Comment on the Idea of a Christian University: Andrew Basden

Date: 06/09/2005 By: Andrew Basden

The following is a comment on the book "The Idea of a Christian University", intended for the 2005 annual conference of the U.K. Christian Academic Network. References to the book are in bold, and on the web version I have created hyperlinks for those who wish to investigate further.

1. The Missing Stream of Thinking
There is a very significant stream of thought about the idea of a Christian University that is not represented in this book. It is a stream that has taken seriously the idea of Christian engagement with the secular world and has been trying to work out the idea of a Christian approach to scholarship and of a Christian University for 100 years. It has in fact established a major University that is Christian in orientation, not just in origin (a distinction emphasised by Walker and Wright (ch.4, p.57)). It has tried to work out why and whether a Christian orientation is possible, what a Christian orientation is, how a Christian orientation relates to and might engage with secular thinking, and how this Christian orientation might work itself out in the curriculum of the University (which is the topic discussed in Part II of the book). It might not yet have been fully successful in all of these, but it does at least present us with both a body of carefully argued thought and discourse and a concrete example that can inform our own debates about the idea of a Christian University. It is therefore a shame that this stream of thinking is almost completely absent from this volume.

The missing stream is usually known as Dutch Neo-Calvinism, which was given impetus in the early 1900s under the charismatic inspiration of the Dutch genius and statesman, Abraham Kuyper. The Christian University it instituted is the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) of Amsterdam. Since then, a number of other Christian academic institutions have also been established with a similar orientation, including the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and, partially, Redeemer College in Ontario. The West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies also seeks to develop and work out this orientation and has become a recognised educational body. The thought in this stream has been taken further by various philosophers, including Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd, whom G.E. Langemeyer, the Dutch jurist, a humanist, described as "the most original philosopher Holland has produced, even Spinoza not excepted."

The shame is that this stream of thought was blocked from coming into Britain by the stubborn refusal of some well-known evangelicals of the 1960s to give it a fair hearing, and it was distorted when it went to the USA by such figures as Van Til and Rushdoony, and used to fuel their antitheticalism.

2. Why the Missing Stream is Relevant
But why is it a shame that this stream is missing? Why might it be relevant and worthy of consideration? Because it provides a wider view and can cope with the diversity and coherence we experience without reducing it.

In chapter 3, Thiessen (p.42) suggests "A reconciliation of the legitimate insights of both modernism and postmodernism will lead to a balanced view of academic freedom ..." But this presupposes that, between them, mo and pomo contain "the whole truth" (at least as far as academic freedom etc. are concerened), as though they are symmetrically placed around a centre that is Truth.

But mo and pomo are of the last couple of centuries. If we take a longer-term perspective, we can see that both come from the same root, the so-called Nature-Freedom Ground-Motive (NFGM), which has been a spiritual driving force of Western thinking for the past 500 years. It itself arose from the ashes of the Nature-Grace Ground-Motive (NGGM), which informed mediaeval Roman Catholic and Scholastic thought from around 500 to 1500 AD, and this in turn arose from an attempt to synthesize the Greek (Pagan) Motive of Form-Matter (FMGM) with the Hebrew (Biblical) Motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption (CFRGM). While the CFRGM is integrative the other three tend to be dualistic-dialectical (material is opposed to mental under FMGM, sacred to secular under NGGM and control to freedom under NFGM). From this longer perspective, we can see that modernism and postmodernism may be seen as adhering to the presupposed opposing poles of the NFGM.

The missing stream I speak of has argued the inescapable effects of ground-motives on thinking, as somethng deeper even than some of what we call world views. No true and self-consistent Christian world view or Christian approach to scholarship or academic life can arise from a dialectical ground-motive (not even the NGGM). They must be developed from the CFRGM, by working out the philosophical (and not theological) implications of createdness, fallenness and the possibility of redemption. This is what Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd and others tried to do. They tried to work out what a Christian philosophy would be like, a Christian world view, a Christian approach to science and knowledge, a Christian approach to theoretical thought, a Christian approach to education and curriculum. The Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam was designed around this approach.

3. What the Missing Stream Might Tell Us
Dooyeweerd"s philosophical working-out of the implications of createdness is particularly comprehensive, and may be summarised as:

In our everyday living we experience diversity and coherence.

