One of the challenges in talking about the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) is the pronunciation of his name. If you've seen The Sound of Music you can pronounce "Dooyeweerd." Sing: "Doe, a deer, a female deer." Yeah, that's great … if a little weird. "Doe-yeah-weird." Close enough! "Doo-ye-weerd."
In Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society, Jonathan Chaplin shows how Dooyeweerd's subtle yet powerful analysis of the architecture of society critically illumines contemporary controversies concerning the state and civil society. Dooyeweerd offers a rich, insightful account of deep forces that shape how we human creatures make our life together.
Chaplin's book is not intended for a popular audience—he writes for "English-language social and political theorists"—but we may hope that many of these theorists, and certainly those who are professing evangelical Christians, will read this book and so benefit from it that they will be inspired to explore the implications of Dooyeweerd's thought in ways that will enrich the many conversations now going on among Christians in every field of cultural endeavor.
With this book Chaplin also contributes to the revival of interest in the thought of Abraham Kuyper. I can attest to this revival—for example, as I started writing this review I was visiting New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church to study two chapters of Kuyper's famous 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary (available in various editions as the Lectures on Calvinism) with a highly diverse group of 24 young professionals in that church's Gotham Fellows program. The Gotham Fellows were glowing with enthusiasm for what they had been learning from Kuyper—an enthusiasm that I have encountered among young adults all over North America, including businesspeople in Phoenix, Arizona, and seminary students in Pasadena, California, citizens serious about political engagement in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois, and people in fashion and finance and philosophy in Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Dooyeweerd's social and political thought is a "sophisticated elaboration," argues Chaplin, of Kuyper's ideas—in particular of Kuyper's idea of "sphere sovereignty." Kuyper argues that God is sovereign over all things, and as a result, human authority and responsibility are always limited. One of the ways in which human authority is limited, according to Kuyper, is that the different "spheres" of human life—for example, the sphere of the family, the sphere of business, the sphere of politics—are intended to enjoy a delegated freedom from one another. Each of these spheres is "sovereign" in relation to the others. And within each sphere, human beings have authority delegated from God, to provide leadership subject to the patterns God ordained for that sphere of human life in creation. Wisdom, according to Kuyper, consists of living life in each of these spheres subject to God's creation ordinances.
Chaplin shows how Dooyeweerd takes these ideas and seeks to clarify what they may mean for understanding all the complexities of human life. While Dooyeweerd's theory of the structure of reality stretches far wider than social and political life, Chaplin shows, in particular, how Dooyeweerd's social and political thought can be helpful—a contribution, according to Chaplin, "comparable in range and depth" to that of a Catholic social thinker like Jacques Maritain. (Chaplin not only presents Dooyeweerd's thought, he also offers significant criticisms and proposes several innovations. Given that most readers of this review will not be familiar with Dooyeweerd, I will limit myself mostly to Chaplin's presentation of the contours of Dooyeweerd's social and political thought, giving less attention to Chaplin's criticisms and innovations, valuable though these are.)
Chaplin's central concern is to show how Dooyeweerd's ideas bear on the "perplexing and ever-shifting question" of the relationship between what we today call "the state" and "civil society." He argues that Dooyeweerd (following in the footsteps of Kuyper) exemplifies what Chaplin calls "normative institutional pluralism." Normative institutional pluralists are convinced that "a vital feature of any just and well-ordered society is the presence of multiple kinds of mutually distinct social institutions [or associations] whose integrity and autonomy it is a primary role of the state to safeguard and support." Hence Kuyper and Dooyeweerd warn against both the totalitarian impulse on the part of the state and the socially corrosive power of individualism.
Through the course of the book, Chaplin shows how Dooyeweerd's institutional pluralism helps clarify three pressing problems: "the definition and scope of the concept of civil society"; "the relationship between the state and civil society"; and "the utility of civil society for social critique"—or, as Chaplin also summarizes them: "What is civil society?" "What is civil society for?" "Can the concept of civil society generate robust social critique?"
