Saturday, March 17, 2018

(6) Created reality as ‘subject’

How does our view of reality as God’s creation translate into reformational philosophy?  We have seen that it requires us to recognise the goodness and the richness of the world around us as well as human responsibility within creation.  Philosophers like to use words in a precise way, so it would help to have a word that we can use to refer to the whole of reality that will direct our analysis according to the biblical principles outlined above.  We could just use the word ‘creation’, but that already carries lots of different meaning and would not help give the direction needed.  Instead, we want a word that has, or can be given, a fairly precise meaning that brings out something of philosophical significance from the belief that reality is indeed God’s creation.

A number of options can be suggested from the writing of different reformational philosophers.  We shall start with Vollenhoven’s characterisation of reality as ‘subject’. He writes “That which is created is completely dependent on the Creator, that is to say, wholly subject to his sovereign law, Word revelation, and guidance”.

It is not uncommon in modern philosophy to speak of ‘subject’ or of ‘subjectivity’.  Descartes, the so-called ‘father of modern thought’, sought to overcome scepticism and provide a foundation of certainty in science by starting from the thinking subject.  Descartes took the Cogito (‘I think’) as the source or principle of its own activity which can master the world which it confronts as its object.  This ‘turn to subjectivity’ puts freedom and rationality at the heart of our self-understanding and our view-point on the ‘external world’.

Vollenhoven’s notion is quite different.  As a creature, a human being must acknowledge that she finds herself called to be responsible.  There is already God’s Word that called us and the world into existence (Genesis 1), that gives us a task (Gen 1:28 & 2:15), that invites us to live under God’s blessing, represented in Genesis 2 by the tree of life, and that warns us against choosing our own path, represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  As human beings we find that we “stand in subjection” to God’s command.  God is King and we are ‘subjects’.

The term subjectivity, in Vollenhoven, refers not just to us as human beings but to the whole of creation as called forth by God’s word and as being sustained by the same word. He takes this ‘being-subject’ of the cosmos as the point of orientation for philosophy. Anthony Tol notes that "this ‘point of orientation’ characterises the being of created reality not as a theoretical-intellectual is, nor a practical-moral ought, but, in emphasising address and response, a poetical-religious can"

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the people of the world revere him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:6-9)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

(5) Good and evil: Fall and redemption

So far we have perhaps sounded a little too upbeat.  That’s because we haven’t faced the sense of hopelessness we can feel in the face of gross injustice, we have not heard the cries of those who suffer poverty, illness or psychological brokenness, we have missed the cry of the lonely, the abandoned, the violated.  We have focused on the goodness of creation but all too often we see the pollution of creation.  The Bible speaks eloquently of the groans of creation in its bondage to decay.  Any Christian view of life and the world must wrestle with, while never fully understanding, the reality of evil and sin.

We must affirm the Biblical view that the goodness of creation is not done away with after sin enters the world. However, it does become more poignant.  We can only get close to the full tragedy of evil when we see that it perverts and destroys what was so wonderfully made.

This brings us to our first point: Sin is as wide, though not as deep, as creation.  To return to Genesis, we see that sin had its effect on all the relationships humans find themselves in: our relation with each other, with God’s creation and most fundamentally with God (Genesis 3).  At the heart of a Christian understanding of life we must place alongside the comprehensive nature of God’s good creation, the comprehensive nature of the fall into sin. This in turn leads us to acknowledge the comprehensive nature of the redemption brought through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

The comprehensive nature of sin challenges any split between a sacred realm of life and a secular realm just as much as does the comprehensive nature of creation.  Sin can be just as present in a prayer meeting as in a board meeting; the church can be just as consumed with power as a government. Therefore, we must remind ourselves that Christ came to “reconcile all things to God, whether on heaven or earth, visible or invisible”.  The Gospel is not about God abandoning his creation; it is about turning it around from death to life, from ruin to renewal.  Those who are in Christ have died to their old life and their new life covers all human activities in the world, the promise is for a “fullness of life”, not a reduced life of narrowly defined spiritual activities.

