Monday, May 02, 2016

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

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.

The bulk of Zuidervaart’s critique revolves around the intellectual gymnastics Hart undertakes in order to speak of the reality but non-existence of nomic conditions. Zuidervaart notes that, for Hart, in order for nomic conditions to be known and experienced, they must somehow present themselves to us in the existences for which they hold. Conceptual analysis of discrete existents allows us to learn of the conditions that subjectively condition any existent. “Through conceptual analysis of frogs…we learn what is required—what conditions must be met—for [frogs] to be what they are to be” (139). Yet we have no independent access to these conditions as such, but only to particular existents like frogs, the study of which reveals to us the various ways in which their particular existence is conditioned. This intellectual quandary, says Zuidervaart, leaves us with the question “whether and in what sense nomic conditions can be known to be real” (139).

After a thorough exploration of the epistemological issues that arise in Hart’s account, which I will not reprise here, Zuidervaart devotes section 4 of this essay to a discussion of Hart’s account of the origin of nomic conditions. The reason: “Knowledge of their origin would seem to be significant for determining whether and in what sense nomic conditions can be known to be real” (141). But to his chagrin Zuidervaart discovers that Hart also closes this door as soon as he opens it, by denying the possibility of providing a philosophical account of the origin of nomic conditions. For Hart, claims Zuidervaart, “[w]hatever we say about the origin of nomic conditions is so dependent on our ‘deep-seated commitments’ that a philosophical discussion of the origin cannot be simply philosophical” (142, citing UOW 71). Zuidervaart objects to this claim primarily for harbouring unnecessary assumptions about the nature of properly philosophical accounts. For Hart, any philosophical account by its nature pretends or aspires to be “deductive-nomological,” i.e., empirically and explanatorily exhaustive. Because Zuidervaart thinks that properly philosophical accounts need not and ought not take such form, he sees no reason to deny the possibility of proffering a philosophical account of the origin of nomic conditions: “To explain need mean no more than give a credible philosophical account. Surely this is not too much to expect or receive from an integral ontology” (142).

Of course, the question lurking in the background here is whether or not it is possible or needful to develop a philosophical account of God, if in fact one believes there to be a divine origin to the reality of nomic conditions. Zuidervaart explores this theme in section 5. There he notes that, although Hart refuses to provide a philosophical account of the origin of nomic conditions, in UOW he nevertheless employs the concept of origin at crucial points. In chapter 4 of UOW, Hart affirms the notion that reality’s modal order displays a reference to the "‘origin of all that is relative’" (144, citing UOW 166). Zuidervaart proceeds to note how Hart affirms “the fundamental unity of the world in its origin and in its subjection to an order of the same origin” (144, citing UOW 315). But again, in the “pre-scientific” appendix to UOW, we learn that, for Hart, any presentation or discussion of this understanding of the origin is “something other than philosophy so called” (145). The problem here, then, is that in this book of philosophy Hart often resorts to this “other” form of presentation without signalling that he is in fact doing so.

Zuidervaart finds several things troubling about Hart’s insistence on the impossibility of properly philosophical discussion about something like the origin of existence (and nomic order), especially when he nevertheless repeatedly leans on precisely this concept in the philosophical development of his integral ontology. According to Hart, God cannot be theorised, because theories are subject to logical laws; and God, the origin of Creation, is not subject to logical laws. To theorise God, then, would be to commit a form of conceptual idolatry, to attempt to put the uncontainable mystery of divinity in some sort of conceptual container. Zuidervaart demurs, arguing that just because one understands divinity as something which is not subject to logical laws does not imply that there can be no valid theoretical assertions and concepts concerning divinity. While our theories may be subject to logical laws, this does not mean that those things our theories are about are so subject. Just as you can have a logically-qualified theory of frogs, without frogs themselves being subject to logical laws (at least when they are not engaged in theoretical activity), so can you have a logically-qualified theory of the origin of nomic conditions (i.e., God), without thereby subjecting that origin to logical laws (146-48).

Zuidervaart finds several things troubling about Hart’s insistence on the impossibility of properly philosophical discussion about something like the origin of existence (and nomic order), especially when he nevertheless repeatedly leans on precisely this concept in the philosophical development of his integral ontology.

