It is time to renounce the idea of a presuppositionalist Christian worldview

Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987): when was the last time you saw him mentioned in The New York Times? Molly Worthen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, mentions him in her op-ed “The Evangelical Roots of our Post-Truth Society.” Worthen is correct that Cornelius Van Til’s ideas of Christian worldview are responsible for the current denial of truth and the idea of alternative facts in US politics. Van Til was also the main influence on Francis Schaeffer, who shaped the religious right, as well as on Rousas Rushdoony and his theonomists who seek a kind of Christian jihad.

Dooyeweerd tried hard to promote an alternate viewpoint. He disagreed sharply with Van Til. See the articles in the book “Jerusalem and Athens.” Dooyeweerd rejected Van Til’s view that there is no point of contact between different worldviews; Dooyeweerd insisted on common states of affairs. And Dooyeweerd rejected a presuppostionalist approach to philosophy. What counts is not presuppositional beliefs, but ontical conditions or onticl presupposita that are common to everyone. And Dooyeweerd did not accept a propositional view of biblical revelation; he also was sharply critical of the use of theological ideas as the basis for philosophy, as in Vollenhoven’s philosophy (which follow’s Abraham Kuyper’s idea of religious antithesis; Dooyeweerd said that the antithesis is not between groups of people but an antithesis within the heart of each of us).

The issue is what evidence counts in the critique of science, and what commonalities are accepted as holding true for everyone. It may be, as Dooyeweerd argued, that there is an experience-based Christian worldview. But such a worldview cannot be based on theology or even on biblical exegesis. Both theology and exegesis are sciences, in the sense of theoretical activities, and are themselves subject to critique. It is the presuppositionalist idea of worldview that is a problem, when presuppositions are taken to be theological beliefs.

I recognize that this is going to be a problem for “Christian” colleges that have emphasized the priority of beliefs. But these colleges are part of the problem.

For Dooyeweerd, what is important to worldview is our experience of time and our selfhood that transcends time. Even his ideas of creation, fall and redemption, where he perhaps smuggled in some theological ideas, were interpreted in terms of this temporal/supratemporal philosophical framework. For Dooyeweerd, theology is dependent on philosophy. And Dooyeweerd believed that his philosophical transcendental critique was able to communicate with those who did not share his beliefs, unlike Van Til who said there was no point of contact whatsoever.

Reformational philosophers and evangelicals need to take responsibility for these mistaken ideas and the damage that they have caused to U.S. society. It is time for them to publicly renounce the idea of a distinct Christian worldview in Van Til’s sense of presuppositions based on theological beliefs.

Politicians, the media and the truth

Donald Trump’s distrust of the media, his refusal to take a question from CNN, his desire to move the press corps from the Press Room in the White House, his misuse of the term ‘fake news’—these are all developments that are welcomed by his supporters, who mistrust anything that the “liberal media” reports. I believe that the religious right is in large part responsible for this attitude with its incorrect idea of the “religious antithesis.” Such people believe that we cannot know any facts correctly unless we have the right religious beliefs. As I have argued elsewhere, this comes from reformational philosophy, but it is a misunderstanding of Dooyeweerd, who said that the religious antithesis is not to be used to divide people, but only for self-critique. Furthermore, he said that there are common “states of affairs” that can be appealed to regardless of one’s religious convictions.

The problem is not confined to the religious right. On the left, the idea of constructivism is the dominant ideology—that we construct our reality by the ideas that we bring to it and by our background. The end result is the same as the idea of religious antithesis in leaving no common ground or common facts on which to base our discourse. In its extreme form, we are left with solipsism, where we can never understand the other person. It is said that one race can never understand another, that one sex cannot understand the other and that he/she should not even write about it, that the classic literature of the past is by dead white colonialist males and therefore irrelevant. And it is said that constructivism will lead to a kind of postmodernism and even post-truth society. In fact, as I have shown in my recently published article, constructivism is not postmodernism at all, but an extreme form of Kantian modernism in its denial of a common “givenness” to our experience. It is this idea of a common “givenness” to our experience that is lacking in both the religious right and in the constructivism of the left, although I would extend the idea of what is given to our experience to more than a sensory manifold.

It is the job of the press to explore and bring to light the common facts by which we can test the truth of what politicians are saying. And when Trump is shown to have lied about facts, it is not a proper response to then “pivot” and say that Clinton also lied. That kind of pivoting is a refusal to answer the question, and it only reinforces the idea that there is no common standard by which to judge truth. Lies on both sides need to be addressed head on. Yes, there is bias, and yes we need to beware of the “echo chamber” effect when we listen to only one source of news. But there must be a bedrock belief in common facts if we are to ever be able to communicate with each other.

Linked Glossary

I have transferred the Linked Glossary to this website. This involves transferring hundreds of subfiles. I would appreciate being alerted to any broken links. This Linked Glossary was created when I translated the excerpts from Herman Dooyeweerd’s De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee (Philosophy of the Law-Idea) [‘WdW’]. I was surprised to see that many essential terms of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy were not included or indexed in Volume 4 of A New Critique of Theoretical Thought [NC], which is a translation and revision of the WdW. I was also surprised how many of these terms are defined in terms of each other, and are used in ways that the translators had not understood. Nor had the terms been translated in a consistent way, which is not surprising, since different translators were used for each volume of the NC. By linking these definitions in a glossary, I was able to understand Dooyeweerd’s philosophy in a unified way, and in a way that I believe honours his original intent. It also allowed me to connect his ideas to the sources that he used for his philosophy.

Nabokov’s advice

If I had known in 1970 what I know now of reformational philosophy, it is very, very doubtful that I would have pursued it. I was unaware of the bad blood, political infighting at the Free University of Amsterdam, and its atmosphere of theological narrowness. And, like everyone else, I wrongly assumed that Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd were saying the same thing. Nevertheless, I am not sorry that I have spent such a large part of my life studying Dooyeweerd, learning Dutch, and studying at various institutions. I am comforted by what Nabokov told his students:

“The more things we know the better equipped we are to understand any one thing and it is a burning pity that our lives are not long enough and sufficiently free of annoying obstacles, to study all things with the same care and depth as the one we now devote to some favorite subject or period. And yet there is a semblance of consolation within this dismal state of affairs: in the same way as the whole universe may be completely reciprocated in the structure of an atom,…an intelligent and assiduous student [may] find a small replica of all knowledge in a subject he has chosen for his special research….and if, upon choosing your subject, you try diligently to find out abut it, if you allow yourself to be lured into the shaded lanes that lead from the main road you have chosen to the lovely and little known nooks of special knowledge, if you lovingly finger the links of the many chains that connect your subject to the past and the future and if by luck you hit upon some scrap of knowledge referring to your subject that has not yet become common knowledge, then you will know the true felicity of the great adventure of learning, and your years in this college will become a valuable start on a road of inestimable happiness. “

I have indeed found many interesting byways and branching paths. By concentrating so much of my work on Dooyeweerd, perhaps I have found a small replica of all knowledge. I have discovered the sources of his philosophy in Christian theosophy, and I have been able to relate many of his ideas to nondualism. I hope that my work will be of help to others.