Monday, May 02, 2016

Beyond Belief? Reflections on “God, Law, and Cosmos: Issues in Hendrik Hart’s Ontology”

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by Ronald A. Kuipers

 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.

Reading this essay has been a somewhat uncanny experience for me. For starters, it’s a real blast from the past. In it, Zuidervaart launches a thorough critique of key themes in Hendrik Hart’s Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology (1984). I can only imagine what a former professor should have made of such a critical response from a former student, just one short year after the publication of a major work. I wasn’t around for the fireworks, if there were any, as in 1985 (when this essay was first published) I was only 16 years old, and too busy riding my skateboard, listening to hardcore punk rock, watching the Edmonton Oilers pummel the Philadelphia Flyers on their way to a second Stanley Cup, and otherwise tormenting my excellent teachers at Edmonton Christian High School, to pay too much attention to philosophy, let alone Reformational philosophy. All the while, unbeknownst to me, Lambert was a mere 6 kilometres east of my location (thanks Google Maps!), down 107 Avenue, holding forth philosophically at The King’s College (now King’s University, and in a very different part of town!). I would enroll at King’s as a freshman in the Fall of 1987, declaring a philosophy minor that would later become a major, only missing by two years having Lambert, my faculty colleague at the ICS for the past 12 years, become my first philosophy professor (Lambert took a faculty position at Calvin College in the Fall of 1985).

With my BA in Philosophy from King’s in hand, I arrived at ICS in the fall of 1992 as a first-year Masters student, ready to study with Henk Hart as my mentor. As I was struggling to decide upon a paper topic for my first philosophy seminar with Henk, I will never forget his suggestion: He said, “Why don’t you take Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (which I had just finished reading with him) and use it to critique Understanding Our World? Specifically, see if you can find anything like what Rorty calls a “permanent, neutral framework” for inquiry in Understanding Our World, and discuss what might be problematic about the existence of such a framework.”[1] Basically, Henk was encouraging me to deconstruct a book he had published only eight years earlier, clearly signalling to me that his position on key philosophical issues contained therein had changed decidedly in the interim. So I wrote that paper, giving it the title “The Rhetoric of Order: Realism, Rorty, and the Reformed Tradition.” (Another fun fact: later I would present this paper at the Eastern Regional Meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY—my first such academic presentation—riding shotgun to a fellow ICS student, James K.A. Smith, who would also give his first academic presentation at the same conference.)

One of the main issues Hart struggles with in Understanding Our World is how best to conceive of the human experience of order, a treasured concept in reformational philosophy. In the first two chapters especially, he is concerned with articulating an ontology that does justice to the fact that we live in an ordered world and that we ourselves are not the origin of this order. To say that we live in an ordered world, Hart explains, is to profess that individual existence is subject to universal “nomic conditions” (or laws). In other words, subjective existence is made possible by laws that describe the space of creaturely flourishing for all individual existents, and destructive deviation results when creaturely subjects flout the laws that condition their existence.[2] For Hart in Understanding Our World, everything that exists, exists subject to these conditions. The logical wrinkle this claim introduces is not lost on Hart: If everything that exists is subject to conditions, and it makes no sense to say conditions are so subject, it follows that conditions themselves do not exist. They are not creaturely existents like all other subjective creatures are (‘subjective’ because subject to nomic conditions). Yet there is still something nomically conditional about life as we experience it, says Hart, and it is this conditionality that he seeks to describe in Understanding Our World. He summarizes the philosophical complex he proposes to unpack in one brief sentence: “Conditions, though not existing, will nevertheless be real” (UOW 57).

One of the main issues Hart struggles with in Understanding Our World is how best to conceive of the human experience of order, a treasured concept in reformational philosophy.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Future of Critical Theory

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by Ben Fulman

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.

When I saw the chapter list of Lambert Zuidervaart’s new book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy (2016), there was no doubt that I would comment on his essay "Macrostructures and Societal Principles: An Architectonic Critique." This is because it contains what seem to be the blueprints for the future of critical theory. By this I mean Zuidervaart has provided us with an infrastructure—and I deliberately use concepts borrowed from construction, since what Zuidervaart is offering us is succinctly put forth as an architectonic critique of macrostructures. In the following passages I will give an overview of what I perceive to be the novelty of Zuidervaart’s theory and show how it tackles the relevant problems of current social philosophy.


