Friday, June 13, 2014

Facing Hard Times with Humor: In Defense of Holiness in a Technological Age

Reflections on Bob Goudzwaard, Part II

Dean Dettloff

After what was a vitalizing encounter with Bob Goudzwaard, a fixture of Reformational thought at ICS, we had the opportunity to hear Goudzwaard again, this time at convocation. Receiving his honorary doctorate, he took the opportunity to reflect on the history of ICS. The fundamental observation of the Institute, said Goudzwaard, was that neutrality is impossible. As we hear in Deutoronomy, there stands before us the choice between good and evil—and we are called to choose good. This decision is the axiomatic foundation for philosophy at ICS; not ontology, not metaphysics, not even philosophy, but a decision. For this reason, the initials “ICS” might just a well stand for “In Christ’s Service,” said Goudzwaard. He recalled that Bernard Zylstra, an early ICS Senior Member, was among the first to see the connections between imperialism and apartheid in South Africa (Zylstra was also the last to interview Steve Biko before his death in prison). In a context where Reformed Christians were largely the oppressors, Zylstra’s stance, motivated by his philosophy, was radical. Goudzwaard also named his friends Jim Olthuis, Henk Hart, and Cal Seerveld, who were in attendance, as innovators at work in service of the Lord Jesus. At their mention, I watched as these three nudged one another, smiled, and grasped for a fleeting moment the energy of their past experience.

Goudzwaard was not, however, receiving an honorary doctorate because of his ability to drum up a useful nostalgia. His address turned to the cultural climate, donning the rhetoric of a seasoned cultural and critical theorist. We are entering a world of extremes, he noted. Such a world is all the more dangerous given the rapid development of new technologies. While technologies bring with them incredible opportunities for advancement and human flourishing (Goudzwaard is no Luddite), they also hold the potential for the yet unimaginable catastrophe. Society has no unified vision to decide how to utilize and develop these technologies. Who will decide on their use? Money? Arrogance? Benevolence?

With the rise of polarized culture, ICS has a unique place—it must offer, in Goudzwaard’s words, an academic defense of holiness. We have lost the idea of healthy restraints, given up in favor of collective illusions. “Holiness” seems passé, cliché, at best a vestigial term from a bygone era of so-called righteous Christendom. Modern autonomy and postmodern resignation have won the day; we now face, in the words of Baudrillard, the will not of persons or powers but of the objects themselves. We have left the dialectics of meaning. We inherit a nebulous space devoid of purpose. The decision called for in Deuteronomy, so necessary in a technological and ambivalent age, is paralyzed by an endless string of qualifiers.

But Goudzwaard does not leave us in the void! To combat this pervasive nihilism, we require a living faith and a living God who overcomes resignation—a God who tells us to choose life or death. Alluding to Ephesians, Goudzwaard said ICS must become the helmet of hope. It must uphold respect for the truth, that most unpopular and unfashionable of girdles. The Word of God, its sword, must become its offensive weapon against mechanization and the airy nothing of contemporary society. This stays true to the history of ICS, which has a reputation for fighting on all fronts, both culturally and ecclesially, to the point of publishing a magazine called Vanguard. Aware of and sympathetic to those theorists who rend their theoretical clothes, the thinkers of ICS have sat in sackcloth; yet they also hear God in the whirlwind, and they begin again.

As he concluded, Goudzwaard offered one criticism of Paul’s military uniform. Paul, he said, sadly did not include humor among the armor and weapons he listed in Ephesians. Perhaps it was because he persecuted others and his heavy past invoked a stark seriousness. But humor is very strong; it disarms enemies, catches people off-guard. Communists and fascists, he said, have no humor. The Jewish people, however, have humor—and ICS has always had humor. As it proceeds, ICS must be a humorous place, allowing laughter to ring subversively through its halls. Ending with a joke, Goudzwaard left it to us, current Senior and Junior Members, faculty, staff, and supporters, to choose: life or death.

The opportunity to hear from this Reformational giant was among the many ICS experiences I will not forget. When the weekend was over, it was clear why Goudzwaard received this honor at ICS, and we left invigorated with the possibility that ICS might be the helmet of hope, with a good dose of humor, in a society in desperate need of truth, justice, and peace.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, pursuing an MA Philosophy, and is the author of the blog Re(-)petitions.

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