Why bother with the reformation of scholarship? 1

Reformational scholarship contains many mysteries. What I post below is an excerpt from what I have just read from the 2013 English translation of Marcel Verburg’s biography Herman Dooyeweerd: the Life and Work of a Christian Philosopher. Recall, however, that this is a book that was initially published in Dutch in 1989. I mention this time-lag not to complain about it, but to draw attention to matters integral to our understanding of the task before us.

The passages to which I want to draw attention come from Chapter Four, “Carrying on as Professor 1931-1934” and specifically from a section headed “Dooyeweerd’s Rectorship” pp. 166-171.

In the meantime Dooyeweerd’s first term of office as rector was well advanced. In this function he represented the Free University at various festive occasions, but in his capacity as Rector Magnificus, speaking in the name of the curators and directors of the University, he also delivered a short address at the interment of Minister of State mr. Th. Heemskerk…

… On September 21, 1932, Dooyeweerd handed over the over of rector to his brother-in-law, Vollenhoven. On this occasion he delivered the customary address reviewing what had befallen the free University during the academic year just completed. Only a few months before, as we saw, he had spoken at Leeuwarden about the historical meaning-side of reality. he now returned to this subject at the opening of the address.

History does not allow us to grasp its meaning by using external temporal measurements. In the restless movement of historical time, days, months and years are only external boundary markers along which the development of civilisation (BCW: beschaving = cumulative cultural refinement) bears the riches of its meaning past us like a river flowing by before our eyes, in a tempo sometimes slow and sometimes fast. And the amazing thing is that we find ourselves in the middle of this stream, not knowing in advance what bed the river will carve out in the future. Happily it is not the task of your Rector to apply the measuring-rod of the historian when at the end of an academic year he has to describe what has befallen our University. In large measure a chronological overview of the sort one usually finds in such precise reports will suffice. But i would hardly be human if in listing these events I were not touched from time to time by the deeper notes – sometimes of lament, sometimes of hope – that rise from the meaning-stream of history as it flows past the sober boundary markers that signify the inevitable beginning and end of a rectorial term in office. The internal history of our University is itself impelled onward in this stream of meaning, receiving impulses from it and passing them on in its term [Jaarboek Vrije Universiteit 1933 pp. 65-81 at p.65].

Dooyeweerd pointed out that his predecessor began his term of service as rector in the afterglow of the University’s 50th anniversary; but “the beginning of my period as rector was dominated by the darker shadows of a world crisis, which after a long development was about to reach its lowest point and which in its all-pervasive gloom seemed to leave no points of light.” [ibid].

   In this address Dooyeweerd remembered not only the death of mr. Th. Heemskerk but also the passing of two former profes- [p.167] -sors, mr D.P.D. Fabius and jar. mr. W.H. de Savornin Lohman, who had served from 1890 to 1895 as professor extraordinaire in the law faculty. he also paused to note the departure of prof. dr. H.J.Pos for the municipal University of Amersterdam: “For the literary faculty, the departure of Pos means the loss of a penetrating scholar, and for all of us the loss of a highly esteemed and affable colleague.” [ibid p.67].

   In view of the excessive demands made on professors in the faculties of law and of letters in particular, Dooyeweerd wondered aloud why there was so little interest among the free University’s graduates in helping their alma mater by serving as a privaatdocent, an unsalaried university lecturer. If some of them would undertake to teach in this private capacity without officially joining the faculty, a good deal of money would be saved by not needed to appoint new professors and lecturers. After all, such external lecturers played quite an important role at other universities, and it appeared to Dooyeweerd that such work at the Free University could well be combined with the role of teaching in a secondary school or even with a position in a not-too-busy law office.

A private lectureship, if properly undertaken and integrated with the entire scientific enterprise, is a beautiful task that would allow more justice to be done to various areas of instruction. Here I must be satisfied just to being this idea cautiously to the attention of those who have completed their studies in the law faculty or in Dutch literature or in the classics. Alongside further principled work on the foundations, we are in urgent need of specialisation in various branches of learning. These two ought to be one in the fullest sense of the word [p.68]. 

Dooyeweerd reserved the greater part of his address for his vision of the future of the Free University as viewed from the standpoint of its principles.

