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Theology among the disciplines in a Republic under Scripture

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This is PART TWO of excepts from a commencement speech I gave at a seminary last March. For Part 1, on The Three Senses of Theology, click here.

Now, let me go back to the question posed by our discussion of Thomas Aquinas: is theology indeed the Queen of the Sciences? If not, should we make it such? In the Western tradition, theology was a crucial part of the university, beginning with the ancient universities in Paris, in Salamanca or in Oxford, which were also started as crucial pillars of religious communities of what was then a united Christendom.

Over time, theology lost its pride of place in the onslaught of secularization. That in part also explains  the anomaly one finds today in many faculties of theology in Europe and North America full of theologians who don’t believe what they write about God: theology has become unmoored from its church foundations, losing its intimate connections with the daily life of the church in prayer, word, Eucharist, baptism, celebration.

For example, in the last 10 years or so, a movement in theological faculties has arisen, called Radical Orthodoxy (which I mentioned earlier), championed by the theologian John Milbank. Milbank critiques traditional accounts of secularization that posits it as an independent development from the wrap of Christian culture of the Middle Ages. In fact, he argues that shifts in theological thought, beginning with Duns Scotus and William of Occam, led as well to disciplinary shifts, leading to the birth of secularized social sciences. So Milbank and his followers wanted to recover theology as primus inter pares among the disciplines.

Indeed, Milbank’s revisionist account proffers radical implications on how we look, among other things, at theology and societal institutions and communities. On the first point, Radical Orthodoxy seeks to re-install theology as the Queen of the Sciences.

Indeed, Milbank argues that theology, inasmuch as it concerns itself with esse as such, with the ground of all being, and all in relation to such ground and source, it cannot be anything but be pre-eminent over all other disciplines. In fact, he goes as far as saying that ceding ground to other disciplines is idolatry, considering that such disciplines, in the first place, were born as a result of theology’s descent into hell. He says theology must now reassert its voice in giving an account of every sphere of creation so that theology is not side-lined by other disciplines but that other disciplines orient themselves in relation to itself as the “Queen of the Sciences for all the inhabitants of the altera civitas.”

So Milbank rejects all disciplinary boundaries and summons theology as the Queen sovereign of all disciplines, in this wise:

Theology has no proper finite territory of its own, and yet is able to speak of God, its specific concern, by way of all other subjects and sciences. So when one is speaking of “theology and economics” one is just directly concerned with the possibility of their being a mediated word of God, as when one is speaking of “theology and Church history” or “theology and the gospels.

As it were, he would have us with a theological economics, a theological political science, or a theological sociology. As a practical and logical outworking of theology as the only truthful account of reality, Radical Orthodoxy rejects the societal differentiation occasioned by modernity, such differentiation, being, in Milbank’s book, the result of a theological heterodoxy (here, let us bear in mind Milbank’s thesis that shifts in theology also led to the birth of heretical social scientific disciplines).

Indeed, subsequent works both by Milbank and his many disciples surface the centrality of the church as a community, as the new polis. I agree with the broader turns – especially his attack on claims to neutrality and objectivity of secularized special scientific disciplines – taken by Milbank’s Radical Orthodox project but reject his other argument – clearly implied in the book – that we should all now return the place of the Queen of the Sciences to theology, as it was in the time of Thomas Aquinas.

My principal concern here is the second point. While Radical Orthodoxy may have somewhat gone out of fashion in the academe, it is still useful to use its propositions as counter-point to what I believe should be the proper place of theology in the third sense (that is, academic theology) among the disciplines. In fact, in the Reformed tradition, it is a commonplace to speak of God’s word addressing every sphere of creaturely life. As the great Dutch theologian, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper had said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of creation over which Christ does not cry, ‘Mine’!”

But as the political philosopher Jonathan Chaplin asks, who has authority to interpret the word of God for, say, society and politics? His response:

The first answer of the Reformed tradition is, rightly, the whole people of God, not primarily academic theologians. Yet among the people of God are of course, academic theologians, as well as Christian scholars in all other disciplines, all of whom are equally subject to biblical revelation. Where the Reformed tradition may differ with Radical Orthodoxy is in denying that this subordination is authoritatively mediated to disciplines like social theory by a royal discipline called theology.

Christian sociologists will need to draw on the expertise of theologians for their understanding of the Christian narrative in general and specific biblical themes such as creation, anthropology, sin, history, community, eschatology and so on. But a theologian will also need to draw on the work of Christian sociologists for their Christian understanding of social processes, structures, and norms.

Thus, Chaplin explains, “for the Reformed tradition, the sciences are a republic, not a monarchy” but a “republic under Scripture.”

