The Secularization of Science

On 4 and 11 June, Richard will be delivering a 2-part webinar series as part of the All of Life Redeemed initiative.  Bruce Wearne gives a personal reflection on the article addressed by this webinar.

The Secularization of Science” is a lecture given by Herman Dooyeweerd in 1953.  It offers a remarkably insightful summary of the historic tradition that will confront any scholar who seriously tries to engage in truly Christian scholarship, whatever the science or scholarly domain. Students today will find the essay helpful when they have to confront that still-common view that to engage in research means leaving one’s religious faith at the door before entering the laboratory, library or seminar.

Initially published in La Revue Réformée, the essay is now translated from French into English as well as Dooyeweerd’s native Dutch and is, for speakers of any of these languages, among the most accessible of Dooyeweerd’s writings.  It is a good reference point both for those starting out on their scholarly journey, and also for those who, having started, may pause and look back to consider how their own work functions in terms of the account Dooyeweerd provides.  Younger students with probing questions should be encouraged to bring fresh understanding to an older generation. Older students, established scholars, need to listen carefully to how their prized insights are being appropriated. If we read this essay as Dooyeweerd’s own answer to a question that he, as a student in the school of Jesus Christ (John Calvin’s term), could not avoid, this 1953 artefact may help us take up our own scholarly task with new resolve.

Whatever the stage we are at, as we push on in our scientific education, we will recall our earlier studies as we strive to understand what is before us. And this goes for Dooyeweerd too. Even though he was 60 when he delivered this lecture, he too needed to take stock. This lecture suggests he was asking himself a question, something like this:

When my magnum opus from 1936 is finally translated into English in a few years’ time, how will I frame my answers to all the scholarly criticism that comes my way?

This suggests that this essay was also part of Dooyeweerd’s preparation for what lay ahead as much as it was a kind of summary of what he had done previously. It is his proposal to challenge the view that scientific work is religiously neutral. The argument is controversial and profound and it is not a scientific argument as such. He assumes that any work we undertake will be done in service either to God or of an idol, and it cannot avoid carrying the image of the one whom it serves.  That is, scholarship functions in a world that is subjected to the Creator’s law-order for everything that exists, including everything in our scientific work. Dooyeweerd understood that such a view is controversial. But that also means that not only our reasoning, theories, hypotheses and abstractions, but also our hurried pencil notes, our academic daydreams, our hunches and post-seminar queries are all an intensely meaningful part of our scientific service. They all retain their meaning in our work as much as the publication of results in prestigious journals may do.  And this also means our retrospection as we continue to assess what we have been doing and thereby discover new insights about our world and ourselves.

Bruce Wearne is a former senior lecturer in sociology at Monash University in Australia.  You can read Bruce’s articles at AllOfLifeRedeemed.  To sign up for the webinars, please use the email address above - and share on Facebook too.

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[1] A New Critique of Theoretical Thought was published between 1955 and 1957 in four volumes.

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