President Kurt Dykstra Reflects on the State of Our Society and on Our Call to Faithfulness
President Kurt Dykstra shared the following reflection with the Trinity campus on October 29 following the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. As it is a message that extends beyond that particular event, it is reprinted in full below.
Perhaps you, like me, are starting your week with heaviness upon your soul. The last week in our nation’s history has been one that we hope will not repeat: attempted bombings, attempted shootings, massacres at houses of worship – which is to say nothing of the “ordinary” stories of violence, injury, and death that accompany every week. We are right to pray for victims and their families, for our nation and world. We are right to think about how we might, through policy or legal means, evaluate existing paradigms and ponder whether new ones might alleviate some of the terribleness that seems to surround modern life.
To appreciate history is to know that these are not the first days of extraordinary violence that our nation has witnessed. Fifty years ago, this nation endured a series of extraordinarily violent acts – from bombings to assassinations – that, I pray, is unlike anything that we will see in our day. One hundred and fifty years ago, there were plots, and some actions, to burn down significant parts of New York City in order to sow terror among our own people. As a nation, we long have experienced vicious political campaigns and visceral hatred of one group by another. These are but a few examples. None of this is new, though it may be fresh to us. All of this is horrible, whether of recent vintage or consigned to history.
What then are we at Trinity to do? We acutely understand that evil lurks at every corner – this is part of our theology. Yet, we also deeply know that this is not the way it is supposed to be, that Jesus Christ has broken the chains of death, and that there will come a day when lion and lamb lie down together and there will be no more strife – this is a bigger part of our theology. How do we remain faithful and present today, while also claiming the hope that we know is coming?
That is the question that many of the faithful are asking, Christians of all sorts and non-Christians, too.
First, we pray. That is where we always start. We pray for victims and families. We pray for hearts to turn toward God. We pray for our nation and world. We pray because we believe that God can do more than we ask or imagine, because it is what God’s people have been doing for millennia, and because it is what Jesus himself did in times of trouble.
Second, we comfort. God’s people have been the ones to show up over time and history. Yes, we care for spirit – but also for mind and body, too.
Those two items are our “given;” they are what Christians do, time after time, tragedy after tragedy. And they are no small things, either. We should never doubt that they are big, faithful, important acts. We often call on these things especially after some sort of event of evil or tragedy. What else might we be about that helps us to faithfully live in our fallen world?
I cannot help but think of the current divisive state of American life. To know that this isn’t the first such occurrence of societal discord – or even the worst – offers some comfort, though in limited quantity.
Trinity, I am convinced that we have a role to play, our little school tucked away in a middle ring suburb in the Midwest. Our world needs Trinity, and places like her, to be a faithful presence throughout society, to be a leavening agent – or better yet, to be salt and light in the world.
This is not the first significant season of discord in American life. It is not the first time of witnessing extraordinary violence and terror. At the same time, this is our season to be a faithful presence and, in this season, there are broader cultural and technological realities that make our faithful work more challenging. You have heard me say something like the following on more than a few occasions:
Our world, more and more, is comprised of autonomous actors organizing their lives as they see fit, abetted by technology and without the leavening influence of mediating organizations to help them rise above their base interests. We are more able than ever to live in self-created bubbles and do so with increasing regularity: “red” places become redder and “blue” places bluer, we can consume our news from the sources we choose, associate with the people with whom we want to be associated, and live in the places full of people like us. Those places that, generations ago, helped to mold, shape, fence, and guide, at best largely have shed their authority and, at worst simply no longer exist.
This bubbling or clustering has very real societal consequences. It is much easier to assume the best about ourselves when everyone we know thinks and acts as we do. Conversely it is much easier to assume the worst about those different from us when “those people” can be kept as an abstraction or reduced to a caricature.
While, thankfully, the actors who have engaged in these acts of extraordinary violence over the past few years are far outside the American mainstream, the breaking news is barely reported before noxious tribal finger pointing and posturing begins. Surely hacks and partisans will always be among us, but I cannot help but believe that sizable “like-minded clustering” plays a role in the impulse for vitriol at others. If one’s friends, one’s news sources, one’s social media followers and feeds, one’s network of influence see the world in identical fashion, how can one not see the best in ourselves and the worst in others? Abstractions are neat, clean, and easy; actual people are messy and relationships are complicated. Too much of American society is too invested in abstraction and too devoid of actual people and complicated relationships. A 2003 essay in The Atlantic has stuck with me for over 15 years, as has this line: “Many of us live in absurdly unlikely groupings, because we have organized our lives that way.” (I commend the entire essay to you.)
When we at Trinity talk about vocational calling across the disciplines, or when we understand that “every square inch” of the creation and culture matters to God, or when we speak about being agents of restoration in our culture, or when note that we are trying to get in on what God is doing in the world, we are expressing that we seek to faithfully live as God’s children in this world. We are not a tribal people!
And, in part, I firmly believe that the state of our culture reflects the state of the Christian witness “beyond the bubble.” Writing during the Second World War, C.S. Lewis penned one of his most important works, The Abolition of Man. Many of us have read it and, more than a few, repeatedly. In it Lewis argues that it is the human chest that mediates between the head (“cerebral man”) and the heart (“visceral man”) in a way that allows human beings to be truly human. It is the chest where “emotions [are] organized by trained habit into stable sentiments” so that humanity truly can be moral creatures. Take away moral truth – make “Men Without Chests” as the chapter is titled – and societal disaster follows:
And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Friends, we are called to be a heady, hearty, and “chesty” people and to be so in every nook and cranny of the world in which we live. That is why at Trinity we devote so much time and attention to developing both disciplinary knowledge and a broadly Christian worldview.
We are made to be Christ’s Ambassadors in our local communities, yes, but also in the broader culture and world. As University of Virginia sociologist, James Davison Hunter, has argued, to change culture requires a cadre of influential persons positioned in influential institutional places, with influential expertise and training, and possessing influential networks of good and like-situated persons. It requires the right people, with the right training, in the right networks, in the right places. It is a serious and important undertaking. It is what you and I are called to do and be, even as we live our daily lives of seeming routine.
Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where the massacre occurred on Oct. 27, has a wonderfully biblical name. One cannot help but think of Genesis 2 where God creates the tree of life among all other kinds of trees. Perhaps a lesser known reference of the tree of life is found in Proverbs 3:18: “She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.” Even in the midst of this horror and evil, God speaks through a name, for Proverbs 3 continues this way:
My child, do not let these escape from your sight:
keep sound wisdom and prudence,
and they will be life for your soul
and adornment for your neck.
Then you will walk on your way securely
and your foot will not stumble.
If you sit down,[a] you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Do not be afraid of sudden panic,
or of the storm that strikes the wicked;
for the Lord will be your confidence
and will keep your foot from being caught.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
Do not plan harm against your neighbor
who lives trustingly beside you.
Do not quarrel with anyone without cause,
when no harm has been done to you.
Do not envy the violent
and do not choose any of their ways;
for the perverse are an abomination to the Lord,
but the upright are in his confidence.
The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked,
but he blesses the abode of the righteous.
Toward the scorners he is scornful,
but to the humble he shows favor.
The wise will inherit honor,
but stubborn fools, disgrace.
Proverbs 3 is a call for faithfulness, confidence in the Lord, assurance, holiness, and engagement with the world. Those are precisely the words that we all need to hear on this day as we pray, comfort, and take up our task, as Trinity’s mission states, “to be coworkers with Christ in subjecting all cultural activities to the reign of God.”