Christian Philosophy, Anyone?

Dooyeweerd gives expression, in a highly sophisticated and erudite way, to an inspiring vision of the world.

June 11 th 2010

I spent a week in May with about fifteen other people, reading and discussing key sections of a four-volume tome with the forbidding title A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. Most of those present confessed that they had great difficulty understanding the assigned passages, yet everyone agreed at the end that the week was a great success, and perhaps worth doing again.

What was remarkable about the group was its disciplinary diversity. Although almost everyone was an academic of some sort—either a professor or graduate student—there were very few philosophy specialists. Instead, the participants included professors of English, biblical studies, computer science, history, business, theology, psychology, and education, among others. It was a diverse interdisciplinary gathering.<//p>

What kind of philosophy could attract the interest of such a varied collection of intellectuals? The answer is that it was the philosophy of the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), whose disciplinary specialty was actually not philosophy at all, but jurisprudence. He taught for many years at the Free University of Amsterdam, the Christian university founded by Abraham Kuyper, the leader of the great revival of culturally engaged Calvinism known as neocalvinism.

Neocalvinism, the Christian tradition in which Comment also finds itself, has always given an important place to philosophy. In North America it has given birth to the remarkable renaissance of Christian philosophy associated with such names as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, both of whom were trained in the tradition of analytical philosophy that has long dominated the English-speaking world. Dooyeweerd, together with his colleague and brother-in-law D. H. T. Vollenhoven (1892-1978), preceded them in forging a distinctive philosophical school of thought in the Netherlands, where it was not analytical, but continental philosophy (including neokantianism, phenomenology, and existentialism) that was intellectually dominant. But both of these schools of Christian philosophical thought—the Dutch and the American—gave expression to some of the seminal insights of the tradition of neocalvinism, not least the resolute refusal to rule out faith from philosophy, and thus the emphatic denial of what Dooyeweerd called "the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought."

This basic insight led Dooyeweerd to construct, in dialogue with neokantianism and phenomenology, and in some ways parallel to existentialism, his famous "transcendental critique of theoretical thought," in which he sought to show that an analysis of the very structure of theoretical thought (including the kind of thinking that characterizes every academic discipline) shows it to be at bottom religious in character, willy-nilly committed to either the true Creator God or some idolatrous substitute in created reality. This breathtaking claim, which breaks with a core assumption of the entire western philosophical tradition (namely that philosophy and science is or ought to be religiously neutral) became the foundation for Dooyeweerd's own philosophical system, which frankly acknowledges the authority of the Christian scriptures.

This acknowledgement of scriptural authority was one significant reason why Christian academics in many different fields (most of them associated with Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario) were attracted to the thought of this abstruse Dutch philosopher. But there was much more. It was also the encyclopedic or interdisciplinary nature of his system of thought, which seeks in the grand style of an Aristotle or a Hegel to give a comprehensive account of the nature of reality, and thus to place the various academic disciplines within an overarching context which honors their interconnectedness. It was also the breadth and scope of a broad Christian perspective on the history of western thought since the Greeks, and a fundamental religious depth which relates everything to Jesus Christ as the root of a restored creation.

All of this is not to say that everyone was convinced or enthralled by every aspect of Dooyeweerd's philosophy. Many of the participants were out of sympathy with one of the core features of this philosophy (which might be called his anthropocentrism), which holds that all of creation relates to God via the human heart—a heart which in some ways is strongly reminiscent of the transcendental ego of Kantian philosophy. Others had significant concerns about the way Dooyeweerd uses (or does not use) the Bible. Does the Bible relate to philosophy only on the level of the three "trancendental ground ideas" as regards the origin, totality, and coherence of all things?

On the other hand, many of the participants were very favorably impressed by other features of Dooyeweerd's thought, such as his stress on the priority of concrete lived experience (what he calls "naïve experience") over the abstractions of theoretical thought, and on the related theory of object functions, which means, among other things, that my neighbour's lawn really is green and beautiful in an ontological sense. It isn't just that I as a human subject simply project such qualities onto something that is really nothing but physical atoms in motion.

Much of the credit for the success of the weeklong Dooyeweerd seminar I attended goes to Professor Craig Bartholomew, himself a biblical scholar and philosopher, who organized and chaired the sessions in his capacity as Principal of the Paideia Centre for Public Theology (which sponsored the event), and to Professor Henk Geertsema, retired philosophy professor from the Netherlands, who for many years held the Dooyeweerd chair of philosophy at the Free University, and who led the seminar. It was Geertsema's wide-ranging command of Dooyeweerd's thought, his astonishing virtuosity in explaining complex philosophical ideas in a language not his own, and his judicious assessment of what could be considered permanently valuable and what could be safely discarded in Dooyeweerd's thought that made the seminar an unforgettable learning experience for everyone who attended, even though they left the seminar with many unanswered questions and strong convictions about the unacceptability of this or that feature of Dooyeweerd's philosophy. What had become clear through the five days of intensive reading and discussion of this difficult but brilliant philosophy was that it gives expression, in a highly sophisticated and erudite way, to an inspiring vision of the world that is founded on the biblical witness to the comprehensive claims of Jesus Christ.

For readers interested in learning more about Dooyeweerd, I recommend L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd's Thought (ed. Bernard and Josina Zylstra; Edwin Mellen Press, 2002). A very brief and accessible introduction is found in Jonathan Chaplin and Brian Walsh, "Dooyeweerd's Contribution to a Christian Philosophical Paradigm," Crux 19 (1983) 8-22. There is also a lot of excellent material on the Internet; see especially the website "The Dooyeweerd Pages" maintained by Andrew Basden in the U.K.

Topics: Religion

Al Wolters is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Theology/Classical Languages at Redeemer University College. He served as a Senior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto from 1974-1984, received his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University of Amsterdam in 1972, and is the author of Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview.