H. Dooyeweerd and E. Voegelin on Transcendence

H. Dooyeweerd and E. Voegelin on Transcendence

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


This great vision, so formative of the modern West, this blend of liberal political theory and of foundationalist epistemology – this vision is dying
(1995, p. 250)

Religion has returned as an issue within contemporary philosophy in the West.1 This is remarkable insofar the latter is heir to a discipline that for some time has taken itself to be above such things (and continues to do so in some quarters). Apparently the oracle must be proven right by the other char­acter in the most recent version of the drama: rather than the gods leaving through the back door, as hy­pothe­sized by mainstream secularization theory in the twentieth century, it is the theory that has had its day. Perhaps this is not so surprising. After all, the gods are used to witness their expul­sion from the cosmos while going about their busi­ness. To the prophet Jeremiah is attributed the observation

that nations in general do not desert their gods, although they are ‘false’; while Israel, who has the ‘true God’, deserts him (E. Voegelin CW 5, p. 311; cf. Jer 2:11).

For various reasons, religion stirs up philosophical disquietude again. One reason is the reappearence of the distinction between the “true God” and the “false gods” in public space where it was thought to have become obsolete, at least in Western Europe. In what terms are we to address this situation and its problems?

In scholarly discussions religion and religious beliefs are often associated with a philosophical frame of mind styled “metaphysics” (cf. Westphal, 2007). The meaning of the term has remained as elusive as has the term “religion”. Still, or perhaps just for this reason, one can observe two reactions at work.

In the first case, the equation of religion and theology with meta­physics appears to be reinvented over and over in order to be symboli­cally expulsed from rational discourse, lock, stock and barrel. The result is a kind of dogmatic anti-dogma­tism. Thus, one can often sense a quite intolerant espousal of (their under­stand­ing of) tolerance precisely among philosophers and scholars who extol the neutrality of reason and “sci­entific” objectivity as our highest ideal. There is logic in this, since (monotheis­tic) religion and its alleged intellectual twin metaphysics are here construed as perhaps the most obnoxious of all sources of social exclusion and intolerance.

The second reaction emphati­cally decouples religious faith from metaphysics and all theoretical investigation of the structures of reality. Religion is then reinvented by concerned intellectuals to fit an “ethical” slot from which it is ex­pected to deploy its benign effects on us. In contrast to the first approach, reminiscent of positivism and scientism, religion is here given a more “pietistic” or Kantian interpretation. Wrested free from the grasp of theoretical speculation, religious faith can perhaps become a liber­ating force again in the struggle against misery and oppression of all sorts.

Sometimes, underneath the hard and fast boundary separating these two approaches, there may be gleaned a common motivating concern. It is the fear of potential con­flict between “open” liberal societies and “closed” tra­di­tional religious or phi­loso­phi­cal world-views. But the invocation of con­flict, whether real or perceived, comes at a cost. It implies that large swaths of the earth’s population are required to exert self-censor­ship proportional to Western expectations of a universal develop­ment to­wards secular life-orientations. But then, of course, it may be that “we secularized Westerners are the freaks, considering the long history of humankind, when we take our secular ethos as self-evident truth of the matter.” (Desmond, 2008, pp. 5-6)

Problems are further ex­acerbated if no convincing accounts are forthcoming that help us separate the blessings of secular society from the secularist ideologies and world-views dominating our intellectual and political past. One may think that if religious life-orientations are to be kept a private affair, a matter of “the heart”, so should non-religious ones like “ex­clusive humanism” (Taylor, 2007) or secular liberalism. Surely it will no longer do to assert that public institutions have a merely instrumental character serving a limited, imma­nent purpose to which no one can rationally object. Such views (choose to) over­look the fact that societal structures are not like stones and sticks, or contracts, that can be wielded to this or that end. Rather, societal structures are held in place by a certain “spirit”, i.e. a net of tacit self-inter­pretations con­joining actors into solidary communal or institutional wholes. What, indeed, is the instrumental or contractual view of society if not a domi­nant modern self-under­standing or “social imaginary” (ibid., pp. 171-176) predetermining its theoretical justification in a specific direction?

