News Release

Identity Matters
Convocation Address
August 29, 2008
Steven R. Timmermans, Ph.D.

The contrasts appear great.  A 40-something-year-old African-American former Chicago church-based community organizer and a 70-something-year-old white former POW.  How do we learn to know these candidates?  Is knowing each candidate’s party affiliation enough?  Notice how I began to describe them…by ethnicity, by life experiences…in short, by describing aspects of their identity.  Identity matters…in this election, but more important, to each of us and even to this College.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that I just parachuted onto this campus from some place far away…Africa, Sweden, or maybe even Japan.  I landed, just suppose, two weeks before you all arrived.  The campus was quiet, it was early evening on a Saturday.  So, although everything was locked, I wandered around the campus.  The Heritage Science Center.  The Jennie Huizenga Memorial Library.  Tibstra Hall.  The Bootsma Bookstore Café.  Ozinga Chapel.

Always the detective, it seemed that I stumbled upon a puzzle…something about many of the names of these buildings:  they end in the letter A:  Tibstra,  Ozinga, Huizenga, Bootsma.  What’s that all about?  The other puzzle was challenging for another reason:  West Hall; South Hall…where did they hide North and East Hall?  Well, forget the second puzzle; let’s concentrate on the first.

To stretch this fictional account even further, let’s suppose that when I parachuted in, I carried my laptop.  After all, people bring their laptops with them all kinds of places these days.  So, I sat down in the center of campus, flipped the screen up, and caught the Trinity wireless.  Like so many other newcomers, the online Jokebook was my destination.  Pictures and names!  And once again, I started seeing some of those names:  Aardema; Zylstra;  Hamstra, Bandstra, and Damstra!

Enough of this fictional account, for we need to deal with this nonfiction, real world of Trinity.  I’d like to discuss personal identity and institutional identity this morning, hoping to convince you that identity matters.

First, the Hamstra, Bandstra, Damstra trio is more than just a rhyme.  Those names, along with the many other surnames ending in an A suggest an ancestry in the Netherlands.  By my rough estimates, about 30 to 35 percent of Trinity students have last names that suggest ancestry in the Netherlands.  While I’m not a linguist, it’s clear to me that two-thirds of Trinity students have surnames that suggest ancestry from other places: the Pacific Rim, from Africa, from Central and South America, and other European countries such as Ireland, Poland, and France, to name a few.

Yes, your ethnic background tells us something about your identity.  Back to our two presidential candidates.  Something, but certainly not everything.  Senator Obama’s story includes a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas and involved a handful of years growing up in Indonesia.  Senator McCain’s story includes a strong military strand in preceding generations and an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.

So first-year students:  Learning to live with a roommate and developing friendships two suites down the hall involves identity. Who is this person they put me with?  But remember, your first impressions—based on one or two dimensions of identity—may not be enough.  Let’s consider a hypothetical situation.

Let’s say that you’re from Africa.  Maybe your last name, too, ends in an A, for surnames in many African countries end in an A.  There are three others you’ll be living with.  One’s last name is Smith.  Hmmm…you’ll have to pick up some clues other than surname to garner an hypothesis about this one’s identity.  The other two each have a last name that ends in A—the Netherlandic or Dutch variety.  One identifies herself as a Dutch-American; the other one is just plain fuzzy about that stuff, for she never thought to identify herself in that way.

Notice that this hypothetical situation reminds us, once again, that identity is a bit more complex than just a study of one variable—in this case, surnames.  Moreover, ways to understand identity develop over time. When you were very little, you identified yourself by characteristics.  “I have brown hair.”  “I have green eyes.”  As you grew a little older, that self-identity took on some assessments: “I’m a good kid.” “I test the limits.”  And then, you entered adolescence.  Adolescence is a time of exploring various aspects of your identity.  Developmental psychologists note that some explore more; some explore less…and if that exploration is too limited, some say you have prematurely adopted a self-identity—foreclosure is the term.  Rather than focus on the timing, though, I think it’s interesting to examine what is explored and where commitments are finally made.

Students, what have you been exploring the last few years?  For some of you, it may have been an exploration of faith.  Whether you were raised in a home characterized by doubt or by belief, you’ve had to explore what faith is or isn’t going to mean for you—and that exploration involves lots of talking to lots of friends, maybe by reading both Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Mere Christianity, and by sometimes not attending and sometimes attending church--but not necessarily the one of your grandparents.

I suspect, too, that you’ve been exploring an emerging vocational identity.  For some of you, this exploration has ended with the confident embrace of a goal; for others, starting this academic year triggers an anxiety producing reminder that your exploration is far from complete.  For those of you sliding into the saddle of a vocational identity, blessings! Giddy-up and go. For those of you stumbling about in the great unknown, let me recommend the Cooper Center (in new digs—Molenhouse Student Center, basement of the Administration Building).

A third area of identity exploration is ethnicity.  For each of us, the search is unique.  I spent some of my summer authoring a book, using online publishing that has absolutely no potential of sales beyond the three already sold.  It traces my ancestry back to 1695 in the Netherlands—my own search for ethnic identity.  You first-year students are reading a book focused on a young man’s search for identity in The Color of Water.  Unlike my historical summer task, often exploration isn’t as much historical as a present reality.  Who here looks like me? 