Chaplin here follows Dooyeweerd’s view that theology is but one special theoretical discipline among many. He understands that for Dooyeweerd, each of these disciplines must be shaped and directed by a biblically formed Christian philosophy. In his summation and integrative essay to the volume in which Chaplin’s essay appears, Jim Olthuis, who edited it along with Smith, says:

Other problems emerge…when theology is enthroned as queen of the sciences. The impression is created that any and every kind of Christian attempt at theorizing is ipso facto theology. Indeed, Milbank claims that any and all efforts by Christians to provide countertheory belong to theology and are, in fact, ecclesiology. I cannot help but wonder about what appears to be a hegemonic move. Is theology the only science that can legitimately be called Christian? Is there no room, in addition to theology, or Christian theories of economics, political science, history, physics, biology, sociology, linguistics, aesthetics, psychology, and so on, each with its own field of study?…one is left wondering if there are any parameters distinguishing the various sciences from a Christian perspective. Would a Christian university simply have no hegemonic faculty, with all the other disciplines as branches or subsidiaries of theology?

Thus, what we must not do is to subsume all Christian knowledge under the term “theology.”

…….

The image found in this post is taken from here.

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Written by Romel

May 31, 2018 at 2:05 am

The Three Senses of Theology

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PART ONE: Excerpts from a seminary commencement speech I gave in March this year:


In his short English-language introduction to his four-volume magnum opus, The New Critique of Theoretical Thought, the late Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweed writes that the Greek philosophers of old were the exact opposite in the extreme sense, disdaining doxa (popular opinion) while holding that true knowledge is philosophic in character. Thus, for them true theological knowledge cannot stoop to the level of faith, denying the possibility of divine revelation. So from the very beginning, there has always been a fraught relationship between theology and philosophy, as Dooyeweerd describes it in his book In The Twilight of Western Thought.

I think what Dooyeweerd, who has championed an integral, biblically directed philosophical prolegomena to all Christian theology, has written about the relationship between philosophy and theology is very relevant to our discussion today. All too often, our failure to understand the historical roots of that problematic relationship has led to much confusion, if not equivocation, in the way we understand “Christian knowledge.” It is important, first of all, what we mean when we speak of theology.

Church Fathers, especially Augustine, rejected the Greek proposition that philosophy, as an independent source of knowledge, can well hold on its own without theology, and in fact, can be an independent source of truth. For them, pagan-inspired philosophy, being full of errors and superstitions, cannot be trusted.

Philosophy can only be the servant of theology – with its own principle of knowledge, namely Scripture – and at the careful control and tending of the latter.

Augustine most of all held to this conviction. And yet, Dooyeweerd explains that it was still the influence of Greek philosophy in Christian theology that however led Augustine to think that theoretical Christian theology is true knowledge of God and true self-knowledge. So for Augustine, theology is true philosophy.

In Aquinas, by Dooyeweerd’s account, Christian philosophy ceased to be identified with theology, as Augustine wanted. Instead, philosophy as an autonomous science is assumed, including a philosophical or natural theology that refers to the natural light of reason alone.

Aristotlean metaphysics from which it is drawn, though now outside the control of Scripture, is accommodated into Christian theology. Thomism assumed that the natural truths of philosophy cannot contradict the supernatural truths of the Christian theology as expressed in doctrines, which are assumed to be supernatural, since they are drawn from divine revelation, and for that matter, are higher than the truths of philosophy.

Thus it is in Aquinas’ Thomism where we got the notion of theology as the Queen of the Sciences, of theology as elevated over all other forms of knowledge. It is also in Aquinas where Christian theology, in the sense of the academic and scientific practice, became identified with sacra doctrina (the doctrine of the Church) and sacra scriptura (the Holy Scriptures).

Three senses and True knowledge of God and of ourselves

How is this so? To understand why, we must acquaint ourselves with the three senses of theology that Dooyeweerd speaks of. The Christian philosopher speaks of the first sense of theology as true knowledge given in regeneration (the central religious orientation of the heart to the true God); Theology in the second sense is that of the church’s confession of faith as expressed in the creeds (a non-theoretical expression); Theology in the third sense is that of theology as an academic or scientific discipline (a field of theoretical study or a special science). So when we speak of the first sense of theology, we speak of the most basic root orientation and direction of all our temporal existence drawn from the word-revelation of the Holy Spirit, which ought to inform the two other senses of theology. Meanwhile, theology in the third academic and scientific sense then springs from a general theoretical view of reality as its presupposition (a philosophical root), whether implicit or expressed.

In Dooyeweerd’s view, academic Christian theology “refers to a theoretical explanation of the articles of faith in their scientific confrontation with the texts of Holy Writ and with heretical views.” In this sense,” he continues,” Christian theology is bound to theoretical human thought which cannot claim the infallibility of God’s Word.” When we say then that every Christian ought to be a “theologian”, it is fundamentally a reference to the first sense, to the fact that we are all religious beings, whose hearts are either oriented to the true God or to something in the created order that in our apostasy, we turn into a god.