Here it is well to remember that the distinction between public and private was to solve the problem of fractured Christendom. Only later was it expanded to make possible the co-existence of all sorts of comprehensive world-views, philosophical doctrines and life-orientations. The historical-particular character of this distinction should make one weary to regard it as some sort of panacea. To make matters worse,

the solution no longer grips the conviction and imagination of Western humanity as a whole. And when that happens, when liberalism becomes no more than one among other communities of conviction, its hegemony becomes oppressive. For those Christians and Jews who all these years strove for wholeness in their existence, it always was oppressive (Wolterstorff, 1995, p. 210).

Arguably, the point applies to members of other traditions, too. Take the case of Islam: is it really self-evident that what Muslims most object to are other religious beliefs rather than the exclusion of religion per se from Euro­pean consciousness? The only way to more just and less homogenizing arrangements seems to lead from liberal to plural. But what kind of pluralism is viable or even desirable? And what kind of societal order is necessary to make it possible?

In this paper I offer a discussion of two philosophical thinkers whose work promises to bring illumination to our situation. The thought of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) and Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) is of special interest for the robust yet supple frameworks they provide allowing us to track the issues here mentioned to their roots. Moreover, the deep affinity between the two renders their points of disagreement all the more instructive.

Dooyeweerd and Voegelin: two “forgotten” philosophical master-thinkers

Thinking in the shadow of the modern separation of faith and reason

Both Dooyeweerd and Voegelin were thinkers of transcendence. Perhaps the spirit animating their work can be captured in a line taken from the latter’s Auto­bio­graphi­cal Reflections. Here we read that “man does not exist out of himself but out of the divine ground of all reality” (CW 34, p. 76)2. Human existence is for our two authors suspended from and directed to the divine ground in a radical and integral sense. It’s not that human beings have two natures, one material called “body” and one spiritual called “mind” or “soul”. The meaning of religious faith as of any other attempt to make sense of our place in the cosmos and history is disclosed and made (in)effective in “secular” reality (is there another one?). That is why the presumed truth of religious beliefs and theological state­ments concern­ing “God and the super­natu­ral” is utterly void if “metaphysically” isolated from every-day human interaction with and cognition of nature and society.

At least in this regard the two thinkers are in seeming agreement with the positivists and empiricists whom they otherwise so sharply criticize for their reduced view of reality (Sandoz, 2000, p. 23). Dragging all human dis­course under the criterion of scientific verification, the positivist dogma couldn’t find any meaning in whatever utterance didn’t fit the pattern of some established physical fact or logical-analytical statement. A procedural view of po­liti­cal society often complemented this theoretical ideal. Substantive views of the human good were deemed to be expressive of values grounded in personal affect-structures and thus untranslatable into inter­subjective argument needed for the rational legitimation of the use of political power.

In more recent times the idea that public reason – as opposed to the realm of private value and mean­ing – is exhausted by the physical and logical-rational aspects of experience has fallen on hard grounds. The idea of different kinds of rationality and an ontologically robust plu­rality of disciplines is in the ascendancy (Dupré, 1993). Interdisciplinarity has won the day in many places. But the new found pluralism opens the door to new worries. What if the boundary between public reason and private faiths were to loose its intellectual hold altogether? How to decide what is in and what is out of the enlarged bounds of reasonable discourse? What about race theory, psychoanalysis, or theology? What are the para­digms of sound inquiry into truth, order and power? The historicism of the nineteenth century, accepting nothing beyond discrete lines of cultural and personal development, seems to be back with a vengeance and almost celebrating its lack of rational orientation. Opposing this tendency, the positivist worry about the unity of reason and rationally ordered society is so much shared by our two thinkers that they could almost pass for their heirs. But here is the twist. True order always marks the irruption of transcendence in a world carried away by the immanentist fantasy of possessing its source of order within itself. From this perspective, Dooyeweerd and Voegelin sought to address the conflict between an allegedly neutral reason, scientific or procedural, and substantive faiths; conflict in which each pole threatens to engulf the other when the victim triumphs over its former oppressor. So they worked for the reorientation of faith and reason towards divine transcen­dence from where may yet emerge the symbols guiding our human search for historical and political order.

