From Religious Roots to Political Consequences

Third Quarter 2003

By James W. Skillen

In the May 4, 2003 edition of The New York Times, an article with the following title appeared: "A Classicist's Legacy: New Empire Builders." The article, written by James Atlas, points to the impact of Professor Leo Strauss (who died in 1973) on a significant number of Bush administration officials, contemporary journalists, and public intellectuals, including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearle, Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol, Gary Schmitt, and Francis Fukuyama. What did Prof. Strauss teach? Classical political theory. When did he write and teach? Most importantly, in the 1950s and '60s. What did he convey to his readers and students? That classical Greek and Roman philosophy is the key to political wisdom for today as well as yesterday.

Two months before the Strauss story, The New York Times Magazine (March 23) published "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror," by Paul Berman, which introduced the writings of Sayyid Qutb (who died in 1966), considered to be one of the most influential philosophers behind Islamic radicalism today. What did Qutb teach? "Islamism," based on the Koran. When did he write? In the 1950s and '60s. What did he convey to his readers and students? That the Koran calls for a political movement that will create a new society, a society that breaks through the corruptions of modernism rooted in the Christian division of the world between sacred and secular realms. Why call your attention to these two articles about twentieth-century philosophers who worked fifty years ago, teaching perspectives on life that arose thousands of years ago? Because in order to understand what is happening today in Washington, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Riyadh, Tehran, Jerusalem, New Delhi, Islamabad, Beijing, and other capital cities one must understand the deepest foundations—the religious roots—of cultures and civilizations. The articles show that the roots and the crises of civilizations run very deep. Books of recent decades about the "clash of civilizations" and "culture wars" show the same thing. The point is, if we live and think only at the surface of contemporary "news" about interventions in Iraq, terrorist attacks, arguments at the United Nations, conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India, and all the other political, economic, and social "events" of our day, we may have no idea why anything happens or what sense it makes.

Introducing Herman Dooyeweerd

The articles about Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb offer an occasion to introduce another professor who was writing and teaching 50 years ago and conveying to students and readers another perspective on life that goes back to ancient times. Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1997) was a Dutch philosopher of law and politics who argued that the clash among and within cultures arises from the religious depths of human life and that biblical religion opens the way to understand the meaning of the conflicts and disagreements that work themselves out in every sphere of life and learning.

"In the profoundest possible sense," writes Dooyeweerd, a religious "ground-motive"—a deep driving force—"determines a society's entire life—and worldview. It puts its indelible stamp on the culture, science and the social structure of a given period. This applies so long as a leading cultural power can in fact be identified as giving clear direction to the historical development of society. If such ceases to be the case, then a real crisis emerges at the foundations of that society's culture. Such a crisis is always accompanied by spiritual uprootedness" (Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular and Christian Options).

What we see around us today, more and more, is not just the clashes between civilizations, but crises within cultures where competing, antithetical religious ground-motives are at work: for example, between Hinduism, Islam, secularism, and Christianity in India; between Islam and western secularism throughout much of the Middle East; between paganism, secularism, and Christianity throughout much of the West.

"Directly at work in the religious ground-motive is either the spirit of God or one that denies and opposes him," according to Dooyeweerd. "Each ground-motive is a spiritual force in whose service people place themselves and in which they are participants. It is a community-founding spiritual force that is not controlled by people. Rather, it controls them. For it is specifically religion that reveals to us our profound dependency on a higher power to whom or to which we look to find stability and to learn the origin of our existence" (Roots of Western Culture). If philosophy is to be coherent, if political societies are to be just, if humans are to know themselves truly, then the power of God's love in Jesus Christ must control communities and cultures.

Dooyeweerd was professor of law and philosophy at the Free University of Amsterdam. Although his cultural and political influence has not been as great as that of Strauss and Qutb, his work has had a significant impact on people in many parts of the world. The Collected Works of Herman Dooyeweerd are now being translated into English and published in two, multi-volume series under the general editorship of D.F.M. Strauss. The work is being done through the Dooyeweerd Centre at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada and published by Mellen Press. 

In addition to Dooyeweerd's Roots of Western Culture (2003, 1979), quoted above, the two series also include In the Twilight of Western Thought (1999, 1960); Essays in Legal, Social, and Political Philosophy (1997); Christian Philosophy and the Meaning of History (1996); the Encyclopedia of the Science of Law (the first of five volumes, 2002), and many other volumes. Dooyeweerd's philosophical works are not for popular consumption, any more than Strauss's or Qutb's works are accessible to the general reader. It is important, nonetheless, to highlight in these pages the work of these thinkers and the religious traditions in which they are rooted in order to point to deeper ground of the historical dynamics and cultural conflicts of our day.

The Religion of Secularism

One of Dooyeweerd's most important achievements was to expose the religious character of modern humanism as it took hold of the sciences, politics, and cultural life in the West. The typical way in which westerners refer to religion over against secular society or secular life is a use of words that hides the fact that all of life is shaped and directed by religious ground-motives. Modern humanism, which began to have cultural impact in the Renaissance quest for human renewal and which became powerful in the Enlightenment's quest for a pure, secularly rational explanation of reality, represents a new, community-constituting religious force. It is not non-religious.

"The Renaissance," Dooyeweerd writes, "was basically concerned with a 'rebirth' of humankind in an exclusively natural sense. The 'new age' that dawned required a 'new people' who would take their fate into their own hands and would no longer be faithfully devoted to the authorities. . Rebirth was to occur through a revitalized participation in Greco-Roman culture, freed from the damage it had incurred in its accommodation to Christianity. But the Renaissance did not return to the original Greek religious ground-motive. The deepest religious root of the Renaissance movement was the humanistic religion of human personality in its freedom (from every faith that claims allegiance) and in its autonomy (that is, the pretension that human personality is a law unto itself)." [Roots of Western Culture.]

Through much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this new religion of freedom and autonomy was carried by the science ideal, by means of which the new humanists expected to gain dominance over nature and thereby assure their freedom and autonomy. However, as Dooyeweerd explains, the complete success of scientific control would reduce humans themselves to nothing more than objects utterly determined by the laws of nature and subject to scientific control. Freedom and autonomy would evaporate altogether. Through figures such as Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, as well as by various cultural and political movements, new efforts were made to secure human freedom above and beyond scientific determination of the realm of nature. Yet the tension between science and freedom, between determinism and autonomy, inherent in the religion of modern humanism cannot be resolved within that standpoint because it is a religion that defies the true meaning and order of created reality.

The irresolvable dialectical tension between the freedom ideal and the science ideal of modern humanism has produced a crisis in every sphere of human life where it has gained control or where it has been accommodated by Christianity and other religions. Escape from modernism's crises has been attempted by so-called postmodernists, who have not, however, really transcended or turned away from the ground-motive of humanism. Postmodernism is rooted in what Dooyeweerd calls radical historicism, one of the developments in humanism, to try to save the illusion of absolute freedom and autonomy.

"Radical historicism makes the historical viewpoint the all-encompassing one, absorbing all the other aspects of the human experience. Even the religious center of human experience, the human ego or selfhood, is reduced to a flowing stream of historical movements of consciousness. All our scientific, philosophical, ethical, aesthetic, political and religious standards and conceptions are viewed as the expression of the mind of a particular culture or civilization. Each civilization has arisen and ripened in the all-embracing stream of historical development. Once its florescence has ended, it is destined to decline. And it is merely dogmatical illusion [from the historicist point of view] to think that man would be able to view his world and life from another standpoint than the historical. History is the be-all and end-all of man's existence and of his faculty of experience" (In the Twilight of Western Thought).

In contrast to Qutb who sought to overcome the crisis of modernity through a movement that would reject the sacred/secular split introduced by western Christians and humanists, and in contrast to Strauss who encouraged his students to recover classical, rational philosophy, independent of revelation, Dooyeweerd called for a non-accommodationist Christian way of life whereby Christians would exercise their responsibility in politics and law, in education and business, in the arts and the sciences, in humble dependence on the true God who creates, judges, and redeems all things through Jesus Christ. This is not a religion that can function in private while granting public supremacy to a secularist culture but is a religion that calls humans to service to the true God in all spheres of life.

The Kuyperian Heritage

Dooyeweerd 's philosophical work must be understood against the background of Christian revival movements in nineteenth-century Europe that transformed the lives of G. Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876) and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) who greatly influenced Dooyeweerd and the school of Christian philosophy associated with him. Kuyper founded the Free University of Amsterdam where Dooyeweerd studied and taught. Kuyper also organized the first Christian democratic party in Europe in the 1870s (the Antirevolutionary Party, founded by Groen van Prinsterer). The most important English publication on van Prinsterer is Harry Van Dyke's Groen van Prinsterer's Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution (Jordan Station, Ontario: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1989). Kuyper, who gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton University in 1898, was remembered in a 100th anniversary conference at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998, one of the fruits of which is Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper's Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Luis Lugo (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Two other important books on Kuyper were published in the anniversary year, 1998: Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans), and Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, newly translated lectures and essays by Kuyper, edited by James D. Bratt (Eerdmans). Princeton Theological Seminary has now established a Kuyper Center on its campus.

Two of Dooyeweerd's early books on politics were researched or written in the 1920s when he as directing research at the newly established "think tank" for the Antirevolutionary Party. Those books, not yet released in English translation, are The Crisis in Humanistic Political Theory and In the Struggle for a Christian Politics. In one of his essays that has been published, Dooyeweerd shows how Kuyper's idea of limited "spheres of human sovereignty" under God's ultimate sovereignty helps illuminate the conflicts in modern humanism's debate over the meaning of state sovereignty.

All humanist doctrines of sovereignty, Dooyeweerd explains, deny the existence of original spheres of competence of state and the other spheres of life.

"As an original jural power—not derived from another temporal sphere of life—[the state] may be called sovereign, provided this concept of sovereignty is immediately circumscribed by 'in its proper orbit.' And then at the same time it becomes the radical opposite of the concept of sovereignty construed by humanistic theories.... 'Sovereignty in its proper orbit' [sphere sovereignty] is not some vague political slogan, the cry of a special Christian political party. It is deeply rooted in the whole real order of things, and is not to be ignored with impunity. For it is the expression of the sovereign divine will and wisdom of the Creator, who created all things after their own kind and set their constant structural boundaries in the order of temporal reality. And it is he who maintained this temporal order of reality even after the fall of humankind, to reveal it in the redemption by Jesus Christ in all its religious fullness of meaning: the focusing of all temporal reality on the loving service of the glorification of God. In other words, sovereignty in its proper orbit is a universal ontological principle, which gets its special legal expression only in the juridical aspect of reality" (Essays in Legal, Social, and Political Philosophy).

If a truly deep and comprehensive Christian contribution to contemporary law and politics is going to be made, it will require a level and quality of work sufficient to challenge the living legacies of the Strausses and Qutbs. The work of Dooyeweerd and his students, standing in the Kuyper tradition, opens a pathway in this direction.