Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dooyeweerd, Herman. In the Twilight of Western Thought.

Dooyeweerd’s thesis is that all attempts of doing philosophy apart from religious presuppositions are futile. Dooyeweerd exposes the would-be autonomy of modern man and traces the problem back to the Greeks. He examines aspects of the history of philosophy through the grid of Creation-Fall-ReCreation in Jesus Christ. In this I will attempt to highlight the most helpful aspects of Dooyeweerd’s thoughts and end with a few criticisms and points of clarification.

Man’s roots are essentially religious. There is not an area of life divorced from religious presuppositions. All worldviews[i] have a starting point. The consistent Christian starting point will be the living God who reveals himself; the alternative to this is man as the starting point and this position is autonomy. Dooyeweerd shows that man’s attempts at knowledge and doing philosophy from an autonomous base self-destruct. For man, having established his starting point with himself, can never rise above himself to offer a critique of his system. In short, he is absolutized the relative. He is guilty of “immanentist” philosophy. Dooyeweerd writes, “For this view [autonomy] implies that the ultimate starting point of philosophy should be found in this thought [theoretical?] itself. But due to the lack of a univocal sense, the pretended autonomy cannot guarantee a common basis to the different philosophical trends” (3). In other words, if man posits his own rationality as the starting point for knowledge, then he is left with the unbearable strain that he himself can account for all knowledge. In short, given his premises, to know anything he must know everything. And here is the straw that breaks the camel’s back—he doesn’t know everything and if he still maintains his original position, he cannot know anything![ii]
Dooyeweerd takes sharp issue with the Thomistic “grace-nature” view of creation. But to understand this, one must first understand his Creation-Fall-Redemption
Motif. This is the biblical story, according to Dooyeweerd. “As Creator God reveals himself as the absolute origin of all that is outside himself” (188); “The entire fall into sin can be summed up as a false illusion, which arose in the human heart, namely, that the human I has the same absolute existence as God himself” (190); “The redemption by Jesus Christ means the radical rebirth of our heart and must reveal itself in the whole of our temporal life” (191). The conclusion that Dooyeweerd draws from this motif, which takes us back to the issue of “grace restoring nature” is that our whole worldview must be Reformed along Christo-centric lines, abolishing all sinful and artificial dualisms.

Concluding Thoughts
I am not entirely convinced of Dooyeweerd’s modal scheme. Perhaps this is a fault on my part (or the translator!) or Dooyeweerd’s own writing style. Whatever the case may be, I am not ready to commend it to others. I also question whether is separation of theology from philosophy is valid. Dooyeweerd is arguing that philosophy establish the foundation of science (so far, so good) and theology as well (chs. 5-7). Philosophy should, he argues, establish a coherent structure for the temporal sciences, including theology. Not wanting his view of philosophy to fall prey to the damaging critiques he has given to autonomous thinking so far, he argues that philosophy should be controlled by the Word but not derived from the Bible. But as Greg Bahnsen points out:

“The verbal teaching of God's revealed word is subordinated to some controlling
authority outside of itself—and that actually runs contrary to the Bible's own
verbal teaching (Col. 1:18; 2 Cor. 10:5). The philosopher is placed in the
privileged position of laying down for the exegete how the Bible may and may not
be used, how its teachings must be broadly conceived, and what the Bible can and
cannot say. Reason becomes a vestibule for faith (believing truths of theology).
Philosophy is thereby rendered rationally autonomous, even if the philosopher's
"heart is gripped" by the power of God's word.[iii]

Even acknowledge this criticism, however, one can still appreciate Dooyeweerd’s valuable contributions. Dooyeweerd’s attack on autonomy is crucial and at points insightful. His “grace restoring nature” foundation is a much-needed corrective to a recent and quite odd Protestant fear of the created order. Lately, many Protestants have become functional Catholics in their view of matter. Indeed, there is a danger that an incipient Gnosticism has gripped many in the Reformed world. It is the prayer of many modern-day Calvinists to God to “make the world go away.” No longer does one hear the triumphant sound of defiance in the face of God’s enemies. Where are the men who urge, like Joshua and Caleb of old, to “take the land” for the enemies are in fear?
True, there are many legitimate faults in neo-Calvinism, especially their over-emphasis on the transformation of culture. This fault, however, is not a real danger to Reformed people today. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Of course, Rushdoony’s introduction to the book is alone worth the price of the book. [brief aside: Rushdoony in passing exposes a fatal tension to natural law theories: they are making a fallen world the source of norms.]

[i] While not entirely synonymous with Dooyeweerd and others, I am using “worldview” in the same category as “system.”
[ii] This is where Dr Van Til is so helpful. We must “reduce the unbeliever’s position to absurdity” and show that he is operating on “Christian capital.”
[iii] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis (Phillisburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1998), 50.