ONE SNOWY EVENING IN FEBRUARY, four Calvin College students huddled round a table, piecing together supper. On the dining hall menu: steak sandwiches, fried fish planks, and an unnaturally orange, scalloped potato-and-ham affair that looked way better than it tasted. Mark Hutton, a brown-haired freshman from New Jersey who planned to hit the local snowboarding slopes after dinner, opted out of all three entrees. Instead, he crafted from available cold food a custom three-course meal: A milk-soaked bowl of Count Chocula breakfast cereal, followed by a bowl of Trix, washed down with a blob of raspberry Jello.
Some things never change: College students will always survive on food that would appall their mothers. But a lot else has changed at Calvin College as it has grown over the past century from a one-room schoolhouse for Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastoral hopefuls to what is arguably the flagship of Christian liberal arts education. Calvin offers widely respected academic programs that attract Christian students from around the world, regularly places graduates into elite master's programs, and enjoys a good reputation even among secular institutions. But Calvin's commitment to traditional Reformed teaching seems to many to be fraying at the edges: On theology-rooted issues such as origins, feminist theology, and homosexuality, the school's policy and curricula have drifted away from Scripture.
Calvin's campus, once a farm, is attractively tucked into a middle-class suburb bordering the stop-light-and-strip-mall flatlands about five miles east of downtown Grand Rapids, Mich. On that land the goal is to provide over 4,000 students an education that is Christian not only because of chapel services but because all of a student's intellectual and emotional activities are permeated with the spirit and teaching of the faith. To that end, the school offers more than 100 majors and academic programs, from religion and biotechnology to Asian studies and pre-med, but also requires a semester-long, one-credit seminar series that essentially soaks first-year students in what it means to approach life and learning from a Christian and Reformed worldview.
Calvin now lands consistently on national "best college" lists, such as those published by Fiske Guides and U.S. News and World Report. Most students WORLD spoke with chose Calvin for its top-notch academics. Dan Huffman, a sophomore from Lowell, Mich. (who dyed his hair cherry-red over Christmas break, and arrived for winter term sporting a faded orange skater-do), said he "wanted to go to a Christian school, and Calvin had the best pre-med program" of any Christian school he'd looked at. Dan Dykstra, a geology major/astronomy minor with round spectacles and braces, and Michael Botting, a political science major with a buzz cut, said they too had been impressed with Calvin's reputation for high-caliber academics.
Asked how the school maintains its high standards, Provost Joel Carpenter pointed to a portrait hanging on his office wall: "That gentleman there," he said. It's a portrait of Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch reformer who in 1880 founded the Free University of Amsterdam. In a paper prepared for an October 2000 Harvard University conference on the future of religious universities, Mr. Carpenter wrote that "most of what constitutes Reformed Christian thought and action in North American higher education today comes from the tradition set in motion by Abraham Kuyper." Kuyper championed teaching and investigation-the sciences included-that proceeded from a distinctly Christian set of presuppositions. He wrote famously that since every square inch of creation belongs to Christ, "no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest."
That ethic drives broad-based liberal arts curriculum development, which in turn has kept the school's reputation afloat in the academic mainstream. The school's image also is buoyed by its conscious, Kuyperian quest to "engage the culture." But it may be, in part, a hyper-allegiance to that ideal that has proven for Calvin a double-edged sword. On one edge: worthy programs such as the annual Festival of Faith & Writing. Launched in 1990 by Calvin English professor Dale Brown, event speakers include well-known writers who, while not all specifically "religious" writers, explore themes of faith in their work. While some featured authors (John Updike, for instance) have sparked "concerned" phone calls, Mr. Brown tries to keep his guest list balanced between "controversial" writers and tamer ones such as Mitford series author Jan Karon. When he "makes people mad at both ends of the spectrum," Mr. Brown figures he's got the list about right.
On the other edge of the cultural-engagement sword, though, are events like an Indigo Girls concert. In 2001, the school invited the openly lesbian singers to perform on campus. Conservative students, alumni, and donors, dismayed that Calvin would headline a band known to flaunt what God calls sin, protested with their mouths, pens, and wallets. A group of professors added an intellectual patina to the event, sponsoring a panel discussion on Christian "engagement" with homosexuality. About 150 students attended the discussion; about 600 went to the concert. When they returned to Calvin last year, Indigo Girls met little controversy and no panel discussion.
Mr. Carpenter told WORLD that Calvin and the CRC are in sync on the topic of homosexuality: Being homosexual isn't sinful, while having homosexual sex is. Vice president for student life Shirley Hoogstra (quoting from a CRC position statement) explained that since "science has not given us a definitive answer on the origins of same-sex attraction," homosexuals deserve compassion. Calvin critics counter by saying that, of course, any person struggling with sin deserves compassion-but not because of gaps in science. Some cite the first chapter of Romans as God's definitive answer on the origins of same-sex attraction: Because men worshipped and served created things rather than their Creator, God gave them up to their own lust and homosexual desire was one result.