In the final section of the paper, “Ontology and Commitment,” Zuidervaart extends this logic to the nature of ultimate or religious commitments themselves. Agreeing with Hart about the “extra-philosophical” character of those commitments, he again refuses to concede that, for this reason, they cannot become the focus of “legitimate philosophical discourse” (150). Again, the path Zuidervaart follows is to distinguish “the ultimate” from “beliefs about the ultimate”; the former, whatever that is, is truly and really ultimate, and everything else, including our beliefs about it, are relative to it, and thus non-ultimate. Yet, problematically, Hart speaks of “ultimate beliefs” as being beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry (153). For Zuidervaart, this move places all-too-human beliefs beyond the reach of critical intersubjective discourse, beyond objection. While many Christians might recognize their own religious beliefs in several of Hart’s (non-philosophical) claims about the ultimate origin of the world’s nomic conditions (i.e., God), Zuidervaart lists several elements whose controversial nature discloses the fact that, especially with respect to religious beliefs and commitments, we might not want to treat them as commitments that simply ‘go without saying’. When it comes to Hart’s beliefs about God, some Christians, he suggests, “might hesitate about an emphasis on transcendence rather than immanence. Others might be puzzled about God as sole source of true knowledge. Objections could be lodged against the identification of God’s Word with creation’s order [a position Hart himself would reject soon after the composition of UOW[3]]. And exception could be taken to a view of sovereignty that equates it with there being nothing outside of God’s control and nothing that controls God” (153). In listing these objections to beliefs that Hart considered ultimate at the time of writing his book, Zuidervaart simply wishes to press the ethical requirement that such beliefs be presented “in dialogue with other philosophical positions,” a presentation that Zuidervaart insists “could hardly avoid being philosophical” (154).

While I am largely in agreement with Zuidervaart’s criticisms of Hart on the discussibility of so-called ‘ultimate’ religious beliefs and commitments, I do wonder about Zuidervaart’s seeming insistence that critical intellectual discussion of ultimate beliefs and conceptions of divinity must be or is always ‘philosophical’ in nature. This adjective often seems a normative and not just a descriptive one for Zuidervaart; authentic critical public dialogue just is philosophical. But why couldn’t such discussion also be theological? Or sociological? Or just part of ordinary every day conversation? Why do we even have to qualify such discussion at all, and why can’t we simply recognize and honour the various shapes that critical intellectual dialogue naturally assumes in our collective human journey together? I must admit that I have imbibed too much of the anti-philosophy of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and indeed, Hart, to consider the adjective ‘philosophical’ as any sort of honorific term. It’s just another kind of writing, with its own virtues and vices. Like any other form of human inquiry, it is limited, and so does not cover the waterfront of human experience and critical discourse about that experience, and it always calls for and leans upon other ways of inquiring into reality and appreciatively receiving its disclosures.

So there is something about Hart’s suspicions of the totalitarian pretensions of philosophical discourse that I find congenial (as, no doubt, does Zuidervaart). I agree with Hart’s judgment that philosophy’s claim to have enclosed its conceptual fists around the essence of reality is nothing more than a sieve-fisted find (Zuidervaart’s point, I take it, is that philosophy takes other, more edifying, forms than the one displayed in this totalitarian pretention). I also agree with Hart that we must let go of the desire to place everything under our conceptual control, and instead make room in our lives for mystery, as well as the grace of revelation we experience when we let the mystery be. Unlike Hart, however, my own Wittgensteinian understanding of language and belief makes room for the possibility that the human experience of mystery may enter into language qua mystery. Our experience of the mystery of something like the ultimate origin of all that exists, then, does not take us past the edge of language and therefore beyond belief, as Hart seems to think; rather, our ability to experience the mystery in language (via poetry, narrative, etc.) takes our language beyond the range of cognitive conceptuality (only one of language’s functions), a feat that Hart actually performs in chapter 11 of his most recent book Responses to the Enlightenment (co-authored with William Sweet), entitled “Focused in Faith: The Epistemology of Faith as a Way of Knowing.” The linguistic capability to convey a sense of religious wonder and mystery that Hart displays in this chapter is itself is a mystery worth pondering, for it says much about the open nature of language and of our experience as linguistic creatures in a world that mysteriously makes itself, (to borrow Zuidervaart’s phrase from the book Artistic Truth) “predicatively available” to us.

