Casting Call: Abraham Kuyper and the Drama of History
The life and writing of pastor and politician Abraham Kuyper show that a faith-informed view of history is necessary to envision and shape the future.
Abraham Kuyper possessed a remarkably unitary vision of the world. It takes about ten minutes of reading anything Kuyper wrote to discern this; the force of his intellect emanates from the page itself.
This judgment doesn't require a biographer. But, what James Bratt shows (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat) with real piquancy is that Kuyper, as a man of his times, was able to seize the possibilities of those times and turn them toward gain. Among those possibilities was space to imagine what Bratt calls "grand narratives of human events." Think Hegel, Marx, Macaulay. And think Kuyper, their "Calvinist counterpart," as Bratt convincingly claims.
Kuyper "loved the big picture and loved to fill it with stark oppositions that created compelling drama," Bratt observes. This was not drama for drama's sake, ecclesiastical or political writing as a pretext for grandiloquence. Rather, it was drama as cosmological witness. Kuyper sought, in the tropes that formed his day, to resurrect a conception of human history that had profoundly shaped Europe and that had subsequently been rejected by it. Could what had been lost be in some form recovered? This was his challenge. This was his bet.
Any who long to live within the frame of grand narrative—who seek the possibility of consequential action on contested terrain—have reason to watch Kuyper at work. He crafted his words and fashioned his arguments with a gambler's eye on the stakes before him. In a revealing discussion, Bratt notes that Kuyper agitated to "restore a Christian Netherlands": a dramatic hope, to say the least, at that late date. Yet the historical drama Kuyper imagined and sought to enact was far from retrograde. It was, rather, filled with currency. This was no Dutch Reformed version of the American South's Lost Cause; early on Kuyper set his face against what he with disdain called "repristination." "The past does not return," he declared in an 1869 address, in the early years of his pastoral ministry. "All repristination is nonsense" and would lead to no compelling drama, certainly no efficacious action. The drama in which Kuyper would act was a drama bound—and intensified—by the narrowing straits of the modernizing West itself. The path forward lay in re-conceiving kingdom progress within a radically transformed historical context.
This was high drama, to be sure, and Kuyper narrated his way into it. Seeking space in which to speak as churchman and politician, he created it with the habits of mind he had developed as an academic. His doctoral studies had led him to the intersection of theology and history, where the young Kuyper came to see theology as a discipline that was itself part of a larger story, the momentous unfolding of a redemption both cosmic and earthy, achieving its centre in the historical God-Man who was the Christ. Kuyper's ascendance in the Netherlands would come through his telling of this story.
Telling this story is of course what Christians are supposed to do. But Kuyper would not tell it the way most did. Most of that telling was a history that was ahistorical, featuring a hill far away upon which stood an old rugged cross, but with little between the cross of the past and the Christ of the present. Kuyper filled in that sizable gap with a historical narrative that was the fruit of a century of rigorous historical thinking spanning the French Revolution and the new colonialism that so symbolizes Kuyper's age. To a generation suffering acute anxiety from all manner of upheaval, Kuyper provided succour through a historical account of its present circumstance, an account sophisticated in style and conversant with intellectual currents beyond the church. For Kuyper, the past that so pressed upon his nation was not truly past (as William Faulkner famously put it); the past (to use an aphorism from another Southern writer, Wendell Berry) was for Kuyper the "interior of the present."
This keen sense of the immanence of the past—of its constant, unrelenting presence within the present—required Kuyper, as he elaborated his multi-faceted Calvinist vision for society and the church, to weave it into his writing and speaking. He situated his readers and auditors as co-participants in this vast drama and in this way drew them into it. The French Revolution, he told an assembly in 1869, was "the beginning of that new direction" they knew so well, modernity's "false uniformity" that was leading to "the disappearance of the human personality" itself, a pattern he detailed in sphere after sphere, from home construction to city design to clothing. If modern Europeans were experiencing dissolution in the face of an encroaching sameness, historical understanding was the first step toward a salutary response.
The history Kuyper appealed to was often abstract and sweeping. But he also brought the past to bear on more gritty political realities with regularity. Contending in 1889 in a series of newspaper articles that the "manual laborer" had become "a sort of appendix to the machine," Kuyper sought to lay the foundation for improved forms of labour organization by critiquing the origins of Europe's historic guild system. On his reading, it "was doomed to fail," since its origins in imperial Rome, with its strict class divisions between workers (often slaves) and aristocrats, would inevitably render it "defective" for a society with enlarging hopes for equality. Kuyper touted instead the Greek vision of Solon, with its protection of business from the government and its general tendency to regard the worker as "an honorable citizen." In a time of volatility, Kuyper sought a measure of security for the Netherlands' workers by mining the past for structural practices conducive to democratic ideals. And in doing so he acted on a premise propounded by the American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch in the 1960s, that "historical analysis" is "the best way, maybe the only way, of gaining a clear understanding of social issues."