We are homo adorans, beings created to worship, in the totality of who and what we are (as opposed to say, the Thomist-Aristotlean construction of the human that stresses on the intellect, hence, on rationality, as its defining characteristic). It is only this sense where we can say that every Christian is a theologian. Stated in another way, true knowledge of God and of ourselves is a true spiritual miracle, being no less than the very gift of God by faith, and not the work of scientific or systematic (i.e., “dogmatic”) theology (theology in the third sense). In true evangelical fashion, we say that we must be born again – like Nicodemus – to truly know God and who we are before him (John 3:1-21).

When the Dutch philosopher speaks of a “radical starting point” for Christian thought, Dooyeweerd really means that point of being “reborn” through the working of the Spirit as the foundation of theoretical thought. True Christian theology (the first sense of theology) is not/cannot be reached through the extensive, academic study of the things of God, or in Aquinas’s term, through the workings of natural reason – of autonomous theoretical thought, that is – or of sacra doctrina itself, apart from regeneration in the Holy Spirit. For human effort through a scientific or systematic investigation of the character of God (theology in the third sense) cannot unlock the mystery of the birth (creation), death (fall) and resurrection (redemption) of Jesus Christ. Only faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit will do for fallen humanity.

Because to do so, in Dooyewerd’s idea, is to make it an autonomous project, the way a certain Aristotelian Thomism would make of natural reason, in the absence of a Reformed doctrine of the total depravity of fallen humanity. The transcendental theoretical critique of theology is precisely this: without Spirit-imparted faith, correct doctrine is nothing but lifeless words.

A person may well have mastered Calvin’s systematic theology and yet remain ignorant of the saving faith the New Testament speaks of. For academic purposes, she may be well versed in the intricacies of the Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion and yet in her heart, remain in the dark about the personal and spiritual implications of the great Genevan theologue’s (or for that matter, of Martin Luther’s) insight that a person is justified by faith, and not by works. Only the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration can impart true knowledge of God in the heart of a person. But not everyone is a theologian in the third sense (a professional or academic theologian).

This then is the paradox of any academic theology (or any theology in the third sense), even one that is by nature orthodox: it may accurately describe all the truths that Scripture teaches and yet may at the same time serve as stumbling block to true knowledge of God and of ourselves. Theology in the second sense of its creedal form may draw from the third sense in a reciprocal relation. That is, academic theology, carried out by believing or confessing theologians, informs and shapes creedal Christianity (theology in the second sense) and deepens our religious commitments (theology in the first sense).

Thus, in our being theologians in the first sense, we draw from theology in the second and third senses in a constant interplay. We need theology in the third sense, yes, to deepen and enrich theology in the first and second senses. But without theology in the first sense, theology in the third sense is vain striving. To explain further, theology in the first sense, anchored on our being homo adorans, is the knowledge of God and of ourselves that happens when we hear and share from the Scriptures, opened in our hearts by the Spirit, and arising from our obedience to Christ in doing the truth. In other words, this is the deepened faith that grips our whole being when we follow Christ in all that we are.

This is why it can happen – as it has indeed happened – that, many a naïve reader of the Bible, by simply being an active part of the church of Jesus Christ, is able to acquire the correct and fruitful use of Scripture, experiencing its profound truths in their everyday life, even without the hermeneutical and theological sophistication of professionals in the field. In the language of the Book of Hebrews that was our Scripture text earlier, they “have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (v. 4-5) and have chosen to be faithful with their Lord and Savior rather than fall away.

This sort of drinking the deep truths of Scripture is not a theoretical endeavor after the manner of academic theologians; this is actually experiencing and living out the truths of Scripture in faith as Christians living together in a community of believers. This is embracing the “Deeper Life” – pursuing together the Lordship of Christ no matter what – in the highs and lows of life, through disappointments, pains, tears, illnesses, and defeats, towards the higher plane of Christian maturity that no amount of academic theorizing can ever accomplish. And yet, even all this, is still the working of God’s grace in the heart of Christians.

Contrast this to many theologians with PhDs from the world’s top universities who somehow manage to dish out absurdities, half-truths and distortions for most of their professional lives, ruining the lives of many in and out of church, and living lives that are unconnected to what they claim is the very subject of their life’s work, namely, God! Nevertheless, the distinction Dooyeweerd makes between and among these three senses of theology may also explain why someone whose heart is totally committed to God may still be working within a theological tradition rooted in unbiblical ultimate commitments.

