Isms, Ists & Anti-ism-ists

In late September, 1988 I was a sophomore at Wheaton College. The air was alive with fall, colors were exploding on trees, students chatty and excited about new classes. The sweatshirts had been dug out of the bottom of dresser drawers. We were starting to order coffee, hot tea and hot chocolate at the Stupe, the campus snack bar. We were adjusting to new professors and their expectations. We’d barely gotten notice of our assigned chapel seats when Dr. Arthur Holmes took the stage in what would become inseparable from the culture of our shared four undergraduate years, the “Isms, Ists & Anti-ism-ists” message he delivered to roughly 2,000 of us in Edman Hall. I don’t think a single student in my graduating class forgets it. Honestly, I couldn’t have told you what that address was about, but I always remembered its title. We students would forever associate that phrase with any mention of the philosophy department or Dr. Holmes.

I just learned that Dr. Holmes passed away Saturday at the age of 87, long after retiring as Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wheaton. I went searching for that chapel address today. I wish I’d known then what I know now. I wish I had realized then how rich I was to benefit face to face from minds like his (and others). He was a voice in pursuit of the integration of faith and learning, a strong encourager of thinking for oneself. In his constructive development of thinking minds, he countered anti-intellectualism in the American church. Yet he did so gently, patiently and graciously. In that famous chapel address, he challenged Christians living in a pluralistic society with its “-isms” and its “-ists” to remain constructive:

Don’t spend all your energies fighting error when you should be affirming truth. Don’t major in one-upmanship, trying to outsmart the “ism” and its “ists.” Don’t become an anti-ism-ist … known for what you’re against. But let people know what you’re for, and be ready to give a reason for it, for the hope that is in you. And let’s not let disagreement with an “ism” become a personal vendetta against the “ism-ists.” We should respect the people God made in his own image however much they abuse the truth. We should honor our enemies, Christ’s enemies too. All too many crusaders for truth sound like close-minded militant people haters. So we need to be gracious, more dialogical and less dogmatic, patient. And in that spirit, let’s get on with the constructive tasks to which we’re called, building a way of life that is faithful to the truth…

His gentle, thoughtful voice in its rich English accent penetrated 20-plus years of distance and reminded me of the blessing he has been to those of us who brushed shoulders with him. I feel very thankful God created Arthur F. Holmes and opened his mouth to teach a generation of North American Christians, some of whom, hopefully, just hopefully are up to that constructive work today — not tearing down in accusation and witch hunting over what’s “right” but living a Gospel that leads to our reconciliation with God and our fellow man.

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