Christian philosophy, Platonic theology

Both Dooyeweerd and Voegelin orient their philosophical thought to the irruption of transcendent order and oppose it to the construction of immanent ersatz-order (both under­went unpleasant first-hand experiences with Nazi-ideology and power). The need for attunement to the divine order of creation welling up from the depth of our souls is more than just a recurrent theme in their work. This creates a difficulty for many of us. To alleviate it somewhat, emphasis needs to be placed on the term “irruption”. For it is almost inevitable that the notion of order brings to mind the static vision of a hierarchically organized society patterned on a presumed natural order. Given its long history of use and abuse, the term “creation order” has for many become synonymous with the idea of a cosmic enginery assembling ontological rungs and ontic structures into a single, tyrannical whole called Being (this is what seems to drive a certain understanding of “metaphysics”). In the words of N. Wolterstorff:

God in his heaven, the bishop in his chair, the lord in his castle – to medieval man this was part of the very nature of things […]. Some human beings are born to be kings, they thought, as lions are born to be king of the beasts. And some are born to be commoners. From this perspective, society in all its hierarchical differentiation is seen as something natural, brought about by God, no more the free creation of human beings than is the society of animals a free creation of theirs (1983, pp. 7-8).

Every change in such an order has then to be interpreted as one more step towards secu­larization. What becomes of the picture once God has faded out of it? Not to put too fine a point on the answer: on top of the food chain sits white man lording it over to everybody and everything, perhaps cultivating his bad conscience about the fact. One should take in the irony here. For rather than covering the projection of some contingent social, political and economic order into the realm of eternal ideas, the recourse to transcendence precisely serves in our thinkers to relativize the immanent “-isms” competing for faith. It equally challenges the nihilistic self-atonement consisting in the refusal of all faith. Transcendence for Dooyeweerd and Voegelin is the very opposite of a world closing in on itself. If the place of God is vacant, something else is sure to take it. Only the divine Law can save us from ourselves.

Here then we have a classical philosopher and political scientist3 who is also a Christian believer (Voegelin), and a Christian who is also a philosopher and law-theorist (Dooyeweerd). Both thinkers hold these identities together in rather different ways; not only in comparison with each other but also within their own lives. The resulting tensions can be studied in their work. Indeed, both authors struggled with them to their last. Perhaps the main difference between the two is in their sense of vocation hinted at in the above charac­terization. The pairing suggests that it is the first element taking the lead. Beyond this momentous difference of existential outlook, it is worth mentioning that both thinkers felt committed to engage in philosophy rather than theology. For different reasons, theology as they knew it could not provide the necessary coherence or point of reference to their ambitious projects. And no amount of dialectics would help them sorting out the claims of faith and reason along the conventional boundaries between science (Wissenschaft), philosophy and theology. An experience of periagogē or “conversion” in the quest for greater theoretical insight drove their discontent with the way modern reason had been carved up.

Says Voegelin: “I found out that a political theory, especially when it was to be appli­ca­ble to the analysis of ideologies, had to be based on Classic and Chris­tian phi­losophy.” (CW 34, p. 66) Setting him on a similar yet different track, Dooyeweerd’s moment of reori­entation is worth quoting at length:

Originally I was strongly under the influence first of the Neo-Kantian philosophy, later on of Husserl’s phenomenology. The great turning point in my thought was marked by the discovery of the religious root of thought itself, whereby a new light was shed on the failure of all attempts, including my own, to bring about an inner synthesis between the Christian faith and a philosophy which is rooted in faith in the self-sufficiency of human reason. I came to understand the central significance of the “he rt”, repeatedly proclaimed by Holy Scripture to be the religious root of human existence. On the basis of this central Christian point of view I saw the need of a revolution in philosophical thought of a very radical character (NC I, v; italics added).

