dimanche, juin 05, 2011

Letter to Alan: Postmodernism

"Rabbit" by Calum Colvin (2005)
             I see there is a growing number of post-modern theologians in the evangelical camp (Emerging Church) who believe we cannot get “outside” of language to touch reality. I am sure it is because they take Kant’s idea of the “thing in itself” as a given and marry it with Berger’s “social construction of reality”. It is as if they take half-truths and make them full truths and end up with a false vision. What do you think?

Hi Alan,
     A big discussion, as you know. I think the answer is "Yes"!

But to contribute slightly more...

     In Dooyeweerdian terms there is no "thing in itself". No unknowable "ding an sich". No Kantian division between unknowable "noumena" and knowable "phenomena" (which Kantian view has led to the current "fact/value" dichotomy whereby science (so-called) is presented as objective logically substantiated empirical "fact", while "religion" in contrast is deemed to be a subjective dogmatic assertion of "values". In Stephen J Gould's formulation the latter division is self-servingly portrayed as "non-overlapping magisteria" or "NOMA" - in other words both sides are compatible as long as neither intrudes into the other's domain (like shark and tiger). Darwinism thus annihilates creationism without even a whiff of argument needed because Darwinism is deemed to be objectively scientifically logically FACT-based, whereas creationism is subjectively non-rationally dogmatically VALUE-based. Darwinist science lays exclusive claim to the cosmos and logic. Christianity inhabits what is left! Christianity and particularly creationism are allowed to squat beyond that Pale of scientific civilization but must expect to be instantly gunned-down if they trespass within the compound of terra firma, ie of proven reality. Thus creationism is a matter for the RE class (subjective personal myths and values) only. It would be simply preposterous to allow utterance of such untestable unverifiable assertions within the Science class, which has arrived at its solid real-world Darwinist convictions by testable verifiable empirical logical objective scientific method. Jonathan Sarfati critiques Gould's view as follows -

     "(Gould’s NOMA) is based on the philosophically fallacious fact-value distinction, and is really an anti-Christian claim. For example, the Resurrection of Christ is an essential part of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:12–19), but it is also a matter of history; it passed the ‘testable’ claim that the tomb would be empty on the third day, and impinges on science because it demonstrated the power of God over so-called ‘natural laws’ that dead bodies decay, they do not return to life...This NOMA distinction really teaches that religion is just in one’s head, which seems to dull the senses of many Christians more than an overt declaration that Christianity is false. So this is even more dangerous."

     The schema of the "thing-in-itself" as a primary "unknowable" unchanging "substance" with "knowable" secondary properties which are subject to change (colour, taste, smell, sound etc) is completely rejected by Dooyeweerd as not just deriving from Kant but from Plato and Aristotle. This Hellenic Kantian viewpoint dominates modern evangelicalism because of a failure of the Reformation to critique and reject the (Thomistic) syncretic Scholasticism which has left us with a pietistic anti-world body-soul sacred-secular dichotomy. That the foregoing is indeed the case is clearly evident from the fact that most evangelical theological seminaries and the broad mass of individual evangelicals (perhaps the majority?) will argue for Darwinism against creationism (of course with the proviso that the Darwinist evolutionary process was somehow unfathomably "God-directed"). In other words evangelicals by and large will argue that Richard Dawkins is perfectly correct apart from his atheism. The actual factual science is deemed to be sound. The argument is just the "upstairs" one of whether or not there was a Divine hand mysteriously at work.

     Dooyeweerd rejects the notion of "substance" as the primary characteristic of "things". He insists that the defining characteristic of reality is not "substance" but rather "meaning". Meaning always refers beyond itself. The marks on the screen you are staring at just now "mean" something (I hope) because they refer beyond themselves to a higher complexity of reality (our shared language and thought). All things exhaustively refer to God, derive meaning from God. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. In Him we live and move and have our being. There is no "thing-in-itself" as raw brute otherness. According to Dooyeweerd there is God the "Meaning-Giver", and beyond Him there is ONLY given meaning. There is no OTHER meaning but that which flows from the Creator who is the source of all temporal reality. It is not that we have blank phenomenal "physicality" which is then "baptised" by God with metaphysical meaning. Physicality itself is an expression of meaning as it (physicality) exhaustively refers back to the Creator. 