In short, you students are still working on identity, and this college campus becomes for all of you, and in particular, first-year students, an opportunity for further identity development by coming to know yourselves better as you come to know others.

But I’ve said my remarks are not to focus only on individual identity but also on institutional identity.  So, at this point, it is appropriate to slide this conversation toward this institution’s identity while on the topic of ethnicity.

Let’s return a moment to my introductory scenario.  Parachuting onto campus.  All of these buildings many with names which, we’ve learned, are Dutch names.  You should know, too, that at present, there’s more historical activity on campus than usual, for in 2009, we’ll celebrate Trinity’s 50th anniversary.  I’ve read more history of Trinity lately and, yes, most of the founders were Dutch-Americans. 

There’s another historical feature of Trinity you should know about.  All of those founders were Reformed Christians, belonging primarily to one of two denominations: the Christian Reformed Church or the Reformed Church in America. 

What’s more, the history, going back 50 and 450 years ago, shows an intertwining of ethnicity and religion.  The movement called Calvinism or the identity called Reformed took root, among other places, in the Netherlands, and so, those Dutch who emigrated here in the 1800s and 1900s often established Reformed churches and schools. 

That’s our historical identity, but this morning and in this century, I’d like to present our institutional identity in a new way.  Our identity?  I’d prefer to name our identity as CREATED RENEWAL.  Three follow-up comments about that term…but please, please consider this term a suggestion that needs further exploration and critique.

First, an observation.  In our current world, while ethnic and denominational identity have been significant, your generation, students, is diminishing the saliency of those categories for identity.  Some of you don’t know what box to check when the form asks for your racial identity.  What box do you think Senator Obama checked when he was a teen, living in Hawaii with his white grandparents?  What box does Senator McCain’s adopted daughter check?  Then, in terms of denomination, the second largest category checked by Trinity students is nondenominational. So, while it is thoroughly true that the core component of Trinity’s identity was and is and will be Reformed, I believe an alternative and helpful way of describing our institutional identity, of choosing words to name our institutional identity in this era, is to use the two words full of biblical and theological meaning, Created Renewal.

Second, I choose the words Created Renewal because they are biblical and reflect the journey-nature of our identity.  The biblical emphasis of Trinity’s educational program and, more important, a whole tradition of orthodox Christianity is this: that God created the world and humankind, that through the fall of our first parents, sin has tainted all of that good creation—we women and men included, that God so loved the world that He sent his son to redeem or renew his creatures, his creation, and that ultimately, through the work of his Spirit, restoration or renewal will be completed in a new creation, best described in the book of Revelation.  Another way to say this is that God got it right with his brand new creation in the book of Genesis; humanity screwed it up, and now God, because of the Son and as a result of the work of the Spirit, is renewing that original creation. Renewal is happening.  Notice, then, that my choice of the identity term, Created Renewal, takes our beginning point and then points us toward where we’re going.  Just as the developmental psychologists I alluded to earlier suggest identity is a process, so is our identity in Christ—a process or journey aimed toward the renewal of creation that God desires for his people and world.  “I’m a part of God’s plan of Created Renewal, being restored to what God intended.”

Third, I also believe my word choice to be appropriate because it sums up our mission.  Already, the wordsmiths have been at work, when years ago, the shorthand phrase of our mission statement was crafted to be this: Trinity Christian College is a community of Christian scholarship committed to shaping lives and transforming culture... shaping lives and transforming culture.  Notice that same directional emphasis.  Shaping lives in more Christ-like ways.  Yes, students, our aim for you is to become more Christ-like.  Further, we marry that aim with a second aim: to prepare you to join in the work of engaging the culture and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, join in this work of renewal.  And note that both the shaping of your life and the renewal of this world are directed toward the renewal of God’s creation.

Now students, I need to anticipate the concerns of those listening, for one of the best qualities of an academic community is the refinement of ideas through discussions, writing, and other forms of discourse.

First, are the two words, Created Renewal, sufficient to capture Trinity’s institutional identity?  Some might say these two words don’t capture the theological or doctrinal depth and breadth of Trinity’s identity.  What about concepts like Grace, the Covenant, and so on?  If you came up with that concern before I uttered it, bravo!  That’s the kind of intellectual critique we must provide in the papers we write, in the classroom discussions we hold, and in the informal conversations over coffee around the BBC tables we have.  My partial answer is this:  we live our identity by what we do, not just the words we choose as labels.  In other words, in our theology courses, we must plum the doctrinal depths and theological expanses that are true to our identity.  If we don’t, any descriptive words we use to project our identity will be hollow and invalid.

Second, does my suggestion this morning direct us toward identity drift or worse?  Three answers, starting with a short answer and working my way toward the longest answer.

First, I believe the best foundations on which to build identity for an institution are those that are biblically based and mission situated.  I’ve already explained how I think the identity term, Created Renewal, is both.  A solid biblical foundation and clear mission seems to me a significant counter to identity drift, particularly when the lexicon reflective of religious behavior in North America will be changing, with some terms of the past losing meaning.