Unsurprisingly, much of the difficulty in the reception of Dooyeweerd and Voegelin arises from the inability or unwillingness to meet these thinkers on their own terms.4 But then, this is far from easy – if doing intellectual justice to a great thinker of the past is to go beyond rather than parroting the master.

The cosmic engine of history: differentiation vs. progress

Meaning disclosure (ontsluiting) as “lawful” process of creation

I now want to outline the philosophical implications resulting from the break with what Voegelin calls “historiogenesis”, the straight-line construction of history as cul­minating in some privileged socio-political order or intellectual “world-system”, whether past, pre­sent or future.5 Let us examine the thought of H. Dooyeweerd first. Dooyeweerd’s discovery of the biblical idea of the “heart” as the center of human per­sonality must be seen against the back­ground of a scientific and philosophical culture in which the concrete human self had been divided up into a complex of empiri­cally ab­stracted functions (e.g. biotic, psy­chic, cogni­tive, etc.) held together by some “higher” philosophical abstraction. Hark­ing back to ancient philosophical thought, modern rationalist philosophers had thoroughly identified the human person with what for Dooyeweerd is just one aspect of our experience of the world and ourselves, i.e. the rational-analytical (hypostasized into a substance called “rational soul”). Other aspects were integral to the human self just insofar as reason could form an idea of their unity within itself. Dooyweerd quotes the Kantian-idealist philosopher and educationist Th. Litt: “It [i.e. the concrete ego] has the standpoint of possible self-assurance absolutely beyond itself…” Where? In the Archimedean point of “pure thought” (reines Denken) (cf. Litt, 1933, p. 162. NC I, 78).

True enough, “critical” reason and the “pure” reflection of theoretical thought on its own activ­ity could no longer find expression in the ancient symbolism of microcosm reflecting the divine order of the macrocosm. After the breakdown of the attempted medieval-scholastic synthesis of faith and reason in a double-layered vision binding together the supernatural and natural realms, reason had taken the role of nature’s “lawgiver” upon itself (Kant, 1976 [1783], p. 79, II. § 36). As a consequence, the human person was both subject to the order of reality as well as its origin. This raises a quandary: how can “the law” both bind and arise from autonomous persons without dividing them up? (Skillen, 2003, p. 6) It’s as if a feudal sovereign, originator of law and hence a legibus solutus (released from the laws), had to share the same flesh and bones with his subject.

The basic antinomy of this conception is, following Dooyeweerd, at the root of a century-long dialectical proc­ess. What first appears as emancipation and progress results in spiritual crisis shaking the early twentieth century down to the foundations. In the meantime, however, just about every aspect of our human experience of world and self besides the rational-analytical had been hypostasized and elevated into the position of origin (archē) or “lawgiver”. After rationalism came various irrationalisms followed by new rationalisms. But no single “-ism” – Enlightenment rational­ism absolutizing the analytical aspect, Romantic idealism (psychic and aesthetic aspects), historicism (historical aspect), vitalism (biotic aspect), etc. – has been able to support the divine status of its candidate without provoking some other to assault the Olympian throne.

I cannot pre­tend to approxi­mate the complex­ity and detail of the account given by Dooyeweerd of this process in the first two volumes of his magisterial New Critique of Theoretical Thought. To cut a long story short, the original antinomy at the heart of modernity is even­tually accepted as “given” in some form or other and buried in the very founda­tions of reality from where it exerts its influence on the unsuspecting immanence-philosopher. The consequences are truly deplorable. While philosophical thought officially turns around “autono­mous” reason as its declared center and measure, each school and tradition in fact presup­poses a different meaning of this notion depending on a specific “faith” guiding its overarching view of reality. Philosophical discourse is obstructed by its inability to even ascertain the differ­ent meanings of “autonomous reason” without violating the requirement of autono­mous reason to follow but its own lights (NC I, 36). Having compromised or abrogated the integral idea of creation from its center, modern philosophical thought is tossed to and fro between the deification and utter defamation of human reason.