     There is NO anchorage within time which can provide the concentration point or source of meaning for "things". The attempt to integrate experience around such an absolutized  temporal focus is the essence of apostasy and idolatry. And Dooyeweerd points out that any idol will eventually call into being its counter-idol. Hence the unbridgeable schisms between (Hellenistic) Form and Matter, (Thomistic) Nature and Grace, and (Humanistic) Nature and Freedom. The latter dichotomy (between natural scientific mechanistic "Law" and personal hedonistic "Freedom") is more and more apparent in contemporary secular society. Dawkins has essentially championed the Law-side (ie the "purposeless bio-chemical universals" side), but more recently he has tried to rescue human "freedom" from the omnivorous chemical machinery he champions. We can, by the way, also see the "Natural Mechanistic Law" versus the "Freedom of the Human Personality" split surfacing in movies with a "human freedom" versus "relentless machine" theme - the Terminator films, the Matrix films, and so on. Even the Alien films perhaps, since the insectoid alien is essentially a mindless genetic killing machine.   

     So in Dooyeweerdian terminology, Dawkins exemplifies the "Natural" (ie the "immutable Laws of Physics and Chemistry") side of the humanism. But (to reprise and expand a Rookmaaker metaphor) Dawkins has realized how this polarity of humanism is threatening not only to box himself in but also to turn him body and brain into boxwood. Our very bodies and minds must also be products of blind chemical processes. There can be NO free personality possible on that side of the tracks. No purpose. No choice. Only the universal acid of mindless chemistry. So more recently Dawkins finds need to escape from the box. We have apparently now reached a stage in our evolution, he says, when we have the unprecedented ability to "take charge" of our evolution. You can see how the other humanist polarity is kicking in here. But only marginally for Dawkins. He is still of course insistent that objectively-speaking there is no purpose, no good, no evil. There are only the values that we arbitrarily (subjectively) decide upon for ourselves. 

     Humanist Natural Law versus Humanist Personal Freedom. Richard Dawkins' "law" side of the polarization purports to integrate ALL of reality around absolutized "matter" (and "logic", though that can only be an emergent property of "matter"). For Dawkins, the (literal) matter of existence is exhaustively accounted for by Darwinism. And Darwinism is utterly a-teleological (ie devoid of purpose or design). Darwinism is thus the ontological meta-narrative. The "Big Story". Yet that postmodernist word "Story" is so inadequate and misleading. Inadequate, because the word might be misconstrued as allowing a measure of imaginative "made-up-ness" regarding Darwinism. Misleading, because it might suggest that Darwinism is simply the most plausible among competing stories. Which of course it is certainly not. Most damning of all, the word "Story" suggests an Author, and yet the non-negotiable premise of all science is that there is no Author. You know, better not to think of Darwinism as "Story" at all. "Story" is not "Scientific". "Story" belongs to... to.. the Arts. The subjective "humanities". Scientists by definition are NOT subjective. We need a term which speaks only of "Objectivity". Hmmm. I have it! What about "Description"? That's much better. That speaks only of the cataloging of empirical facts and of raw evidence. No distorting intrusions of subjectivity. 

     Those skeptical of Darwinism can of course tell at a glance that it is "Story". The ultimate "Success-Story". No question. So successful that it has long-since been elevated to the level of Paradigm. An internalized worldview. It is no longer fundamentally critiqued because it has become the fundament. It has become the precondition of critique. If we pause for a moment and ask ourselves what conceptual framework dominates Westernized civilization, global academia, global media (serious and populist), there is surely but one answer. Darwinism. Darwinism is the air we breath. And it is that very all-pervasiveness which lends power and plausibility to the Darwinist conceit that it is not "Story" but "Reality". It is not aprioristic front-loaded "interpretation" (wash out your mouth!), but diligently confirmed scientific "description". 
     OK. So what does the Darwinist description boil down to? “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, R., "God’s Utility Function", Scientific American 273(5):62–67, November 1995). 

