Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy

Lambert Zuidervaart
Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2016

Art, Education, and Cultural Renewal: Essays in Reformational Philosophy

Lambert Zuidervaart
Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2017

Reformational philosophy is a philosophical tradition that emerged in the Netherlands during the late nineteenth century as an innovative re-articulation of Dutch Calvinism, a strand of the historical reformed and Presbyterian tradition of Christianity.[1] This innovative intellectual renewal of Calvinism, originating with the theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper, began to flower in the early twentieth century. Kuyper’s vision included a Calvinist renewal and engagement with culture and the academic disciplines, not only in the Netherlands, but worldwide. Central to Kuyper’s vision for society’s and the academy’s renewal was an intellectual reformation, which required a new sort of higher education, free from both state and church. Kuyper started a Christian university in Amsterdam, a place where Christian philosophy with a reformed Calvinist accent would form the foundation of the university curriculum. In that university, now called the VU University, newly minted philosophers Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven developed what became known as the reformational school of philosophy to be that intellectual framework. This philosophy, known for its elaborate set of interlocking concepts and distinctive terminology, is a systematic philosophy designed to ground all the other more specialized disciplines of the university, from theology to mathematics. Its expansive frame continues to set the problematics for reformational philosophers into the present. It is this tradition to which these books’ subtitles refer and which locate them philosophically.

In the mid 1960s, reformational philosophy made its way across the ocean by philosophy graduates of the VU, taken to Toronto’s newly created Institute for Christian Studies (ICS). Here reformational philosophy flourished as a vital second-generation hub, not merely as a repetition of the first generation, but as creative continuation and development as it engaged philosophical and social issues of the second half of the 20th century. Lambert Zuidervaart was ICS’s first graduate, obtaining both a Masters of Philosophy and his Ph.D. through ICS. This makes him the first of the third generation of reformational philosophers. After teaching at Kings University College (Edmonton) and Calvin College (Grand Rapids), he returned to his alma mater to teach philosophy for 15 years. The essays gathered in these two books span his teaching in all three of these reformed institutions of higher education.

One hallmark of many Christian colleges and universities is the objective to have faith make a difference in scholarship. In many places, this is envisioned as the “integration of faith and learning.” However, as Robert Sweetman notes in his recent book Tracing the Lines (Wipf & Stock, 2016), the integration model is one of three approaches to bringing faith in contact with scholarship, which he identifies as complementarist, integrationist, and holist. In brief, the complementarist account, exemplified in his account by Etienne Gilson and Pope John Paul II, has a high view of the goodness of creation, for both the object of scholarship and the scholar him or herself. This means that our human reason is intact enough to be able to discern through our scholarship the structures of the good creation. This allows for the separation – and complementarity – of theology on the one hand from the rest of the disciplines on the other. Faith has only a mediate, indirect role to play in the work of the scholar. The integrationist account, exemplified in Sweetman’s book by Alvin Plantinga and George Marsden, has as its approach the integration of faith and scholarship, in each and all disciplines. It takes the dominant approaches in the various disciplines as inherently secular, without faith, which tends to exclude tenets of belief about God, self, and world. In this approach, the Christian scholar’s faith has an immediate role to play in scholarship, by taking important tenets of faith – beliefs about God, self, world – and integrating them into a disciplinary-based scholarship (biology, sociology, philosophy, and so on). In the process, these beliefs are thought to be transformed from theological ideas into disciplinary ones. The holistic account, exemplified by Hermann Dooyeweerd and Evan Runner, takes all scholarship to be religious, although not all Christian. Here scholarship is taken to be an expression of deep religious impulses, that is, of the heart.