In fact, Dooyeweerd warns us of the dangers of conflating the Scripture with dogmatic theology (as in the Thomistic sense of theology as sacra doctrina et sacra sciptura):

For dogmatic theology is a very dangerous science. Its elevation to a necessary mediator between God’s Word and the believer amounts to idolatry and testifies to a fundamental misconception concerning its real character and position. If our salvation be dependent on theological dogmatics and exegesis, we are lost. For both of them are a human work, liable to all kinds of error, disagreement in opinion, and heresy.

The philosopher-theologian James K.A. Smith, in his book engaging the Cambridge Radical Orthodox theologians, asks the following questions, drawing from this Dooyeweerdian insight on theology as an academic discipline:

Is Christian faith to be equated with Christian theology? Is Christian revelation to be equated with theology? Is Christian confession theological in a scientific sense? How are we to do justice to the ‘sense of the faithful’ if Christian faith is collapsed with Christian theology? Must every Christian be a scientist in this respect?

Smith’s questions posed in 2004 and Dooyeweerd’s before him, are ever relevant.

…..

 

The image used in this post was taken from here.

Written by Romel

May 28, 2018 at 11:44 pm

Skillen on Newbigin (and the Benedict Option)

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Internet chatter on the Benedict Option – conceived as creating new “monastic communities” plodding on as a counter-cultural force in a post-secular society – is rife these days. There is a palpable sense that given recent governmental moves in Western societies that severely restrict religious freedom in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular, the only option is to opt out of the public sphere and build new communities where Christian virtues may be freely practiced. Read here here, here and here. In this blog, it was discussed here.

But here’s why the Benedict Option may be missing the point about what it means to have effective Christian witness even under such challenging times:

Dr. James Skillen, writing in response to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s view that to develop a Christian society, “lay men and women” need to develop a “lay theology” for various fields of public life, says thus:

Then the apostle Paul writes to various churches and challenges them to live wholly in Christ, he frequently addresses believers in their capacities as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and citizens (or subjects) in the political realm. But in those capacities Paul does not address them as lay men and women, implying that their identity in those roles is as ecclesiastical nonprofessionals. A “husband” is not a church lay person needing a theology for being a husband; he is a member of the body of Christ who has, among many different Christian responsibilities, that of being a husband. In this capacity, it is not as a church lay person that he needs a theology for loving his wife, but rather that he needs to understand God’s will for his role in marriage.

Precisely here, it seems to me, we should think not of applying some ecclesiastical truths to non-ecclesiastical areas of life, but rather, of taking seriously the way the gospel restores and illumines the meaning of God’s good creation. John’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and the letter to the Hebrews, for example, all begin by stating that the incarnate Son of God is the one in whom, for whom, and through whom all things were created. The creation is revelatory of God and connected to the Son of God prior to the incarnation and the organizing of the church. The good news of the Jesus Christ is, among other things, that creation has been recovered and is being restored so that it will finally come to fulfillment in the City of God.

The body of Christ is a communion of reborn creatures – of the renewed image of God. Marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life. In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words clay persons should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

The development of a Christian society, I am suggesting, comes not from a theology for Church lay persons but from obedience of the whole body of Christ in all areas of creaturely life where its members bear responsibility as they learn to live completely unto Christ. Of course the whole creation holds together in Christ, so the meaning of marital love, of economic stewardship, of public Justice, of medical healing, and of so much more hangs together in one meaningful creation, which has been distorted by sin but Judged and redeemed in Christ. The redeeming work of Christ redirects hearts and lives in all areas of life. Along with sound Christian theology, then, there should emerge sound Christian philosophy, obedient Christian political practice, healing Christian medical practice, and so forth. The adjective “Christian” in each instance refers not to theology as something added to an otherwise indistinguishable mode of worldly life, but indicates the genuine redirection, recovery, renewal of life among those led by faith in Christ. The Christian “way of life” should, in other words, appear different from the secularist way of life, the Muslim way of life, and so forth.

What will often be necessary as Christians seek to fulfill their earthly responsibilities in all areas of life are Christian organizations of parents, of farmers, of laborers, of academics, of citizens, and so forth. The purpose of such organizing should not be so Christians can isolate themselves or try to create a perfect community on the edge of civilization, but rather to develop consistent Christian practices in each area of life as they live side by side with people whose ways of life are directed by faith in other gods. The body of Christ is the people of God, lifting up all of creation’s treasures in every realm of existence in praise to God, looking and pointing ahead to the Christian society that will finally be revealed in its fullness when the Lord returns[emphasis supplied].[1]

What Skillen is saying here is that Christians are called to witness to the world in the context of their many differentiated responsibilities: as husbands and wives, as professionals in various fields, as members of a church, as members of a Christian NGO, as citizens of a particular country, as members of a Christian labor union or a political party. Christians take part in and help shape a creational order that Christ has renewed and is renewing – an order that is revelatory of God’s will and purposes. Thus, in the context of the redemptive work of the Gospel, the body of Christ is a communion of re-born creatures – of the renewed image of God – for whom “marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life.”

