We’re continuing our discussion of Herman Dooyeweerd’s little book, In the Twilight of Western Thought. In this month’s post, I’d like to do two things: 1) summarize Dooyeweerd’s explanation of the historical mode of human existence and 2) use his explanation to suggest some reflections for what’s going on currently in our world. 

Chapter 3 introduced us to historicism: the idea that history is the primal stuff of reality. As we reached the end of chapter 3, Dooyeweerd was preparing us to move from a critique of historicism to a more constructive view of the place of the historical aspect. This is what we get in Chapter 4 – an explanation of the historical aspect of human experience.

This is Dooyeweerd’s argument: To grasp any thing or event rightly and fully within our field of human experience, we must allow ourselves to naively perceive it as a unity of its functioning in all its modal aspects. It is the scientist, on the contrary, who analyzes that thing with a singlular focus on one of its modal aspects isolated from the rest. (There is something like an overflowing joy in Dooyeweerd’s analysis of human experience that I sense when he says that “no single science is able to examine the full empirical reality of events” [61].) But the problem (what Dooyeweerd calls an ism) occurs when one of the modal aspects becomes “absolutized” or forced to provide a “total-view of empirical reality” (59). This is how we get historicism – the absolutization of the historical aspect by assuming that the foundation of all reality is history.

For Dooyeweerd, the “modal kernel” (what he also calls the norming core of each aspect) of the historical aspect is related to humanity’s culture-forming (rational) power. The modal aspects are arranged in a hierarchy: from the most elementary at the base, rising up to the most central at the pinnacle. Thus, the historical aspect builds on the aspects that came before: “Human culture … embraces all that in human social life surpasses the animal level of existence” (63). The historical aspect pertains to the “development of [humanity’s] formative power over the world and over its social life” (64). 

Dooyeweerd roots humanity’s culture-forming power in God’s mandate in Genesis 1:28: to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” For Dooyeweerd, this mandate builds on the aspects that have come immediately before (namely, the logical, sensitive, and biotic) precisely so that this human culture-forming power can be oriented to the aspects that come later (including the economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical, and faith aspects). 

Let’s pause for a moment here. There is much more in this chapter that we could explore – especially Dooyeweerd’s discussion of “primitive” versus “developed” cultures which may or may not (I haven’t decided yet for myself) be related to issues like ethnic superiority, colonialism, etc. Instead, let’s pause and ask ourselves a question that often comes up when we discuss history, culture, and the development of culture through history. That question is whether there is a storied trajectory or dramatic arc at play. One way I think about it is like this: sometimes you wonder to yourself, when you’re studying history and cultural development, “What’s going on here? What are we doing?” “What is the underlying trend that we’re being caught up in” “Where is history headed?” “Is this what progress looks like?’ Sometimes human life and experience cause us to wonder about these bigger, meta- level questions about where culture/society/history is headed. You can refer back to chapter 3 for examples of this “story-making” tendency which can take secular or Christian shapes.

As a Christian, Dooyeweerd’s philosophy equips me to participate in my Genesis 1 human vocation more thoughtfully, with more awareness. Because, rather than having some simplistic notion of what the “public good” is or being overly aggressive and pouring all my energies into a narrowly defined understanding of evangelism, this way of thinking about things can help me as a scholar to consider the place and role of my scholarship in the formation of human culture. I now have something like a road map from Dooyeweerd and Scripture: my scholarship, as a part of human culture, is part of this larger human process of moving towards beauty, justice, truth, and faith.

This is by no means a straight line. Dooyeweerd is abundantly clear that the power of human sin is with us every step of the way. In fact, all our culture-making would become meaningless had not Jesus Christ “become the spiritual centre and his kingdom the ultimate end of world-history” (75). 

So, what is going on here? Where are we doing? As wars rage, as cultures clash, as economies falter, as infection runs rampant, as new ideas gain momentum, this is human life, created by God and yet having rebelled against God. We are God’s human creature, redeemed in Jesus Christ from the dustbin of history, coming to realize “the human ego as [a] central point of reference, both in its spiritual communion with all other human egos and in its central relationship to the Divine Author of all that has been created” (75). And thus, all our culture-forming power falls under the question of how we will respond to this God who has come among us in Jesus Christ. We may try to run and hide like Adam and Eve. Or, we may enter the Father’s house where there is joy and celebration and use our abilities as an act of gratitude to bring a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).

What do you think? How might this help you in reflecting on Johnson, Biden, and Putin? How might this help you with your research and writing in your discipline? How might this help you with perceiving insights into how your faith makes a constructive contribution to your work, your play, your relationships, the rest of your life?

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​


Mark Roques · April 12, 2022 at 4:09 pm

Thanks Mike. You’ve got me thinking about the historical aspect. Why do some scholars prefer the term ‘formative’ to ‘historical’?

    Michael Wagenman · April 12, 2022 at 4:44 pm

    My understanding, Mark, is that the “point” of the historical aspect is the ability for human beings to exercise culture-forming power. So, the historical aspect is not so much about “time” as it is the “formative” power of culture over time. Does that help?

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