So Hart has good reasons for placing religious commitment beyond the pale of the totalizing pretentions of much of Western philosophy, even as his moves may unwittingly lead him into the uncritical or even fideist waters that Zuidervaart is so concerned to avoid in this essay. Because Hart wants to protect the openness of religious commitment and orientation, he argues that the philosophical assumption that cognitive belief (of the ‘deductive-nomological variety) is foundational for any other kind of meaning leads into a dangerous form of spiritual closure. That is also why he shies away from affirming religious tradition as a sine qua non for the kind of faith he otherwise so obviously exhibits. Hart has been burned by a form of authoritarian traditionalism that seeks coercively to enforce the orthodoxy of particular cognitive beliefs, and he understandably thinks that such conservative forces have denatured the very faith he so cherishes. These forces always end up affirming an antecedently existing truth or status quo that, when compared to the truth of God’s promises still to come, is always an impoverished form of truth.

Because Hart wants to protect the openness of religious commitment and orientation, he argues that the philosophical assumption that cognitive belief (of the ‘deductive-nomological variety) is foundational for any other kind of meaning leads into a dangerous form of spiritual closure.

But, pace Hart, and with Zuidervaart, we do not have to view beliefs as the servants of that impoverished understanding of truth. To grasp this, it helps to ponder Paul Ricoeur’s distinction between the world of the text and the world of everyday language. Put in Ricoeur’s terms, Hart is mostly worried about reducing the experience that faith can open to the level of everyday, and even referential or cognitive, language about the world. For his part, Ricoeur would rather draw attention to the way the texts of his religious predilection open up a possible, not yet actual, world, and in a way that gives us critical distance from the damaged one we actually inhabit. For Ricoeur, the “world of the text” serves precisely to distanciate us from “the world of everyday language” for the sake of making space for as yet unimagined possibility: “…[N]arratives, folktales, and poems are not without a referent; but this referent is discontinuous with that of everyday language. Through fiction and poetry, new possibilities of being-in-the-world are opened up within everyday reality. Fiction and poetry intend being, not under the modality of being-given, but under the modality of power-to-be. Everyday reality is thus metamorphosed by what could be called the imaginative variations that literature carries out on the real” (Ricoeur, “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation,” 86). Hart wants to shelter the imaginative power that our fresh engagement with biblical literature (not to mention other sorts of linguistic endeavour) possesses to carry out critical variations on the real, and that is why he holds the rationalist emphasis on the cognitive dimension of human belief under such high suspicion, for that literalist emphasis can only see what is real, and is therefore blind to what, in faith, is possible.

Hart tells us that “[o]ur faith depends on how we remember, read, and tell the stories of our faith. Fairy tales move from rags to riches. Faith tells of God’s riches given up by a saviour in human rags. Faith always tells us a different story” (Responses to the Enlightenment, 193). But Zuidervaart is right to point out that Hart cannot do without linguistic conceptuality here. For, presumably, faith needs concepts like ‘origin’ and capacities signified by the verb ‘tells’, and these concepts and capacities may come to us loaded with historical problems that it is incumbent upon us to unpack and criticize. Without beliefs playing a role in both our witness to the divine and criticism of the all-too-human frailties of that witness, it is difficult to imagine how we are even able to “remember, read, and tell the stories of our faith.” Here I have simply been suggesting that beliefs are not the enemy of this project, but only the abstraction, reification, and absolutization of their cognitive dimension. If we consider our beliefs otherwise than Hart does, as part and parcel of the numberless ways that we do things with words, then, as Zuidervaart also recognizes, we need not insist upon placing our ultimate concerns and commitments beyond critical discussion.


[1] On the notion of a “permanent, neutral framework” for inquiry, see Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (Princeton University Press, 2009), 8–9, 269, 315–16.

[2] See Hendrik Hart, Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 35. Here Hart affirms “the possibility that universality is a nomic characteristic of limitation and determination” and further claims that “a concretely individual entity exists only in a framework of universality….” Also relevant on this point are Hart’s comments on 48: “[C]onditions order subjectivity, that is, existence is subject to limits. Nomic conditions ‘prescribe’ how something must exist or in what way subjective existence is to be.” See 54-55 for the explanation of destructive deviation as the result of behaviour that does not conform to these nomic conditions.

[3] See Hendrik Hart, “Creation Order in Our Philosophical Tradition: Critique and Refinement,” in An Ethos of Compassion and the Integrity of Creation, ed. Brian J. Walsh, Hendrik Hart, and Robert E. VanderVennen, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995), 67–96.

Ronald A. Kuipers is the Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, and is Associate Professor in the Philosophy of Religion at ICS. His most recent book is Richard Rorty.

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