A helpful way of setting these biblical truths to work in philosophy is by distinguishing structure and direction.  Structure refers to the original intention of God for all areas of life to bring glory to God and blessing to neighbours.  It is short-hand for the ordered goodness of creation.  Though this structure is certainly obscured and distorted by evil, it remains effective. God is faithful to creation and God’s word upholds its diverse integrity. So when considering how to understand or involve oneself in a cultural task as a Christian, the first guiding principle is to look for and affirm the goodness of God’s order for that activity.  We can be sure that the task God has set, when worked on in obedience, brings blessing. 

Direction refers to the way that humans choose to respond to God’s call for responsible stewardship and development of creation’s potential. This response can be either in a direction that follows God’s laws, which brings blessing, or a way that ignores God and sets out on a human path which brings curse (this theme of blessing and curse is very prominent in Deuteronomy; in Proverbs it is expressed in terms of wisdom and folly).  So a second guiding principle is to discern the ways in which specific cultural tasks have been bent to human desires away from God and thus distorted in ways which bring a curse on us and our neighbours, and to discern the ways in which people have engaged in that task so as to honour God and bring blessings to those nearby.  We can draw together the Biblical themes we have been exploring and think Christianly about any subject under the sun by asking these two questions: What is structural or in other words creational? And what is directional?

A constant temptation, especially in philosophy, is to make direction a matter of structure.  This happens when we take some aspect of creation as the source of evil or imperfection in the world.  As Christians we must reject such views as contradicting the clear teaching of Jesus that evil comes from the human heart. It is not about contamination from some part of created reality (Matthew 15:11).

Once we identify some aspect or area of creation as evil, the follow-up claim is that some other feature of creation is the source of goodness and human hope for salvation. This also is a denial of a fundamental Christian truth: that salvation comes from God.  However, as Christians we easily adapt this view through a sacred/secular distinction, which makes certain areas of life the privileged channels of God’s grace and other areas as more susceptible to evil and sin.


Saturday, March 03, 2018

(4) An ordered cosmos

This world that we live in is not haphazard or arbitrary.  God created the world in an ordered and patterned way.  This is quite explicit in Genesis 1, where it describes God’s separating out light from darkness, sky from earth and land from sea and creating rich vegetation and varied animals, each ‘according to their kind’.

The Bible refers to this ordering of creation in many ways: God’s law, ordinances, wisdom and so on.  A good example is Psalm 19 which describes the glory of God declared in creation before meditating on God’s law:

7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
    and all of them are righteous.

10 They are more precious than gold,
    than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
    than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

 Psalm 19:7-11

Those familiar with the Bible’s wisdom literature will have less difficulty understanding what to modern minds appears to be a sudden shift in Psalm 19, from the way of the sun across the heavens in verse 6, to God’s law revivifying human life in verse 7.  That is because such literature takes for granted a creation wide perspective on God’s kingship that is foreign to modern perplexities about how to relate nature and culture. We should be careful not to project such concerns back into the text.

The point is that God’s ordinances extend from the natural world through to the structures of society, to the world of art, to business and commerce. As always when reading the Bible, we do not look for detailed prescription on how to live, but for the very bread that sustains our life, the lamp that will light our path, the power of the gospel to redirect our living before God. We do not get a detailed theory, but a directing principle that shows us that human civilization is normed throughout. We are to open our eyes in faith and see that everywhere there are limits and proprieties, standards and criteria: in every field of human affairs there are right and wrong ways of doing things.  There is nothing in human life that does not belong to the created order.  Everything we are and do is thoroughly creaturely, and requires of us a responsible response to our Creator.

Here we confront an important issue for Bible-believing Christians. The problem is that the Bible does not address itself directly to many of the issues that confront us in modern society. This strengthens the temptation for Christians to retreat from any effort to engage culture in a distinctively Christian way. It thus continues the cycle of privatising our beliefs and secularising our public lives. How then are we to "discover limits" and discern "right and wrong ways of doing things"?

