On Engaging with Secular Thinking

(These are some thoughts sent to Aaron x in response to his plea about engaging with Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger 20 November 2004. A number of people found it helpful, so I am placing it on the web in case it is helpful to others. Andrew Basden, 24 November 2004.)

You said it is 'frustrating' to engage as a Christian thinker with the secular mind. I don't find it frustrating to engage with the secular mind; on the contrary I find it stimulating and rewarding. The reason I now do so, is because I look at secular thinkers and thinking in a new way, compared with the way I used to. No longer do I see it primarily in terms of its antithesis to 'Christian' thought and secondarily in reluctant terms of how they might have some insight. Now I see primarily that secular thinkers have genuine insight (with some exceptions below), and secondarily are antithetical to my thought in a particular way.

The reason I see it this way is that secular thinkers are still operating in the wonderful creation-framework that God gave us. (The exceptions are when the secular thinker is arrogantly and proudly pushing their own views, solutions, proposals. All of us have these sins.) But most good secular thinkers are not primarily that in their thought. Rather, there is something in them that genuinely seeks truth.

THEREFORE, my approach is not to first and foremost seek to identify what is wrong with the thinking, but first and foremost try to (a) identify (b) fully understand the *insights* in their thinking. Even if those insights are only partial or limited.

In your case, for example, don't ask first "Here's why Sartre's critique of Hegel is bad" nor even "Here's why its good." The first is too unmerciful, the second too analytical. Rather, ask first, "What real insights does Sartre / Hegel / Husserl / etc. seem to be uncovering in their thinking?" Think intuitively at first. Find out what, in their thought, you find yourself responding to with "Yes, that's a good point". Then examine those critically in the sense of seeking to understand the basic conditions that make their insight possible, or make it 'work'. Then you'll likely find it sits uneasily on the foundation of presuppositions they make.

And, in doing so, I look past the words they use and the speculations they make to what they seem to driving at. An example:

Hegel spoke about the Great Spirit developing itself. He presumably meant what we mean by God (and we take that at face value) and we get upset and thus reject his ideas, and look for ways in which they are wrong. But if we replace his label 'Great Spirit' etc. with 'the whole Created Cosmos', then much of what he says makes sense. I have spelled this out in my one and only article in Philosophia Reformata (Basden A, (1999), "Engines of dialectic", Philosophia Reformata, 64(1):15-36).

Now I am doing a similar thing with Peter Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology, Latour's Actor-Network Theory, and Habermas' notions of Emancipation and Lifeworld. They are aimed at top academic journals in my field. The result is that I can *enrich* the ideas of secular thinkers rather than *destroy* them.

You see, Dooyeweerd's philosophy [which I use for the exercise above] is like fertile soil which, if an idea is transplanted into from the infertile soil of the Nature-Freedom Ground Motive in which it is struggling, it suddenly bursts into joyful life.

Do I not find anything wrong with the secular mindset? Indeed I do. I find certain views obnoxious, but I put that feeling behind me when trying to 'engage'. Because I look at myself reacting, to understand the root of my reaction, and find it is due to a mix of my pistic commitment which differs from theirs plus an aggressiveness and/or arrogance on their part, together with an opposing arrogance on my own, and perhaps a feeling of threat on my part. Once I recognise this, and actively ignore my own reactions, I can then start to see the mindset as infertile soil rather than as poison.

I will (I think) be discussing this issue of engaging with non-Christian thinking at the Dutch Symposium on Ethics etc. in August 2005 at the Dutch Association for Calvinist Philosophy.

I have spoke about engaging with secular thought. A similar case could be made with regard to engaging with thinking from any religious background.

Does this help?


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Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2008.

Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Comments, queries welcome.

Created: 24 November 2004. Last updated: 21 December 2008 www.dooy.info.