He adds:

In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words ‘lay persons’ should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

Christians cannot live in isolation from the world if they are to give justice to their differentiated responsibilities that they exercise as part of the redemptive work of the Gospel – and such work requires faithful Christian practice and presence across their various endeavors and roles.

[1] Is there a place for Christian politics in America? notes from a lecture given by Dr. Skillen to a philosophy class at the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa (2012). The lecture is a response to the work of Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a path-breaking missiologist. I am grateful to Dr. D.F.M Strauss, at whose initiative the lecture was made, for making available the notes to me.

Written by Romel

January 12, 2016 at 3:43 am

Jonathan Chaplin and H. Dooyeweerd’s Theory of the State

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Those familiar with the political philosopher  Dr. Jonathan Chaplin’s writings on the theme of the State will note that the key concerns found in his first two major works as a scholar dealing with an important component of the corpus of the late Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s body of thought are for the most part echoed in his most recent book – specifically in the chapters that dealt with the various issues implicated in Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state. In fact, these, all taken together, consist of at least a third of the book’s main body of 317 pages.

Indeed, the two main questions raised by Chaplin on Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state are either restated or further clarified in Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society – without doubt, in the words of a noted American scholar of law and religion, “the go-to book on Dooyeweerd for many years to come.”

It is in this book where he foists what is yet his most radical  if not compelling  challenge to the Dooyeweerdian State – his thesis that while the State decidedly has a leading function,  it has no founding function.

I responded  to his critique of Dooyeweerd yesterday during a panel at the opening of the  2nd Kuyper Seminar at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, to which he graciously listened. In part, I said in my paper on The State in International Law: Reformational Insights:

Chaplin argues that if coercion is written into the structural principle, how can it be consistent with its supposed basis in a good creation? Dooyeweerd, he notes, holds that such coercive power has been incorporated into the world order on account of sin; the state thus is an institution of “common” or “preserving grace” established with a soteriological aim of preserving temporal society in its differentiated condition.

Chaplin suggests that there is an incoherence between Dooyeweerd’s notion that pre-fall, the state’s sword function has been incorporated into creational norms from the very beginning and the latter’s contention that the state was instituted post-fall, on account of sin.

Chaplin thinks coercion cannot be consistently built into structural principles since structural principles are conceived as grounded in the original order of creation that was yet unmarred by sin.

This inconsistency could only arise from Dooyeweerd’s misreading of the state’s positive form (the territorial monopoly of coercive power) into its invariant or in his own words, “enduring” structural principle.

So Chaplin asks,  given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice, is historical power so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes?

He understands that for Dooyeweerd coercive power is indispensable to giving the state its unique identity, to distinguishing it from other institutions in society. But this, according to him, seems a questionable approach, as that it can still be argued that while the state does have a leading function, it does not necessarily imply that this function is “uniquely related to the possession of historical power.”

Still, for Chaplin it is not quite the case that we need to have an historical function to give the state its unique identity. It’s enough that we know it’s purpose is to ensure public justice. After all, while it can be said that the founding function is related to the leading function, but it is also related to other functions of the state; while it is true that coercive power seems to have been a feature of all known states, so has economic or other forms of power. Thus, Chaplin says that Dooyeweerd’s argument that coercive power is unique and so foundational does not compel and the attempt to single out one function as having a privileged link to the leading function seems artificial.  

Thus, he concludes that the state has no founding function.

Following this reformulation, there is a need therefore to transfer the coercive element into the variable side of human positivation. The better account, Chaplin says, is that the state’s coercive power is an historical development developed or positivized in response to sin, but is not part of its typical structure or its inner structural principle.

In this way then, he says, we can look at the state and the UN, or all bodies organized as public legal communities, as having the same typical structure, but with variegated positive forms.

From there it now becomes easy for Chaplin to suggest that based on Dooyeweerd’s notion of the “internal opening process” of societal structures,  the UN can perhaps be identified as an “international ‘state’ at the very early stage;” it is analogous to emerging nation-states prior to their development as an authority over a defined territory enforced by coercion, or an “ ‘immature’ international state” that needs further positivation so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

This is an advantageous approach, he says, because it is more sensitive to the dynamics of the evolution of structures whose task is to establish public justice and avoids the danger of regarding the nation-state as sacrosanct, historically finalized structure

 The normative peculiarity of the state

…..the apparent contradiction between a good creation and the state’s monopoly of the sword written into its structural principle is Chaplin’s strongest argument for revising Dooyeweerd’s original conception.

Why should the state’s founding function based on a monopoly of coercion be inconsistent with an originally good creation? My argument is that it is good because God has put in place every possible support for human flourishing, whether in their obedience or disobedience. This is a necessary implication of the gift of free will to humanity – the capacity to choose between good and evil.

