The aim of the research program is to reflect on difference in various contexts and disciplines. In recent years a lot of attention has been paid in academia to concepts like post-colonialism, anti-essentialism and transnationalism in order to critique presumed stable entities like culture, nation, gender, race, and religion. It seems all distinctions and definitions ought to be considered fluid, and determined by subjective and relative viewpoints. But what is the relevance of difference in this perspective? On the other hand, there is a call in society and politics for defining entities like culture, religion, and nation. This call for public unity, often in a conservative sense, fears that modern developments threaten the fabric of society.
Religions differ, they all ask what we are to become, but they don’t plumb the same depths and they don’t ask the same questions. Identity politics dominate all kind of debates and identity functions as an absolute viewpoint. And conservatism is often sympathetic to Christian cultural notions, without sharing its theology or affiliate to a church. This begs the question: what can neo-Calvinism contribute to this debate? Should we celebrate diversity and (re)define identity or should we stress unity and avoid breaches with a Christian tradition? What is the relationship between these positions?
Neo-Calvinism was critical of conservatism for its unwillingness to accept change and, at the same, antithetical towards a modernity that tries to break with the past.
Neo-Calvinism is known for facilitating differences in society and culture, and welcoming pluralism. It was one of the first strains within Christianity to promote the separation of church and state, and thus to part from the idea of the corpus Christianum that had dominated socio-religious reflection in Europe since the early Middle Ages. To neo-Calvinism, the French Revolution functions as a watershed in Western culture. Since 1789 Christianity was publicly challenged by the alternative worldview of modernity. Neo-Calvinism was ready to engage in the battle with this alternative worldview, while acknowledging that this alternative viewpoint was here to stay. Instead of a Christian nation, neo-Calvinism stressed the presence of Christian citizens within a nation. It encouraged the differentiation of modern society with its notion of sphere sovereignty. Identity was anchored in the Christian worldview, and not in nation, or race. In these ways, neo-Calvinism made room for different opinions and defended the right to differ with a reference to the Calvinist notion of freedom of conscience. This view is embedded in a theology that accentuates the plural nature of creation, and in a philosophy that reflects on structural differentiation and the various aspects of reality under God’s law.
Nowadays there is confusion about difference and unity, confessionally, culturally, and philosophically. What about confessional difference and ecumenicity, what about ethnicity and nation, and what about identity and inclusiveness?
Given neo-Calvinism’s affirmation of difference as a mark of creation, what is the value of entities like nation, family, gender, race, church? Cultural positions are dependent on power relations, historical contexts, and self-expression; in this way, they are contingent. At the same time neo-Calvinism presumes a creational order. These affirmations raise important questions in our time: what is the meaning of belonging to this specific nation and not to another, when we all belong to one world and one humanity? What is the relevance of being Christian and not a Muslim in a world that sees religion as a universal quest for harmony? What does the identity of a church or society mean for its inclusiveness? What do family ties mean in a world community where others considers humanity to be one family? Is being a man or a woman a biological coincidence, is gender inter-exchangeable? What does race mean in a world that stresses racial equity? What do identities mean in a world that does not want to exclude anyone? What is a person when its identity is not fixed?
The NRI research theme, making sense of difference, is well-based in the research community at TU Utrecht, given its familiarity with neo-Calvinist notions of both the various expressions of pluralism and the structures of creational order, but these notions should be applied to present day religious, philosophical, and societal issues of identity and inclusiveness. With this program, the NRI will relate neo-Calvinism to the issues about the character of modern society, generate research themes that contribute to the present debates in society, and challenge neo-Calvinism to open new venues to deal with present day issues.
The NRI houses researchers of various disciplines. Theologians are challenged to reflect on notions like nation and peoples in Scripture and their relevance for the present debate, on the meaning and function of difference and otherness in social ethics and political theology, and on the meaning of the church as the new humanity in relation to its surrounding cultures. Philosophers are challenged to think through the notion of identity: what constitutes identity, what does it mean that identity implies exclusion, and how can the modern ideal of inclusive societies be made compatible with the notion of (religious, racial, national, gender) identity or difference? Historians are challenged to research the meaning of the nation, race, and gender in the history of neo-Calvinism as common denominator, and the practice of inclusiveness in confrontation with racism (anti-Semitism) and totalitarianism.
As a research institute the NRI is part of the academy. In the tradition of neo-Calvinism and of the Theological University Kampen academic research and teaching function in close relation to church and society. This University is church-related and is therefore committed to serving the community that nourishes her. The stress on valorization of academic work, now in vogue at universities, has always been part of the DNA of Kampen. For the NRI means that themes are selected with an eye on the broader community. The University is not only embedded in the church, the church is also an important field of research. This implies that members of NRI are involved in church life, that academic results are also produced for church and society, and that most of the activities are open to the general public.