An Interview with Professor Jan de Vries


Professor Jan de Vries is a Professor of History and Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. As a professor and a Christian, he is also one of the faculty members of the Advisory Board of To An Unknown God. He shares his views on topics including community, maturity, and Christian living.

Due to space constraints, this interview has been condensed and edited from its original form.

To An Unknown God (TAUG): What is your background as a Christian?

Professor Jan de Vries: Well, I was raised in a Christian home. My parents were Christians, and I was raised in the church in a traditional way, and I lived in communities where most people were Christians, so [Christianity] was in a way just like normal life. And so that’s the context; I’ve felt like I’ve been a Christian since I was baptized. And when people speak of “born-again Christians,” I think, well, I’m not quite sure what that means, because there wasn’t a moment as an adult where my faith was suddenly transformed. It’s more developed over time.

TAUG: I see. So for you it’s been a more slow, gradual process?

De Vries: You might say it’s been exploring and learning as one grows up and matures what it means to be, what the Christian life is, what it means to be a Christian. In every phase of life, that takes on new aspects. It’s a process of discovery.

TAUG: Now that interests me. How do you think being a Christian changes in different phases of life? Especially for college students, how do you feel faith becomes different as you enter into college, as opposed to high school or before?

De Vries: Well, one of my colleagues wrote an interesting essay on that subject: Professor William Bouwsma. He wrote an essay called “Christian Maturity.”

TAUG: What was his take on it?

De Vries: It’s been a while since I read it, but he was provoked at a conference led by psychologists about the meaning of maturity and adulthood. As I recall, as he was discussing this with me years ago, many of the participants who were there viewed Christianity, and probably most religions, as designed to infantilize, to keep people in a kind of childlike credulity. That kept them away from the understanding of the reality and the tragedy of life, because to them, religion was an opiate, as Marx said, an opiate of the people.

As you think about the parables of Jesus, he talks about and appreciates childlike qualities, so there’s a sense in which [Bouwsma] thought people misunderstood Christianity as not allowing you to develop, keeping you from seeing the seeing the world as it is, from developing and maturing, from being open to new experiences. [They thought] Christianity was a protective cocoon. And so he was trying to explain that embedded in Christian theology and teachings is an understanding of maturity and of growth. It is not all or nothing; there are childlike things you put away as you become an adult [spiritually], but life is a process.

This has a historical dimension too. All of history unfolds and reveals what God’s plan is for the world; Christianity is a historical religion. By analogy, he was arguing that, properly understood, the Christian life as one matures is one in which you are asked to be exposed to challenges and respond to them on the basis of your Christian faith. So the challenges that people face in different states of life are different, hence, it’s a kind of never-ending process. You’re never fully mature.

I guess I’d put it this way: it’s generally understood that as you leave your home and journey out into the world, particularly as you leave your home in high school in an American society, you live independently and you’re exposed to new learning and a great mix of people, and that all of these are great challenges to your faith and you ought to be protected from them. So as I understand it, a lot of Christian groups are kind of protective cocoons. My view is, that’s not the way it should be. The Christian faith demands that you be a part of the world, that you face it.

So then the question is, how does your Christian faith allow you to understand and interpret what you see and make it part of you, but part of you in a Christian understanding, rather than being corrupted by it? And that’s a good question. But the point is that you have to face it. A proper understanding of the Christian life is that as one is handling university and entering the world of learning, nothing is out of bounds. Yes, there are things you should do and shouldn’t do, but these are decisions that you have to make and face, rather than be protected from or avoid them. And that seems to be consistent with the notion of what Bouwsma calls “Christian Maturity.”

TAUG: How does your understanding of the Christian life affect the work you do as a historian?

De Vries: In my view, Christianity affects your work whether you’re an academic or a construction worker. My father was one: he was a Christian construction worker. Well, he didn’t hammer nails any differently because he was a Christian. So what was the difference? I don’t think it has to do with the specific work you do, or the research you perform, or the answers you come to. It has to do with your approach to the subject.

Some historical Protestant Christian [denominations] refer to it as a “Calling.” Everyone has a calling. It’s not necessarily the priesthood; rather, we have a Christian duty to act in the secular world. Our acting in the world is not in a separate compartment of our religious activity. It’s doing your duty to your fellow man, of making society a better place. Whatever that may be, that’s your calling, whether it’s a humble one or a more exalted one.

Now, teaching has a certain more exalted character, as it’s referred to in the Bible. [Editor’s note: e.g., James 3:1.] There are preachers and there are teachers, and I think you could say that it’s not only teachers of religious principles, but [any] seekers of truth. My title is “Professor,” and I profess things because I believe them to be true.

Well, that has a potential social impact with ramifications far beyond, say, hammering nails. Of course you want to be a good builder, make an honest product, and provide your employer with an honest day’s labor. These are all Christian virtues. And I have to do the same thing as a professor in my dealings with students, my colleagues, the institution [of the university], and the mission of the institution. I want to do my duty there.

There are some people who aren’t Christians who feel the same, probably. They might do it a little differently, assessing and understanding their obligations a little differently. I don’t want to claim that Christians are better teachers because of their religion. But I have to decide what I am going to teach, what my research interests are, what I think makes a contribution to society, and I can’t help but believe that my [Christian] worldview plays some role in that.

Of course, it’s not easy to articulate what role that is. I’m a historian, but I’m an economic historian. Some might say I should have become a historian of Christianity, but I don’t think that the necessary consequence of my religious faith is that I would have to devote all my time to it as a particular historical topic. The influence of my religious understandings, or the extent to which it affects me as a historian—it’s further back, in terms of how I make basic choices and how I understand my calling. And again, that’s not easy to articulate.

TAUG: Thank you very much for your ime.


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