It also resonates with the idea, at least of human ways of living, of having been endowed with the capacity for good or for evil – the classic Kuyperian sense of the anti-thesis, where each human community or inter-relationship may either be directed towards God or towards some aspect of creation that it has turned into an idol.

Such a capacity cannot but clearly imply a divine anticipation of negative and positive consequences.  In Scripture, when God gave the first humans a choice between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God also laid down what the consequences were of opting for one or the other (Gen. 2:8; 3:1-4) .

This also implies that God, at the very least, knew what the consequences were of human choosing between life and death. Certainly, God’s sovereignty is severely limited by a view that He only conceived of the state after humanity sinned, as an ex post facto imposition.  It can well be argued that God’s sovereignty has seen it best to institute creational ordinances that would address any possible negative consequences of human choosing.

Hence the state is not a divine afterthought; to say that it was instituted as a response to the fall is only to stress the historical nature of its establishment. This is the better way of understanding or re-reading Dooyeweerd’s suggestion that the state has been incorporated into the world-order after the fall.

A new, post-fall, structural principle did not appear and slide without friction into the original order, as Chaplin suggests. Rather, as a principle set in place to response to a contingency, it was activated when the condition for which it was devised arose.  

His proposal seemingly paints divine sovereignty into a rather awkward picture where having been caught unprepared, God finds himself instituting after the fact of human sin the state with a monopoly of sword power to curtail human capacity for abuse. In this way, Chaplin can argue that Dooyeweerd seems to have suggested a situation where new creational ordinance slide seamlessly into the created order after the fact of the fall, despite his own contention that no new such ordinances can arise in history. 

A sensible alternative to Chaplin’s view is that from before human history, from before creation itself, God had already set in place ordinances that would govern the unfolding of the state in whatever context there maybe, giving allowance for the consequences of human freedom.

The founding function of the state in the form that it has now is consistent with a good creation in the sense that even at the point of creation, a good Creator, knowing all the possible consequences of the gift of free will to humanity, has in his sovereign will, set in place creational ordinances adequate to address such consequences.

In a world without sin – a Christian account of the state can perhaps say that all that the state needs is public trust to sustain itself, as Chaplin himself has suggested in another context.

This is just another way of saying that public trust may well be  the structural principle God has designed for a state unveiled in a pre-fall context. The other side of the coin is that the same divine providence has, at the point of creation, established an ordinance – a structural principle – that would apply in the event of human disobedience. Hence we have two sides of the same coin of creation that, in the beginning, was in fact “very good.”

The simultaneous realization of norms as a task of the state

To recall, Chaplin finds to be questionable Dooyeweerd’s view connecting the leading function specifically to the possession of historical power as the state’s founding function. Indeed he wonders why – given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice – historical power is so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes.

The question, I believe, can be properly answered by a careful analysis of the Dooyeweerd’s theory of modal aspects, in which in the process of disclosure, anticipatory and retrocipatory aspects interact, where the lower aspects serve as substratum to the higher aspects, and where the higher aspects reach back to deepen the workings of the lower aspects.

In the counter-examples given by Chaplin, from the point of view of disclosure, the maintenance of the territory and the collection of taxes are not even possible without the priority of the state being able to establish itself with the exclusive display of sovereign powers within its territory.

The fundamental and definitive nature of the founding function of the state will require the historical opening up of the substratum supporting it  (retrocipatory aspects) as well as the disclosure of the complex of its superstructure — the anticipatory aspects — that contribute to the disclosure and deepening of the meaning of the state’s task as an institution.

Bob Goudzwaard has underscored this as the task of the state to ensure the “simultaneous realization of norms.” Yet it must be stressed that the simultaneous realization of norms is not possible without the undergirding of the state’s historical power.

The reverse of a positive simultaneous realization of norms is a situation where a state experiences a simultaneous breakdown in key functions as seen in several contemporary examples of the so-called “failed states.”; all too often, this does not happen all at once but is a gradual process that eventually leads to a severe stress to the state in many fronts; It takes a complex of factors –and not just the loss of public trust – for the state to fall apart.

The state’s founding function is at the heart of the state-formation project; it is what grants the state its “normative peculiarity” –to borrow a phrase from political philosopher Matthias Risse – or what distinguishes states from other institutions in society.

Risse argues that this normative peculiarity is characterized by an “immediacy” in the state’s coercive function not otherwise displayed by other institutions in the international legal order.  There are two dimensions in which such immediacy is expressed: in law enforcement and in politics, according to Rise.  The first pertains to the fact that “living in a state means living in an environment where enforcement agencies pervasively have such access, and where it is up to internal political processes to regulate what specific shape such access takes and what constraints it is subject to.”

