Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Responding Wisely to Earth’s Lament

by Doug Blomberg

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 was privileged to be present when Dr. Zuidervaart delivered his Inaugural Address at Knox College Chapel in 2004. As he says, it was designed to be readily accessible to a broad audience, as indeed it was. He noted that his mother (very alert indeed, despite her advancing years) was in attendance, and he hoped and expected his presentation to be intelligible to her. It is a great challenge to philosophers to descend from the heights, but Lambert achieved this admirably, notwithstanding the opening simile, in which he compared himself to a trapeze artist (though thankfully still preferring his academic “costume”).

Key to what Lambert said was the imperative that the suffering experienced by all in God’s creation – non-human as well as human creatures – was a reality to be addressed forthrightly in philosophy, but in recent centuries rarely has been. As a community acknowledging its embeddedness in the Creation/Fall/Redemption ethos (or “ground motive”, as befits the present context), the suffering inherent in living in a fallen world must be a prime topic for reformational philosophers (and not only them). And of course, it must be similarly so with respect to the reality of redemption.

Lambert’s address was not only accessible, but brief, the latter certainly aiding the former; hopefully, my post will be likewise. When I presented my Inaugural Address a year ago, the theme of bringing healing to the world – through philosophy and myriad other ways – was prominent; I mention this not to celebrate my “shining moment”, but to honour Lambert’s significant contribution to my thinking in this respect (and much else besides). Indeed, when he congratulated me on my speech, I thanked him both for this and for the debt I owed him. It is a debt owed also by ICS.

The heart of Lambert, philosopher, is rooted in the Scriptures, not (so Evan Runner pithily put it) as a light into which we stare but as a light illuming the paths we walk. He is explicit about whence his direction comes. I have sometimes wondered why the account of the Fall comes so quickly upon the heels of the wondrous story of creation in Genesis. We should not be dismayed, eternally disappointed as we are. Suffering has pervaded the Earth since almost the beginning of humankind. Nonetheless, the hope of redemption quickly unfolds, the clothing and banishing of Adam and Eve being for their salvation, as indeed was the mark God placed upon Cain to protect him, the Ark that rescued our ancestors from the waters, and the Tower destroyed so that people would disperse to care for the world entrusted to them.

The heart of Lambert, philosopher, is rooted in the Scriptures, not (so Evan Runner pithily put it) as a light into which we stare but as a light illuming the paths we walk.

Lambert implores us to let suffering speak. I cannot ignore the resonance with Parker Palmer’s autobiographical account, Let Your Life Speak. Palmer freely acknowledges the deep depression he has often suffered and implores readers to live their lives from the ground up, rather than the head down (which he sees as all too common). This is not at all to disparage thinking carefully about how we mind our lives, but to confess that who we are bodily, in the fullness of our humanness, is the gift God has given us to live out, the riches he has bestowed on us as bearers of his image, sufficient enough to the task for which he created us, however daunting, painful, grievous the wounds we gather along the way. How can we speak truly, without speaking the truth of suffering? As the Hebrew nephesh connotes, we are ever “needy” and vulnerable, not in any way self-subsistent “souls”, as the Greek psyche suggests in its philosophical garb.

When I was a young Christian, just four years “old” in my 21st year, I was invited by a mentor to lecture on how the Bible challenges us to address the evil we confront in “the world”. It was not so much an invitation, as a directive: explain to the audience how all (“moral”) evil is rooted in the heart of this and that individual. I studied Scripture with the spectacles I had been prescribed, to underscore as my evangelical community demanded the imperative of ongoing conversion of our hearts. Change will come, evil will be defeated, if only each one of us sets our hearts on the Kingdom to come (as far off as this Kingdom, in “space” if not time, was envisaged to be – despite what should have been so plain in our Lord’s prayer). This is not the reality of a world which is relational through and through, each of us members one of another.

What I soon, though gradually, came to learn from Reformational sources, was that evil can indeed have individual, “moral” roots, but it is so much more pervasive than this. As Lambert underscores, it is embedded also in structural, systemic, cultural conditions; the formation of our hearts, no less, relies from birth on these conditions, for good or for ill.