Second, while you’re a student at Trinity, I hope you step foot on the campus of the University of Chicago.  And when you do so, that you walk into the beautiful gothic and inspiring Rockefeller Chapel.  If you do so, you’ll see these words as you enter the foyer:

The founder of the University of Chicago John D. Rockefeller on December 13, 1910 made provision for the erection of the chapel and thus defined its purpose: As the spirit of religion should penetrate and control the university, so that building which represents religion ought to be the central and dominant feature of the University Group.  Thus it will be proclaimed that the university in its ideal is dominated by the spirit of religion, all its departments are inspired by religious feeling, and all its work is directed to the highest worth.

I’m not certain as to what all the words mean:  that all departments are inspired by religious feeling, that the university’s ideal is dominated by the spirit of religion.  But I don’t believe anyone in Hyde Park or elsewhere believes that the central and dominant feature of the University of Chicago is religion as the words of the chapel lead you to believe.  You see, like many North American universities, the University of Chicago was established by a denomination—was founded within a faith tradition.  But at the University of Chicago, and also at Harvard and also in so many other places, that religious foundation or vision—their identity—was lost over time as secular thought and reason took the place of belief.

So now the question: Does the use of my term, Created Renewal, for Trinity’s identity lend itself to identity drift or worse, as has happened all too often in North American higher education?  Certainly, that’s a fair critique, for using words in new ways may initially create a confusion of identity and within confusion, then, comes the opportunity for identity drift.  On the other hand, I don’t suspect drifting away from religious belief at many major universities happened because of the words chosen to describe identity.  Rather, I suspect it happened because those who led the university in administrative offices and in faculty lecture halls chose to ignore or even attack the institution’s religious identity.  And this leads me to the third critique of my word selection and the possibility of identity drift…please stay with me, for this requires some background.

In his descriptive study of faith-based colleges and universities, Robert Benne concludes that a number of factors are crucial to core identity, three of which I’ll mention here: 1) a comprehensive vision of the Christian faith that permeates the university, 2) an ethos that is established through chapel and other activities that arise out of the faith tradition, and 3) maintenance of a critical mass of people—employees and students—to embody its tradition. Allow me to assess Trinity in light of these three criteria.

Do we have a comprehensive vision of the Christian faith that permeates this college?  Yes, an orthodox Christian vision that has at its core a sovereign God who loved his created world, though tainted with sin, so much that he sent his son to save that world—its people and structures. From this flows our mission to shape lives and transform culture—in the metropolitan area of this global city at the crossroads of North America.  New students, after this convocation, turn to a continuing student and ask whether this Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration motif is mentioned much around Trinity.  I suspect the answer will be something like “in buckets!”

Second, what is the status of the ethos here that is shaped by chapel and other activities that arises out of our faith tradition?  To this question, I would reply that the tradition or identity of this College provides for the integration of two dominant strands of Christian groups.  Some Christian traditions rightly emphasize the personal experience of salvation.  Other Christian traditions accurately emphasize the social implications of faith.  And the tradition, the identity of Trinity, is to marry these two strands: personal salvation, so to engage the world.  In other words, shaping lives, transforming culture.  So, before we can answer Benne’s question of the status of the ethos and activities that arise out of it, we have to describe our unique, biblical ethos of belief here—an ethos that is holistic, inclusive, and integrative. As such, you’ll see diverse expressions over and over:  reflective, meditative times of worship as well as on your feet Praise and Worship evenings; corner places for private prayer, as well as corporate prayers as we send a group of students off on a spring break service trip; mission oriented off campus interims as well as interims across the oceans to study structures of society.  Again, our ethos arises from a sweeping biblical foundation that gives rise to a mission that is both…and we live it.

And finally, Benne challenges us with this question: is there a critical mass of people to embody the tradition or identity of this College?  If you read his book, Benne looks to denominational identity.  Yet, in an increasingly post-denominational age, I believe an embrace of a Created Renewal identity is possible by a much richer denominational diversity of Christians than Benne would think possible. And so, I would modify Benne’s requirement to this: that we need to maintain a critical mass of people—employees and students—that are willing and able to embrace this Created Renewal identity—and I suspect those linking arms, hearts, and minds are a much greater number than Benne would predict. I wont ask for a show of hands, but I suspect most of you, if not all of you, are here because you’re attracted to and wish to be part of this kind of faithful identity.

There you have it: a new way of stating our institutional identity, a Created Renewal identity, with rationale and answers to potential critique of the notion.  But in closing, let me remind you of one important thing.  Just as the developmental psychologists tell us that your identities are in motion, so too, is Trinity’s identity.  Anxiety producing? Sometimes.  Necessary? Absolutely, for just as you are a living, breathing person, Trinity is a living institution.  But don’t forget the most important part:  be sure you’re headed in the direction of that new creation, and together we’ll make sure Trinity does the same. 

 

 

 

Robert Benne, 2001.  Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Religious Traditions.  Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans.

 

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