by Lambert Zuidervaart
This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.
Temporality and Spirituality
Neal DeRoo asks reformational philosophers to pay greater attention to “Dooyeweerd’s unique account of the inherent temporality of the created order,” with its emphasis on the “supra-temporal heart” of human existence. If we do not, DeRoo says, we will “ignore the spiritual critique that forms the ultimate basis of Dooyeweerd’s work” and will construe his work in a “deistic direction” that makes us, not Christ, the redeemer(s) of creation. I am not sure whether DeRoo sees such debilitating tendencies in my own work, but I do want to take up the provocative challenge he has posed.
Let me be blunt: I regard Dooyeweerd’s notion of supra-temporality as a non-starter. Although I agree that his account of creation’s temporality, with its two distinct directions (i.e., expressive and concentric), merits close attention, especially at the intersection of normativity and eschatology, his notion of a supra-temporal heart is not internally coherent. Nor is it required in order to do the work DeRoo thinks it does. Although I retain an emphasis on the “heartedness” of human existence, which Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven share, I see no need to construe this in terms of supra-temporality, nor do I see any advantage in so construing it.
Human beings are creatures through and through, and creatures are temporal through and through. Why, then, would we want to say about human creatures that, at their very core, they are supra-temporal? Perhaps DeRoo’s central claim in response would be that the idea of supra-temporality enables Dooyeweerd “to maintain a constant, direct engagement between the eternal and the temporal (and so avoid deism).” But is this the only way to avoid deism? And why would one want to maintain such an eternal/temporal engagement, which presupposes that “eternality” best captures that which is not creaturely? Why not, for example, simply talk about the continual and direct engagement (i.e., covenant) between God and creation and the ever emerging dialogue between God and humankind?
DeRoo worries that, if one gives up the notion of supra-temporality, then one will no longer see structural problems in society as “first and foremost problems of spiritual expression,” to be fixed by “a spiritual and not merely a social transformation.” This formulation, however, poses a false dilemma: either structural or spiritual. Of course structural problems are not merely structural. They are directional too. Yet that does not mean that they are primarily spiritual problems. The peculiarity of spirituality is that it cannot be juxtaposed in this way to some domain or institution or structure in society. In fact, one could say that all problems in society, whether structural or not, are spiritual problems, but that would not get us very far in understanding and addressing them.
DeRoo, however, has something more specific in mind. To diagnose social problems properly, he says, we must discern “the spiritual forces” that “particular communities” express, for it is the “attunement between a particular community and the spirit of God” that determines truth. Here my deepest reservations about Dooyeweerd’s supra-temporality set in. For his notion of supra-temporality comes paired with an emphasis on the spiritual antithesis (the conflict between ground motives and between “religious”—i.e., spiritual—communities). This emphasis tends both to reduce the scope of divine revelation and to place certain communities among the sheep—and the rest among the goats.
So, while I agree with DeRoo that the struggle with societal evil is a spiritual struggle—see the book’s Epilogue—and while I agree that reformational philosophers must strive to discern the spiritual forces at work in society and culture, I resist the Dooyeweerdian move to link such forces directly with “particular communities.” That move surrenders too easily to the temptation among faith-oriented thinkers “to place their own account of spiritual struggle on the right side of this battle” (321).
So, while I agree with DeRoo that the struggle with societal evil is a spiritual struggle...and while I agree that reformational philosophers must strive to discern the spiritual forces at work in society and culture, I resist the Dooyeweerdian move to link such forces directly with “particular communities.”