After his “turning point” Dooyeweerd thus sought to ground his thinking in a bibli­cally inspired idea of creation, according to which everything that exists or claims legitimate validity is subject to God’s laws (nature) and norms (culture, history).6 This idea was to be the pre-theoretical measure and starting-point allowing him to reconstruct and assess the fun­da­men­tal differences between philosophical theories of reality, including his own. Assuming that the measure itself cannot be measured, Dooyeweerd challenges his interlocutors to lay their cards on the table and articulate the “faith” orienting their own philosophical thought. Driving all theoretical endeavour is a “ground-motive”(NC I, 57 ff.) or fides quaerens intellectum. In Dooyeweerd’s case, the fides is oriented towards creation as the “meaning-totality” in which each thing points to everything else, and everything points to their common origin in God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ through whom all things are created and made new. Creation is dependent on Christ as the divine “root” both for its unity and diversity-in-coherence. Created reality cannot thus be grasped as a totality or whole, no matter whether this whole be conceived as a meta­physical hypostasis or as the totality of transcendental conditions of the experience of the “outer world” (NC III 629). In this vision, nothing has independ­ent existence or validity (NC III, 69). All of creation is taken up into that “movement from and to the unity of the totality of meaning, which in turn expresses the fullness of the divine origin” (Geertsema, 2000, p. 92). For short, “meaning” is the mode of being of all that is created (NC I, 4). Meaning goes all the way down.7

As we will see, this orientation puts Dooyeweerd in close proximity to Voegelin. But it also has irritated critics for the seeming non-realism and expressivism driving it (e.g. Plantinga, 1958; Wolterstorff, n.d.). Can the rejection of mind-inde­pendent substances and laws in creation really preserve the truth that the world is not of our own making? How can God be the creative and sustaining origin of all that is when there is no independ­ent reality to be sustained? Why is this not some other version of the meaning-idealism that Dooyeweerd wants to overcome along with all philosophical reductionisms isolating one aspect of creation and turning it into its inner core and essential being?

For Dooyeweerd creation is indeed oriented towards human subjectivity. This does not imply anthropocentrism or the sense that creation is there just for us. It rather means that the faithful valuation of creation as having an integral, non-arbitrary meaning is a human attitude and task approximating a creational norm of stewardship. Humans are indeed the measure (not masters!) of all things, and God is the measure of humans. In the words of philosopher W. Desmond: “we are sources of origination that instantiate the original power of the ultimate source” (2008, p. 26). If this source is thought thinking itself, so are we. If it is pure will, we too are will (to power). After the ascent to the bright origin of reason as consummate self-determination comes the descent into the dark origin of a blind, insatiable striving (ibid., p. 25). Can we find a way out? Is there a transcendence other than self-transcendence caught in the antinomy of law-giving and the blind submission to fate?

Yes, says Dooyeweerd. It is operative in “the heart” of human beings where the diversity-in-coherence of created reality is (re-)oriented to the unity of the divine ground manifested in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. All of creation participates in the transcendent unity or “root-community” (NC III, 656) of humankind whose “journey into God” gives direction to the unfolding of reality in the first place. Humankind has a god-given mediatorial role in the transfiguring of creation and the shaping of history towards eschatological consummation. Nothing less seems implied in the dogma of the council of Chalcedon (451) stating the indivisible and unconfused union of the divine and human nature in Christ, the “firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). While this vision has taken the risk of ideological deformation to hitherto un­imaginable levels, and its perversion goes in fact a long way to explain the apocalyptic furor of nationalist and totalitarian aberrations, it is at the heart of Chris­tian thinking from the earliest centuries onwards. Dooyeweerd was well aware of this. On the other hand, as a philosopher in the Dutch Reformed tradition he took pains to extricate himself from what he perceived to be the Hellenic and thus insufficiently Christian char­ac­ter of patristic thought. Still, or precisely for this reason, his basic philosophical orientation can hardly be grasped apart from the theo-cosmological background provided by Byzantine “orthodox” thinkers among whom Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662) has achieved towering status (Dalmais, 1952; Thunberg, 1995).