The second deals with the fact that “ it is the state that provides the environment in which individuals’ basic rights are, or fail to be, realized.”

While international organizations may be interested as well in both questions – in the proper enforcement of rules and in the protection and the promotion of the basic rights of citizens and other entities within a state’s territory– at the most basic level, it is the state that provides both the environment and the structures that make these twin concerns possible:

Legal and political immediacy, then, characterize what is peculiar about the state’s coerciveness. Citizenship is membership in an association for which these two features are distinctive, and those two aspects of the immediacy of the relationship between the states and its citizens provide reasons for associative duties restricted to people who share a citizenship.

Questions of ontology aside, the immediacy of the state’s legal and political structures to citizens within its territory  also undercuts  the practicability of Chaplin’s  argument – a necessary implication of his assertion that the state has no founding function – that we may treat the UN as an  immature “international ‘state’ at the very early stage” that needs further positivization so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

Quite the contrary, the state is a necessary, though not necessarily sufficient, normatively peculiar institution performing such an historical mission.  Stated another way, the task of public justice still rests primarily on the shoulders of the state.

Indeed, as Skillen has noted a long time ago, human rights “are tied in with the very meaning of justice and injustice in states and thus cannot be protected or enhanced in abstraction from actual state and interstate structures.”  In other words, if the very character of the sovereign state is part of the problem, every effort to advance human rights without changing the function and identity of states will lead to failure.

——————————————-

Later over dinner at De Latie, we had a most pleasant conversation, discussing in detail our respective interpretations of the problem of the state.  He said my position echoes in some ways Dr. Jim Skillen‘s response to his theory; having listened to my talk on the connection or the lack of it between the state’s coercive powers and creation, he said he could see it’s plausibility and is in fact convinced by it, adding that it may constitute a “third interpretation” because according to him, Dooyeweerd actually said that the state is a post-fall institution established by God through a special ordinance. On the other hand, my view holds that the state’s sword power was a potentiality in the creation ordinance established by God to respond to human contingency.

He also said he might have used the rather infelicitous phrase “immature state” to describe the UN but maintained his critique of Dooyeweerd’s formulation of the state as if it were a final and fixed structural principle. He still doesn’t see why its historical founding function should be a defining element of the state.  I said that Dooyeweerd’s “transcendental empirical” method actually will show that what international law calls “effectiveness” is a well-established historical fact as far as the formation of states is concerned.

We also talked about Dooyeweerd’s reading of Aquinas and according to him, through Robert Sweetman’s work, he became convinced that Dooyeweerd has gotten Aquinas wrong in some ways.  According to him, it appears that Dooyeweerd, while he read Aquinas, was influenced a great deal by commentaries from the 19th century that carried the dualist line identified with  the Spanish Suarez school. Today, he said, there has been a recovery of Aquinas as a more integral thinker, and cited the works of Jean Porter as an important  influence in the rethinking of Thomism as a movement of thought. “Jim Skilen, however, does not agree with me,” he said with a wink, motioning to the direction of Dr. Skillen, who was seated at the next table with an American  friend of mine, Courtney Kane, who is doing her master’s on Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, also at the Vrije Universiteit.

His attitude, according to him, is to work with Thomists on common grounds. “The opposition to the Christian tradition is very strong,” he said. “I’d rather that I get as much help as I can from people who, while I may disagree with them on other points, share the same  moral convictions as I have.” He noted that in the context of where he is right now– the UK– most evangelicals hardly care about intellectual dialogue with other Christian traditions while among Catholics, the intellectuals read Catholic social teaching from standard social democratic lens. “I often have to tell them that they need to look faithfully and closely at the deep resources found in their own tradition.”

An Advent Poem

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One of my favorite poets — Luci N. Shaw — writes from the perspective of faith.   Here’s one poem of hers — Made flesh — which speaks of
the wonder of the Incarnation:

After
the white-hot beam of annunciation
fused heaven with dark earth,
his searing, sharply focused light
went out for a while,
eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
his cool immensity of splendor,
his universal grace,
small-folded in a warm, dim
female space—
the Word stern-sentenced to be
nine months’ dumb—
infinity walled in a womb,
until the next enormity—
the Mighty One, after submission
to a woman’s pains,
helpless on a barn’s bare floor,
first-tasting bitter earth.

Now
I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
was closeted in time,
he is my open door to forever.
From his imprisonment
my freedoms grow,
find wings. Part of this body,
I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
slips through death’s mesh,
time’s bars,
joins hands with heaven,
speaks with stars.

“Made flesh,” in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation by Luci Shaw (Eerdmans, 2006).

