My summer reading has gone in fits and starts. But one book I have been enjoying quite a bit has been Muether’s recent biography on Van Til. I suppose a large part of my interest is that I inhabit and wrestle with the same denomination in which he did those very same things, the CRC. Whatever curiosity it satisfies to read of references to familiar streets, towns and area churches it also gives me some comfort to know that a figure like Van Til struggled in his loyalties. (One anecdote I found particularly stirring was his confidence to a friend a dream that he was called to the Spring Lake Christian Reformed Church and there stayed for the remainder of his days.)
A perusal of the Index reveals that one theme is peppered throughout, implying just how important it was for the man’s general vision. Van Til was nothing if not a stalwart for the efforts in Christian day schooling. Muether writes:
Van Til argued that children will remain in the church and another generation will arise only through an aggressive program aimed at the education of all levels…Van Til went on to suggest that the formation of the new church was a futile enterprise if attention were not paid to Christian education.”
Van Til pegged John Dewey (who was reared in a Christian home, by the way) as the “murderer of Christianity” and considered that evolution was the greatest contemporary threat to Christian education.
As I survey the state of things in our shared denomination, I cannot help to seriously wonder about the rather idealistic view—and I daresay quite over realized understanding—about parochial education Van Til seemed to have. He seems to suggest that if this thing called Christian education is in place it will be a bulwark for preserving one generation of covenant children after another. This further seems to suggest, as all such philosophy does, that it is not the ordained institution of the family which perpetuates faith in children but the red-brick building down the street.
If Christian day schooling is so vital to the project of preserving covenant youth specifically, and by implication, Reformed orthodoxy in general, why is the state of the CRC so dismal? It would seem that the Van Tilian philosophy of parochial education has been lost on this insular and ethnic denomination. As a deacon who has had to offer up prayers and take up the collection for that third rail in our circles called Christian education, I can attest that there is no institution the Dutch Reformed take so seriously as that of parochial education. I have often said that if the CRC took her confessional tradition as seriously as she dos her views on day schooling things would be much brighter. If they have failed their father in various and sundry ways over the years, they can rest assured that they have carried out faithfully this one rigorous commitment. Unfortunately for them, while he saw right through Barth’s new modernism and had American evangelicalism’s number like no one’s business, it appears to me that this was one thing the good professor got entirely wrong.
I am once again reinforced in my own theory that Christian education, at least in my neck of the woods, is merely an effort to maintain a largely cultural—not cultic—endeavor. It is what immigrants naturally do when coming to a new and strange land—they stick together. And insofar as education is misunderstood to primarily be an affective assignment needed to maintain cultural cohesion and not an intellectual task, the whole thing makes perfect sense. The Catholics and Lutherans did it.
The CRC routinely wrestles with the fact that they are so insular and almost impenetrable by anyone whose surname does not begin with a Van or Vander. They correctly know a church has to be more diverse than singular. But while they are well aware of their perpetual and disadvantageous isolationism they are seemingly at relative loss about how to solve for it. Chasing all the colors of Benetton, they employ endless politically correct efforts to increase diversity, from African-American spirituals in the Psalter to conferences by experts on how to, well, increase diversity (heaven forbid word and sacrament might have something to do with it). It is the PC version of church-growth. And the one effort which flies under the radar and continues to hinder is the leftover project meant to keep them isolated in the first place, namely Christian education. The children have sufficiently assimilated into the very culture their forebears sought to resist. (Sidebar: as one who descends from 1914 Roman Catholic Eastern European immigrants and has become quite assimilated himself as a mutt-American, it is not altogether obvious to me just what is wrong with not being Dutch Reformed.) And it has seemed to do very little to preserve confessional Reformed orthodoxy. Moreover, if Christian education has done nothing to keep assimilation at bay then all that is left as a rationale seems to be that which the two-kingdom doctrine gobbles up for lunch: there is no such thing as a Christian version of anything common. To my admittedly dim lights, it is not at all clear just what Christian education is supposed to do by the end of the proverbial school day.
There are two kinds of isolationism. There is the good kind that not only preserves what ought to be preserved but also understands how. And there is the bad kind, which only serves to keep some in and others out for its own sake. The personal warmth with which the latter carries out its task doesn’t make it less so.