TS Eliot was so prescient -
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
("The Hollow Men", 1925)

     Post-modernism, in its turn is, I think, one face of the humanist "free personality" counter-idol. It turns from the totalitarian mechanistic "objectivity" of modern science, and instead asserts a totalitarian personalistic "subjectivity".  There IS no "Big Story" (or if there is it is beyond our reach, beyond our apprehension). All we have is our own personal short stories. Our own highly limited personal encounter with existence. If we remember the old parable of the seven blind Hindus bumping into an elephant. One thought it was like a wall, one like a snake, one like a piece of string, one like a spear, one like a tree-trunk. All true in a limited way - true as small stories. All remiss as the "Big Story". 
     And words are violence. Words assert one small narrative against all the other (equally valid) narratives. Exclusivism is universalism. That is bad. It is bad because it is presumptuous and intolerant. And moreover it is ridiculous, because (as we post-modernists now know) we cannot truly know. And that is irony. And thus irony becomes the only legitimate register for enlightened communication. The irony of always knowing that your statements contradict your knowledge that statements cannot truly be made. So self-parody is a must when you speak, or when you produce art (cf Calum Colvin). Otherwise you are arbitrarily "privileging" one view over another. You are in danger in effect of positing a universal. That is seriously out of order since we ironically know the universal truth that universals are invalid by definition. It can be seen immediately that Dawkins will be angrily at variance with this view, although it is as humanist as his own. He will be angry because he espouses the scientific (materialist) "universals" of physics and chemistry and biology. So, unsurprisingly, post-modernists really get up Professor Dawkins' nose. Almost as much, so it seems, as do theists and creationists:

     I in fact detect a whiff of unconscious irony from Dawkins himself in the fore-mentioned article. At least I smiled inside as I read:

"Apparently, when you've become the establishment, it ceases to be funny when somebody punctures the established bag of wind."
     So if Dawkins is absolutizing the logical and bio-physical Dooyeweerdian modalities, where is post-modernism going wrong? I might suggest post-modernism is absolutizing the "lingual (symbolic)" and "historical (formative)" modalities. By reducing experience to the "lingual (symbolic)" everything thereby "refers" to something else. But there is no "something else" which is not itself referring in its turn to "something else"! So we end up with an all-encompassing maelstrom of signposts (or hyperlinks) which point only to other sign-posts. And to "privilege" one signpost over another is an existential faux pas. This lingual relativism is further compounded by historicistic relativism. Post-modernism, by reducing all of experience ultimately to the "historical (formative)" sphere, thereby repudiates and outlaws all "universals", since a universal, to remain universal, must transcend the shifting sands of time. 

     It is interesting to note the fashionable cosmological notion of a "multiverse" as opposed to a universe. Our own universe is in this context reduced to only one of countless equally legitimate variations of itself. What makes us think this local "reality" (or universe) has any more claim to validity than the universe next door where things fall up the way? Our sense of being in any kind of "special" ("God-given") place is being constantly eroded. The Big Bang cosmology arbitrarily asserts that the universe is "unbounded" and thus our galaxy is nowhere special. That is dogma. If a "bounded" universe is assumed, then there are indications that our galaxy does in fact occupy a favoured central-ish location. We find the implications of the post-modernist view in the screenplay for example of Quentin Tarantino films - "Pulp Fiction" and especially "Reservoir Dogs". An event has occurred. What happened? We don't know exactly. We only have Mr Blue's subjective account and Mr Pink's subjective account, and so on. In the recent Di Caprio film "Inception" we find again a plot involving (Matrix-plus) onion-layers of narrative until you have to really think hard to decide what "reality" is or was. And at the end you are left wondering whether you've even got it right. 

     So (in summary) from a Dooyeweerdian perspective, humanism (in both its polarizations) is centrally flawed because it attempts to make some aspect of temporal experience the integration point of all existence. It attempts to find the basis of meaning, of logic, of language etc within created reality instead of looking to the only source of all meaning, the living God who inhabits eternity. Our anchorage is within the supratemporal "veil" (Hebrews 6:17-20).

     Van Til insists that humans encounter the face of God in every fact. Nature is in no way a brute otherness. Nature is exhaustively and continuously revelatory of the Triune God. Romans 1 tells us that the invisible attributes of God are clearly perceived in the things that are made, so we are without excuse in our unbelief. And since we are made in God's image, we in a sense discover ourselves in nature as in a mirror. That's how Attenborough gets away with it. There is human self-identification at work when nature is viewed, and so we are drawn into the spectacle with him, discovering ourselves as we discover the animals. But all the while he (I think quite calculatedly) suppresses any recognition of God's face in nature. In Van Til's terms I suspect he is "epistemologically self-conscious". A consummate propagandist for his Godless view of "reality".