I made a  translation to Filipino  of this poem, for use during our church’s Advent Service in Lessons and Carols this coming Sunday, 5:30 p.m., at the F.  Benitez Memorial Hall, Magsaysay Avenue cor. Ylanan Road, UP Diliman, Quezon City.  If you want to hear the recitation of the Filipino translation of this poem, or if you want to experience what a Service and Lessons and Carols is all about,  please do join us at this Advent celebration, with  the theme “Let Heaven and Nature Sing!”

And yes, you may even bring your friends! For directions, you may refer to the campus map below (click on the map to enlarge):

Written by Romel

December 1, 2011 at 5:24 pm

GMA Arrested: Problem, Promise, Prognosis

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I spoke tonight at a forum organized by theology students at the Asian Theological Seminary (ATS) on the current political situation in the Philippines. In particular, I discussed the topic, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Arrested: Problem, Promise and Prognosis.

I built the talk around the thesis that what we are witnessing is an opportunity for the country’s political system to decisively defeat the forces of traditional  and patronage politics and set in place a public legal community founded on the norms of public justice.

Click here for  link to the outline of my presentation.

 

 

Written by Romel

November 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

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Religion in small doses?

Filipino evangelicals have concert-like worship services and “purpose-driven life seminars” to attract new members; Polish Catholics do it with even better style, as can be gleaned from this wire service story:

LUBLIN, Poland–A striking brunette sashayed down the catwalk, showing off her simple yet elegant white robe and black headgear to the enraptured audience.

Sister Lucja of the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus smiled as the crowd burst into applause.

Faced with a slump in the number of nuns, monks and seminarians in Europe’s Roman Catholic heartland, the Church in Poland is trying to dust down its image.

The recent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion show in this city in southeast Poland was just the latest sign.

“The name ‘fashion show’ is provocative. We want to show that we live simply, and that even if we sometimes dress in an old-fashioned way, our clothes are a reflection of our lifestyle,” organiser Father Andrzej Batorski, a Jesuit, told AFP.

After Sister Lucja, other nuns, then Jesuits and Capuchin friars hit the red carpet to show off their cassocks in the main hall of the Catholic University of Lublin.

The 90-year-old university is a renowned center of religious and secular teaching and research in Poland, where more than 90 percent of the 38-million-strong population professes to be Roman Catholic.

Some two dozen orders took part in Batorski’s fair, setting up their stalls to try to spread the word that taking religious vows isn’t a thing of the past.

The stands boasted multimedia displays, leaflets, giveaway calendars and — at the missionary orders’ booths — souvenirs from Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile, religious chants echoed from loudspeakers.

Under Poland’s post-World War II communist regime, the Church played a dual role as both a religious institution and as a bulwark against the authorities.

While its clout has remained significant since the regime’s demise in 1989, and is certainly far stronger than in most other European countries, it has been a victim of its own success in helping bring about political change.

In a democratic country where the free market has brought previously unimaginable opportunities for a new generation of Poles, drawing new recruits is becoming a headache.

The mainstream Church’s image has also been tarnished by an ultra-Catholic fringe whose outbursts regularly grab headlines, turning off would-be recruits.

“Ten years ago, we had 25 novice nuns. Last year we only had six,” said Agnieszka Kranz of the Servant Sisters of Debica, a small Polish order.

Such figures are a worry for the Polish Church, and even for Roman Catholicism beyond the country’s borders.

Until recently, the Polish Church was training more than a quarter of Europe’s priests, monks and nuns, and supplied them worldwide to fill gaps in other countries.

Last year, the number of Poles taking vows fell by around 25 percent.

For the 2007-2008 academic year, Poland’s diocesan seminaries, which train priests, recruited 786 new students, down from 1,029 the year before.

The total number of trainee priests has fallen by 10 percent in one year, to 4,257.

The country’s monastic orders are also feeling the pinch.

The number of novice nuns slumped from 728 in 1998 to 468 last year. The number of new monks fell by half to 797.

“For the Polish Church, this is ringing alarm bells,” said Monsignor Wojciech Polak, who oversees recruitment.

Batorski said it is up to the Church to reach out to young people, speaking a language they understand.

“We wanted via the fair to enable people to meet those who have chosen a monastic life, to show that they are just regular individuals,” he said.

“At the same time, we wanted to give a voice to people who have taken vows, allowing them to explain their chosen path and their faith,” he added.

The Polish Church has also jumped headlong into cyberspace, and also turned to other planks of public relations.

Most orders have their own website — and the Jesuits have even posted a video on YouTube. Others have tried television advertisement and the Franciscans even give their monks public speaking training.

At the Lublin fair, however, the impact seemed limited.

“I’d miss men, and nuns don’t use make up or color their hair,” said Dominika Pietron, an 18-year-old school student.

However, she said she appreciated her hour-long discussion with a nun there.

“Religion helps you take a look at yourself, and builds confidence. But it should only be taken in small doses,” she said.

Written by Romel

April 29, 2008 at 1:56 am

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