Calvin a place where fragmentation can be overcome
Something that I’ve always appreciated about Calvin College has been its ability to gain seemingly contradictory reputations for being either hopelessly “conservative” or dangerously “liberal” (it all depends on who you ask). The fact that Calvin also has the ability to attract different types of Christians is, in my opinion, no less significant.
Sociologist Bill Bishop, in “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart,” writes about how more Americans have been organizing themselves — whether geographically, economically or politically — with like-minded people. Other sociologists and cultural critics echo this analysis. Social media and branding have further fueled the growth of “sub-subcultures” and “niche communities.”
On the positive side, these developments have made us more connected and have allowed us to share our disparate interests. For example, if you happen to be interested in both the life of Kim Kardashian and the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, there is currently a popular twitter account you can follow! On the negative side, many worry that these developments create more alienation and reinforce the polarization and divisions that exist in our nation.
To highlight these societal trends of homogeneity, Bishop spends some time focusing on the growth of mega-churches. Using what is known as the “homogenous unit principle.” “The new churches were designed for cookie-cutter parishioners, what one church-growth proponent described as ‘people like us.’”
Additionally, he observes how churches have identified themselves in a number of ways (as “reconciling,” “affirming” or “Bible-believing”) to exploit a niche in the religious marketplace.
“American churches today,” he argues, “are more culturally and politically segregated than our neighborhoods.”
While Bishop limits his scope, his analysis can be extended to include Christian institutions, online communities, parachurch organizations, and denominational groups. When this is done, Christian homogeneous spaces may be more pervasive than we suspect. That is why Calvin is a remarkable place. It is a Christian college that is able to attract students who are: complimentarian, egalitarian, feminist, pro-hymns, only-Hillsong, reformed, charismatic, pro-Obama, anti-Obama, Obama-lesser-of-all-evils, etc. Of course, not every group is equally represented. But there isn’t an abundance of spaces where Christians from across these spectrums are visibly present.
Calvin is a place that frustrates many people. It’s too liberal, too conservative, too pious, and too spiritually dead. I think this is probably a good sign. While it does not mean that Calvin has achieved some ‘golden mean,’ it does mean that it defies simple categorizations. Here, you bump into Christians who you will strongly disagree with on a number of issues. Instead of lamenting this state of affairs, what would it look like to receive all of this as a gift?
There is not enough dialogue and fellowship between Christians who fall on different sides of some issues and traditions. If social developments have promoted hyper-connectivity between like-minded Christians, they have also promoted hyper-schism between Christians who disagree with each other. And this is tragic considering the fact that Jesus said:
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Driven into further fragmentation and isolation by the way Christians group themselves, we run the risk of demonizing the ‘other side’ or ignoring it because it doesn’t suit our ‘taste.’ At Calvin, however, we have the opportunity to be near the ‘other side’; we have the opportunity to occasionally see something of Christ in a place we wouldn’t otherwise look.
To dialogue and fellowship with others is not to assume relativism and avoid disagreement. As Rowan Williams has written, “Being in the Body means that we are touched by one another’s commitments and thus by one another’s failures.”
Perhaps in encountering others, some of our suspicions will be confirmed. But perhaps our version of Christianity will also be challenged. These encounters are a great opportunity. My concern is that we don’t and won’t see it that way.
I envy the military as an institution within our country. Specifically, I admire its ability capture the imagination of young people and inspire them to live for something bigger than themselves. This is a space where Americans of all ideologies and ways of life fight side by side for the sake of freedom. I’m saddened that I rarely see young Christians feel that way about the Church.
When we get baptized, do we sign up for something that is bigger than our personal tastes and political affiliations?
“To remain in communion,” Rowan Williams proposes, “is to remain in solidarity with those who I believe are wounded as well as wounding the church, in the trust that in the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing.”
This type of unity is not cheap; it’s hard work. But perhaps Calvin is space that can prepare us for that.
Churches and denominations are splintering and struggling to deal with disagreements over sexuality. One day, some of us will become elders in a church or leaders in a denomination. Will we follow the script? Will we join the ‘progressive/inclusive’ or ‘preserving orthodoxy’ sub-groups and simply become another hand grenade for a fraction fighting a civil war?
I’m convinced that what we need, first and foremost, are not leaders who land on the right side of the issue at hand (which is always our side, obviously), but leaders who challenge us to embody a different kind of politics in the Church, a different way of organizing ourselves. So what will we do with this season in our lives at Calvin College?