     In fact, when it comes down to it, I guess I am not sure about this "reality" word, particularly if we conceive of it as "something in itself". I follow Dooyeweerd in that. I am wondering if only God is "reality". Could it be that humans only truly touch "reality" when that touch is as if touching the hem of His garment...?  
"Derrida, Van Til and the Metaphysics of Postmodernism: An Essay" by Jacob Gabriel Hale (2004)

The overall goal in what is attempted here is to define the postmodern dilemma as not so much an epistemological crisis, but rather an ontological one as it is revealed in the thought of Derrida. By placing the debate around the issue of ontology, I believe the church has much to say to those secular thinkers who have recognized and admitted the inherent bankruptcy that western philosophy has produced. To those prophets of demise, whom we call postmodernists, I give them Cornelius Van Til. 
The most popular misunderstanding of Derrida is that he attempts to destroy any notion of objective truth... Instead of trying to deny the possibility of objective reality, Derrida wants to point out the deep complications that arise when one considers how words relate to the world outside of us.
Therefore, the thrust of Derrida’s thought is to challenge the idea of an impersonal, abstract, indefinable being that grounds knowledge, meaning and language. Derrida asserts that the history of western thought has presupposed a kind of empirical dogmatism in which naïve metaphysical assumptions have served as the foundation of meaning. It is precisely at this point, in regards to the metaphysical and ontological notions of western philosophy, that Derrida’s philosophy has to be understood... For Derrida, the metaphysical and ontological notions that have served as the foundation for knowledge throughout the history of western philosophy are arbitrary and superstitious.... According to Derrida, words do not derive their meaning from a logos or the presence of objects in our consciousness. Rather, words find their meaning in other words which in turn derive their meaning from other words.... Meaning as such has no outside foundation and is constantly in flux. Because signs refer to other signs and meaning is decided instantly by the interpreting subject, meaning is constantly changing, thus doing constant violence to the text. Therefore, interpretation is said, by postmodernists like Derrida, to consist of a continuous inescapable cycle of subjects doing violence to both words and objects as they continually re-make and redefine them according to their own personal image.... For Derrida, deconstruction is a basic element in all of language. It is the revealing of the process of meaning, knowledge and thought crumbling under its foundationless-ness. According to Derrida, all language should be allowed to deconstruct so that its usages and meanings cannot be used to empower its users of others... Derrida asserts that meaning is not grounded in metaphysics or an ontological foundation at all, but rather is inter-linguistic, where words and signs constantly change and negotiate meaning. This is perhaps the most important feature of Derrida’s thought for our discussion. 
Given this definition of the postmodern project, how then should the church respond? Should we, with Derrida, triumphantly announce the death of western metaphysics, or should we resist this idea, and work to show that the modern vision of epistemology and ontology should be maintained. More often than not, the latter has been the choice among most Christian thinkers and apologists. In these cases, efforts have been aimed at proving the existence of certain abstract principles, which in turn ground knowledge objectively. Among these principles are the law of non-contradiction, causality, the general reliability of sense experience, reason, etc. For many Christian apologists, these principles must be maintained in order to keep knowledge from collapsing into a quagmire of relativism. However, one of the problems of this approach is that it achieves nothing more than reasserting the same modernistic notions that postmodernism rejects. Therefore, no constructive gains are made in dialogue. 

What then should be our approach? It is my contention that postmodernism has done the church a great service in illuminating the inherent bankruptcy of secular thought in general. Though it might appear tempting to reassert modernistic foundations in the face of postmodernism, we must not forget the great harm modernistic thought has done to the church for centuries. As Christians we should maintain that though God gives common grace to the pagan, there can be no cogent philosophy of life that does not swear allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus Christ... For Derrida, meaning is inter-lingual and has no outside referent because that which is outside of us is meaningless in-itself. This is the entire thrust of Derrida’s thought. Therefore, our task is to combat modernity and postmodernism with a re-examined ontology and metaphysic. 