As Lambert also emphasises, this battle is not ultimately between flesh and blood, but with spiritual powers and principalities, cutting right to and through our hearts. As the saying goes, when I point my finger “at the evil [those] men do”, three of my fingers point back at me. This is the extent of our vulnerability in this world, as finite and now fallen creatures. This is also the basis of our humility, as philosophers also need constantly remind ourselves. The best laid plans so often go awry, “in a different direction from the one envisioned” (321). As the Psalmist reminds us, though our minds might plan our way, it is the Lord who must direct our paths.

Minds matter. Indeed, Paul exhorts us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. But this renewal is by no means disembodied: we are to present our whole selves as living sacrifices in spiritual worship. And if our whole selves are indeed societally intricated, “Society as a whole will need to be transformed”, as “modest and inherently flawed” our contributions will be (322). If this smacks too much of total depravity, so be it – not that we can do no good at all in this life, but that all the good for which we strive will inevitably be marred. The acceptance of our depravity is a call not to fatalism but to being agents of Christ’s reconciliation of all things, wherein lies our hope, drawing us into our Kingdom future. That we can but speculate what this future may be is by no means to justify limiting our horizons; without dreams and visions, philosophy too is constrained and constricted, and will ultimately perish. We cannot abandon our prophetic edge, leaving this responsibility to another Wilberforce, Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. If in this I have become too hortatory, could or should it have been for Plato, Augustine, Locke, Rousseau or Marx who should have resiled from a vision of and for the future? How may we, if our vision is that of “a new Earth in which justice and peace embrace” (322)?

The acceptance of our depravity is a call not to fatalism but to being agents of Christ’s reconciliation of all things, wherein lies our hope, drawing us into our Kingdom future.

Yes, as Lambert says, “Philosophical wisdom must be more precise” (322). It must be philosophy that demolishes arguments and “take[s] captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), not allowing ourselves be taken captive “though hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). And it must strive for “Concrete wisdom [as] an embodied understanding of societal principles and their practical operation” (322). Wisdom, in Nicholas Maxwell’s apt phrase, is “the realisation of value” (in both senses of realisation). In other words, it must emerge in the course of history, through struggles and “clashes between societies and within them” (322). (Christian) philosophy must, like Israel, be embodied in the time-shifting history of our earthly creation and earthy bodily-ness; it must be incarnate, like our Lord and Saviour, who so prized the earth his Father had made to dwell among us and to rise bodily, with the promise he will return and we will rise bodily with him. And it must ever “glimpse the tree of healing within the cage of societal evil” (323).

As I have indicated, a Reformational worldview awakened me from my “doctrinal slumber” those decades past. In articles, lectures, classes, and books such as this, Lambert Zuidervaart has laboured conscientiously and philosophically in the context of this worldview, for which I offer my profound thanks.

Doug Blomberg was drawn to ICS by the pull of a Reformational vision of life, one of cosmic redemption. His dissertation was entitled "The Development of Curriculum with Relation to the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea", a deliberately vague description as he really did not know where it would take him. As it turned out, his career as a teacher, teacher educator and administrator, first of all in Australia, and for the past thirteen years in Canada, has been deeply informed and continually enriched by this tradition. He currently serves as President of ICS and Senior Member in Philosophy of Education. His other contribution to this symposium is called "A Living Philosophical Tradition of Redemptive Hope."


  1. Doug, I really resonate with this essay and the perspective and vision who have given the ICS family. If we are able to embody, manifest, incarnate, "live" the values, understandings, perspectives, and "grounded" connections between what we profess and believe, and with what we do with them in the real world in the making of communities to be a little more just, a little more peaceful, I would think we would be counted as "faithful servants," those who live with integrity and moral purpose, having connected our academic research and contemplation with meaningful action by way of the authentic practice of compassion in the world.

    1. Thank you, Clinton. May God, by his grace, indeed encourage and enable us to be "faithful servants', in our scholarship and teaching and in all the ways in which he calls us to serve. And may God forgive us our shortcomings.