Nevertheless, Calvin has since 2002 observed something called "Ribbon Week," during which heterosexual students wear ribbons to show their support for those who desire to sleep with people of the same sex. Calvin President Gaylen Byker's rationale for Ribbon Week might indicate an odd, victim-mentality view of homosexuality, and it won't win him any points with gay-rights groups. Asked why, if it's only sexual behavior and not aberrant sexual thought that is sinful, Calvin didn't sponsor observance weeks for students struggling with other sexual sin, he replied, "Because homosexuality is qualitatively different from other sexual sin. It is a disorder," not chosen by the person. Having Ribbon Week, he said, "is like having cerebral palsy week."
Pro-homosexuality material has crept into Calvin's curriculum. The school offers a gender-studies minor, with a video library that includes Pink Triangles, a documentary that criticizes "homophobic attitudes and the enforcement of rigid sex roles in our culture." Meanwhile, the minor program's official website links to such groups as the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educational Network, the group that brought us "Fistgate," the infamous state-funded workshop in Massachusetts that included gay-sex how-to presentations for high-school students.
At least some Calvin students have internalized the school's thinking on homosexuality-and applied its clean-the-outside-of-the-cup theology to other issues. In January, campus newspaper editor Christian Bell crossed swords with Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association's Michigan chapter, and an ardent foe of legislation that gives special rights to homosexuals. Calvin communications professor Mark Fackler had invited Mr. Glenn to speak in his class. In an e-mail exchange with Mr. Glenn before his visit, Mr. Bell called him "a hate-mongering, homophobic bigot ... from a documented hate group."
Mr. Bell later issued a public apology, but during a WORLD interview revealed his Calvin-bred view of sexual sin. When WORLD asked him whether it is a sin to have a homosexual thought, he quickly answered, "No." Is it a sin, WORLD asked, to have an adulterous thought? He hesitated for a long moment, then replied, "Reservedly, I'd say no. But I'd have to study that." Christian Bell is a senior religion major. He plans to become a pastor.
Calvin's philosophical breaks with Scripture have sometimes originated with the CRC (both, for example, give a thumbs-up to women holding ecclesiastical office). Other fissures have erupted from within the school itself. That was not always the case. John Hammersma, a fit, strikingly tall 76-year-old music professor, began his Calvin teaching career in 1954. Over a low-fat lunch in the faculty dining room, he told WORLD that the job then was "a little like working in a stockade. The college and the Christian Reformed Church protected the school from contrary ideas. Unwanted ideas were kept out. Paradoxically, that also kept in the influences that needed to be shared."
Now, Calvin is open to healthy discussion, Mr. Hammersma said. "We wrestle with being true to Scripture and true to the Reformed tradition, while remaining relevant to today's problems." He paused between bites, and added with a wise, confidential smile, "Sometimes it was easier 50 years ago when there was a party line and we stuck to it."
Twenty years ago, the party line blurred on traditional biblical theories of origins, resulting in a protracted ground war. In the end, a theoretical dŽtente allowed for the teaching of theistic evolution. Mr. Byker summed up Calvin's teachings on origins this way: "We deal with a variety of approaches to origins, and we don't teach any of these things as the only way to look at it. We teach a deep respect for the Bible as teaching that God created the world, but that the Bible may not have been intended as a recipe book for how He did it."
Such a statement might shock some Calvin donors, according to Jessica Weinhold. A senior, Ms. Weinhold has for four years worked on Calvin's "Phone-a-thon," a fundraising program (annual goal: $1 million) in which students telephone alumni to solicit financial support for the college. A Phone-a-Thon supervisor this year, Ms. Weinhold said Calvin is losing donors as more learn, for example, that Calvin is much more liberal than they are on issues such as homosexuality and theistic evolution.
"If donors knew they were teaching feminist theology here, all hell would break loose," Ms. Weinhold said. But she personally appreciates that "Calvin is willing to set up spaces for people to dialogue about things like feminism, pornography, and domestic violence." (The school takes the hard line on pornography, she said, pointing to a recent computer crackdown that swept campus terminals free of obscene material.) Calvin's dialoguing space led Ms. Weinhold to incorporate into her own theology language that might easily have been learned at Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton's staunchly feminist alma mater. Feminist theologians "speak from a place of pain," Ms. Weinhold told WORLD, and provide "new interpretations of foundational doctrines formulated by males in patriarchal societies." Her study of feminist theology also gave her "an expanded view of God ... when we think and talk about God, it is in masculine terms like 'strong,' 'a warrior,' a 'He,' even though God clearly transcends gender."
Calvin's religion department also periodically offers teaching on feminist hermeneutics. Asked about Ms. Weinhold's comments, Mr. Byker said what students believe now may change with "years of maturation. We don't judge the effectiveness of what we do by what a 22-year-old says." He defended on Kuyperian grounds the presentation of divergent theological viewpoints: "Students may not always choose the [viewpoint] I would like, ... but I also wouldn't want to leave them without a choice."
Fair enough. But Calvin's founders and early supporters probably would not have agreed. Reformed writer J. Schepers wrote in an 1896 magazine article that the Christian Reformed Church needed "a school ... to which we can confidently entrust our sons and daughters, so that they will not be drenched in the poison of all kinds of errors."