Church and world


It has been a while since I translated the dissertation of Dr. Edward ‘t Slot (at the time pastor of a Protestant church in Zwolle) into English. It has now very recently been published by the renowned academic publisher Mohr Siebeck in Tübingen, with the title: ‘Negativism of Revelation’. The book deals with a rather complex debate between Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With the rather heavy price tag of about 70 euro, I do not have high hopes for this book to become a real bestseller. Fortunately, I do expect to find a free copy in my letter box one of these days.

This past week I had the privilege of once again meeting Dr. ‘t Slot–this time in a different setting. He has now become a professor at the Theological University of Amsterdam and since this past week also (for one day a week) at the University of Groningen. Last Tuesday he held his inaugural speech as the formal start of his position as theology professor in Groningen. I should add that his academic chair is sponsored by the Confessionele Vereniging in de Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (a society of rather conservative Protestants in the Netherlands, who pay for the expenses of his professorate). ‘t Slot’s assignment is: Theology and Church in the Twenty-first Century.

I always enjoy the academic traditions: the prestigious, historical aula of the university, the procession of the professors in their academic gowns, who accompany their new learned colleague, and the somewhat unearthly atmosphere as the audience listens to the laudatio (a few friendly words to introduce the speaker) and the oratio (the lecture of the new professor). I should add that it appeared to me that only a minority of the audience (clearly, mainly from the rather conservative segment of Dutch Protestantism) understood what the speech of Dr. ‘t Slot was all about. (The somewhat mysterious title was: The seventh ‘however’—the philosophical discourse between academy and church.)

I arrived quite early at the ‘academy building’ of the university and decided to pay a brief visit to the new Starbucks restaurant at the ground level of the university library. This building is immediately opposite the historic building where professor ‘t Slot was to deliver his oratio. It was a rather full house–groups of students in lively discussions, mainly young people with a book or their laptop and their favorite drink.

A more profound difference was hardly thinkable than between the open, totally secular atmosphere of Starbucks and (hardly 200 meters from there) the almost sacred sphere of the university aula with its stained glass windows. If I were looking for an illustration to picture the distance between church and world, here it was. Within seconds I could step from one world in a totally different one. Immediately this raised the question in my mind: How can these two, so different, worlds ever engage in a meaningful dialogue?

The new professor is supposed to focus on the subject of church and theology in the twenty-first century. I have no idea how he is going to tackle this. His background as a pastor in an ‘ordinary’ congregation may help him. I will be on the lookout for publications from him. I am curious. Will he be able to substantially contribute in making theology and church a living reality in the time in which we now live? Will he manage to escape often enough from his new academic world in the faculty of divinity to discover what the ‘real’ world is all about? In any case, I believe, he would be well advised to spend a little time at Starbucks, whenver he comes to Groningen, and to take some of that atmosphere with him into his room or lecture hall.

The few hours last Tuesday in Groningen also reminded me personally how often I am locked into my own small ecclesiastical world, without much contact with the ‘real’ world around me. As a follower of Christ I also run the risk of mainly talking to myself and to people who have very similar ideas to those I have, while the Lord has also given me the assignment to meet with people who do not yet know him and think very differently from how I think myself. It would be an understatement to say that it remains an enormous challenge.



One thought on “Church and world

  1. DavidB

    Great article. I think the interface points between these disparate arenas is personal. As an academic and an Adventist (among other things), I often struggle to bridge these apparent divides. What I have learned (in part through your excellent framing of the question) is that I am the interface. I bridge the gap between these disparate arenas in my words, my life, and my actions. Thus, the bridge is deeply personal. It happens in personal relationships, not in institutions or grand narratives. My presence brings academia into the lives of my friends, family and acquaintances; conversely, my presence brings their concerns, their ideas, their world into academia. Likewise for church–my life bridges the gap between church and world. At some level, this is also to say that the gap only exists as long as people imagine it to (and live in a way which reinforces it). This is also the meaning of the incarnation–that God is not apart from us, but with us. Christ bridged the relational disconnect between us and God by entering our world in a concrete, personal way. His life also demonstrates the great risk inherent in doing so. Some people fear this bridging will sully their “purity” or “security” and will do anything to protect the gap.

    tl;dr – Meaningful dialogue happens on the personal level. This is how we meet, even across vast distance and find we are not so far apart. Of course, it requires courage to risk the meeting.

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