In the Old Testament the Israelites were given the Torah, God's laws for being a holy nation. However, in Exodus 18:15-16 we are told that the people brought their cases to Moses, and he decided between one person and another and made known to them “the statutes and instructions of God”. What is interesting is that the word for “instructions” used here is “torah” in the plural, and this episode comes before the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. We have the Torah before the giving of the Torah! We can make sense of this when we look at the idea of wisdom. Both wisdom and Torah are linked to God’s intent at creation. So, various psalms speak of the creating word by which God ordered creation in Genesis 1. These psalms explicitly identify creation by word as creation by God’s commands, statue, or decree, using these terms as rough equivalents (Psalms 33:6-9; 119:89-96; 148:5-6). This is the same range of terms used for the divinely revealed law that Israel is required to obey. Thus there is a fundamental unity between God’s word in creation and God’s Torah for Israel. Torah cannot be limited to the written law revealed at Sinai; it holds for the entire created order. This insight leads Psalm 148:8 to describe even the wind as obedient to the Creator’s word, while the poet in Psalm 119:91 says to the Lord God, “All things are your servants.” Law is embedded in creation and grounds all proper creaturely functioning. A particularly revealing example of this is given in Isaiah where we are told that wise farmers know how properly to till the soil and thresh their grain for maximum benefit because “His God instructs him and teaches him the right way” (28:24-29). Just where we would normally say that they learned these skills from trial and error, and from being apprenticed by other, more experienced farmers, we are referred to God's direct revelation.  From these points the biblical scholar Richard Middleton has concluded that “in principle there is no difference between wisely discerning God’s will structured into the created order and obeying God’s revealed word.” This perspective continues in the New Testament. In numerous places we are exhorted to discern God's will, to work out our salvation, to practise discerning right from wrong and so on (Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 5, Philippians 2)

We can summarise this perspective by saying that God’s Word is first published in creation, then authoritatively republished in Scripture to guide God’s people in differing historical circumstances. In the revelation of the law at Sinai, God simply articulates relevant aspects of God’s creational Word for Israel in their particular historical context, with their specific needs for moral and social restoration. God’s Word in creation gives constant direction; the articulation of this directing Word in changing historical circumstances requires wisdom as evidenced by the early church in Acts 15.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

(3) The cultural mandate

Understanding Christianity in terms of the salvation of our souls has led to a seriously reduced understanding of the “Great Commission” to make disciples of all nations.  We will only get a fuller understanding if we go back to the first commission God gave to humans.  That is the “cultural commission”, often referred to as the “cultural mandate”.

In Genesis 1:26-30 and 2:15 God gives Adam and Eve oversight of the whole of creation.  We are to act as the stewards of creation both to preserve and to develop.  It is this role of authority concerning creation given to humans, both male and female, that is the central meaning of the image of God.  We reflect to the world the character of God through continuing God’s work of ordering and developing creation.  As with the goodness of creation this is a point that is reaffirmed in many of the Psalms (Psalm 19; 104). It is also central to the picture the New Testament gives us of God's coming kingdom (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:24-30; Matthew 25:23; 1 Corinthians 6:1-6; Revelation 5:10).

This is a neglected theme, and is of great relevance for understanding the whole-of-life implications of Christianity needed to sustain an authentic Christian philosophy. Therefore, we will spend a little time drawing out three elements of the human task to develop creation:

a.      God’s task to humans is creation-wide.

b.      Human authority is always limited

c.      Our task is always to be seen in the context of service

The first point is foundational.  To all those who would say that the primary task of a Christian is to evangelise, and that everything else is of secondary or even of no importance, it should be pointed out that evangelism has no meaning unless it is a discipleship of every nation in the Gospel of Christ.   It is worth remembering that the Gospel of Jesus was the announcement of the coming kingdom (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17), that is the rule of God over all things, for which we are taught to pray (Matthew 6:10, Luke 11:2).  Everything is to be done to the glory of God and for the blessing of one’s neighbour as affirmed in Jesus’ summary of the law (Matthew 22:34-40). Nothing can be excluded from this, from the making of clothes to farming, governing to refuse collection, artistic crafts to commerce. Each of these tasks can be engaged in so as to invite God’s kingdom to come or so as to take a share of God’s inheritance while refusing to recognise him as Father. Anything less than this is a reduction of the Gospel.