Over the past 2,500 years, we have taken a theoretical attitude in trying to understand this. But our very theoretical attitude is based on, and driven by, supra-theoretical presuppositions, the ground-motives. The operation of the three dialectical ground motives have invariably led theoretical thought into antinomies and other problems.

For example, NFGM presupposes the world "just is" (whether this be external to us or of our own construction). If we make this presupposition, it is very difficult to account for diversity that coheres. Diversity is to do with irreducible aspects that cannot be reduced to each other. Coherence is when the aspects all happen to point in the same direction and reinforce each other, rather than conflict with and destroy each other. The more aspects we allow in our thinking, the lower the chance that they will cohere. As a result, all philosophy that is driven by NFGM tends to "disallow" the possibility of diversity that coheres, and there is always pressure to reduce the number of aspects (usually with an uncritical appeal to Occam"s Razor): materialists reduce to the physical aspect (see below), mind-body dualists, to the physical and psychical, interpretivists to the lingual, and so on.

If, by contrast, we presuppose that the Cosmos is created, then by definition, created diversity is likely to cohere. So philosophy is no longer constrained by the need to reduce the number of irreducible aspects. Dooyeweerd, therefore, retained the freedom to consider the nature of diversity and coherence and to consider what aspects there may be. He explored 15 of them, with irreducibly distinct meanings (related to: amount, continuous extension, movement, energy, vitality, sense and feeling, distinction, formative power, symbolic signification, social interaction, frugality, harmony, due, self-giving love, and pistis (faith and vision of who we are)), each of which is intertwined with all the others.

Given a diversity of aspects, he had material for considering what aspects are, and concluded they are spheres of law and meaning, constituting a "law side" of reality that enables the entire cosmos to be and occur in a variety of ways. From this he devised radically interesting theories of being, normativity, law, time, knowledge, etc.

Concerning the last (knowledge), each aspect is the nucleus for a distinct scientific area; science may be seen as the human activity of exploring the laws of a particular aspect (e.g. physical, psychological, social). Each aspect has its own distinctly appropriate research questions, attitudes, conceptual frameworks and methodologies, which should not be imposed on other aspects.

This insight may be used to inform debate about various issues of the university, for example:

Academic freedom, with which chapter 3 is concerned. For example, it is inappropriate to (a) impose methods from physical sciences on social science (e.g. positivism), (b) impose a faith stance (commitments) onto biology (e.g. creationism or evolutionism) (c) impose the attitude of critical distance enabled by the analytic aspect of distinction on theology (which is what the AAUP seems to have done, p.35). Curriculum structure, with which Part II is concerned. It seems reasonable to propose that each faculty of a university centres on a particular aspect - faculties of mathematics, physical sciences, psychical sciences, linguistics, social science, aesthetics, law, faith and so on - together with a faculty of philosophy, which considers the inter-aspect relationships. And within those faculties, teach and research the laws and entities of the aspect, though always in the context of all others.


Study of universals, which Newman held to be important (ch. 5). Universals are found in the law side (the aspects) and so studying the aspects is the study of universals.

Life: "Christian scholarship will concern itself not merely with "what" is known but also with "how" it becomes a life in us." (ch.6, p.107). Dooyeweerd"s philosophy is rooted in everyday living (the lebenswelt), and heals the breach between Is and Ought that Kant and others forcibly imposed on our thinking.

4. Experience of the Missing Stream
My own experience of this missing stream has been very fruitful in the interdisciplinary field of information systems, which includes areas as diverse as the nature of computers and information, the shaping of technologies, the development of systems for human use, the usage of such systems, and the information society that shapes our lives - that is, both technological and social areas. In each area I have found that, with this approach, extant secular theories may be:

  • enriched rather than rejected
  • critiqued immanently, rather than either uncritically accepted or subjected to unfair criticism
  • seen as insight, rather than as either truth or error
  • understood and affirmed as to its concepts, rather than treated as irrelevant
  • healed of some of its problems
  • given a philosophical basis that underpins its central thrust more appropriately.

What I have found myself doing is to "transplant" each theory from the relatively sterile soil of the Nature-Freedom (and sometimes Matter-Form) Ground-Motive to the more fertile soil of that of Creation-Fall-Redemption, thus enabling the theory to blossom and bear more fruit.

Andrew Basden, 28 August 2005.