If we take Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse as the main representatives of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, then their insistence on the prevalence of instrumental reason, identity thinking, the totally administered society and the one-dimensional man will without doubt lead the social theorist into an abyss of cultural pessimism, and even worse into a sense of apathy about the possibility of practical action. However, much has changed since the time in which these wonderful thinkers worked out their thoughts and theories: true, some things remain the same, but others only got worse. Current social theories in the tradition of the Frankfurt School have moved on from the negative and pessimistic rendition of society that the first generation held steadfast. However, they lack the core ingredient that gave a particular flavor to the Frankfurt School’s social theory—that of the emancipation of society and people. Following this tradition, I believe that Zuidervaart’s social theory—explored in the above-mentioned essay—does justice to the aroma of the Frankfurt School (negative dialectics as the starting point for critical thinking), and the notion of emancipation from oppression. I hope to touch on several aspects of Zuidervaart’s essay and show why I think we must proceed and elaborate on the structures he provides.


Zuidervaart’s social theory engages with Adorno’s famous articulation of the relation between theory and praxis in the opening of Negative Dialectics (1966), namely that “[p]hilosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”[1] However, Adorno's insistence that theory in his time can do nothing other than take the form of critique—“Having broken its pledge to be as one with reality or at the point of realization, philosophy is obliged ruthlessly to criticize itself”[2]—becomes the starting point for Zuidervaart’s social philosophy. The seeds of Zuidervaart’s social philosophy can be found in Reformational philosopher Abraham Kuyper’s notion of the ‘Creational Ordinance.’ As Zuidervaart remarks, Kuyper’s social philosophy offers a “normative vision” and a critique of existing society: “in addition to descriptions and explanations, and in the very process of describing and explaining, we need to evaluate a society’s organization and point out how it can be improved” (253). The main question that Habermas bequeathed us, and later scholars in the tradition of the Frankfurt School have been tackling ever since, regards the normative foundations of critical theory. Zuidervaart, faithful to the first generation of the Frankfurt School, attempts to articulate a social theory that encompasses Adorno’s negative dialectics with the utopian horizon of Marcuse and Habermas. Zuidervaart views creational ordinance as “the notion that the divine Creator has mandated from the very beginning, and continues to mandate, how society should be organized, and that these mandates are given in the very structure of creation” (253). However, according to Zuidervaart, this articulation does not emphasize strongly enough the contradictions in society that gave rise to atrocities and inequality.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Probing the Contours and Foundations of a Reformational “Architectonic Critique” of Society

by Jonathan Chaplin

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.

Chapter 13 of Religion, Truth and Social Transformation is probably the most succinct overview available of the “architectonic” (as Kuyper famously termed it) reformational social philosophy that Lambert Zuidervaart has been developing for many years, laying out all its main contours and foundations in one fell swoop. My response explores three foundational moves I see Zuidervaart making pursuant to his project of a “critical retrieval” of reformational thought: from “sphere sovereignty” to “macrostructural analysis;” from incremental institutional reform to society-wide “transformation;” and from “creational structural principles” to “historical societal principles.”
From “sphere sovereignty” to “macrostructural analysis”

Zuidervaart claims that classic reformational thinkers, by being overly preoccupied with identifying and shoring up the “sphere sovereignty” of individual (types of) differentiated societal structures, “do not ask whether distinct social institutions, for example in the areas of art, education, economy, polity, kinship, and faith life might themselves belong to larger patterns of social organization.” They thereby fail to confront the depths of contemporary societal distortions,[1] or to permit a sufficient engagement with contemporary social theory. “For claims about societal differentiation and advocacy of structural pluralism will come to little if in fact contemporary society…does not fit the projected pattern of multiple differentiated spheres” (258).

I take this to mean that if an inherited social theory can’t shed adequate light on the most palpable structural dynamics and distortions of contemporary society, then it must be significantly revamped.[2] Zuidervaart’s revamping proposes that these features need to be explained in terms of three dominant “macrostructures” – “large-scale structurations of contemporary social life” (259): the “proprietary economy;” the “administrative state;” and “civil society” – resulting in a “triaxial model” (257ff.).[3] The arrival of these distinct macrostructures in modernity is in itself a significant achievement (267), but the contemporary operations of, and interactions between, them disclose deep distortions.

The first two macrostructures are “formal” while the third is “informal.” “Formal” means “systemic,” in the sense of being “operationally self-contained,” i.e., following their own “logics” and having their own “steering media” (money for the proprietary economy, power for the administrative state) (258-9). Such a “systemic mode of organization” has the advantage that these two macrostructures “can proceed without continual communicative interaction by human agents” while its disadvantage is that they are prone to crisis tendencies and “resistant to normatively motivated critique and resistance” (259).

By contrast, civil society is “informal,” consisting of a “diffuse array of organizations, institutions and social movements” lacking those systemic properties. This informality allows for communicative interaction among participants but leaves civil society vulnerable to “systemic pressures” from the other two macrostructures (259). His account of the economic dimension of civil society is the part of the chapter I found most illuminating and persuasive (so I won’t say much more about it).[4]

Let me simply pose one question intended to invite further clarification. I wonder what concept of “societal system” underlies the idea of a formal macrostructure. How does it actually serve to explain the highly complex and diverse societal phenomena under scrutiny? Systems theory is, of course, widely employed in contemporary social theory. It was developed in sociology extensively in the work of, e.g., Talcott Parsons (on whom, I recall, Habermas depends).[5] It has yielded highly suggestive results and today is operating at a high peak of sophistication in areas such as complexity theory and risk analysis. But as I understand it, it first emerged out of the discipline of cybernetics (a branch of engineering) and, notwithstanding its huge theoretical advances since then, I wonder whether it has entirely shed its original mechanistic and deterministic traits.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Pluralism in a Multicultural Civil Society: Losing My Religion?

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by Ruthanne Crapo

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.

I am honored to contribute to the generative conversation surrounding Lambert Zuidervaart’s recent work highlighting the nascent and formative value of reformational philosophy, past and present. I want to weave my own comments in alignment with the valuable remarks already made. Jonathan Chaplin’s detailed and probing analysis of this same chapter to which I am also responding covered the expanse of Zuidervaart’s argument and details, the promise and possibilities of his work, within the broader scope of political theory. Given such a lucid account of the theoretical poles of Zuidervaart’s argument, I feel free to make mine more narrative.

In the analysis of the first chapter on social transformation Clinton Stockwell noted, “We live in a radically changing pluralistic world that is becoming even more urban, global and culturally diverse daily. So, how can I approach the question of what makes for a ‘good city’ as a Reformed Christian in the context of radical pluralism?” In my own contribution, I want to extend Stockwell’s query toward the question Zuidervaart points us toward in this second chapter on social transformation, namely, to what extent should religion be a part of the state, the public sphere, and is it good in these spaces? In this post I will flesh out such possibilities with the concerns of my own students and how to engage the dialectic Zuidervaart so aptly proposes. I suggest that Zuidervaart’s work in this chapter is most compelling because it analyzes religion broadly, or as a universal human phenomenon, and offers a distinctly philosophical engagement, resisting a facile public/private relegation of religion. Such a natural account of religion permits individuals and groups from an extensive array of religious and non-religious commitments to dialogue with his work. I offer such an engagement with the particular microcosm of my own institutional setting.

Like Clinton’s multicultural neighborhood, I teach philosophy to disparate groups of religious and non-religious students at an urban two-year state college in Minnesota. With an average age of 28, our students speak over 86 different dialects, nearly half are Pell eligible (meaning they qualify in the U.S. as low-income) and one third are first generation college students. Like many of our growing urban communities, the diversity is truly global: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, Sikhs, Buddhists, shamanic practices, pagans, and atheist/agnostics all study, work, and collaborate on shared projects of social transformation via the institution of state sponsored higher education. Much of the philosophy of our department is centered appropriately on the concerns of our students, meaning our philosophical queries tend to contextualize the propositional nature of the discipline as embedded within issues of social and political struggle. I typically select readings and assignments that probe critiques of institutional racism, sexism, classism, post-colonialism, global inequity, environmental justice, mass-incarceration, GLBTQ rights, Islamophobia, and the rights of global migrants. In other words, we investigate the ways that “let suffering speak,”[1] particularly injustices that the state’s power and purview complicate. Even in a state as “nice” as Minnesota, my students typically do not agree on the problems or solutions to these issues and concerns, and inevitably, they vary in their commitment that religion could be part of any public benefit.

Even in a state as “nice” as Minnesota, my students typically do not agree on the problems or solutions to these issues and concerns, and inevitably, they vary in their commitment that religion could be part of any public benefit.

Recently a student stated, “Religion is intrinsically oppressive, irrational, and dangerous.” Another added, “There seems to be something especially wrong with the Christian religion in particular.” While I disagree, I can sympathize with these remarks. We had just concluded a unit on the Dakota genocide and the role of Christian missionaries in separating Dakota children from their parents; these same missionaries quipped that they needed to beat the “savage” out of the children in order to “save” their souls.[2] Even the mention of religion and students may reflexively regurgitate the new atheist’s familiar warnings of institutional religion as a “dangerous meme”[3] citing well-trodden examples: its collusion with colonialism and empire building; its justification of slavery and sexism; its decidedly homophobic stance; its lackluster response to environmental degradation; violent conflicts like the crusades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Bosnian genocide; and fanatical movements such as Jonestown, Boko Haram’s abductions, and the ISIS caliphates.