An implication of this is that we are to develop creation and its great potential.  Our task involves an opening up of the richness of creation bringing forth new possibilities.  This means that historical development and change is a natural and good part of God’s purposes for human life.  Historical change can often be guided by a spirit of human rebellion against God, as made clear at the tower of Babel. Nevertheless, as Christians we should not be reactionary in our evaluation of historical change.

Our freedom to get involved in cultural activities is creation wide.  However, there is also an important sense of limitation.  We do not own the world, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”. Therefore, our cultural activities and social roles always take on a limited form in contrast to God’s unlimited sovereignty.  These activities and roles have the quality of tasks and responsibilities we hold before God.  For example: to maintain justice and order in public life, to bring children into the world, to worship God and proclaim the message of salvation, to pass on the wisdom of one generation to the next, to produce goods for human use and enjoyment.

Each of these tasks should be seen as a genuine Christian vocation.  When we pray; “your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven”, we should be reminded of our own role in fulfilling these tasks, and others as well, all in the service of God.  The Lord’s Prayer must be prayed from within the work office, within the board meeting, within the courtroom. God’s Will is to be done in each and every situation.

We are touching here on a basic perspective on social institutions that is quite different from that commonly held today. We shall explore this more later on.  For now, it is enough to say that in understanding a school, or a business, a government or hospital as something formed in response to God-given tasks means that we must reject the view that such institution are basically arbitrary structures that exist to serve the interests and goals of the individuals that make them up.

Within the framework of limited responsibility before God and for the blessing of our neighbour we can outline a different approach.  God appoints humans to perform certain tasks that are communal in character. Humans respond through the formation of different social organizations.  So we have marriages, families, businesses, churches, governing authorities, schools and so on.  Each exists by responding to distinct cultural tasks.  These tasks are neither all-encompassing nor individualistic; they are limited and communal tasks.  We can evaluate institutions on the basis of their openness to God and others and on the basis of their distinctive tasks.  We can also be critical when one particular task starts to dominate and usurp or undermine the role of other societal tasks.  In such a situation we can see the real danger of a move away from recognising God’s total authority over human culture and towards an assertion of human authority based in one of the social spheres.

The final point is that human cultural activity is designed to be honouring to God, a blessing to those it affects and an act of stewardly love to the rest of creation.  Dooyeweerd summarised the cultural mandate by saying that God created humans as rulers of creation so that the powers and potentials which God has enclosed within creation are to be disclosed by men and women in their service of love to God and neighbour.  This will have a radical impact on the way we think about the role of an artist or the place of a business enterprise in society, the task of national governments and the role of universities, and indeed about the vital task of philosophy.


Friday, February 16, 2018

(2) Philosophy and Worldview

Philosophy must start somewhere and the aim of reformational philosophy is to be a philosophy that is in line with scripture.  This means it is important to say something about the world and life vision that finds its inspiration in the Bible.  To do this we shall make some comments about the key Biblical themes of creation, fall and redemption with particular emphasis on the first since, as we have already indicated, that is what gives context to philosophical activity.

Creation includes everything that is not God.  There are three points about creation that are relevant in this context which will be explored in this and the following sections:

1.      Creation is good.
2.      The human task is to develop creation.
3.      Creation is ordered (given structure) by God

The Bible’s story of creation is described in terms of God commanding by his Word and creation responding in obedience.  After each response God affirms what he has made.  And we see that the whole of creation, in all its rich diversity is considered very good.  We should be careful not to equate this goodness with other-worldly notions of perfection, or think of goodness only in relations to our own desires.  Creation is set up to fulfil the purposes given to it by God; that is what is central.  Creation is God’s kingdom (Psalm 24); it reveals his will (Psalm 19); and should be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4)

