jeudi, juillet 03, 2014

Ground-motives: Brief intro to Dooyeweerd

Dear P_,

Dooyeweerd all the time champions actuality over theory. Actuality is anchored in Christ. That is because Christ is not theoretically the Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer of reality but is actually the Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer of reality. All meaning in existence therefore depends on Christ. All things are upheld by His word of power. There is NO neutrality. The single paramount antithesis in human life is between an acknowledgement of the Lordship of Christ, and the lack of such acknowledgement. Dooyeweerd stresses that this antithesis is present in each and every heart, including Christians.

Every human heart seeks anchorage in the ultimate. If Christ is not acknowledged, then something else is necessarily accorded ultimacy. But there IS nothing else which is ultimate, because Christ is indeed Lord of All. So the apostate heart has no alternative but to make an ultimate of that which is in reality only relative - that which has in actuality no intrinsic "brute" meaning, and then to attempt to integrate all of existence around this gilded delusion. 

So the non-Christian (and often the Christian) intellectual will typically make an idol of Logic itself, and so try to reduce all of reality to "Logic". But "Logic" is an abstraction. Dooyeweerd suggests that Logic is only one of FIFTEEN aspects of reality, irreducible to each other ("sphere-sovereignty"), yet each reflected in all the others and unable to truly function without the others ("sphere universality"). In theoretical (ie abstract) thought, a single aspect is isolated and pondered, but this theorizing happens within a mental suspension of time ("epochē"). Something like considering a single colour of the spectrum refracted through a prism. Full-orbed functioning only takes place in time-embedded reality (ie in everyday holistic life) involving all aspects together (imagine reversing through the prism from the theoretically separated panoply of colours to the combined "white" or "clear" natural light of day). 

Biblical ground-motive
Dooyeweerd calls Christ-anchored reality the "Biblical ground-motive", which he elaborates as: "Creation, Fall, Redemption through Jesus Christ, in Communion with the Holy Spirit". Dooyeweerd's great insight into Western Thought is that insofar as the Biblical ground-motive does not prevail over our personal and communal thinking and action we are invariably succumbing to an apostate ground-motive. There is no alternative. 

Apostate ground-motives, unlike the Biblical one, are internally dichotomous. They are dichotomous because when an attempt is made to reduce reality to an idol (ie to an absolutisation of that which is only relative) a counter-idol is automatically summoned up, as reality itself resists its own distortion and calls the human heart back to equilibrium (cf Augustine's "Our heart is restless till it finds its rest in Thee"). Some of humanity will coalesce around (become spellbound by) one absolutisation, Others will be captivated by the counter-absolutisation. Thus we have major political, social, and artistic divisions such as Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. The former championing eternal, geometric, rational, absolute, abstract laws. The latter championing transient, irrational, lawless, corporeal, emotive particulars. The former emphasises communal responsibility and solidarity. The latter emphasises individualistic heroism and genius.

According to Dooyeweerd the main early ground-motive apparent in Western culture is the Hellenistic one involving the "Form/ Matter" dichotomy. His historic analysis of this is what you are currently reading in the early part of "Roots of Western Thought". Essentially Dooyeweerd says that the earliest Greek belief-system absolutised its perception of nature as being an endless flux of matter. He calls this the "Anangkē", ie "inescapability" (we cannot avoid being eventually pulled back into the formless flux from whence we arose). On the other hand, the Olympian religion of immortal, invisible form, measure, and rationality was a subsequent development which became the public cult of the Greek city-state (polis). Domestically, however, ordinary folk apparently continued to worship the older nameless and formless gods of nature (the time-cyclical backstory offering some consolation regarding death). Dooyeweerd shows why these two belief-systems (also occasionally characterised as "Apollus" versus "Dionysus") were ultimately incompatible, though mutually dependent.

The analysis of the Hellenistic Form/Matter ground-motive may seem a heavyish read at times as Dooyeweerd establishes his case, but I would encourage you to push on through it as its relevance will become apparent. I am of the view, for example, that the Form/Matter ground-motive is currently staring us in the face in Zombie and Superhero movies. The zombies are surely a manifestation of the "anangkē", arising out of the formless subterranean realm and dragging stricken humanity inexorably back down into material disintegration. In turn, Superman, Batman, Ironman, Spiderman etc are gods of an American-style Olympus, (more-or-less) immortal, ideally-formed, shining saviours from on high (with relational complications, of course). Dooyeweerd calls the dwellers of the Greek Olympus "deified cultural forces". That seems a fruitful way of making sense of the American counterparts too.

The Form/Matter ground-motive is relevant also because of the development of subsequent Western ground-motives, as identified by Dooyeweerd. The medieval world was dominated by the "Nature/Grace" (or "Nature/Supernature") ground-motive. This was essentially a synthesis (formulated by Thomas Aquinus) of the Hellenistic and Biblical ground-motives. The dichotomy here is between the "sacred" and the "profane". But also there arises a "body/soul" dichotomy, the soul being understood in Aristotelean terms of immortal rationality (escaping like a bird, at the time of physical death, from its corrupting material cage). Dooyeweerd sees the soul/heart very differently, as the deepest self, the integration point of all aspects of life and reality, the source of all of our acts, transcending time (or relating to the "fullness of time") in the here and now. Not just some kind of escape-pod of rationality-survival jettisoned at physical death. 

