Can Hope Endure? A Historical Case Study
in Christian Higher Education
James C. Kennedy and Caroline J. Simon. Can Hope Endure? A Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
In 2001 robert benne published Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. Beyond the details concerning the six institutions, Benne's work provides scholars interested in religious colleges and universities a typology by which to identify the religious nature of such institutions. The four types include what he calls the orthodox, the critical mass, the intentionally pluralistic, and the accidentally pluralistic. While such a typology proves helpful, scholars such as James C. Kennedy and Caroline J. Simon contend that none of these categories adequately describe the religious nature of their own institution, Hope College. In particular, they argue in Can Hope Endure? A Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education that "Hope College is difficult to categorize, even in a more complicated and refined revision of Benne's taxonomy" (18). The bulk of their text offers an exploration of the religious nature of Hope College. However, the real significance of Kennedy and Simon's work is that it challenges individuals interested in religious higher education to look beyond such categories in an effort to pursue a deeper understanding of the narrative fabric of particular institutions.
The distinctive dimension present in the narrative fabric of Hope College is its continued commitment to charting what the authors identify as a middle path. Such a path is the result of generations of Hope community members who believed "Sectarian rigidity leads to a kind of living death by ossification for an academic institution, while unexamined accomodationism... leads to death by a thousand equivocations and compromises" (17). Forces within the Hope community may prefer one or the other of these two extremes. However, Kennedy and Simon offer that neither side has proven able to define the religious nature of the institution. Combined with forces residing between these two extremes, a "tensile strength" came to be identified as a defining quality of Hope's middle way (25). An ebb and flow has existed over the course of Hope's history, and the middle way continues to prove to be definitive of Hope's religious nature even if the future generation is left with as many questions to answer as the generations which came before it.
In order to offer a sufficient understanding of the development of Hope's middle way, Kennedy and Simon offer what may be described best as an intellectual history of Hope that focuses on questions of the institution's religious nature. Readers looking for a detailed history of Hope will prove to be disappointed as will readers looking for a more thematic or conceptual overview of the fabric of the Hope community. Kennedy and Simon spend the majority of their time moving back and forth between explorations of faculty hiring and the moral community into which Hope invites students. However, their book follows a historical trajectory reaching back to the conditions that brought about the establishment of the college and comes all the way forward to the selection of its current president, James E. Bultman.
Beyond the broader strokes painted in chapters one and eight, chapters two through seven each explore in chronological order important epochs of Hope's history. For example Chapter 2 covers the years 1866-1945 and explores the roots of Hope's middle way. Chapter 5 covers the years 1963-1972 and explores deep challenges posed to Hope's middle way as posed by influential forces favoring greater accommodations.
Perhaps the most interesting narrative Kennedy and Simon include in their work concerns the controversial leadership Ben Patterson offered to Hope when he served as the community's Dean of the Chapel during the 1990s. As a test to the tensile strength of Hope's middle way, Kennedy and Simon offer that "Hope's new chaplain could not, and would not, compromise with people or programs that he believed were at odds with Christian essentials" (188). Although Patterson's programs proved to be quite popular with a number of students and some faculty and staff members, he also accumulated a host of ardent critics. Perhaps Patterson more than anyone else pushed Hope to consider whether Hope could sustain its '"middle way' or instead must choose either a denominational or ecumenical or evangelical direction" (204). In 2000 Patterson claimed his work at Hope had come to an end and left for Westmont College—an institution that had chosen to take the evangelical direction.
Despite Kennedy and Simon's plea for readers to understand how narratives involving figures such as Ben Patterson shape the religious identity of particular institutions, they appear to fall prey to depending needlessly upon such typologies when referencing another Reformed college in western Michigan, Calvin College. After referring to Calvin's founding denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), as secessionist, Kennedy and Simon go on to offer that although Hope's founding denomination, the Reformed Church in America, "did occasionally intervene directly in the life of Hope College, these incursions were less frequent than CRC interventions at Calvin College" (57). Toward the end of their book, Kennedy and Simon offer that an appreciation for the middle way means that Hope viewed itself as "being 'not-Oberlin-not-Calvin,' and most recently, being vibrantly Christian without being prescriptive or parochial" (220). Brief references scattered in various places in this book paint Calvin College and the CRC as sectarian. The primary point at this juncture is not to offer an apologetic on behalf of Calvin and the CRC. By contrast, the primary point is that such passing references are devoid of the larger narrative fabric that defines an institution such as Calvin. If Hope defies being placed within one of Benne's categories, Calvin also deserves more than such scant and reductive remarks.
Despite such a weakness, James C. Kennedy and Caroline J. Simon's Can Hope Endure? challenges individuals to go beyond convenient forms of exploration and to learn to appreciate the narrative fabric that defines the religious identity of colleges and universities. Colleges and universities prove to be extremely complex communities. Explorations of the religious identity of such institutions only add to the complexity. When one takes the time to read through the details Kennedy and Simon have offered in relation to Hope College, one learns of a community that has committed itself in varying forms to the tensile strength of the middle way. By its nature, such strength comes when people care enough to engage in conflict and seek to reconcile their differences. Such an engagement is evidence of the concern that the members of the Hope College community have for their community. In the end, may all colleges and universities calling themselves religious be comprised of people willing to engage in such forms of dialogue even if for a season such dialogue is fraught with conflict.
Todd C. Ream,
Indiana Wesleyan University