To believe in the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible is to understand ourselves and the world we live in as God’s world; we were made to be at home in this world. We are part of God’s good creation and thus are part of His ongoing purposes.  Life is of one piece and the fundamental question for the Christian is to what extent one’s life is a walk of obedience to God.  That following Christ has implications for the whole of life is often resisted by Christians and it is worth considering why this is.  In reformational philosophy this resistance is attributed to a basic “dualism” that underlies it, though it is worth noting that today there may be a lot of emphasis given to “integrating” the two realms or spheres that form this dualism.  The basic idea is that life can be separated into a natural and a supernatural realm.  The natural realm is constituted by the common world in which all people live whether they are Christian or not.  Here people build homes for themselves, live together in society, develop science and pursue various social and personal goals without much concern for “religious” issues.  It is a realm that is largely neutral with regard to religion and, in that sense, is sometimes described as “secular”.  The supernatural realm is then that realm of life that is unique to Christian experience.  It is primarily found in the church community and involves distinctive activities like worship, prayer, Bible reading and some specific moral teachings.  This sphere is directly affected by religion in the sense that God’s grace brings an individual into this sphere, or adds this to one’s common life.  So, as well as being a car mechanic and football fan you become someone who prays, reads the Bible and attends church.

It is important to see that this is a very persuasive position.  It is a “ground motive” that affects us all such that it often acts like ‘common sense’ and can be very difficult to resist.  We need to see what’s wrong with this view at its heart.  The key is to see that our whole life belongs to God. There is no sphere of our existence that can be hidden from God or that can be kept back from the claim of Christ’s Lordship.  So the problem with this view is that it undermines the integrity of our religious situation.    The whole of reality is created, sustained, and ordered by God; it is comprehensively distorted, though not destroyed, by the fall; and the whole of reality is taken up in God’s redemptive work through history to reconcile all things to himself.  The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck summarised this stance simply like this: “God the father has reconciled His created but fallen world through the death of His Son, and renews it into a Kingdom of God by His Spirit.” What this means is that any attempt to divide reality up into a 'secular' or 'natural' sphere and a 'spiritual' or 'supernatural' sphere undermines the comprehensiveness of the central biblical categories of creation, fall and redemption.

We must therefore resist any view that sees salvation as taking us out of this world, and so sees our destination as a spiritual realm beyond this world.  Such a view finds no support from the Bible. However it does hold a striking resemblance to certain pagan Greek ideas of the world of matter as evil, or a principle of imperfection, and of a non-physical soul as our true self which is trapped in the body and longs for its release into a purely spiritual world.  One important source of these ideas has been Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo, which has unfortunately been more influential in many Christians’ understanding of spirituality and eternal life than 1 Corinthians 15, as the New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann once noted. This Greek inspired view has both minimised the value of our earthly lives and cut off whole chunks of our life from the renewing power of the Gospel.  While it is true that most Christians would reject the more extreme forms of this view it is still common for Christians to think of their life in terms of sacred and secular and so find it strange that the Gospel is relevant to the whole of life. The effect of this deep lying dualism is to deny the lordship of Christ for the greater part of our life!  It leads us to assume that work and play, food and drink, business and politics, art and entertainment are somehow outside of our Christian calling.

This is really important.  When the comprehensive character of creation is taken out of a Christian view, when we start with a reduced Christian faith that covers only Sunday service and private Bible study, then we cut out any relevance the Christian faith can have for life, and in doing so we condemn Christianity to irrelevance.  A Christian philosophy cannot solve these problems, indeed it will suffer from them. Seeing how such a philosophy can give distinctive insight and direction in the different sectors of life can, however, play its part in encouraging a more wholehearted Christian life.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

(1) Philosophy and the richness of creation (continued)

So, the example of a children's party, a fairly ordinary and practical event which can provide our first step towards a philosophical exploration of the richness of creation.  To the child, their birthday party is a very simple thing; it means presents, friends, food and fun. For the poor parents, however, there is much more going on!  First, there will be the decision as to who, and how many, will be invited. Invitations will need to be designed and sent out. Then, where to hold the party; a space is needed big enough to contain the number of children invited. Since the children will be doing a lot of running around the space will need to be big! How big, and what entertainment to put on, old-fashioned party games, or a hired magician, will depend in part on what the parents view as a reasonable cost for such a party. However, there will also be social expectations, perhaps very high and pressuring, that the parents will feel more keenly than the children. With games come prizes; how will they be distributed, and what happens when boisterous play upsets one of the little guests? Food is also an important component, and thought will need to go into when this is given to the children and how they might be encouraged to eat some healthy food rather than going straight for the crisps and cake! The timing for what happens at the party may also be important; for how long will each activity hold the attention of the kids; when is the appropriate time to bring in the cake and sing happy birthday?

