INTRODUCION TO THE NETHERLANDS AND ITS THEOLOGIANS
The Netherlands is often called Holland in other countries. That is understandable. Holland may have been rather on the fringe of things among the provinces of the former Burgundian Empire, the centers of which were situated in Flanders and Brabant. But among the seven provinces that unilaterally canceled the contract with their Spanish (Habsburg) overlord in 1581 (and in this would only be recognized in terms of international law with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) it would soon become the most prominent. And it would do so in many respects. Economically, with its harbors from which the oceans were navigated, trading houses were established overseas, goods were brought in and out. Politically because of its government center in the old court of a count in The Hague. And culturally, as the ‘Dutch masters’ in museums al over the world demonstrate. And even later, since the industrialization around 1870 and even in today’s services society the most important centers of business activity (transshipment of containers in Rotterdam, Schiphol Airport) and the most important concentrations of cultural activity (the Concertgebouw, but also the many experimental centers for theatre, dance, and music in Amsterdam) are located in the strung together band of towns that make up the ‘randstad Holland’.
Yet not only is it unfair, but also wrong to reduce the Netherlands to Holland. The town of Kampen, once strategically placed at the mouth of the IJssel River still looks like she did in her hey-day in the days of the ‘Hanse’ league of towns on the North and Baltic Sea. The University of Groningen is internationally renowned for its high academic standards since its establishment in the early days of the Republic of the United Provinces. And the unrivalled green of the meadows, the cloudy skies still reminding one of the paintings of Ruysdael, the vast waters in this so-called ‘periphery’ often still display the Netherlands how Holland once was, but now often hardly is any more because of the high population density.
The country was shaped by farmers, fishermen, and merchants. The continuous struggle against the water required self-organization from the bottom up (self-organization still is popular, also in the life of the church). In the most important regions feudalism was abolished early on. There was an emperor once, but he was far away. Later the house of Orange was only rarely allowed to display absolutistic behavior. The towns are thoroughly middle class towns. The culture does not emphasize impressing but rather directs its gaze inward. Think of the many still lives, the domestic scenes in 17th century painting, think also of the virtuousness of the Anabaptists or the inwardness of the ‘Second Reformation’. So in the towns the differences in social rank never became all that big. The whole tended toward a bourgeois middle ground and extremes were not easily tolerated: there was a reason Vincent van Gogh left the country. The result of this is that the many subcultures never fight each other to the extreme. One might always run into each other again. One might always need one-another again. This is also true for the subculture of theologians.
From a religious point of view the Netherlands displays great diversity. Because of the role it played in the revolt, Calvinism was the ‘dominant’ religion for a long time, but it hardly ever constituted a majority. Moreover alongside a mainstream influenced by Geneva it always also included an Erasmian – humanist undercurrent. Many well-known people to leave a legacy to Dutch civilization belonged to a minority. The philosopher Spinoza was an apostate Jew, the jurist Hugo de Groot (Grotius) an Arminian, the poet Vondel a Mennonite turned Roman Catholic. From the time of the revolution the minorities were recognized and, as in so many other countries, the Reformed broke up into various groups. In 1854 Kampen became the seat for the school of theology of the churches of the ‘secession’ that did not feel at ease in the bleak, obligatorily non-dogmatic atmosphere of the king’s church from the restoration. They were initially punished for this dissidence. Later ministers were trained here in a Neocalvinism emancipating by way of inner isolation. But this became more sensitive to ecumenical impulses. At the same time the pretension on the part of the large Dutch Reformed Church that it served the entire Dutch population as secularization was advancing, became increasingly ludicrous. Thus the reasons for a schism were gradually waning. Since on the first of May 2004 the Dutch Reformed Church, the Reformed Churches and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the kingdom of the Netherlands merged into the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, the Theological University was ready to fulfill its task for this new church configuration as well.
In the 17th century the Netherlands were an internationally respected center for doing theology from an orthodox reformed perspective. The 19th and 20th centuries on the other hand show a more diverse situation. The Netherlands produced great theologians at that time – like Herman Bavinck, who initially taught in Kampen -, but they did not fit into an international academic network as much as they were connected with certain religious movements (‘modern theology’, ‘confessional school’ etc.). They wrote in Dutch, were read a lot, and often were very biblically and less philosophically oriented. However, as on the one side the social influence of church movements has been rapidly declining and with it also the nature of the theologian as a public figure, and on the other hand academic public policy has increasingly been insisting on its rights, this trait of doing theology in the Netherlands has been fading in the last decades.
The Current Situation
Until approximately 1960 the atmosphere in the Netherlands was aimed at calmness, in spite of the huge interruption by five years of German occupation during World War II. Population groups organized along religious and philosophical lines lived apart from each other but at the same time influenced each other in a life style that was said to be marked by diligence and cleanliness. The protest movement in the sixties quickly changed that. Moderate discipline made room for permissiveness, particularly in ethical issues with a legal component (euthanasia, the sale of soft drugs). Philosophical ties made room for consumptive behavior in one’s choice of political party or religion (the latter often being abandoned). At the same time the composition of the population changed. Large groups of immigrants from former colonies (Indonesia, Surinam), workers from Mediterranean countries (mostly Turkey and Marocco) that settled permanently after reuniting with their families, and asylum seekers from all over the world rendered the Netherlands more multicolored, multi-cultural, and hence also multi-religious. The responses to these developments have not been much different from what they have been elsewhere in the west. Quests for cultural interaction stand over against fear and aggression. The consequence for theology is that it is definitely placed in a cross-cultural horizon. Besides the themes that have been the subject of discussion for a while already, the encounter with Israel (after the decimation of Dutch Jewry in the war years of 1940-45) and the encounter with postmodern, secularized culture, the encounter with other religions now is also pointedly demanding attention.
Dr. Rinse Reeling Brouwer