Lambert Zuidervaart, continuing reformational philosophy’s broad mandate of cultural engagement, takes a holistic approach to Christian philosophy. This approach takes the idea that the deepest impulses of the religious heart shape one’s scholarship. Thematically this deep impulse often manifests in what might look like fairly typical faith articulations: human life and reality as fundamentally good, yet “fallen” or broken, but also redeemable. But this approach does not take these beliefs as propositions to integrate them explicitly into an otherwise “secular” discipline. Rather, it takes the position that heart issues address scholarship and current issues in society as a meaning horizon; this frame then shapes the basic contours of the discipline rather than showing up as explicit claims in the discipline as such. Further, as part of this meaning horizon, the reformational tradition holds that redemption is not merely individual, nor purely for a future life, but also systematic and institutional, framing current issues in society with a particular meaning. It is faith as a meaning horizon that runs as an impulse through Zuidervaart’s work. In attempting to express this explicitly, Zuidervaart offers – in Art, Education, and Cultural Renewal – that humans are called to engage in “cultural renewal and social transformation” (3-4), itself a human response to God’s call to “love God above all and their neighbours as themselves” (4). God’s call to love thus gives philosophy the task of “promoting renewal in the arts and culture and working towards the transformation of current societal structures” (5).

This meaning horizon shows in Zuidervaart’s entire corpus. He is an internationally renowned philosopher, perhaps best known to continental philosophers around the world through books such as Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (MIT, 1993), Artistic Truth (Cambridge, 2004), Social Philosophy after Adorno (Cambridge, 2007), Art in Public (Cambridge, 2010), and Truth in Husserl, Heidegger, and the Frankfurt School: Critical Retrieval (MIT, 2017). Zuidervaart engages with interlocutors such as Heidegger, Adorno, and Habermas in developing innovative approaches to ideas such as artistic truth and social transformation. He engages in systematic social critique and carefully develops a systematic and normative vision of societal structures in which humans might flourish. Although these works give hints to what Zuidervaart refers to as reformational philosophy, for the most part his framing philosophical horizon remains a submerged current, and readers of these more well-known books can easily make their way through them without knowing about this philosophical tradition.

Zuidervaart is engaged in bringing his faith to bear on his philosophical analyses in these books, as well. However, it is clear from these works that his approach is not one of integration of faith and learning, in which he explicitly would incorporate faith propositions – about God, self, world – into his scholarship. But neither is his approach complementarist, in which his theology (faith) and his philosophy are taken as separate tasks that complement each other but do not shape each other. Rather, his is a holistic approach, in which his reformational philosophy acts as a meaning horizon shaping his philosophizing. The sets of essays in the books reviewed here – written between 1973 and 2011 as independent articles and presentations – “open the hood” (so to speak) to reveal that a reformational engine. These two books show the animating heart that pulses through his more well-known works.

The essays of the first book, Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation, are divided into three sections and organized more or less historically, although not as much by date as by who his interlocutors are: each section addresses a particular generation of reformational philosophers. It should be noted that the original audience for these contributions consisted primarily of other reformational philosophers, and thus the essays are concerned with problems and unresolved issues within this school of thought. As a result, many of the essays have a specialized feel with regard to terminology and problematics, making them more difficult to penetrate for those not familiar with reformational philosophy. However, in the book’s careful and extensive introduction, Zuidervaart compensates for this by developing a bridge language, explaining many of the reformational tradition’s technical terms and ideas in more accessible language. Those not as familiar with that tradition would do well to pay close attention to the introduction.

The first section, “Critical Retrieval,” focuses directly on unresolved problems and issues of the reformational tradition’s first generation, Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. Here Zuidervaart engages in what he calls “critical retrieval,” which (as the name suggests) involves giving a critique of unresolved issues with the first generation’s articulation and problematics, and retrieving what he believes is enduring in these reformational philosophers’ ideas. The essays in the first section of the book are the least accessible, largely because Zuidervaart is engaging directly with the complex and multifaceted technical terminology and ideas of this generation, and his original audiences were fellow travelers in this tradition. But they offer fascinating and telling glimpses of where Zuidervaart will take these ideas later in his career.

The second section, “Reforming Reason,” does a similar critical retrieval, but this time with the ideas of the second-generation reformational philosophers, especially those of Zuidervaart’s teachers at ICS, including Hendrik Hart, James Olthius, and Calvin Seerveld. Perhaps because these interlocutors were writing in the second half of the 20th century in North America, and English was their first philosophical language, the essays here are more accessible to the non-reformational scholar, even without the helpful introduction. These essays show that the reformational tradition, though small in number, is a sophisticated philosophical approach that contributes to conversations outside of its own tradition. And they continue Zuidervaart’s project of critical retrieval, assessing where the second generation falls short and what ideas are worth building upon and reformulating.