In reformational philosophy it is standard to give expression to the richness of creation by recognising that in reality we experience a number of different dimensions or ‘aspects’.  Much more will be said about these later; for now we start by listing the 15 ‘modal aspects’ that, give or take a few, all reformational philosophers have come to recognise.  Questions have been added to help see how recognising these aspects will help us explore the variety of ways created things can function.

Table 1(adapted from Arthur Jones 1998, 18-19)

Key Questions
How many?
How big?
How fast?
How reactive?
How productive?
How stimulating?
How intelligible?
How creative/skilful?
How imaginative?
How clear?
How sociable?
How valuable?
How just?
How loving?
How trustworthy?

 Have a look back at what was said about planning a child’s birthday party.  With a bit of effort you should be able to see that most, if not all, of the 15 aspects are present.  You may want to try and imagine a children’s party that completely avoids one of the aspects.  In trying this you may be surprised at how hard it actually is. 

So we now have an example of recognising the richness of creation.  Its practical use is that a good children’s party will need to consider all of these factors and ensure that they are all in order.  However, it also raises a problem.  What looked simple now looks too complicated and we might wonder what has happened to the simplicity of having fun while celebrating a child’s birthday.  This problem is actually a very significant and long-standing philosophical one: the problem of unity and diversity.

Without trying to solve this philosophical problem right now, we can say that it is common for one aspect to take the lead, so to speak, in specific contexts.  In the context of a children’s party it is the social element of friends having fun together and marking an important point in a child’s life. This means that the social element is the leading aspect which should provide focus for the parents in their planning and all the other elements that are part of the party should serve this one.  If the parents considered only the health and safety of the children, or only worried about getting all the numbers right, then the chance of a good birthday party would be significantly reduced.

You might like to try this exercise on other planned events, projects or communities you are involved in. Do you discover that there are always many factors involved in a successful outcome even if many of these seem minor and often go unnoticed? Have you experienced events where the little things became so important that the main purpose was lost sight of?

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

What's the use of a Christain philosophy?

I mentioned in my last post that we should be cautious about the demand for usefulness. If the task is a genuine one, and I believe seeking to give a coherent theoretical account of the diversity of God's creation is such a task, then it will bear fruit. It may not be immediate and obvious, but we can expect some contribution to human flourishing. Now I would suggest that if an explicitly Christian philosophy, developed before the advent of digital computers, was able to bring insight into the study of information systems, then that would suggest that it had something worthwhile to it. If this philosophy could be presented in a way that acknowledged it's rootedness in the Christian faith, and yet could appeal to a wide audience so that a leading academic publisher was willing to print it, then we should sit up and take some notice.

Andrew Basden has taken Herman Dooyeweerd's philosophy and done just that. See his latest book Foundations of Information Systems.

Steve Bishop has a great two part interview with Andrew. Here's a snippet:

I want to leave behind a means by which people can understand Dooyeweerd and his usefulness.  That is primarily why I wrote the book.  It explains Dooyeweerd's philosophy to a degree that I think people would be able to work from even if I wrote nothing more, and it discusses how Dooyeweerd's philosophy can do two things in each of five areas.  One is to provide a foundational understanding of each area.  The other is to engage with discourses in the area - over 50 of them.  I don't want to reject or replace the ideas on which each discourse centres, but to affirm what is valid, critique the underlying presuppositions, and enrich the ideas, all using Dooyeweerd and the foundational understanding I have constructed.

Read the interview here: