Friday, June 03, 2016

Dooyeweerd, Truth, and the Reformational Tradition

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.

Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation begins and ends with attempts at critically retrieving crucial insights from the first generation of reformational philosophy. In this last post I respond primarily to commentaries on such attempts in the book’s Introduction, Part One, and Epilogue. Because of topical relationships, however, I also take up Peter Lok’s and Allyson Carr’s commentaries on chapter 10 and 14, respectively, having already discussed Bob Sweetman’s commentary on chapter 2 in a previous post.


Temporality and Spirituality

In response to the Introduction, 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.[1]

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.”

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Philosophy Art, and Religion

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.

The pioneering contributions of Hendrik Hart and Calvin Seerveld when I studied at ICS in the 1970s have shaped all of my work since then. I hold Henk and Cal in the highest esteem, both as scholars and as persons. That has not stopped me from sometimes disagreeing with them, however, or from taking their contributions in directions they would not have taken. So my essays on second-generation reformational philosophy in Part Two have particular significance, especially for my ongoing work in truth theory. That might help explain why the current post, in response to commentaries on Part Two, is a little longer than my previous two posts. At stake, for me, are the philosophical character and contemporary tasks of reformational philosophy.

Totality and Mystery

My colleague Ron Kuipers raises questions concerning the philosophical character of discussions about “ultimate beliefs and conceptions of divinity.” Specifically, he wonders about my “seeming insistence that critical intellectual discussion” of such matters “must be or is always ‘philosophical’ in nature”—why couldn’t it be theological or sociological, for example? I can quickly set readers at ease on this score. I do not think such discussions must be philosophical. My point in the chapter “God, Law, and Cosmos” (chapter 6) is more delimited. It has to do with what one can expect of such discussions when they occur in a philosophical book written by a philosopher and when they do significant philosophical work. Perhaps Kuipers does not think one should have such expectations—he describes “philosophical” as “just another kind of writing, with its own virtues and vices.” But if it is a kind of writing, and if it has its own virtues and vices, then one can at least ask how philosophical writing differs from other kinds of writing, and what its virtues and vices are. If one takes a position on such questions, one will have definite expectations about the sorts of discussions that occur in a philosophical book written by a philosopher and that do significant philosophical work.

Kuipers himself calls attention to the “totalitarian pretensions of philosophical discourse,” and he shares Hendrik Hart’s suspicions about them. Kuipers also shares Hart’s desire to leave room for mystery, although he says we can experience mystery in language. To describe philosophical discourse as having “totalitarian pretensions” is to conflate two different issues, however. One issue has to do with the scope and methods of philosophical inquiry. On this issue I agree with Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven, and much of the Western philosophical tradition that philosophy properly studies all of creation, and it does so in a comprehensive and theoretically vigorous way. It should do so, I think, with a view both to inquiries and findings in other disciplines and to issues and challenges in society and daily life. In this sense, philosophy is what one could call a “totality discipline.” There is nothing improper or dangerous about that. Indeed, Hart’s Understanding Our World takes a similar stance on the tasks of philosophy in general and of ontology in particular.

The second issue raised by calling philosophical discourse “totalitarian” pertains to the finality and power philosophers have assigned to their work—which, to be sure, can be both ideologically loaded and idolatrous in spirit. Like Kuipers and Hart, I have little patience for illegitimate pretensions to absolute knowledge in philosophy. Yet I do think exposing such pretensions and offering an alternative, one that embraces philosophy’s traditional aspirations to be a totality discipline, are crucial contributions for reformational philosophers to make. For this, playing Wittgensteinian language games or engaging in Rortian edification will not suffice.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Toward a New Politics

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.

Whereas Jonathan Chaplin’s two posts on Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation raise crucial conceptual issues in reformational social philosophy, many of the other posts on Part Three and the Epilogue raise important questions about political possibilities and implications, from Ben Fulman’s concerns about civil society, to Clinton Stockwell and Ruthanne Crapo’s reflections on cultural pluralism, Farshid Baghai’s reservations about the politics of “patient hope,” and Michael DeMoor’s issues concerning the politics of science. Let me take up each of these in turn.




Civil Society
 
Approaching chapter 13 from a different intellectual tradition than Jonathan Chaplin, Ben Fulman sees here “the blueprints for the future of critical theory.” What he especially appreciates, in relation to the successive generations of critical theory (from Theodor Adorno through Rainer Forst, one could say), is my combining an emphasis on the transformative potential of civil society with a call for normative critique and redirection of economic and political systems. In this combination he sees the potential for both emancipatory theory and emancipatory praxis. Fulman wonders, however, how agencies in civil society (he mentions art in particular) can stand up to new “nationalistic spirits” that “suffocate any opposing voices” and how civil society can “withstand attacks” from the administrative state, or from the proprietary economy, for that matter.

I have tried to identify “systemic pressures” on the arts (and, more broadly, on civil society) in my book Art in Public, where I also tell the story of one arts organization—the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan—that has tried to negotiate these pressures while promoting a social economy and democratic communication.[1] The story I tell presupposes a setting where civil-societal organizations are relatively robust, where there is a mixed economy (i.e., the economy is not simply proprietary and not simply governmental and also not simply a combination of these two), and where, in at least a modest fashion, the state supports and protects agencies in civil society (e.g., through tax policies and copyright laws). Typically, countries driven by a nationalist spirit or under a dictatorial regime are not like that. Nevertheless, efforts in such countries to counter nationalism or dictatorship require proto-civil-societal agencies, for example in the arts, education, and the media, where resistance and new social visions can take shape. One could see this take place during the so-called Arab Spring, despite the repression that has followed within many countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Perhaps the larger worry in Western countries is that too many agencies in civil society buy into the “objectives” of economic and political systems—on which, of course, they depend—and too many economic and political leaders fail to understand the normative roles of the civic sector and the public sphere in a life-giving society. That provides a larger background to the current Western “crisis in the humanities” and the degeneration of public debate into a bizarre brew of ideological attacks and celebrity politics. And yet; and yet … I remain convinced that such tendencies are not irreversible; that people and institutions can change; and that educators, artists, and public figures—including religious leaders—can make a difference in how society is organized and in the direction society heads. Indeed, as Fulman demonstrates, and as Sweetman notes in his response to Fulman’s post, the architectonic critique sketched in chapter 13 and painted more fully in other writings is not a merely theoretical exercise: it is praxis oriented. Further, because the critique is praxis oriented, ongoing work in social psychology is required, as Fulman indicates, and as Adorno and the Frankfurt School also understood.

I remain convinced that such tendencies are not irreversible; that people and institutions can change; and that educators, artists, and public figures—including religious leaders—can make a difference in how society is organized and in the direction society heads.