Zuidervaart’s intention with this collection is not merely to bring together into a single volume his writings on reformational philosophy for the convenience of readers within that tradition. More ambitiously, he is attempting to show how his own philosophical agenda, albeit rooted in the reformational tradition, has developed over time, not only retrieving and correcting certain ideas but also transforming them to address philosophical problems currently facing philosophers of many traditions and orientations. The volume’s final section, “Social Transformation,” takes up the critical retrievals and transformations of reformational philosophy laid out in the previous two sections and develops his own “third-generational re-articulation of this tradition” (219). Here Zuidervaart shows most clearly which reformational ideas animate his own larger philosophical agenda. He offers his own understanding of the notions of truth and social transformation, based in this tradition, but also shows how he ventures beyond the previous generations, introducing and using his own terms to address issues and problems. Tellingly, these are the most accessible essays in the collection for those outside of the reformational tradition, and it is here especially that the book makes an original and interesting contribution to both reformational philosophy and the broader world of contemporary philosophy.

The second volume of reformational essays, comprising Zuidervaart’s Art, Education, and Cultural Renewal, spans a similar time period. However, the essays address a different set of problems, and often have more of a “cultural critic” or “public intellectual” feel to them. The essays are divided topically in two parts. Part One, “Art, Culture, and Reformational Aesthetics,” include his essays on the reformational tradition’s ideas about aesthetics, including Zuidervaart’s appropriation of them. The essays argue, in various contexts, that the arts have important, un-substitutable social roles, including centrally as a vehicle for what he calls artistic truth. By this he does not mean propositional truth, but rather something that occurs in the dynamic relation between the artist and the artwork, in the significance of the artwork for the public, and in the integrity of the artwork as a product. In this, he suggests, art has a public function, something governments ought to protect and foster. Although the essay in chapter 7 summarizes this the clearest, and might be a good place for a reader to start this section, the other essays equally reveal various aspects of these ideas as he engages interlocutors such as his former teacher Calvin Seerveld, his former colleague Nicholas Wolterstorff, and the conservative cultural critic Francis Schaeffer. These essays show the development of Zuidervaart’s thought about art’s role to “contribute to a life-giving society” (12). His idea of art’s redemptive purpose shows how his reformational meaning horizon animates his cultural critique and suggestions.

Part Two, “Education, Scholarship, and the Common Good,” are essays on topics beyond art and aesthetics, to issues of higher education and cultural renewal. Zuidervaart transforms the reformational tradition’s ontology of creation, fall, and redemption into the social-historical language of “creativity, alienation, and liberation” (12). This allows him to articulate more clearly the task of “Christian scholars” to “practice and promote cultural partnership, social solidarity, and historical communion” (12). The essays gathered in this section thus emphasize uncovering socio-cultural tendencies and structures with an eye to transforming society to be more life-affirming and enhancing the common good. Readers here might well begin with the last essay, in which Zuidervaart explores the difference between spirituality and religion and urges (Christian) philosophers toward “a spiritually oriented response … to the God of love” (17).

Zuidervaart’s volumes attempt to accomplish three things. They are meant to show his explicit roots and situatedness in reformational philosophy. They are meant to introduce philosophers outside of that tradition to some of its central ideas and thinkers. And they are meant to disclose Zuidervaart’s own creative appropriation of that tradition to speak to issues of our time.