Kuyper, in short, was seizing history for civic ends. He aimed his words not at scholars but at the electorate, the citizenry, the nation. He was taking up the mantle of public intellectual, a perch just emerging in its modern form, whereby savvy writers and activists could connect the burgeoning new learning to the great democratic projects of the industrializing world, angling for enhanced vision and moral light. For a people watching the world change on a grand scale, Kuyper traced these changes in a way that rendered ludicrous the thought that one could proceed wisely while ignoring history. It was a gift to both his contemporaries and to those who've come behind. As this same monumental juggernaut races on, it's a sharp reminder why intellectuals matter, particularly those with eyes trained on—and by—the historical frame.
But if what Lasch called "historical analysis" so mattered to Kuyper, it was also because his understanding of "analysis" was informed by a conception of scholarship at odds with prevailing notions in the academy. In his 1880 speech at the inauguration of the Free University, he dispensed with the regnant visions of scientific objectivity, so hopeful and hopeless at once, with one pithy claim: "The person who does not believe does not exist." The University's founders were not impelled by a "love for detached learning" but rather by a love of God. "Our scholarship will be 'free,'" he underscored, "not in the sense of 'detached from its principle.' That would be the freedom of fish on dry land, of a flower uprooted from the soil." Freedom for Calvinist scholars would only come as their utterly cosmic and consequential vision of reality guided their studies in all ways, right down to questions of method.
So Kuyper's historical interpretations, far from "objective" or "neutral," were activated by an unabashedly theological vision. This vision in turn led to the moral judgments that make his historical accounts actually seem, among other things, interesting—and not just interesting but imperative, like lost clues that explain a grave condition.
How did this approach to history work? Consider an early articulation of one of his cardinal theological principles. "Though the wall of separation has been demolished by Christ," declaimed Kuyper, "the lines of distinction have not been abolished. Someday, before the throne of the Lamb, doxologies will be sung to him who conquered, not by a uniform mass of people but by a humanity diversified in peoples and tribes, in nations and tongues." "Unity," he concluded, "develops by internal strength precisely from the diversity of nations and races"—beware the relentless push toward "false uniformity."
This very theological conviction guides Kuyper's historical judgment on the end of the Roman Empire, made in a later speech: "As antiquity drew toward its close there was no freedom left, no nations, no spheres. There was only one sphere, one world empire under one sovereign State." The main point: the theological conviction makes possible the historical interpretation. The facts do not simply speak for themselves.
Crucially, the keywords in this snippet of historical analysis—freedom, spheres, empire—are freighted with very particular meaning within Kuyper's theological tradition. Those who would understand Kuyper's historical claims must find a way into this tradition to do so—there exists no neutral interpretive ground by which to grasp the meaning of his words, or his judgment. Historical analysis is here made possible only by theological vision, a vision that encompasses and explains human history itself. History unguided by such a vision is blind—or, as Emily Dickinson more lyrically put it, "The abdication of Belief/Makes the behavior small." The failure to shine searching, presuppositional light on our studies of the past only leaves us buried beneath ever larger piles of useless "data"—a fitting fate for the faithless.
But Kuyper, filled with faith, believed something consequential was happening in history. And his life brimmed with activity that sought to clarify and transform it. Bratt notes, "Visionaries of a new society were plentiful among European intellectuals of the day, and commanders of social movements were to be found in every country, but few combined the two roles as well as Kuyper." He seized on the "grand narrative of human events" he believed his age needed and propelled it right into the everyday lives of men and women throughout his country, seeking to change their own ill-serving narratives. The best way to show that your version of the story is right, after all, is to live it, heart, soul, mind, and strength, as a single human body, as an ecclesiastical body, as a body politic. Embodiment was Kuyper's aim; he was convinced that Calvinism embodied meant a world changed. "For Kuyper, Calvinism was a world religion," Bratt writes, "indeed, a world-formative one, and his titanic energies…were devoted to fashioning fresh, authentic ways of making religion work in the modern world."
We today may not have much confidence in the ability of anything to be "world-formative" that's not connected to a corporation or an arsenal of weapons. The colossal "false uniformity" Kuyper dreaded is tweeting its way into the kind of brave-new-world formation that has Miley Cyrus showing up on the homepage of the Folha de São Paulo day after day.
But world-formative energies are truly what this world needs and has always needed. For us to move with this kind of force—a force intelligent, cunning, transcendent—history will need once more to become a touchstone for us. And not just any history, but history focused by the theological vision and cultural contention Abraham Kuyper so vigorously exemplified. He believed that if God's people could grasp in vivid and profound detail their story—where they had been and where they were going—they would act decisively.
Do we know our times? Do we live in the decisive ways such knowledge requires? The stage has been set, the casting calls made. But, as a wise dramatist once said, the play, the play is the thing. Would-be actors: study up.