If our University is to continue to develop in a harmonious way [169] as it extends its fields of labor, the first thing needful is that there be a lively awareness that we form a universitas scientiarum in the fullest sense of the word, one that rests on communal foundations and that these foundations are explained as they apply to the various branches of learning. The second thing needful is that the old love for the idea of our University should be awakened especially in the hearts of the young people studying here, and further that the students not seek the path of least resistance, pursuing a degree in order to be assured of a more advantageous position in society, but that they come to see themselves as fellow labourers whose opportunity of a university education lays a heavy responsibility upon them. This does not mean that everyone who comes to study at our University must adopt as his future task the advancement of our type of scholarship. But what we do need are small groups of practicing scholars comprised of people who after they finish their studies at our school are willing and determined to carry on in the scholarly domain while remaining faithful to the idea of our University. In this context I cannot and may not remain silent about the ever clearer symptoms in the circles of our graduates and among our students of a growing spiritual movement – a movement that was born at the annual congresses of the Calvinist Student Federation at Lunteren and that is gradually spreading to all the academic disciplines, a movement which is crystallising in spontaneously formed study groups of students and alumni and which no longer takes the form of fruitless rhetorical skirmishes in whimsical debates but rather that endeavours, through persistent, serious work, to develop and propagate the Calvinist idea of academic scholarship. At the conclusion of the most recent congress, which I had the privilege of attending in its entirety, people could rightly talk of a new springtime in the life of our Reformed youth. Anyone who saw the enthusiastic crowd at that congress and listened to what the young people had to say can no longer doubt the genuineness of this movement of revival. The future must teach us what this réveil will mean for the development of the Calvinistic idea of culture. Yet this much is already certain: people will be able to count on it when carrying out the task that Calvinism must fulfil in this latest period of world history. [ibid p.71-72]

  [p.170] Undoubtedly it will chiefly have been the circles to whom Dooyeweerd alludes here that gave birth some three years later to the Association for Calvinist Philosophy. In the continuation of his address, Dooyeweerd discussed unemployment, which at the time was hanging over the heads of university students like a sword of Damocles. He feared that because of the hard times some would embark upon university studies who were really not suited for them. In that case the overall level of the students would decline, with the result that once they had finished their studies, the average student would become a victim of the competition in the struggle to find work. Dooyeweerd wondered whether we were not busy creating an intellectual proletariat that would be useful neither for the academy nor for society.

Let me make an immediate comment on the use of the first person plural “WE” in the final sentence. I prefer to read this “WE” to join the author and read his work as if he is addressing me, as reader. Yes, the author tells us that this work was initially his Doctoral Dissertation from the Vrije Universiteit. But then the “WE” in this instance shows Verburg’s spiritual solidarity with Dooyeweerd in his comments about the valued membership of graduates of “our” university, who are assumed to still be members of the Calvinistic universitas scientiarum. And “WE” who now read this can forgive Verburg for inserting this “WE” into this exegetical “moment” of his account of Dooyeweerd’s rectorial reflections upon the year then past, because in a prophetic way he, the biographer also assumes the solidarity of at least some of) his readers, like ourselves, who are part of this réveil having become part of the historical stream in which from different places at various times study groups of students and graduates have spontaneously formed in order to “no longer [engage in] fruitless rhetorical skirmishes in whimsical debates but rather [take forward the much needed] persistent, serious work, [that will] develop and propagate the Calvinist idea of academic scholarship.”

For me, there is a challenge of prophetic proportions. It also gives us a glimpse of some of the spiritual background to the institutional and neo-scholastic sturm und drang that was unleashed at the Vrije Universiteit against this movement of scholarly réveil and about which Verburg gives an extensive account in later chapters of the book. But more to the point, now in 2015,  many of us readers will identify ourselves as those who have benefitted from a historical process described in the passage which I have boldly emphasised:

 small groups of practicing scholars comprised of people who after they finish their studies   are willing and determined to carry on in the scholarly domain while remaining faithful to the idea of our [reformational] University.

Indeed, here is a section of Marcel Verburg’s magisterial account, that assists us when it comes to explaining why we who have come in contact with this philosophy to continue to seek ways of disseminating its scientific and theoretical insights. This biography is an important contribution to our philosophical and historical understanding of the work of Herman Dooyeweerd.

The above excerpts are particularly relevant as we seek to understand the character of a Christian response to “higher education” within the confused polities of the South West Pacific. The prevailing notion that a university’s contribution will be enhanced by ever closer co-operation with “business” is itself the cause and consequence of the creation of an intellectual proletariat that is useful neither for the academy nor for the wider society. It reduces human life to the presumed enlightened self-interest of those who measure themselves and their contribution in terms of increased financial resources. The Bible has a name for it: Mammon.

   Why bother with a root and branch reformation of scholarship? Our bold confession is that without submission of every strategy to Christ, scholarship becomes merely a willing servant of enslavement to the idols of our time.  


BCW 5/11/15. This is a slightly amended version of a broadsheet  first posted on http://www.reformationalscholarship.com 

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