ROOTS OF WESTERN CULTURE:
Pagan, Secular, and
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"This book belongs in the library of every thoughtful Christian who is struggling to understand contemporary issues."
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ROOTS OF WESTERN CULTURE seeks to provide for the general public an outline of the cultural unfolding of the Western tradition that goes to the very heart of its seemingly perpetual conflicts. The successive stages of its development, Dooyeweerd insists, from its Hellenic beginnings to the present post-modern confusion, are all driven by root religious commitments about what constitutes the fundamental origin of meaning. He further insists that four religious ground motives have controlled the development of western culture, three of which display irreconcilable conflicts that account for the chronic struggles that emerge from the continual swing from one pole of these ground motives to the other. He first examines the Greek ground motive of “form” and “matter”, then the Scriptural ground motive of creation, fall, redemption and renewal (the only ground motive that displays no inner conflict), the Thomistic ground motive of “nature” and “grace” that seeks to combine the latter two, and the modern humanistic ground motive of "nature" and "freedom". Dooyeweerd is adamant that “one cannot penetrate to the core of today’s questions…until one sees which religious forces have been operative in our culture, and understands how these forces have been central in the resolution of life’s practical problems.” This book belongs in the library of every thoughtful Christian who is struggling to understand contemporary issues.
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"A Ladder out of the Quicksand"
Review by Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh of:
"Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular and Christian Options" by Herman Dooyeweerd
(Paideia Press, Canada, 2012. $7.50 / £6.50)
"Roots of Western Culture" is one of the most accessible of Herman Dooyeweerd's books. It originally appeared in the Netherlands, post-1945, as a series of articles addressed to a non-specialist readership. Dutch society was struggling back to its feet after the massive communal concussion of Nazi occupation. There was now a call for divergent pre-war viewpoints - Christian, Humanist, Marxist etc - to syncronise at this critical time of reconstruction (remembering also resistance cooperation). In response to this laudable yet simplistic appeal Dooyeweerd constructively investigates the taproots of the Christian and Humanist worldviews.
Humanism had indeed (by God's "common grace") made important contributions to civilization. It remained, nonetheless, a misdirected ("apostate") Faith, riven and driven by an insuperable inner dichotomy. One of its mutually opposing polarities was rationalistic. It absolutized mechanistic (cause-and-effect) natural law. The other polarity was irrationalistic, absolutizing free (lawless) personality. Dooyeweerd identified this "Nature-Freedom" dualism as Humanism's defining "ground-motive". No reconciling synthesis is forthcoming since this split is not due to (potentially negotiable) impartial discrepancies in theory, but to a deep-level dynamic of communal consciousness which guarantees the bi-polarity of Humanist theorization. How so? Because both polarities paradoxically depend on each other for existence. Why? Because the absolutization of any "aspect" of temporal reality automatically summons its counter-absolute (compare an optical after-image) as reality resists disequilibrium:
Following the example of the mathematical and natural sciences, earlier humanistic theory had always searched for the universally valid laws that control reality. It constructed an "eternal order of natural law" out of the "rational nature of humankind." This order was totally independent of historical development, and was valid for every nation at all times and in all places. The earlier rationalistic humanism displayed little awareness of the individual traits of peoples and nations. All individual things were regarded as mere instances or examples of a universal rule and were reduced to a universal order. This reduction highlights the rationalistic tendency of this type of humanistic thought. But as a result of the polarity of its religious ground-motive, humanism veered to the other extreme after the French Revolution. Rationalistic humanism (in its view of mathematics and modern natural science) turned into irrationalistic humanism, which rejected all universally valid laws and order. It elevated individual potential to the status of law. Irrationalistic humanism was not inspired by the exact mathematical and natural sciences but by art and the science of history. Art revealed the "genius" and uniqueness of individuality. "Romanticism", which for a time dominated western culture during the Restoration period after Napoleon's fall, was the source of the view of reality defended by the Historical School. (pp 51,52)
Dooyeweerd's insight that a "Nature versus Freedom" dualism defines Humanism is persuasively confirmed by its remarkable explanatory power, not just in relation to high philosophy but to all reaches of culture and society. In this book, he extensively explores its repercussions in regards to science, politics, sociology etc. As the preceding quote reminds us, it is evident in the historical cultural tension between Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. Again, we can readily see in our day how the Neo-Darwinist narrative asserts the Natural Law polarity, while Postmodernism ("no meta-narrative") champions the Free Personality polarity. At a popular level, "mechanistic-law" versus "human-freedom" is the plot of major movies such as the Terminator and Matrix trilogies and, only slightly less obviously, in films like "Fight Club". And so on.