The deepest philosophical convictions that orient Dooyeweerd's social ontology are that all of created reality stands in a relationship of complete and persistent dependence on a God whose creation-sustaining goodness and power are thoroughly trustworthy (and that created reality is therefore meaningful); that created reality is characterized by a patterned dynamism in its every facet (and therefore thoroughly temporal); and that the dynamic shape of created reality is ordered and sustained by perduring patterns given by God in creation (and must therefore be understood as being subject to divine law).
Because of these convictions, Dooyeweerd is deeply convinced that the social order is given—in potential—for human flourishing, and that human responsibility includes the unfolding or disclosure of social possibilities given in divine law but requiring dynamic realization in history by human agents. As a result, Dooyeweerd affirms (in opposition to both nostalgic reactionaries and utopian revolutionaries) the emergence in recent centuries of highly complicated and relatively fast-changing societies, especially under the impetus, jointly but in mutual contention, of the Protestant Reformation and the modern Enlightenment. He acknowledges that such societies bustle with a great variety of proper and improper claims from individuals and their various associations, and that it is difficult to properly integrate and harmonize all of these claims without society degenerating into either an atomistic individualism or a suffocating totalitarianism. But this difficult harmonization—the task of establishing and maintaining public justice, or as Chaplin also writes, "the adjudication of public interdependencies"—is exactly the institutional vocation of the state.
"The state's task," then, Chaplin writes,
is to protect and adjudicate among these legitimate claimants and not to usurp or thwart them for its own political ends. In order to do this it must, in the first instance, correctly discern the structural identities of many social institutions (as well as honor the rights of individuals). In defining the state … as a "public-legal community," Dooyeweerd's larger intention is that the state (whose members are both government and citizens) discharge effective justice to persons, institutions, and … the larger public interest.
Dooyeweerd is a representative of a view of society that Chaplin calls "covenantal voluntarism"—that is, Dooyeweerd and others like him hold that human society is formed as "free and responsible persons voluntarily associate, but pursuant to a particular human purpose or need arising from the normative design of human nature, not spun out of the arbitrary wills of the associates. Associational initiative is not an expression of radical moral autonomy but the fulfilling of a social vocation."
Thus, with the help of Dooyeweerd's social ontology, Chaplin answers the question "What is civil society?" with this definition: "Civil society [is the] realm of social interactions embracing the dense network of [interdependencies] characteristic of a modern society." How does such a definition contribute to the ongoing conversation about civil society? There are currently three overlapping models of civil society: a protective model, an integrative model, and a transformative model. The protective model, exemplified by the work of neo-Tocquevillians like Don Eberly, Perter Berger, and Richard John Neuhaus, understands civil society to exist for the purpose of protecting social bonds, values, and virtues. The integrative model, exemplified by the work of Christopher Beem and Charles Taylor, sees the purpose of civil society as being that of the weaving together of society (including government) into a cohesive, harmonious unity. The transformative model, represented by the work of Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, understands civil society to be the realm of action of social movements that seek to make more room for freedom, equality, and solidarity in society.
Dooyeweerd's social ontology resonates with much of the protective model, in that it offers "an affirmation of the importance of protecting the many vulnerable social ecologies" needed to sustain families, churches, voluntary associations and neighborhoods—"indispensable" as they are, according to Chaplin, "as arenas of social cooperation, schools of civic virtue, and bulwarks against government intrusion." Dooyeweerd's work demands that we recognize that these kinds of communities depend for their health on more than just the protection of their internal activities: together they constitute "society" as "an extremely complex … network of [social] interdependencies," and these demand an "adjudication of public interdependencies" which can only be accomplished by the state. The merely protective model is inadequate, however, in terms of Dooyweerd's approach, in that it fails to give adequate attention to what Christopher Beem has termed "the necessity of politics."
The necessity of politics is given greater attention in the integrative model, which argues that civil society in tandem with the state serves to unify and harmonize society in service of the public or national interest. Dooyeweerd's understanding of the purpose of the state as being "the creation and maintenance of a public order of just laws," guided by the norm of public justice, so as to accomplish a "public-legal" or "political integration" among citizens, resonates with this concern for integration.
