Posted by: Kenn Hermann | July 12, 2006

The Myth of Religious Neutrality

I’m back. My blog and I have been on hiatus for the past two months getting caught up on things around the house, my bookstore, some academic work, and, of course, some golf. I hope to get caught up on some thoughts that I have been mulling during that time.

One of my projects since the end of the semester was to write a review of the second edition of Roy Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality (2005) for an upcoming issue of The Christian Scholar’s Review. (I wrote a review of the first edition for The Reformed Journal in 1992.) In my judgment, this edition will stand as the best, most complete, introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s thought in the English language for many years to come. Clouser has translated Dooyeweerd’s often arcane phrases (or those of his translators) into an idiom more congenial to those not immersed in the continental philosophy of the early 20th century. Armed with Clouser’s introduction, serious readers can delve more quickly and deeply into Dooyeweerd’s thought.

This new edition is not for the philosophically timid or anyone looking for 10 easy steps to ‘thinking Christianly.’ It is packed to the gills with pregnant insights and implications that beg to be fleshed out by Christian scholars in the decades ahead.

There are, of course, many issues and themes that merit fuller and further discussion that I could not raise in this review. Among them are:

  • In my judgment one of Clouser’s most important contributions to distinctly ‘Christian’ scholarship is his emphasis on the depth and breadth of the meaning of ‘religion.’ In the modern world the term ‘religion’ is bandied about by both proponents and opponents with little understanding of the reality to which this term points. Few people, including Christians, have an adequate understanding of what it means to be ‘(ir)religious’ or where (dis)belief in God or the chief doctrines of the Faith ought to take them when developing theories, from astronomy to zoology.

    Clouser has enriched our understanding of the meaning of ‘religion’ and anchored it to its biblical foundation. After an exhaustive analysis of many alleged common denominators for ‘religion’ and ‘religious belief,’ Clouser finds them all seriously deficient. He claims that the fundamental core of ‘religious belief’ is the belief that there is some ‘thing’ that the proponent believes is that on which all else in reality depends. This belief he calls a ‘divinity belief,’ though it goes by many other aliases, ranging from the terms of traditional religions to the Nothingness of Buddhism. People are inescapably ‘religious,’ whether they perform acts of worship, do good deeds, or give no thought to these matters at all. “A rose by any other name . . . ”

    Clouser’s expanded definition of ‘divinity beliefs’ will throw many heretofore hidden ‘religious’ beliefs into bold relief, whether in the academy or popular culture. Clouser has clothed the biblical claim that all persons are serving either the true and living Yahweh or an idol in the language of contemporary philosophy of religion and given it sophisticated philosophical depth. In this expanded edition Clouser (successfully, in my judgment) answers the many objections and misunderstandings that were raised against this definition in the first edition.

    There are (at least) three important philosophical corollaries of what it means to hold these divinity beliefs:

  • There are no skyhooks on which to hang theories in any field. The vaunted and prized belief of the academy in the ‘autonomy of theoretical thought,’ religious or otherwise, is a myth. All theories at the most sophisticated levels are grounded in a divinity belief of some kind, whether consciously or (more typically) unconsciously held. The choices for those divinity beliefs are either the true and living Creator or a creature.
  • Every thing, law, property, aspect, event or any other thing conceivable that is not God is a creature. Clouser underscores the importance of this biblical meaning of ‘creature’ with what he terms the doctrine of pancreationism.He devotes all of chapter 10 (most of it is new to this edition) to underscoring this crucial biblical point and where attempts at Christian theorizing have been historically derailed by compromising this core understanding.

    Christians who have thought that their theories were safe from idolatrous influence by only staying away from those that overtly attacked Christian belief must spend some time with Scripture and Clouser on the meaning of ‘creature.’

    I am sure that many of us working in the reformational tradition have caught the significance of this expanded meaning of ‘creaturehood’ over the years. No one meditating on Dooyeweerd’s thought could miss it. We have Clouser to thank for introducing it to a wider audience.

    I believe this understanding of ‘creature’ is what is at stake in a Christian doctrine of creation. Some 12 years ago I gave a lecture at a conference of the Korean Creation Research Institute on a reformational understanding of creation in which I gave a broad outline of this view based on a close exposition of Colossians 1:15-20, my favorite NT passage. There were many pastors in attendance who were deeply intrigued by this reading of a passage they thought they knew. I have made it a core of my essay on “Jesus Christ: Lord of All Things” in “Every Thought Captive to Christ.”

  • Reductionist explanations must be avoided at all costs and non-reductive explanations sought in all theories framed by Christians. Christian scholars have typically been wary of reductionisms in various fields. They have recognized that ‘reducing’ all explanations to a single one, typcially of a materialist stripe, is an error. All -isms are bad. So far, so good. But their subsequent strategy has been to take a little bit from this reductionist theory and combine with it bits and pieces from other reductionist theories to develop a theory that they thought was compatible with Christian belief. This strategy does not work; honoring many Baals is hardly an improvement over honoring a single Baal.

    What Christian scholars need is a philosophical theory about why reductionisms do not work and why Christians must avoid them. They do not work because no thing in the creation is a non-dependent reality; every thing in the creation depends for its existence on Yahweh. Every theory must exemplify that. In the final chapters of the book, Clouser outlines his ‘non-reductive theory of reality’ and his ‘framework of laws’ theory, his translation of the skeleton of Dooyeweerd’s modal theory. He makes it clear that he is not claiming that this is the Christian theory of reality; it only spells out one very important way that such a theory can be constructed. He encourages and expects others to modify, expand, and move in other fruitful directions.

  • Clouser makes it clear that developing distinctly Christian theories, those that take seriously the belief in Yahweh as that on Whom all reality depends, is an excruciating, time-consuming, and frustrating task for many reasons. The theoretical implications of that belief are not patently obvious; they cannot be extracted from Scripture fully developed as Fundamentalists believe. They must worked at, prayed over, and thrashed out with colleagues. (cf. Psalm 2)

Perhaps the most important result of Clouser’s new edition would be that the question “What could a Christian theory of international relations, mathematics, psychology, education, or neighborhood development, etc. possibly look like?’ would be asked with expectancy rather than cynicism that the Holy Spirit will lead in developing theories as much as in choosing a new outreach program.

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Responses

  1. Good to have you blogging again. I’ve missed your musings.


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