It is here that we shall now turn to Cornelius Van Til. Though much of postmodernism postdates the bulk of Van Til’s intellectual enterprise, much of Van Til’s thought is directly applicable to some concerns that postmodernism has raised... Through his analysis of western thought, Van Til shows how philosophy after philosophy deconstructs itself into irrationalism. 
For Van Til, all “things” consist of being related to God’s nature. Therefore, any arbitrary notion of ‘substance’, ‘essence’, ‘logos’, or ‘being in general’ as the ontological foundation of “things” is false. As we have seen, if any of these were the ontological foundation of reality than nihilism would ensue. Rather, ontologically speaking, the being of God is revealed in all things; therefore all things are inherently meaningful including mankind’s own constitution and therefore are actively revelatory in revealing God’s being. So for Van Til, the history of philosophy has gone wrong in asserting a metaphysical understanding of reality that is impersonal, abstract, and inherently meaningless. 

The significance of Van Til’s ontology will become more evident as we look at how it grounds epistemology...  which distances him from what is termed natural theology. According to Van Til, the knowledge of God is not inferred, induced, deduced, or derived from any sort of evidence, fact or observation. Rather, the knowledge of God is immediately apprehended at the moment of consciousness. In Husserlean terms, the knowledge of God is immediately “present”, and “given.” Unlike others, who call themselves classical apologists, Van Til maintains that our knowledge of God does not come from an argument from facts and evidences. Based on Romans 1 this cannot be the case because, as Bahnsen points out, there are some who do not have the cognitive abilities to reason in this manner. Yet, according to Paul, they still know God. Because the knowledge of God is immediately present to us through that which is made (both nature and self), Paul can say with confidence that in knowing God’s acts (both nature and self) we truly “know him.”... [Footnotes: This is expressed in Van Til’s own words, “The cosmos-consciousness, the self-consciousness, and the God-consciousness would naturally be simultaneous.”... According to VanTil, the knowledge of God must be known before any functions of the mind can be consciously distinguished....Therefore, it is impossible to reason from abstract principles to God. Rather, the ability to even recognize relations in things and therefore identify principles is proof itself that the knowledge of God is known.] 
In other words, rather than asserting that knowledge is grounded in reason, sensory experience and causality, Van Til asserts that reason, sensory experience and causality are in themselves grounded in God...  In other words, the knowledge of God, according to Van Til, is not a simple proposition in which other propositions are justified. Rather, the knowledge of God is the necessary-transcendental precondition for all other knowledge.
Words as signs are inherently meaningful because that which constitutes them are our experiences as meaningful human beings living in a meaningful world with other meaningful human beings. In other words because God is continuously revealing himself in all things, including ourselves, our representation of things in signs is inherently packed full of meaning. For Derrida this is not possible because metaphysically speaking, there is nothing ‘outside’ of us that is inherently meaningful. However, for Van Til, this is not only possible, but the contrary is impossible due to the revelatory ontology of all nature and the self. The “center” therefore, is outside of language and is grounded in the infinite personal God. Along these lines Van Til writes that, “Being from the outset covenantal, the natural revelation of God to man was meant to serve as the playground for the process of differentiation that was to take place in the course of time." Unlike Derrida, Van Til is able to say that creation, not language, is the playground of meaning, because God is immediately present in all creation and therefore in all the contents of our consciousness... If this ontology of nature, the human self and language as divine self revelation is accepted, then this takes the epistemological dilemma posed by Derrida and turns it on its head. Instead of asking the question, ‘how is meaning possible?’, the question becomes how is meaning not possible?
Van Til has said nothing new to us. He simply stands in the midst of all secular thinkers, whether modern or postmodern, and reminds them that it is in God and God alone that we “live, move and have our being.”
"Imagination, Image of God and Wisdom of God: Theosophical Themes in Dooyeweerd's Philosophy" (or 141 pages pdf) by Dr. J. Glenn Friesen 