But at the same time, Dooyeweerd's social ontology and political philosophy appropriately warn against the kind of corporatism toward which the integrative model of civil society trends. As Chaplin summarizes, "The political community establishes an indispensible, substantial, yet specific and limited kind of relationship among its members. It does not embrace the entirety of their lives, even their social or public lives, for citizens are always more than their citizenship: human beings simultaneously occupy multiple individual roles, each of which serves to delimit the scope of the others." In Kuyper's terms, while the state has a unique compulsory authority, and an encompassing responsibility for the public good, it is by the very ordinances of Creation constrained from trespassing onto the sphere sovereignty of other kinds of communities. While Dooyeweerd stands in the tradition of Calvin and Kuyper in recognizing politics to be a high and noble calling, and the authority of the state to be a great and necessary good, he is at the same time, like Kuyper, indeed a "normative institutional pluralist," refusing to allow the integrating authority of the state a totalizing scope.
Among Chaplin's criticisms of Dooyeweerd—as I've warned, this review does not adequately show the extent to which Chaplin's book is not merely laudatory but also seriously critical of aspects of Dooyeweerd's theoretical work—the one most closely connected to Chaplin's central concern with the relationship between the state and civil society is a complaint that Dooyeweerd's social ontology inadequately addresses the kinds of concerns identified in the transformative model of civil society. Civil society theorists like Cohen and Arato respond to the question, "Can the concept of civil society generate robust social critique?" by arguing that, independently of the state, civil society can be a site for the development of transformative initiatives that bring about greater freedom, equality, and solidarity. They also argue that a vibrant civil society can serve as an effective barricade against the overweening efforts of the state to exercise its power. And at the same time they recognize that the state may at times exercise its power to bring about transformation when faced with "bad civil society."
While Chaplin believes that Dooyeweerd's normative institutional pluralist insights resonate with patterns in the Creation order to an extent not achieved in rival theories, he complains that there is "a lack of Augustinian bite" in Dooyeweerd's social analysis. Dooyeweerd, argues Chaplin, assumes to too great an extent "the historical effectivity of creational norms" and underestimates "the pervasiveness and depth of human distortions of such norms." As a result, Dooyeweerd's social analysis can seem complacent in its reformism and excessively optimistic in its anticipation of the smooth and harmonious disclosure of social possibilities and public justice; it lacks the necessary critical heft to support a robust social critique.
There is some warrant for Chaplin's critique of Dooyeweerd's social analysis, but I want to encourage readers of this book to first acquaint themselves with the contours of Dooyeweerd's thought as presented here before being caught up in Chaplin's criticisms and innovations, valuable as these are. After reading Dooyeweerd with a handful of graduate students at Fuller Theological Seminary, I asked them what they thought of his work once they had become somewhat familiar with it. Their responses were enthusiastic.
One student working on a dissertation in philosophical aesthetics said to me that "Dooyeweerd helps me to understand the proper place of aesthetics in God's creation. [He] keeps us from avoiding extreme views: philistinism (art/aesthetics is insignificant) and aestheticism (art/aesthetics as all-important and self-existent). Dooyeweerd's view helps me to think of aesthetics as an important yet one of many aspects of reality." Another student, a fan of both Søren Kierkegaard and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, said that "Dooyeweerd rocks," because there is no "more comprehensive, intricate, and persuasive Christian ontology and philosophy of life." And a third student, working in fashion theory, said that "Dooyeweerd is worth every ounce of effort! To be honest, upon beginning the New Critique I was afraid I'd be buried in an obtuse and wooden 'law-based' metaphysic. Instead I have found a compelling and original paradigm for re-thinking … well … everything."
I cannot recommend Jonathan Chaplin's Herman Dooyeweerd to every reader of Books & Culture. But if you are working in social theory or political philosophy—actually, if you have any personal or professional interest in reading philosophy—or if you are intrigued by ways in which the ideas of Abraham Kuyper can be nuanced and brought to bear on the social and political questions of the 21st century, I recommend this book to you with unbridled enthusiasm. My hope is not only that you will find this book as thought-provoking and helpful on the question of state and civil society as I have found it, but also that you will be enticed to explore further the largely undiscovered riches in the thought of Herman Dooyeweerd.
Gideon Strauss is the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, editor of its Fieldnotes magazine, and a member of the faculty of Fuller's School for Intercultural Studies.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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