identity and Mission that beautifully encapsulates the Reformed educational vision in a few pages, hoping that it would inspire faculty to see Reformed accent not just as a matter of beliefs, but as a matter of belonging.

Developing the Professor’s Worldview

Ten years later, the policy has changed and the expectations for faculty are more intricate, and less intrusive of family. Calvin has been ramping up its new faculty training through the truly ingenious development of The Kuyper Institute for Global Faculty Development, putting more processes in place to cultivate faculty who can articulate the wonder-full vision of Christian education—and explain how a Reformed theology informs that investigation. Many new faculty have their eyes opened to a Biblical perspective that sheds new light on their discipline—and their faith. They feel more invited to an exciting academic project than pressed into a particular subculture.

Benne says there are three components of a university’s Christian tradition that must remain publicly relevant: its vision, its ethos (way of life), and its leaders who bear that vision and ethos.

Rev. Willemina Zwart is the Calvin board representative for Chatham, Huron, Hamilton and Niagara classis and she adamantly supports the shift. “We are moving from a checklist of compliance to a robust commitment toward Reformed integration of faith and life,” she explained. “Its part of expanding what Calvin is all about to a wider constituency.”

Still, this is a complicated matter. President Le Roy said, “The vision is biblically and theologically rooted; it’s not sociologically rooted.” While its true that a Reformed perspective best not be confined ethnically or geographically, the writing of Calvin professor James K. A. Smith emphasizes that theology has sociological scaffolds, and our hearts are fundamentally shaped by cultural liturgies that structure our lives—Sunday at church, but also at home and all through the week. Sociology and theology are deeply linked. But perhaps this is the point: the sociology of the CRC needs to change, and Calvin is pushing forward in this direction.

University as a Community of Colleagues

The move can be seen as an act of faith. “Calvin has been legally and confessionally [Christian] Reformed for over 125 years,” comments Director of Christian Higher Education in Canada and former President of Redeemer University Justin Cooper. “Providing for greater ecclesiastical and educational practice in its faculty and staff is an understandable decision by Calvin, given its changing student demographic, its commitment to racial and ethnic diversity and changes within the CRC related to Christian education support; it is also a calculated risk. This move will enable it to survive and maybe even thrive in the shorter term, while raising the prospect of becoming a more generically Evangelical and Protestant institution over time.”

Time will tell. It would be a dream to see a greater number and wider diversity of people become enthusiastic about the confession that our whole world belongs to God and is being redeemed in Jesus Christ. “Salvation is for the white-tailed deer,” said Rev. Zwart, meaning that God’s plan is to save the whole of his creation, not just human souls. “For many, that’s a new eye-opening Biblical vision worth sharing.”

We will see if nurturing a faculty member’s beliefs through seminars and other training can strengthen their sense of belonging in a common ecclesiastical project, or if this is another step towards a more diffuse faith-based academic identity and mission, where philosophical differences are exacerbated and conflicts increase. Will the values of diversity and excellence slowly overwhelm a common, embodied theological tradition and mission (as Harry Lewis’ book Excellence Without a Soul suggests)?

I believe one key is seeing the university as a community of colleagues, and if such collegiality can be nurtured, the fabric of trust will be strong, and Christian faith will flourish, not just as a worldview, but as practise in fellowship and mission. The idols of excellence, career, publication, and prestige are powerfully seductive, and remain a temptation that could divide and shatter the risky venture of Christian universities. Jumping off from a recent book by Matthew Kaemingk, you can focus on the walls (boundaries) or the open door (inclusion) but what makes the community will be the table of shared lives within the house. Are there rhythms of spiritual formation that draw the community together into a shared identity and story? Beyond those internal dynamics, connections with churches and denominations, which come with their own problems no doubt, may still mitigate the larger, more volatile pressures that come from the market, the state, and the academy itself.

These authors characterize the modern university as a fragmented multiversity that has lost its soul–any central identity, story and mission and this has landed it in conflict and compartmentalization. They argue that an integrated institution is theologically saturated–nurtured in the worship, love, and study of God, and that its a liberal arts education that helps put this into practise, and into every part of the curriculum. Rather than aspiring to Ivy League status, Christian universities must embrace an exilic perspective, posturing themselves as a redemptive and prophetic voice in an increasingly secular academic milieu.

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