Thematically, these volumes exemplify what Sweetman calls the holistic approach to Christian scholarship. The essays’ underlying concern is the interconnection between religion and philosophy. For Zuidervaart, however, this is not about the integration of theology (or faith) and philosophy, nor about philosophy of religion. Rather, he shows how religion animates his philosophy. As he says in Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation, it does so through a perspective in which all of existence is considered, “from the standpoint of redemption” (3), a phrase he borrows from Adorno. Religion for Zuidervaart means an orientation of hope, “hope that, in the end, societal evil will not win out, that the voices of the oppressed and Earth’s lament finally will be heard” (3). Spirituality is at the root of human existence for Zuidervaart, a response to a divine call to love. Zuidervaart ends up, therefore, with “a philosophy that does not ignore the suffering of God’s creatures, a philosophy that seeks comprehensive wisdom in order to critique societal evil” (22). That alone makes both of these volumes an interesting and worthwhile contribution to philosophy and social critique. It is this orientation which illuminates Zuidervaart’s discussions about truth and social transformation. Without getting into the complexities of his notion of truth, he develops a sharp critique of the correspondence theory of truth while not giving up on the idea of truth or the correspondence theory itself. Rather (most explicitly in Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation), he enlarges the idea of truth, using Heidegger’s notion of disclosure, to develop an original view in which truth becomes both holistic and historical. He understands truth as “a dynamic correlation between (1) human fidelity to societal principles and (2) a life-giving disclosure of society” (221). These principles include political justice, economic resourcefulness, and social solidarity (322), which, if embraced collectively and embedded in social institutions and practices, will manifest a life-giving society for all (274). This implies a need for social transformation, not merely individual re-orientation. It is ultimately in this way that the three themes of religion, truth, and social transformation come together. This view of truth and social principles animate and inform both volumes.

A weakness of virtually any sets of essays, of course, is that they do not hang together as tightly as a monograph. But this can also be a strength, as it is in these two volumes. For Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation, inasmuch as each chapter is not only an independent essay, but also shows insight into the other chapters without presupposing the same background scholarship, it allows for multiple entry points for different audiences. For this book, readers who are more familiar with Zuidervaart’s earlier works, and/or that of his continental interlocutors (Husserl, Heidegger, Adorno, Habermas), would do well to read the introduction and then enter the text through the third section. For seeing how Zuidervaart articulates the interconnections between his own philosophical ideas – such as social critique, artistic truth, and societal transformation – and the reformational tradition will add a profound new dimension of insight to their understanding of his other works. Working backwards, from the third generation, to the second, and then arriving at the first, might be an interesting “archeological” excavation.

Similarly, the essays of Art, Education, and Cultural Renewal were each originally independent of each other. Given as talks at institutions of higher education associated with the philosophical tradition in which he is rooted, they were directed explicitly to fellow travelers in the reformational tradition. As a result, they often deal with problematics and use language peculiar to that tradition. But in gathering them in a single volume, they also function as an introduction to others who might be interested in the contributions of this tradition, especially to its cultural reflection and critique. And they also serve as a summary introduction to Zuidervaart’s own thought, certainly his ideas about art and aesthetics, but also cultural renewal and social transformation more generally. The book thus clarifies Zuidervaart’s innovative transformations of the tradition’s ideas to contribute something new to the role of art in public, the purpose of higher education, and the direction cultural renewal ought to take. Further, this book can illuminate the other set of essays, for its focus on social issues and cultural critique are concrete ways of entering the more abstract concepts of the reformational tradition as presented in Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation.

Taken together, these two volumes are excellent examples of Christian scholarship in the holistic mode. They show careful nimbleness of self-critique of the reformational tradition, something Sweetman suggests is a hallmark of the holistic approach. Anyone interested not only in the reformation tradition, but also in seeing an excellent example of a holistic approach to Christian scholarship in action, would do well to look at these volumes. In the process, they would also come away with a thoughtful social critique of our contemporary society.


[1]Part of the current review was first published as a review of Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy in Symposium: The Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, 2017, and part as a review of Art, Education, and Cultural Renewal: Essays in Reformational Philosophy in The Review of Metaphysics, 2018.

Cite this article
Clarence W. Joldersma, “Essays in Reformational Philosophy—an Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:1 , 69-75

Clarence W. Joldersma

Calvin University
Clarence Joldersma is the resident philosopher and interdisciplinary scholar of the Graduate Studies in Education Program at Calvin College.