Zuidervaart’s characterization of religion acknowledges Hegel’s notion of inwardness or subjective rationality (as opposed to the objective rationality Hegel associates with the state), but he adds, religion is also “a distinctive array of or practices and organizations . . . already institutionalized . . . they are thoroughly intersubjective” (238). The intersubjective quality of religion moves it beyond the personal and the private. Given this conception of religion as intersubjective, I am wondering if Zuidervaart’s religious intersubjectivity entails a rationality of its own—an intersubjective rationality or “logic”. Could this intersubjective rationality necessitate an objectivity of its own—namely, good ethics? Philosophers like Emanuel Lévinas and Luce Irigaray have highlighted the intersubjective and ethical capacity of religion, its ability to recognize others as subjects in their own right, and the respect for others that an intersubjective religion ought to augur.[4] Zuidervaart engages the social and cultural quality of subjects with or in the world as a normative feature of religion. Therefore, he lifts religion away from its “other-worldly” caricature and normativizes it as a human phenomenon, such that religiously diverse people can critically engage it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Speaking Truth to “Power”, Calling “Truth-Tellers” to Account: Probing the “Dialectical” Relationship Between Religion and the State

by Jonathan Chaplin

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.

It’s a pleasure to respond to Lambert Zuidervaart’s latest example of rigorous, fertile, reformationally-inflected philosophy. While all his work bears the impact of that tradition, this book gathers his reflections on core reformational commitments in a single volume, places them front and centre and subjects them to instructive critical exploration and development. It is a major contribution to reformational philosophy and will usefully stir up fresh debate about what a “critical retrieval” of the tradition might amount to.

  In chapter 12, Zuidervaart uses a dense passage from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right  as a springboard for wider reflections on the contemporary relationship between religion and the public realm. In 15 pages he succeeds in framing lucidly much of the disputed territory in current (western) debates on this relationship. I agree with many of the claims in the chapter: his critique of Hegel’s conception of the “subjective” character of religious truth claims (as mere forms of “subjective rationality,” as opposed to the “objective rationality” actualized in the state);[1] his insistence on the vital distinction between “spirituality” as all-encompassing orientation and “religion” as institutionalized worship and faith;[2] his affirmation of the critical public role religious communities should assume in the face of societal injustice. Here I’ll focus on his remarks on religion’s relationship to the “state” and the “public sphere” (in the hope of returning to “civil society” in my response to chapter 13).


Zuidervaart’s definition of religious truth is highly compressed, assuming detailed work done elsewhere. By being somewhat elusive it may invite misunderstanding. Religious truth, he proposes, is “a process of worshipful disclosure in dynamic correlation with human fidelity to the societal principle of faith as hopeful trust” (239) – hardly a standard definition. The reader would need to understand how key words in that sentence – “disclosure,” “correlation,” “fidelity,” “societal principle,” and “trust” – function as load-bearing terms of art in his larger conception of truth. I won’t say much on that larger conception here since other contributors to this blog have been tasked to do so. I’ll comment on the notion of a “societal principle” in my response to chapter 13.

But let me try to pre-empt one possible concern which might legitimately arise were we to approach the question of religious truth from a primarily theological or confessional standpoint. Zuidervaart’s goal in this chapter is not to give an account of the epistemological status or substantive content of Christian religious truth claims (aspects of such an account appear elsewhere in the book). Still less is it to argue, in apologetic mode, for their truth.[3] Rather it is to offer a philosophical account of the universal human phenomenon of religion. This is not a uniquely reformational project (it goes back to Augustine) but it is a quintessentially reformational one (and reformational thought is deeply indebted to Augustine on the point). Reformational philosophers have typically framed the project in terms of an “ontology of religion,” resolving ultimately on the “created structure” of religion – its foundational, orienting role in the very constitution of what it means to be human. Zuidervaart does not discuss such a framing in this chapter although he does in others (e.g. 1, 3, 6, 10). In fact in chapter 3 he criticizes Dooyeweerd’s particular account as falling into the error of a “structuralizing” of religion, i.e. construing it as a fixed ontological “structure” rather than a matter of spiritual “direction” (64ff).[4] Yet he still endorses the admirable reformational aspiration to give a philosophical account of religion as a universal phenomenon of human creatureliness.

In any event, given that his focus is on religious truth as a human and historical phenomenon, with all the necessary hermeneutical provisionality thereby entailed, we can readily see why he would reject Hegel’s claim that religious truth is “absolute” (239). This also helps explain what to some observers may appear to be a “subjectivist” definition of “revelation”: “If ‘God’ speaks in [a religious community’s] stories of faith and in their retelling…and shows up in the rituals of worship and their re-enactment, then such stories and rituals are media of ‘God’s’ being revealed” (240) – he might have added, “for such a community.” And in the same vein: “Doctrines are attempts to render explicit the significant meaning of a community’s stories of faith and rituals of worship” (241).[5]

[G]iven that [Zuidervaart's] focus is on religious truth as a human and historical phenomenon, with all the necessary hermeneutical provisionality thereby entailed, we can readily see why he would reject Hegel’s claim that religious truth is “absolute” (239).