Although the Thomistic Nature/Grace ground-motive is more formally related to the Roman Catholic Church (though there is also an Augustinian heritage), it also remains highly conspicuous in much evangelical and so-called "reformed" Christianity, manifesting itself in a world-denying pietism and in the evangelical tendency to reduce political involvement to sporadic upsurges of moralistic petition-signing before returning to the bunker. Dooyeweerd reminds us that Christ is not just Lord of morality (only one aspect of fifteen), but of politics as such, of law as such, of street-plumbing and bridge-engineering as such.

The prevailing modern Western ground-motive is the "Nature/ Freedom" (or for more clarity we might call it the "Mechanistic Natural Law versus Free Human Personality") dichotomy of humanism, which incorporated and secularised the previous three ground-motives. Humankind declares its absolute autonomy and undertakes the project of constructing reality anew from brute (ie un-God-referenced) scientific laws of cause and effect. But humankind gradually finds itself boxed-in (indeed turned into box-wood) because, from the point of view of this materialist reductionism, humans themselves can be no other than a random result of the exhaustively determinist laws of physics. In other words the personal freedom which humanity initially asserted is annihilated. So humanism must periodically (and irrationally) make a fresh assertion of absolute lawless personal freedom (hence Existentialism, Postmodernism etc). Thus the dichotomy is evident. To quote Dooyeweerd from his "New Critique":
"The deepest root of its dialectical character lies in the ambiguity of the Humanistic freedom-motive. The latter is the central driving force of the modern religion of human personality. And from its own depths it calls forth the motive to dominate nature, and thus leads to a religion of autonomous objective science in which there is no room for the free personality." (Herman Dooyeweerd, New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969, p 190)
This paradigmatic "Natural Law v Personal Freedom" ground-motive is highly visible in contemporary popular movie-culture. We glimpse it in Star Trek, for example, in those perennial "rationalist versus emotionalist" exchanges between Mr Spock and Captain Kirk. More panoramically we see it in the cyberpunk genre - in Bladerunner, the Terminator and Matrix films etc, where heroic humans struggle to survive dehumanising mechanisation. The polarisation is also evident in the objectivist Mechanical Law "meta-narrative" ("Big Story") we call "Darwinism" (in Attenborough documentaries, for example) versus the subjectivist interrogation of meta-narrative (in Tarantino, and in films such as Inception, Source Code etc). 

The X-Men movies show humanism wrestling with the vexed conundrum of "normativity" in a universe within which the only real norm is random mutation. Regarding moral normativity, consider the following from Richard Dawkins in an interview with Justin Brierley on Premier Christian Radio (8 Nov 2008):
JB: When you make a value judgement don't you immediately step yourself outside of this evolutionary process and say that the reason this is good is that it's good. And you don't have any way to stand on that statement. 
RD: My value judgement itself could come from my evolutionary past.  
JB: So therefore it's just as random in a sense as any product of evolution. 
RD: You could say that, it doesn't in any case, nothing about it makes it more probable that there is anything supernatural. 
JB: Ultimately, your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we've evolved five fingers rather than six. 
RD: You could say that, yeah.
Are "human rights" thus based on an arbitrary (therefore inherently provisional) consensus among beings who are themselves no more than an amalgam of random mutations in a purposeless universe? Is the only fixed law that there IS no fixed law (particularly in a multiverse)? Dooyeweerd helps us critique these issues with his view regarding the "positivization" of norms. If we take, for example, the aesthetic aspect, Dooyeweerd suggests that its "kernel" is "harmony", but this harmony can be and obviously has been positivized in different eras and cultures in a plethora of ways. There are always going to be some kind of limitations, however. This is more immediately obvious in the physical aspect -  we can decide to have plastic surgery, but can't just decide we are going to breathe under water (without additional apparatus). 

As regards the question of norms, Dooyeweerd's insight into "historicism" is particularly helpful. Absolute norms clearly cannot survive an absolutisation of the "historical" (ie "cultural formational") aspect, since such absolutisation dissolves everything in an acid of perpetual change. Heraclitus. All is flux. Postmodernism falls into this camp.

It is noteworthy that in "Roots of Western Thought" Dooyeweerd sees fascism as a product of "historicism". Lacking any absolute norms above itself (other than a spurious conviction regarding its own historical "destiny"), the fascist State arbitrarily assumes to itself a monopoly over "normativity", refusing international arbitration. However, a germane question would be "How far and on what basis does any international court itself have a monopoly over normativity, and how does it avoid a fascism of its own?" 

Much more could be said, but this is already looking more like an essay than an email. You mentioned favourite symphonies. One which has profoundly impacted on me is Beethoven's 9th. Its structure seems to me cyclical and spiral, with Beethoven introducing motifs in the early stages which are returned to, elevated and expanded on later. It might be helpful to read Dooyeweerd with something like that in mind. What might seem piecemeal does hold together in the end. And leads us towards a glimpse (at the very least) of transcendence!

Best wishes,