Monday 22 March 2021

In Memoriam: Hendrik Hart

by Jim Olthuis

Hendrik "Henk" Hart, the pioneering first professor of the Institute for Christian Studies, beloved friend of ICS and all ICSers, passed on to glory on March 15, 2021. I write these words to celebrate his person, work, and legacy. It is not easy to find the right words. Henk was my friend for 65 years and I miss him already. 

Henk was a rare, unique, one-of-a-kind person; a penetrating thinker, a devoted teacher, husband, and father, an ardent birder, an avid gardener, a story-teller par excellence, and a faithful friend. Above all, he was a lover of Jesus, a diligent student of Scripture, of firm conviction and forgiving spirit, on whose word, like gold in the bank, one could always depend. He was interested in people and loved to hear their stories. He liked nothing better than sitting down together, preferably with a single malt scotch, and sharing stories or discussing the issues of the day. Injustice rankled his soul to no end: Something must be done. In times of trouble and distress, his support was unwavering.

Thinking back on our many years together at the Institute, the interweaving of three words does some justice in describing Henk's ICS legacy: courage-commitment-compassion all in the service of a God of Love. ICS was—and still is—a radical effort to promote the cause of integral Christian scholarship in a time of the assumed neutrality of scholarship and the pretended autonomy of theoretic thought. From day one, it took courage and commitment to challenge these assumptions, and Henk was the embodiment of commitment and compassion. Convinced that all of life, not only Sunday worship, is undertaken in service of God (distilled in the familiar phrase, “life is religion”), Henk entered the halls of academia. His mission: to show that the assumed neutrality of reason is actually faith in Reason as the way to Truth and the sole arbiter of reality. In other words, that it acts as a substitute for faith in our Creator-Redeemer God. It is worth mentioning that through these academic efforts, Henk earned the respect and friendship of well-respected Canadian atheist political philosopher Kai Neilsen.

At the Institute, Henk thought of himself not so much as a professor but as a Senior Member. From the start he resisted any kind of hierarchy, insisting on cooperative governance. His door was always open to Junior Members. His passion for understanding the world as God’s creation inspired students and touched them deeply. It led to the publication of his book Understanding Our World (1984).

In the process of Henk's disputing the autonomy of Reason, it became increasingly obvious that this doctrine had detrimental effects that reached far beyond theory. This autonomy undermined social justice, promoted inequality, exiled compassion, marginalized people of faith, women, the poor, the different. This was of crucial significance for ICS because the reason for its very existence was to set up a Christ-centered program of higher learning to help the people of God live lives of faith and compassion in their everyday existence. For Henk, it became crystal clear: being redemptively Christian in scholarship also requires outworking in our lived practice, especially by promoting and fostering justice toward the oppressed and marginalized.

Convicted, committed, and compassionate, Henk felt called to start AWARE, an organization promoting the full acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians into the church. About the same time, fighting against discrimination against women in the church, he suggested it might be possible to address God in prayer as Mother.

Henk’s acts of courage raised concerns for some people. In response, he wrote Setting Our Sights by the Morning Star (1989), in particular pointing to the promise that the Spirit of God will continue to lead us into truth even as things change. In all this, it is important to underline just how reformational it all is: semper reformanda (always reforming) to remain true to the Gospel.

Indeed, what stands out to me now was Henk’s ability to open the Scriptures. He had the wonderful knack for reading the Bible with the eyes of faith in ways that resonated deep in my soul and, I am sure, in the souls of many.

Related to this, I cannot close without mentioning one other matter. Not calling attention to it would dishonor Henk and his memory. In the 1990’s Henk began to de-center the idea of order and give love the central focus. The embrace of love gives a new redemptive orientation to life away from a focus on rational knowing. This shifts the focal point away from obeying an immutable law-order, to love as God’s gift/call that invites us to be co-workers with God in the ministry of the reconciliation of all things. This is to return to what Augustine said many centuries ago: “Love and do what you will” (dilige, et quod vis fac). This, then, is what it means to obey Jesus: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).

The verse with which I will end this in memoriam is the first portion of a longer poem that Henk composed after the death of his wife, Anita, and daughter, Esther. What a legacy! Thanks be to God for the fruitfulness and integrity of the life, work, and witness of Henk Hart.

* * *

Love’s Embrace

Hendrik Hart

At heart,
a human life
gains without measure
in depth and scope
exposed to giving
or receiving
primeval energy
of all that is.
In the embrace of Love
vessels of love
become aware:
irresistible energy
compels us
be centered
in all we do
in Love’s embrace;
to seek for ourselves
and others
peace, justice, joy, life,
fulfillment, patience,
hope, life, and healing.

* * *

With love,
Jim Olthuis

- - -
You can read the rest of the poem above, as well as other reflective writings from Henk, in our From Henk's Archives Ground Motive series. 

You can also read the recent issue of Perspective published in honor of Henk's legacy on our Institutional Repository.