To further elucidate Humanism's "Nature-Freedom" binarity, Dooyeweerd identifies and discusses three preceding "ground-motives":
To further elucidate Humanism's "Nature-Freedom" binarity, Dooyeweerd identifies and discusses three preceding "ground-motives":
The religious ground-motives in the development of western civilization are basically the following:1. The "form-matter" ground-motive of Greek antiquity in alliance with the Roman power motive (imperium).2. The scriptural ground-motive of the Christian religion: creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit.3. The Roman Catholic ground-motive of "nature-grace", which seeks to combine the two mentioned above.4. The modern humanistic ground motive of "nature-freedom", in which an attempt is made to bring the three previous motives to a religious synthesis concentrated upon the value of human personality. (p15)
Editor D.F.M Strauss includes a diagram listing the aspects (or "law-spheres"). This could usefully be pondered before reading the book. The aspects are preconditions, not products, of theory:
Created reality displays a great variety of aspects or modes of being in the temporal order. These aspects break up the spiritual and religious root unity of creation into a wealth of colours, just as light refracts into the hues of the rainbow when it passes through a prism. Number, space, motion, organic life, emotional feeling, logical distinction, historical development of culture, symbolic signification, social interaction, economic value, aesthetic harmony, law, moral valuation, and certainty of faith comprise the aspects of reality. They are basically the fields investigated by the various modern special sciences: mathematics, the natural sciences (physics and chemistry), biology (the science of organic life), psychology, logic, history, linguistics, sociology, economics, aesthetics, legal theory, ethics or moral science, and theology which studies divine revelation in Christian and non-Christian faith. (pp 41,42)
As to the number of creational aspects, the consensus is fifteen. Aspects are irreducible to each other (hence the term "sphere-sovereignty"), even to the logical aspect (the error of rationalism). A working confirmation of parameters between aspects is secured via alertness to antinomies (as distinct from logical contradictions - see other writings by D.) The presence of such an antinomy signals aspectual confusion (cf Zeno's "Achilles and the Tortoise" paradox, which conflates two aspects, the 'spatial' and the 'kinetic'). As mentioned above, the various sciences ("ologies") broadly conform to the aspects. Where they do not, Dooyeweerd would advise revisiting the remit of the branch of science in question (as, for instance, he does at some length here with regards to "sociology").
CULTURAL OPENING AND CLOSING
Dooyeweerd often refers to the refraction of light through a prism as a metaphor for aspectual differentiation. And just as the colour spectrum exhibits a sequence, so also the aspectual panoply. On this Dooyeweerd bases his insights into the dynamics governing "reactionary" and "progressive" cultures. A key aspect in this process is "Faith". Currently, of course, this term is much maligned, for instance mockingly defined as "believing that for which there is no evidence". D.F.M. Strauss's aspectual list addresses this misapprehension (willful or conditioned) by designating it the "Certitudinal" aspect, giving its meaning-nucleus or "moment" as: "certainty (to be sure)". This is very helpful. Nonetheless, it should be said that throughout this volume Dooyeweerd himself favours the simpler word "Faith" (geloof), clearly judging that his original readership had sufficient grasp of its proper meaning. Like all aspects, the Faith (Certitudinal) law-sphere is integral to the reality within which we all function. Possession is not in question. Direction is. Is one's certainty or confidence directed towards the Creator or (in apostasy) towards the creation? The former initiates an opening process in civilization, the latter a closing process:
Faith, as we saw, is in a "closed condition" when it is at the uttermost limits of its apostasy from the revelation of the Word. At that point it has fallen to a primitive deification of the uncomprehended forces of nature that control the sensual and biotical aspects of society. In a closed condition of faith humans lack any awareness that they transcend the inorganic, plant, and animal kingdoms. (p102)
A conundrum arises: If "apostate" faith closes down cultural differentiation, whence the achievements of Hellenism and Humanism? Apostate faith has here redirected its focus from inchoate natural forces to human self-consciousness itself as God-surrogate:
Indeed, an opening of faith in apostasy from divine revelation of the Word can be understood only as a process whereby human beings become conscious of themselves in their apostasy. The structure of the faith function has no moments that are related to later aspects of reality for, as we have seen, the faith aspect is the last one in the temporal order of aspects. As a result, the sole option for apostate faith, in order to achieve disclosure, is to reach to the apostate religious root of human existence — namely, human self-consciousness. When humankind becomes conscious of the supremacy of its "rational" functions over the "irrational" forces of nature, faith in its apostate direction rises above the rigid confines of primitive faith in nature. Seeing itself and its gods in the light of the "rational" or normative aspects of temporal reality, humankind takes science, culture, art, and morality as its objects of deification. It is only in this process of acquiring a self-awareness in faith that fallen humanity discovers the freedom it has to be engaged in designing the form of its historical future in a constant struggle with the power of tradition. When faith prevails in a closed state, tradition within a society remains omnipotent. (pp 104,105)
However, such opening, while progressive in degree, necessarily skews the view of reality through selective aspect idolatry, infringing the "creationally grounded principle of sphere-sovereignty":
Those who absolutize one aspect of created reality cannot comprehend this or any of its other aspects on the basis of their own inner character. They have a false, an untrue view of reality. Although this certainly does not preclude their discovering various important moments of truth, they integrate these moments into a false view of the totality of reality. Precisely in this way they become the most dangerous and poisonous weapons of the spirit of deception. (pp 42,43)
The foregoing quote from Dooyeweerd alerts us that absolutizing one aspect is perilous for society. Nazism had just wrecked Europe. The Dutch philosopher traced the origin of this vile totalitarian ideology to the absolutizing of the "Historical" aspect (Strauss gives: "Cultural-Historical", with nucleus: "formative power/control"). Dooyeweerd's insight is unsettlingly relevant to our own day as "the need to be on the right side of history" becomes an oft-heard catch-phrase of our increasingly intrusive governments:
Today we live under the dominion of an idolatrous view of reality that absolutizes the historical aspect of creation. It calls itself dynamic, believing that all of reality moves and unfolds historically. It directs its polemic against static views that adhere to fixed truths. It considers reality one-sidedly in the light of historical becoming and development, arguing that everything is purely historical in character. This "historicism," as it is called, knows of no eternal values. All of life is caught up in the stream of historical development. (p43)
It is clear that for Dooyeweerd human thought is never neutral. We are all "religiously" (ie in our deepest selfhood) precommitted whether we realize it or not. We should therefore make an earnest attempt to validate our default personal and communal worldviews:
The situation for those who think they can find the basis and starting point for a view of temporal reality in science is no different. Time and again they will be inclined to present one aspect of reality (organic life, feeling, historical development of culture, or any of the others) as reality in its completeness. They will then reduce all the others to the point where all of them become different manifestations of the absolutized aspect. Think for instance of Goethe's Faust, where Faust says: "Feeling is everything" [Gefühl ist alles]. Or think of modern materialism, which reduces all of temporal reality to particles of matter in motion. Consider the modern naturalistic philosophy of life, which sees everything one-sidedly in terms of the development of organic life. Actually, what drives us to absolutize is not science as such but an idolatrous ground-motive that takes hold of our thinking. Science can only yield knowledge of reality through the theoretical analysis of its many aspects. It teaches us nothing concerning the deeper unity or origin of these aspects. Only religion makes us ask for this unity and origin, because in calling us to know God and ourselves, it drives us to concentrate all that is relative onto the absolute ground and origin of all things. Once an apostate ground-motive takes hold of us, it compels our thinking to absolutize the relative and to deify the creature. In this way false religious [ie Origin-related] prejudices darken our conception of the structure of reality. (p42)
Reading Dooyeweerd has made a profound impact on me. I recommend this book. Perhaps for you it may prove to be a ladder out of the quicksand.
(18 Feb 2013)