I’ve noticed that, along with the rest of the world, my alma mater is celebrating the 500th birthday of John Calvin this year, but I still haven’t heard how the college is celebrating the 200th birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin (born on the same day in 1809!). Have I missed the announcements about how Darwin and Lincoln are being celebrated at Calvin?
— Exiled in Nantucket
You have excellent taste in finding a place to be in exile; others have done far worse.
As for official college-wide birthday celebrations, the potential is enormous, but the college clearly cannot celebrate everyone whose anniversary may be noted somewhere else in the world, including Nantucket. Consider July 10, Calvin’s birthday, which is celebrated every summer at the college; he shares that birthday with such worthies, Calvinist or otherwise, as Jake La Motta, Jean Kerr, Arthur Ashe, Marcel Proust, and Jessica Simpson. And February 12, the shared birthday of Lincoln and Darwin, is also the birthday of Louisa Adams, Julius Streicher, Omar Bradley, Cotton Mather, and Judy Blume, not to mention a few million others, including, probably, an improbably large number of Calvin alumni.
It should be obvious by now that the official and noisy birthday celebrations at Calvin are very few in number. But the unofficial, under-the-radar celebrations are legion, ranging from impromptu observations of the birthdays of famous mathematicians (Euler, for instance) and linguists (Chomsky), on the one hand, to departmental and divisional gatherings for the birthdays of colleagues at the college and official farewells for retiring deans and other front-office types.
Sadly, neither Lincoln (right) nor Darwin has broken into that charmed circle this year, although it could happen at almost any time in any year. Which is not to say that their significance has not been noted. Many Calvin folks have tried to understand better what Lincoln meant by “the mystic chords of memory” and “the betters angels of our nature,” for instance, just as many have struggled to determine if it was Darwin or Herbert Spencer whose name should be forever associated with the doctrine of “the survival of the fittest.”
There is, however, something of a large-scale experiment being proposed for the campus, a “Survivor”-style reality show that would take the personnel of entire divisions or departments of the college and move them far from the friendly confines of their normal college offices to the wilds of temporary office space across the East Beltline. No, they wouldn’t be required to live and work in the Metaphorical Playground, nor would they be relocated in the sub-basements of the DeVos Center or the unrented rooms of the Prince Conference Center. Nor would they be required to live outdoors in the Nature Preserve (aka Ecosystem Preserve). Instead, the proposal would place these departments in refurbished office buildings, often more comfortably equipped than their previous habitat, and challenge them to be a vital part of the larger college community while living at a greater distance from it. The challenges would be fascinating—luring students and administrators across the Beltline for meetings and consults; experiencing the winter realities of snow drifts, ice, frozen ponds in the nearby preserve, feral dogs, and the hunters and gatherers roaming the Northeast shire and its parking lots; enduring long seasons of working almost exclusively with no one but the members of one’s department or division in view; and determining whether such extreme dislocation and disorientation can eventually be turned into the ability to orient (or orientate) oneself properly again, or if such reorientation is beyond the reach of our college colleagues, perhaps beyond our own reach as well—a dramatic test of the mystic chords of memory, the better angels of our nature, and our adaptability to change, as well as the deeper meanings of providence and of improvident living.
This “Calvinist Survivor” concept is at present no more than a concept. But, to cheer you up until you can watch this show on television, here is a short quiz to help you determine how well you know Lincoln and Darwin (left).
In the blank to the left of each quotation below, answer with a. Lincoln, b. Darwin, c. Calvin, or d. None of the above.
____ 1. “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”
____ 2. “I don’t like that man. I’m going to have to get to know him better.”
____ 3. “I feel most deeply that this whole question of Creation is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton! Let each man hope and believe what he can.”
____ 4. “Every person is responsible for his own looks after 40.”
____ 5. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
____ 6. “On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force.”
____ 7. “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
____ 8. “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”
____ 9. “The Bible says somewhere that we are desperately selfish. I think we would have discovered that fact without the Bible.”
___ 10. “How paramount the future is to the present when one is surrounded by children.”
— Sincerely yours,
Giving to Calvin
Majors & Minors
People at Calvin