The theory of modal aspects

As for his great predecessor, anthropology and cosmology are for Dooyeweerd inextricably intertwined. His theory of modal aspects, pivotal to his whole philosophical project, starts from the idea that all cosmic “levels” of creation are re­flected in the human person (he is well aware that the idea of man as microcosmos and the world as macroanthropos or man writ large goes back at least to pre-Socratic times; cf. NC II, 592). Humans appear to be unique among creatures insofar they participate and have “subject-functions” in all the modes or aspects of reality that consti­tute our experiential horizon. What are these aspects of reality? As R. Clouser explains (2005, p. 66 ff.), in our everyday experience of the world there figure not only innumerable different things, events and processes but also different kinds of properties and laws characterizing them. The distinction and theoretical determination of these kinds becomes important when scientists or scholars make use of their capacity for mental abstraction in order to focus, for example, on just the biotic or juridical features of a phenomenon. Dooyeweerd eventually came to distinguish a number of such aspects, from the numerical, spatial, physical, biotic, etc. to the moral and pistic (Gr. pistis, faith), the “higher” ones presupposing the “lower” ones for their existence. The life of human adults exhibits all these kinds.

To wit, other sentient beings have subject-functions8 in a range of aspects, too. In some non-human animals like elephants the “higher” functions may indeed not be adequately theorized without analogical terms derived from the juridical, moral and spiritual worlds inhabited by humans (this can only be decided on empirical grounds). Thus the search for defining empirical feature(s) setting apart human from non-human animals may be futile. But then, elephants can only become bearers of legal rights because there are juridical subjects who legally objectify the psychic functions qualifying their elephantine fellow creatures. The moral duty to do so (where it exists) presupposes at least the capacity to frame a juridical interpretation of the relevant phenomena, which is distinct from an aesthetic or economic one, and to make it politically valid and socially effective. Although bearing legal rights, elephants are not juridical subjects or fashioners of law.

It is true that, in Dooyeweerd’s terms, everything in creation “functions” in all aspects, top to bottom. Created reality is a meaning-coherence which may not be theoretically torn apart. But then many living entities have but object-functions in the post-psychic aspects. The distinction is important. If we neglect it and focus on the analogical coherence of modal aspects at the cost of their distinctness we may come to embrace the reductionist view that humans and elephants are “essentially” cousins in a single phylogenetic tree. In the light of Dooyeweerd’s more fine-grained theoretical concep­tuality, elephants, however, would be subjects in the numerical, spatial, etc., up to and including the psychic modes but objects in the “higher” juridical and moral ones. Their nature is “limited” or qualified by the psychic aspect, which in turn allows them to objectify the biotic function of foliage and the physical function of water to sustain their sensory functions.9

Humans, perhaps uniquely so among creatures, aren’t qualified by any modal aspect or combination thereof. Humans actively function in all aspects and can mediate between the extremes of creation because they exceed the cosmos in direction of its divine ground.10 Indeed, the spiritual or pistic aspect opens up human existence in direction of a beyond of the cosmos, a supposed or true archē (origin). Without this “pull” of transcendence, it would not be possible to frame an idea of the cosmos or experienced reality as a limited or immanent “whole” (there could thus be no “purely” natural or immanent explanation of the idea of divine transcendence either). Granted that the cosmos is not an entity among others in the cosmos, it is a “whole” or meaning-totality but in a “radical” (Lat. radix, root) sense, sub specie aeterni. Just what direction the sense of “eternity” or spiritual “rootedness” takes in human life makes the whole difference of who we are and what kind of world we live in. It also co-determines what we will accept as rational in science and philosophy.

If humanity indeed participates in the disclosure of creation&rsq o;s meaning-potential