Extracts from Introduction -
The Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) is more relevant today than ever before. Postmodernism is questioning the validity of modernism’s rationalistic and dualistic thought. It attempts to fully temporalize all of humanity’s existence and concerns, and it rejects any role of the transcendent. And in its emphasis on our historical constructs of reality, postmodernism has relativized all values, leaving both our everyday praxis and our theoretical thought without any foundations. Postmodernism is acutely aware of this lack of foundations. A key postmodern theme has been the discovery of what many call a post-critical (or post-liberal) position concerning the possibility of a re-enchantment of life and of the cosmos, based, in part, on a hermeneutics of retrieval. But just what is it that postmodernism is seeking to retrieve? And how do we re-enchant our world after the devastation to the foundations caused by the hermeneutics of suspicion?
I believe that Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, and in particular his ideas of imagination, help us to answer these questions. For Dooyeweerd, our acts of imagination do not only play a role in our aesthetic and artistic creations. Imagination is also fundamental to our act of perceiving the world, and to both our pre-theoretical and our theoretical knowledge. In our acts of imagination, we retrieve the wisdom of the past, a wisdom that reflects God’s Wisdom or Sophia. This is therefore an answer to one problem posed by postmodernism.
Our acts of imagination are also involved in our cultural formation of the world–when we realize and form that which has previously existed only as “figure” and not as reality. In our acts of imagination we find the figure, and in our cultural formation, we literally real-ize the figure, making the temporal world real in its fullest sense. Is this not the re-enchantment of the world that postmodernism is seeking? Dooyeweerd himself speaks of a ‘spiritualizing-through’ [doorgeestelijking] of temporal reality, and of man’s purpose to illuminate from within [doorlichten] all of temporal reality so that the supratemporal fullness of meaning shines through it (see discussion below).
Like postmodern philosophers, Dooyeweerd also opposes the rationalism of modernism and its various dualisms. He rejects the modernist dualism between a material body and rational soul, and the rationalism at the basis of such a dualism. Dooyeweerd also rejects the irrationalism that results from inverting such a dualism in order to elevate the body (or feelings, or aesthetics) over rationality. And he vigorously opposes any other dualisms where one aspect of temporal creation is elevated over the other aspects. He rejects even the idea of substance, since it is an improper absolutization of the physical aspect of our experience.
Dooyeweerd’s understanding of perception is one of his most astounding ways of overcoming dualism. He rejects the empirical and phenomenological assumptions of a dualism between an independent observing subject and an independent object. Our experience is not of independent things, but of “individuality structures” that depend on man for their full realization and individuality. And the process of perception is a subject-object relation that occurs within the modal aspects of temporal reality, in a nondual act of perception.
But Dooyeweerd’s opposition to modernism and to dualism does not mean that Dooyeweerd is a postmodernist. For, in contrast to postmodernism, Dooyeweerd maintains the importance of the transcendent, especially of our supratemporal selfhood and of its relation to the temporal cosmos. And he maintains the importance of God’s law, both in its central supratemporal form of love and in its temporal diversity, a law that provides the foundation for our existence, experience and theoretical thought. Dooyeweerd’s law-Idea [Wetsidee], together with his Ideas of cosmic time and the supratemporal selfhood, form the basis of his philosophy. I will compare this law-Idea to the idea of God’s Wisdom or Sophia.
Dooyeweerd distinguishes God’s eternity from the supratemporal aevum or created eternity. And both eternity and aevum are distinguished from the cosmic time of our world. Our selfhood is supratemporal, but we are also “fitted into” temporal reality by our temporal body or what Dooyeweerd calls our ‘mantle of functions’ [functiemantel]. I will discuss this in more detail. But in making this distinction between selfhood and temporal mantle, Dooyeweerd is not introducing another dualism. Our selfhood is not one of our temporal functions. It is not, for example, merely our rational function. It is the supratemporal center, or heart, out of which all of our temporal functions proceed and are expressed.
Dooyeweerd says that a proper understanding of our supratemporal selfhood is tied to proper knowledge of God (eternity) and of the temporal cosmos (cosmic time). We cannot understand God, self or cosmos except in an interrelated way.
