Rhymes and reasons

by Michael Van Denend '78
Spring 2011

These are challenging days for Calvin College.

The college’s enrollment has been and remains about 100 or so less of where we’d like it to be to use the campus to its fullest and to balance the budget sheet.

There have been numerous budget reductions, two years of pay freezes and, for the first time in over 20 years, the college trimmed its workforce, a wrenching time for this close working community where people give their energies to a Christ-centered mission. It has been an emotional year.

Just before the holidays, I received a correspondence from an alumni couple. They decided to communicate their perspective on Calvin’s enrollment situation through some new rhymes to an old favorite poem, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”:

“What IS the true problem? At the root, at the core?
Calvin’s tradition is not Reformed anymore!
All things to all people, is the school’s new look
And that’s costing it dearly in the old pocketbook

“On Calvin, on Kuyper, on old Martin Luther
Calvin’s convictions could hardly be looser.
The Reformed tradition, with truth black and white,
Slips gently away, like a ship in the night.”

The verses, very cleverly written, assert that enrollment is down because Calvin has abandoned its Reformed Christian foundation.

When I wrote the authors and asked for specific examples so I could respond to the criticism, the response was that the college has replaced bedrock beliefs for whatever trendy social issue is at hand. It is fine to be involved in social issues, they wrote, if the reason behind the involvement is scripturally based. I do not yet know how one can judge Calvin’s engagement not to be so. 

I don’t believe that the past three years of lower enrollment is because Calvin has abandoned its Reformed tradition or faithfulness to scripture. 

North America is still reeling from a deep economic recession, Michigan among the hardest areas hit. The pressure that puts on those considering Christian college tuition is obvious. Calvin is far from alone among regional and national private colleges feeling that effect.

But beyond cost, here’s my opinion on why Calvin has a challenge to meet in reaching young people and families these days. It is exactly because this school is so intent on maintaining a decidedly Reformed Christian academic foundation that it is daunting to compete among other Christian colleges on one hand and state universities on the other. 

As is the history of the Reformed tradition, we don’t settle for easy answers. On anything. And we aren’t afraid to tackle issues and ask questions that other Christian colleges avoid and secular universities don’t take seriously. 

That means Calvin has been and will be a lightning rod for the important issues of our day. As it should be at a place that follows academic inquiry so the light of scripture can be shown brightly wherever the paths lead. This head-on approach flies in the face of society’s desire for simple answers and labels—and that includes Christians and non-Christians alike.

Following the Reformed tradition doesn’t trump the gospel here. On the contrary, as so well written by Calvin philosophy professor James K.A. Smith in his new and very helpful book, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition: “The Reformed tradition is a way, not a destination; it is a means, not an end; it is a way onto the Way that is the road on and with Jesus.”

Of course the college does not do its scholarship perfectly, getting it right in every instance. In his book, Professor Smith quotes John Calvin himself: “… so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third and always I would answer, ‘Humility.’”

A couple of years ago I invited a Spark letter writer convinced that Calvin had lost its way to come to campus and spend a day here, to see for herself. That invitation remains open, to her, to the poem writers and to any graduate of this institution who has doubts. 

At this moment in Calvin’s history, we need alumni to stand tall for this school, to financially support it and recommend it to young people and their families. If you don’t think you can do that, contact me to come for a fresh look at your alma mater. If that intimidates you, pick up a copy of Professor Smith’s new book. After you’ve read it, let me know if you think today’s faculty members teach in the Reformed tradition and follow the Way, the Truth and the Life. Not perfectly, but prayerfully and intentionally.