We now come to the conclusion of our series on Herman Dooyeweerd’s In the Twilight of Western Thought. It is in this final chapter (8) that the full weight of Dooyeweerd’s critique of historicism specifically and Christian attempts to engage in unbiblical scholarship is revealed.

The conclusion of Dooyeweerd’s argument is that Christian scholarship is not based on a unique faith-based theory or idea. It’s not as though Christian scholars have privileged access to some secret knowledge about the universe, either through the church’s dogma or Scripture. Rather, Dooyeweerd argues, Christian scholarship is made possible through Christian faith operating within the Christian scholar to its full and comprehensive and dynamic extent.

Typical analyses of modern Western culture point to the crises presented by the loss of individual identity, the rise of technology, the challenges of relating with others across differences, the increased nihilism and perceived meaninglessness of life (120). Existential philosophy has responded to these with a discussion of human anxiety caused by our knowledge of impending death. But, Dooyeweerd argues, this “analysis of Western civilization fails to lay bare the root of the evil” (122). The root of the problem for Dooyeweerd is that scholars and academic movements have failed to address the question of the individual human self, ego, or “I” at the deepest level of what gives our experience of life its unity and coherence. Instead, most analyses attempt to argue that the problem lies in one or another of the various dimensions of human life – not something at the core of human life. 

Based on his “modal scale” in which human experience can be analysed across a range of irreducible dimensions, Dooyeweerd argues that “I experience, I exist, and this I surpasses the diversity of aspects which human life displays within the temporal order. The ego cannot be determined by any aspect of our temporal experience since it is the central reference point of all of them” (123). This central reference point is what we call the “I” or ego and which the Bible calls the “heart.”  But this I, ego, or heart is a mystery because it is “nothing in itself” (124, 129-130). We discover the unity of our being and the unity of our human experience of the world only through “the rebirth of our heart” (130). And this rebirth occurs when God reveals his trinitarian self to us in the heart, the core of our being. When this happens, we are renewed and reformed and redirected from the centre of our identity and placed within the “biblical ground-motive” which is the true story of the whole world: God created all things, Jesus redeems all things, the Spirit holds all things in existence (127-130). It is when this person lives out of this new, non-dualistic worldview in their scholarship that they become a Christian scholar.

But, Dooyeweerd laments, “this central theme of the Word-revelation has not yet become the central motive-power of [most Christian scholars’] lives” (128). Dooyeweerd is arguing that most Christian scholars have not allowed the full import of this revelation from God to capture the full scope of their imagination and scholarship. For example, many Christian scholars continue to operate out of a sacred-secular or a nature-supernature dualism. I have seen in my own experience that many Christian scholars assume that their faith is only something related to one aspect of their lives or one part of their calendar. But Dooyeweerd believes that this understanding of creation, fall, and redemption has dynamic import for all scholarship and should be the foundational worldview or imaginative landscape out of which scholarship is imagined and pursued.

So, as we conclude this series, a provocative question arises: How have I limited the scope of my faith when it comes to my scholarship? How do I still operate out of a dualistic view and need to allow the radical comprehensiveness of the biblical worldview to inform my life and scholarship? What might it mean for my research that my individual person, embedded within the whole of Creation (good, fallen, and redeemed), has been placed within a different story which can be the only abundantly fruitful “central starting-point and motive power of our theological and philosophical [and scientific] thought” (128)? With questions like these, Dooyeweerd’s work prompts every Christian scholar to reflect on who they conceive themselves to be, how their scholarship fits into the diversity of the world, and how God can use you and your scholarship to participate in his comprehensive redemptive mission in the world.

Michael Wagenman
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Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Scripture Collective 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).​