Dooyeweerd’s emphasis on our supratemporal selfhood is a kind of mysticism. It is not a mysticism of identity with God, or any kind of pantheistic mysticism. It is a nondual mysticism, emphasizing our total dependence on God. We are “from, through, and to” God as our Origin [3]. Although the correspondence is not exact, I have compared this to panentheism.
Nor is Dooyeweerd’s mysticism to be interpreted as a spiritualizing flight from the world. Although for Dooyeweerd our world is fallen, broken, and in need of redemption, we should not seek to escape from it. Rather, our task is to assist in the working out of its redemption, for this is the purpose for which we were created. As we shall see, this emphasis fits with theosophy’s emphasis on discovering the structures within temporal reality instead of escaping from temporal reality.
Dooyeweerd criticizes modernism by (1) transcendent criticism from his own perspective (2) immanent criticism, showing modernism’s internal inconsistencies and dualisms, even based on its own assumptions and (3) a transcendental critique based on the conditions that make possible any kind of theoretical thought.
But Dooyeweerd’s transcendental critique depends on his view that every philosophy needs to account for itself in terms of three transcendental Ideas: the Ideas of (a) Origin, (b) totality, and (c) temporal coherence. From a Christian perspective, these three transcendental Ideas correspond to (a) God (as Origin), (b) selfhood (as supratemporal religious root, fallen and redeemed in Christ, the New Root, in Whom we participate), (c) and cosmos (for Dooyeweerd, cosmos is only the temporal part of creation).
To the extent that postmodernism has given up trying to answer these three transcendental questions, Dooyeweerd’s transcendental critique of postmodernism will not be convincing. Many postmodernists deny not only any need to discuss an origin, but also deny any idea of totality, especially a supratemporal totality like Dooyeweerd’s view of the selfhood. Indeed, much of postmodernism denies any identity of the selfhood at all, preferring to see it as a construct of many diverse and fragmented experiences. But perhaps some postmodernists will be willing to look at these issues again in the light of Dooyeweerd’s views on imagination.
So although Dooyeweerd opposes modernism, he is not himself a postmodernist. I suggest that he is a pre-modernist, one who has returned to philosophical roots that pre-date modernism. A postmodernist will object that it is not possible to return to pre-modernism. Do we not have to first follow the hermeneutics of suspicion before we can attempt a retrieval of the past? But Dooyeweerd’s approach is different. His philosophy seeks to cut off such unfruitful and dead-end thinking at its root. We do not have to first agree with the ideas of the autonomy of thought, and of the temporalization of our existence, in order to then reach the despairing realization that these are dead ends. For if those ideas are adopted, no positive retrieval will be possible. Our views of God, self and cosmos will remain dis-enchanted. But in criticizing modernism, Dooyeweerd has not evaded it. From out of his pre-modern roots, he has gone through modernism and beyond it, not adopting it, but criticizing it using its own tools of thought. He has anticipated the concerns and the problematics of postmodernism, but he has provided answers that are very different.
So my suggestion that Dooyeweerd is a pre-modernist should not be misunderstood. He is not a pre-modernist in the sense of Protestant fundamentalism. For fundamentalism, with its emphasis on rational propositional truth, is itself a form of modernism. Dooyeweerd criticizes those who seek to use the Bible as a textbook for philosophy.
Nor should Dooyeweerd’s pre-modernism be understood as a return to the kind of Catholicism that regards philosophy as the handmaiden of theology. Dooyeweerd rejects all attempts by the Church to control theoretical thought. For Dooyeweerd, theology is itself a theoretical discipline that depends on philosophical assumptions. And not even philosophy is ultimate, since it, too is theoretical, and relies on the givenness of our pre-theoretical experience. Philosophy attempts to theoretically “give an account” of our pre-theoretical experience, but that experience always remains primary. Dooyeweerd’s philosophy is experiential, but not in the subjectivistic sense of ‘Erlebnis,’ but in a sense of a conscious ‘Hineinleben’– a conscious experience of the relation of our supratemporal selfhood to the temporal world (NC II, 474-475). Our supratemporal selfhood is at the root of all our experience; we discover it in what Dooyeweerd calls an act of ‘religious self-reflection.’
So Dooyeweerd is not a modernist, nor a postmodernist, nor a Biblicist or fundamentalist, nor a philosopher whose thought is confined within a particular theology. Does Dooyeweerd’s pre-modern philosophy fit into any tradition at all? Elsewhere, I have shown how Dooyeweerd’s key ideas situate his philosophy within an existing tradition. This is the Wisdom tradition, or Christian theosophy, best exemplified in the philosophy of Franz von Baader (1765-1841), who also criticized modernism, using terminology and arguments very similar to the ones that Dooyeweerd used a hundred years later.