The Postmodern Maze

In a 1990 forum in Harper's Magazine, five specialists on urban life—two architects, an urban planner, a sociologist, and a sculptor—discussed what has been happening to our public spaces. While they differed about how best to design our shopping malls, subway systems, and city centers, they were unanimous about the underlying problem: Our lives are increasingly characterized by “fragmentation and difference,” and we need a new “sense of what we have in common while knowing our difference—a sense of wholeness.”

This sense of wholeness seems even more unattainable now that we are into the 21st century. Jerry Springer regularly takes us from shouting match to shouting match, with no resolutions—and certainly no “meta-narrative,” no overarching story of human existence—ever in sight. Zealous religious believers denounce each other, even as they are all being condemned by equally zealous critics of religion. Influential political leaders complain about growing incivility in their own ranks that they seem incapable of reversing. And many social commentators seem resigned to a world in which no light at all can be shed on the possibilities for unifying either our individual or our collective lives. Psychologist Kenneth Gergen argues that we can only resign ourselves to an “endless wandering in the maze of meaning”; indeed, we may need to come up with a new hymn to sing along the way: “Mazing Grace.”

In 1880, the Dutch statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper issued a bold proclamation that spoke to the growing fragmentation of society and social roles in his own day— and in ours: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry 'Mine!'”

A Christian world-and-life view

Kuyper did not want to return to the ways in which people and governments had attempted to unify life in the past. He feared both an all-powerful state and a social order dominated by a single church. Kuyper was a Calvinist who recognized that his own spiritual forebears had often propagated political schemes that denied people the right to live by their basic convictions. God calls people freely to offer him their obedience, Kuyper insisted. Nothing is gained by imposing patterns of “Christian” behavior on human beings whose hearts have not been turned to the Lord.

Kuyper was an important political leader in the Netherlands. After a brief period as a pastor, he waged a successful campaign for election to the Dutch Parliament. For the next several decades, he led the Anti-Revolutionary Party (which he helped found)— and even served a term as Prime Minister from 1901 to 1905. But his interests extended far beyond politics. Though he had relinquished his clergy credentials when he entered political life, he continued to function as a theologian. He founded the Free university of Amsterdam in 1880. He led a breakaway movement out of the state-sponsored Reformed church to form the second largest Reformed denomination in the country. And all the while he wrote regularly for a daily newspaper he had established earlier in his career, as well as spending much time urging Christians to acknowledge Christ's lordship over all aspects of life—including farming, the arts, business, labor-management relations, and education.

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!’

In a series of lectures that he gave at Princeton Seminary during an American tour in 1898 (still in print as Lectures on Calvinism), Kuyper set forth the contours of what he labeled “a Christian world-and–life view” that provided a faith-based perspective on a variety of cultural areas, including politics, art, and the life of the mind. Christians must have such a perspective, he argued, if we truly believe that Jesus Christ is sovereign over all of creation's “square inches.”

One creation, many spheres

Kuyper's many leadership roles corresponded nicely to his idea of “sphere sovereignty,” a perspective that has strong affinities to contemporary discussions about civil society. Social scientists and philosophers have recently stressed the importance of “mediating structures.” Neighborhood associations, the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts, churches and synagogues, amateur soccer leagues, extended families—these “living subcultures from which people derive meaning and identity” (as sociologist Peter Berger calls them) protect us from the all-encompassing tendencies of the state on the one hand and isolated individualism on the other.

Kuyper's teaching offers a Christian perspective on these matters. For one thing, he believed that the importance of these mediating structures goes beyond their practical value. The family, he insisted, is grounded in God's creating purposes for humankind. The state, therefore, does not grant rights to families; rather, political authorities must recognize the sphere of family life as having a right to exist and flourish—a right that is not theirs to grant or deny.

In Kuyper's view, God programmed the diverse spheres of human interaction into the original creation. When the Lord told the first human pair to “be fruitful and multiply,” he was surely talking about procreation. But when he instructed them to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over [it],” he was issuing a “cultural mandate,” according to Kuyper. As Adam and Eve began to fashion tools and work schedules and patterns of interaction, they were “filling” the Garden with culture—and eventually, even without the appearance of sin, the Garden would become a City.

In that sense, not only family but art, science, technology, politics (as the patterns of collective decision-making), recreation, and the like were all programmed into creation so that culture would flourish in many different ways. God wanted artists to bring aesthetic excellence to the creation and scholars to advance the cause of knowledge. Economic activity would foster stewardship, while politics would promote justice.

Sin and grace

Human sin deeply affected all of this. Kuyper believed that humankind is in a state of rebellion against God—our natural tendency is to work against God's purposes. God's saving grace redirects our wills away from idolatrous projects, making it possible once again for us to glorify God in our personal and corporate activities.

According to Kuyper, there is an “antithesis” between believers and unbelievers in the present world: People of faith view life in a radically different way than others do. And there was no doubt in Kuyper's mind that the public square is a particularly strategic place for waging the ongoing battle between righteousness and unrighteousness.

But Kuyper also put forward a doctrine of “common grace” that tempered this picture: In addition to the saving grace that renews human hearts, God shows gracious favor even towards those who will not end up in heaven. He does this by working mysteriously to restrain sin and to stimulate works of culture that will fulfill his providential purposes. Some very positive gifts result from this divine activity in sinful human hearts.

We can see the fruits of common grace at work, Kuyper wrote, “wherever civic virtue, a sense of domesticity, natural love, the practice of human virtue, the improvement of the public conscience, integrity, mutual loyalty among people, and a feeling for piety leaven life.”

Christ the King

Kuyper's overall prescription for how to order society has come to be labeled “principled pluralism.” In our fallen world there are many worldviews at work, and Kuyper wanted people to be explicit about how their deepest convictions shaped their various activities—politics, schooling, farming, labor-management relations, etc. In politics, for example, there should be a variety of political parties based upon worldviews, each contending for their specific policies but none of them having any kind of favored status. The state should function not as a coach or cheerleader but as a referee, seeing to it that all perspectives—religious and irreligious—are treated impartially as they compete in an arena characterized by fair play.

Kuyper had begun his pastoral ministry as a liberal, but under the influence of ordinary Calvinist folks in his parish, he had soon experienced a profound evangelical conversion. He said their simple faith had been “a blessing for my heart, the rise of the morning star in my life.” He referred to them affectionately as “the little people” and shared with them a deep personal faith in Jesus Christ. As he lay dying, no longer able to speak to his family gathered around, he pointed to the symbol of the Savior on the Cross that hung above his bed.

But for Kuyper it was not enough simply to trust in a personal Savior. Christ was for him also the risen and reigning Sovereign; one of his favorite phrases was pro rege, “for the King.” The ascended Christ— to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given”—rules over a very complex creation. And its complexity, though distorted by sin, still shows forth God's creating purposes, which will be renewed at the return of Christ.

Like the urban planners convened by the Harper's editors in 1990, Kuyper called for a sense of wholeness to remedy the increasing fragmentation of life. But he insisted that recognizing this need should not lead to nostalgia for the past. Instead, we must look for an integrated worldview drawing together all the complexities of life, a worldview grounded not in an intellectual scheme but in the One who rules over all the square inches of the creation that he still loves—and that he will some day renew.

By Richard Mouw

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #94 in 2007]

Richard Mouw is president and professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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