Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

21 September 2003

All right, I admit it: I like Dooyeweerd

I freely admit that I find Dooyeweerd's philosophical paradigm useful for a normative understanding of God's world, and especially of the place of politics within it. As I see it, Dooyeweerd has made at least two unique contributions.

To begin with, he has developed a systematic philosophy rooted in the conviction that all theoretical thought has pre-theoretical and nonfalsifiable religious underpinnings. Any theory making a pretence to religious neutrality, whether on the grounds of a universal rational faculty within the person or on the basis of the objective nature of so-called facts in the surrounding world, must be seen for what it is: epistemologically naïve and unaware of its own dogmatic starting point. It is further rooted in a deficient anthropology that elevates one aspect of the total person and makes this the unifying factor of the human self.

Yet far from being an apparently neutral faculty, reason can be understood, according to Dooyeweerd, only as the logical aspect of our total experience. In this respect, faith and reason are not the dialectical polarities that much of the western intellectual tradition, from Averroës and Thomas Aquinas to Hobbes and Marx, has come to think of them. Rather they are two aspects of a much richer and fuller human experience. Any effort to account theoretically for this experience is necessarily dependent on an ultimate religious commitment lying outside of and preceding the theoretical enterprise.

Even the behavioural political scientist anchors her endeavour in religious convictions concerning the nature of humanity, of the world we inhabit, and of the place of politics in that world.

In the second place, Dooyeweerd’s philosophy eschews all reductionisms. Although this principled antireductionism is by no means peculiar to Dooyeweerd, his own contribution consists in (1) his placing this insight within the larger understanding that God’s creation is not a haphazard product of chance, but an orderly cosmos subject to laws and norms given by his grace; and (2) his effort to spell out those aspects of reality that are themselves irreducible but, if placed in an apostate religious context, nevertheless lend a certain plausibility to the reductionist project.

These irreducible aspects of reality are called modes, and the mature Dooyeweerd posits fifteen of these, listed here in ascending order: arithmetic (number), spatial, kinematic (extensive movement), physical (energy), biotic (organic life), psychic (feeling, sensation), logical, historical (cultural, formative), lingual (symbolic), social, economic, aesthetic, juridical (justice, retribution), ethical (temporal love, loyalty) and pistical (faith). The persistent tendency of nonchristian -- or perhaps nontheistic -- theoretical thought is, not only to fasten onto one or more of these modal aspects and to read the rest of creation through them, but to assume that doing so provides the key to understanding the world in its totality.

The difficulty with engaging one of these reductionisms in dialogue is due, not to the supposed irrationality of the reductionist, but to the fact that her enterprise accounts for all the evidence in a way that seems to be complete but is nevertheless missing something rather crucial. The convinced materialist can easily explain such complex phenomena as anger or even romantic affection by pointing to the movement of electrical impulses through the brain. And it is difficult to argue with such a person on her own ground.

I've always rather liked Ernst Lubitsch’s classic 1939 film, Ninotchka, which humorously illustrates the absurdity of Marxist-style materialism. To Melvyn Douglas’ amorous gestures, Greta Garbo’s Soviet functionary replies: "Why must you bring in the wrong values? Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological -- or, shall we say, chemical? -- process. A lot of nonsense is written about it." In Dooyeweerd’s language, she has effectively reduced a complex phenomenon, in which the psychical and ethical aspects are especially prominent, to the biotic or even the physical modalities.

In this respect, the materialist is similar to G.K. Chesterton’s "madman," who reasons in a way that combines logical completeness with spiritual contraction. If the madman argues that there is a universal conspiracy against him, and if you point out that everyone denies it, he is likely to reply that denial is exactly what one can expect from conspirators. "His explanation covers the facts as much as yours." As Chesterton memorably concludes, the madman is not the one who has lost his reason, but the one "who has lost everything except his reason."

Dooyeweerd would put the matter less colourfully perhaps, but he would agree that the materialist, who sees the entire cosmos through the narrow lenses of only one or two modal aspects, has missed the fulness of human life, if not experientially, at least theoretically.

One of the things I try to do in my book is to illustrate how the various political ideologies demand that we in effect suppress the fulness of our experience of the irreducible complexity of God's world. The answer to these ideologies is, not to come up with our own ideology -- with our own falsification of reality -- but simply to point people to the cosmos itself, and ultimately to the God who has created, redeemed and sustained it. Dooyeweerd's philosophy is not a substitute for this fulness of experience. One can live a perfectly fulfilling life without having read a sentence of Dooyeweerd's writings. But I find that they do help to illuminate our experience and to steer us away from those ideological approaches in which, as Vaclav Havel puts it, lies (or at least partial truths) masquerade as the (full) truth.

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