Engaging with Secular Thought
Talk and workshops to Christian postgraduates
at University of Leeds and York, U.K., 3 November 2011.
Andrew Basden. University of Salford.
1. THE PROBLEM
1.1 From a Postgraduate Point of View
Faith and academic research are often in separate compartments among postgraduate researchers - and indeed many Christian researchers. This is ultimately unsatisfying.
It also means that Biblical views make almost no contribution to the content of many fields of research. There is a difference between style and content.
- Style of doing research might be very 'Christian' (upright, honest, modest, etc.). Easy to relate our individual behaviour to Christ.
- Content of our research - should not this too be related to Christ? As one researcher recently told me, in our fields of research, we might be offered the choice between two paradigms, with neither of which we are really happy.
With regard to content of research fields, CHristians adopt one of three modes, usually one of the first two:
Some Christians reject the secular thinking as 'anti-Christian'. Examples: Evolution. Christians either abandon academia, or they try to develop their own theories based on their own paradigms, such as Creationism. Some other areas where Christians are antagonistic include: Marxism, Postmodernism. [Note 1]
Should not God's people be more merciful in attitude to the ways people think, trying to understand them from their own point of view ('immanent critique') rather than from our own ('transcendent critique')? The writings of Richard Dawkins: Christians usually react against his ideas because he denies God. But in my view, the reason Dawkins is wrong is not that he rejects Christianity and God, but that he has a limited view of science, of humanity's project to understand God's world, and is inconsistent in his arguments. This, if true, is a reason that we could expect Dawkins himself to acknowledge, because it addresses something that is important to him.
Is not God well able to defend himself? We don't need to do so. God has given to humankind the mandate to understand and shepherd the rest of creation, and it is that where we are to focus our efforts.
Many Christians acquiesce to secular thinking in at least in some fields, and accept theories or techniques uncritically. Example: Management theory / guidelines are applied uncritically when running churches. Example: Positivist methods employed even though they presuppose that opinion and belief are to be ignored. Example: Working within the Critical-Social paradigm, some Christians take for granted that emancipation is a good thing, and fail to question what is meant by it.
Should not the people of God question the world's ideas and paradigms? Are not God's ways higher than ours? Here are some examples:
- Management theory of branding. We think we should 'brand' our Christian organisations. We also are happy in principle for the big corporations to secure 'branding'. We acquiesce. But is not much branding theory based on an idolatry of the organisation?
- Statistics theory. We employ statistics, often of a Frequestist form, nor realising that it is based on a humanist view of the world that does not acknowledge the reality of human interpretation. We acquiesce. But Hartley  argues that a Biblical view is more in line with a certain type of Bayesian statistics.
- Linguistics. Linguistics now starts to acknowledge the full humanity of the speaker and hearer (writer and reader), and did not acknowledge that language use is meaningless without a place in God's world. But in previous paradigms, it did not (e.g. Chomskian views), yet Christians did not question lack of such acknowledgement, or did not have the conceptual or philosophical tools with which to question it. We acquiesced and contributed to research under those flawed paradigms. Now that Linguistics begins to acknowledge these things, some Christians stand out against doing so.
- Economics. I hear many Western Christians assuming (and even arguing) that Competitive Capitalism is the 'Christian' type of economics. For example, the page that announces itself as 'Christian Economics', completely and one-sidedly acquiesces to not only capitalism but also its competitive form, and completely rejects any notion of what it disparages as 'socialism'. It seems blind to the possibility that neither system is of God.
- Can secular people discover 'true truth'? (Schaeffer)
- If not, how can we honestly work with secular thought in our PhDs? (Danger: red-neckery)
- If so, how should we engage with it?
1.4 Engaging with secular thought as Impaired Insight:
(This is the view most consistent with this New View, so it is the one favoured here.)
Against antagonism, this view believes that most non-Christian thinkers who are reasonably honest in their research and thinking can generate insight (what Francis Schaeffer called 'true truth'). This is because all humanity works within, and is enabled by, a reality that is created by God. And so, when there is some honesty, even anti-Christian people (such as Marx and Dawkins) are likely to discover something of the laws God wove into the fabric of creation.
Against acquiescence, this view believes that all humanity's theories are impaired in some way, not just being incomplete but actually flawed. The flaw usually arises from false deeply held presuppositions. These presuppositions, shared by most of humanity at any particular time in history, lead humanity to distort the way it sees and discusses the nature of reality. See Note 2 on one way of understanding this. Humanity's activity of generating knowledge is also distorted by human pride.
If this is so, then we should see secular thought as impaired insight, and we can engage with its content, by:
- acknowledging there might be genuine insight, and trying to work out what is genuine insight;
- understanding that, why and how it might be disorted;
- making a contribution that lessens the distortion and enriches the insight.
One possible example, from the field of biology: Whereas Creationism is antagonistic to secular thought, and theistic evolution acquiesces to it, some versions Intelligent Design are trying to engage with secular thought in a critical and useful manner - though they are beset with challenges from both sides. More below.
But ... is this approach valid?
2. WHY IS IT VALID TO SEE IT THUS?
- Humanity's mandate. Humanity has been given a mandate to bless the rest of creation (Genesis 1:26-28) and part of this involves 'opening up' the potential of creation (Genesis 2: 15-19). See Role of Humanity. We are called to do with understanding ('wisdom' Prov. 8). In practice, an important part of this opening up is scientific research, to build a body of theoretical knowledge, and then applying it wisely in order to bless the rest of creation. Theoretical knowledge is understanding that can apply generally across situations we encounter. See Note 1.
- Pervasiveness of 'Fall'. Because all in creation is interconnected, human sin (turning away from God) pervades all. Especially it pervades our ways of seeing the world (worldviews, mindsets, presuppositions); c.f. 'Noetic effects of sin'. Genesis 3: 18; Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil.
- Rich Redemption through Christ. Salvation is 'three-dimensional' (Romans 8): D1: "No condemnation" because of Christ. v.1 D2: Holy Spirit, and immediate experience of God. v.14-17 D3: ... in order that humanity's mandate can be restored, so that creation "waits with eager longing". v.19-23. In this way, .
- Humanity's knowledge: is part of 'the rest of creation' that waits 'eagerly' to be blessed by the 'sons of God'. If this is so, then God's people today should engage with secular (and other) thought as impaired insight.
- I believe that knowledge which is good will continue forever.
I Cor. 3: 9-13.
We can see this occurring by several people of God. For example, the Apostle Paul engaged with secular thought of his day when he spoke at the Areopagus and quoted their philosopher. Paul also cited him in one of his letters, calling the philosopher a prophet. Isaac Newton engaged with natural science ('natural philosophy') of his day, wanting to "think God's thoughts after him" - though Newton was also rather trapped in the Scholastic ground-motive (see Note 2). Blaise Pascal also tried to engage. As did Michael Polanyi in our times.
How can we achieve this engagement today?
3. HOW DO WE ACHIEVE THIS? - BACKGROUND
Some tips, pointers. These are things I have found helpful.
3.1 Understand Nature of Creation
If we are to truly engage, immanently and yet critically, we need to see things in a particular way:
- Understand God's Cosmic Plan, what humanity's God-given mandate is within this, and how the Gospel of salvation is part of this.
- Understand the nature of theoretical knowledge, and of research
- to contribute to humanity's mandate to 'open up' the potential of the creation for the good of all.
- Understand the differences between the various fields and sciences - different aspects meaningful, different laws, different rationalities. Examples (each science centred on a different sphere of meaning):
- physical sciences
- biological sciences
- psychological sciences
- design sciences
- linguistics and semiotics
- social sciences
3.2 The Paradigm Cycle
It is useful to understand why it might be that humanitygoes wrong. I call this the Paradigm Cycle of new ideas replacing old ideas (but if anyone else has used that term, please let me know):
- Old ideas hold sway
- Problems become apparent because of they don't fit the structure of reality; People become dissatisfied.
- Courageous thinkers identify what's wrong with old ideas (often aspects that had been overlooked) - good
- They crystallise the new aspects; many people see this and follow
- Then they build new theories, based on distorted presuppositions - bad
- Also they maintain psychological ownership - pride
- These new ideas battle with the old ideas
- The new ideas hold sway - the cycle continues
So: Don't be too quick to defend the old - e.g. modernism against postmodernism.
4. HOW TO ACHIEVE THIS? -
To engage with secular thought and make a useful contribution to it that the field itself will (ought to) value, we need to affirm it and see it as valuable insight, we need to critique it and expose the roots of any flaws in it, we need to enrich it and especially widen it.
AFFIRM, CRITIQUE, ENRICH
- Seek to understand immanently - in their terms rather than ours).
- Understand what motivates new ideas - the falsity and error in the previous ideas, and the aspects that they believe have been overlooked.
- Don't be put off by words / concepts used; be ready to see the insight behind the words. - e.g. Hegel, e.g. Social Construction of Reality
- Respect existing thought: it has opened up some insight
- Be critical: don't take things for granted
- don't accept uncritically
- expose assumptions and presuppositions
- in a way that all in the field can be expected to agree with
- affirming not destructive
- Because God owns all truth, Because we know humanity will never fully know. I can ask challenging questnos, because I believe all truth is God's truth not ours. Being critical is an acknowledgement that humanity can never know all.
- Be self-critical (= humble), and never arrogant nor victory-seeking.
- Always make reference to everyday reality, intuition, etc.
- Recognise the diversity and coherence of the created order, especially diversity of meaning and diversity of types of good/bad.
- Focus on Meaning rather than Being or Process
I have found the philosophy of Dooyeweerd, and especially his notion of aspects, very helpful. He worked out from Biblical motive of Creation, Fall, Redemption, as philosophical rather than theological implications:
Example: in Basden & Wood-Harper , the single notion of transformation (of a human activity system from one sate to another) is expanded using Dooyeweerd's aspects to be: physical transformation, legal transformation, social transformation, lingual transformation, transformation of beliefs, etc.
See a fuller account of Enriching Other Thought.
- God is with us: God wants this to happen as part of His Cosmic Plan. What the non-Christian does can be valuable in God's sight? [Discuss]
- Be courageous - not over-awed by those with authority in the field (supervisors, senior or influential colleagues). With God, take risks (with humble prayer and self-critique). Why? Because I am willing to risk loss if the answer is not what I might have wished. Because of Jesus - Luke 9: 23-24. cf. Jesus also being prepared to risk the wrong answer "Will you also go away?" "Be wise as serpents but as innocent as doves" Because God's truth will win out ... whether by means of his people or of others. "Reality is on our side".
- So work with secular and other religious colleagues (see below). Example: with Trevor Wood-Harper on SSM, with Heinz Klein on knowledge engineering.
4.5 Some Dangers ?
- Engagement can be drawn towards antagonism. Especially when some secular people violently or arrogantly reject our engagement. But this should be resisted.
- Engagement can be drawn towards antagonism because the religious mentality tends towards antagonism towards the world. The religious mind must be resisted, as Jesus resisted it.
- Engagement can be drawn towards acquiescence. It is tempting to compromise for the sake of engaging. But engagement must always be critical.
It has been said (e.g. by Erich Sauer) that the people of Israel veered to two different extremes: trying to be like the world (acquiescence) until they were taken off into exile, thereafter trying to distance themselves from the world (antagonism), but they were all the time called to represent God while always welcoming people from the world. This is the challenge of engagement.
5. SOME EXAMPLES FROM MY EXPERIENCE
I might make reference to some of these; some are published papers; others are the work of postgraduate students.
- Enriching Soft Systems Methodology [Basden & Wood-Harper 2006]
- Critical affirmation: Reinterpreting existing concepts in the meaning-oriented philosophy of Dooyeweerd
- Enrichment: Suggesting multiple aspects
- Biblical relevance: All thinking is within God's orbit; Importance of meaning; diversity
- Taking the stages in understanding linguistic further, to show new direction in data and knowledge engineering [Basden & Klein 2008]
- Understanding the history of linguistics (stages in opening up the lingual aspect)
- Critical affirmation: Seeing these as discovering different aspects
- Enrichment: Proposing a 'next' stage that recognises all aspects and other things of Dooyeweerd's philosophy
- Biblical: History as opening up; all thinking within orbit of God's creation; Biblical philosophy critically affirms and enriches
- How to define and dignify the information systems discipline [Basden 2010]
- "Is IS a genuine discipline" as a hot question
- Recognising the various ways in which this is discussed
- Proposing spheres of meaning as the centre of each discipline
- Showing how extant discussion fits this
- Showing how this approach is richer and more fruitful
- Biblical: Dignity, destiny, responsibility are more important than identity; all creation is meaningful
- Integrating paradigms (positivism, interpretivism, critical-social theory) [Basden 2011]
- Paradigm conflict traced to conflictual religious presuppositions
- Transcendental critique of theoretical thought reveals importance of meaning, and religious presuppositions at root
- This enables discourse among conflicting paradigms
- P, I, C-S seen as focusing on different aspects (ways in which reality is meaningful)
- Hence may be integrated
- Implications for IS research
- Biblical: central importance of faith in true God; coherence and diversity of meaning
- Religious roots of information technology [Basden, Brooke, Russell, Holt 2011]
- Seeing the religious at the root of theoretical thought
- Discussing how this is found in information technology
- Biblical: religious root even in 'secular' thing like IT
- Ecosystem Valuing - going beyond Ecosystem Services [Gunton et al. 2017]
- Offering a wide range of aspects for valuing the natural world and landscape;
- The innate normativity of these aspects
- Key Issues in Information Systems Development [Masters module]
- Employ Dooyeweerd's aspects to separate out different types of issue in ISD (or any other field!)
- Including the ethical and faith aspects (can be open about, and affirm, everyone's religious beliefs and different cultures)
- The everyday significance of this
- Biblical: Responsibility of humans; diversity of meaning; importance of practising what we preach
- New frameworks for understanding information systems [Basden 2008]
- IS is an interdisciplinary area, with several distinct sub-fields
- Lack of mutual understanding between them
- Different philosophical underpinnings, incommensurate
- Dooyeweerd offers a philosophical underpinning sufficient for all
- Worked out a Dooyeweerdian way of understanding each sub-field: use of computers, nature of computers, IS development, knowledge representation, computers in society.
- Each is a new paradigm.
- Brief discussion of extant ideas.
- Biblical: Shows how a philosophy that outworks Biblical presuppositions can be useful in academic and practical life
- Idolatry accounting for e-government failures. [Krishnan-Harihara]
- Problem: failures of e-government projects; root not understood
- Goudzwaard's notion of idolatry explains root of e-government failure; this notion is worked out
- Dooyeweerd's aspects helps understand success and usefulness
- Biblical: Importance of faith aspect; recognition of multiple distinct aspects
- New 'down to earth' way of understanding IS use [Ahmad]
- Problem: academic concepts around IS are not 'down to earth'
- Dooyeweerd's aspects affirm the everyday in its diversity
- Proposal: academics should focus on 'down to earth' issues
- Proposal: method to disclose DTE issues
- Employs Dooyeweerd's aspects (spheres of meaning) during analysis
- Biblical: Recognition of importance of full everyday human experience (humans made in image of God); centring on meaning; diversity of meaning
- Understanding procrastination when using computers; testing and refining Basden's framework [Breems]
- Problem 1: How to test a new framework (paradigm, generator of theories)?
- Problem 2: How to understand procrastination?
- Employs Dooyeweerd's aspects to account for diversity
- Differentiates ways in which humans engage with ICT
- Tackles procrastination better then extant frameworks
- Biblical: Importance of human; responsibility of human; diversity of meaningfulness
- Transition from paper to electronic medical records: a Dooyeweerdian reading [Khojah]
- Problem: academic and management discussion of electronic records often misses many important issues
- Important thing is not paper v electronic, but 'down to earth' human functioning with medical information
- Dooyeweerd's aspects can help reveal these issues
- And should be able to guide transition to better electronic records
- Including in different cultures
- Biblical: Importance of human more than technological medium; diversity of human responsibility and meaning; desire to do good; God's truth pertains across all cultures
- Towards radical understanding of IS use [Joneidy]
- Problem: Plethora of conceptual frameworks for understanding IS use, each new one highlighting aspects previously ignored; little integration
- Proposal: Dooyeweerd's philosophy, especially aspects, can critically affirm and enrich each one, and place all in wider picture
- Biblical: All conceptual frameworks meaningful within God's creation; diversity of creation
- ICT in traditional classrooms in Nigeria [Adewolu]
- Problem: ICT not always successful in traditional classrooms, yet most assume it should be there or else react against it; down to earth issues ignored
- Dooyeweerd's aspects employed to investigate and expose the interests and biases in the discourse among five groups
- Biblical: Human perspectives are deeply warped; diversity of meaning and responsibility in God's creation; justice for the deprived; redeeming the concept of deprivation.
- New understanding of tacit knowledge [Kimani]
- Problem: Many understandings of tacit knowledge
- Dooyeweerd's philosophy provides a richer and more complete account
- Biblical: Wisdom important; diversity of creation; undermining arrogance of Reason.
- Knowledge sharing [BeikMohammadi]
- Trying to understand knowledge sharing in organisations more deeply
- Using Dooyeweerd's aspects
- Biblical: Sharing of knowledge is wisdom; diversity of meaning.
NOTE: Some of those undertaken with those committed to Hindu, Muslim or humanist beliefs. From Biblical point of view, the implies either:
- apostate compromise (that antagonism standpoint)
- complete separation of religion from content of research (acquiescence standpoint; SSD)
- that all humans intuitively grasp the meaningfulness of God's creation.
- Attitude of Jesus: seeing those who would later contribute to his death as "sheep without a shepherd"
- Yet Jesus Christ is the One in Whom all the Fullness of God and all the Fullness of Creation are brought together and stewarded.
Ephesians 1: 9-10; Colossians 1:16-20.
- Harmony and justice and prosperity and peace and health and joy (Shalom, Salaam) of 'all things' is found in Christ, Who reconciles 'all things' to God.
- We who have been linked to Christ are called to live not for ourselves, but as part of God's glorious Cosmic Plan, which includes contributing to opening up of the potential of the Creation.
I Cor 3:9 "workers together with God"
- Theory is understanding: belief about what applies generally, i.e. across situations not yet encountered; can be belief about the way things are (e.g. categories, conceptual models), the way things work (e.g. causal models), what we should do (e.g. guidelines). Can be formal or informal, explicit or tacit. e.g. many novels and films express the author's theory about how life is and how it should (they would like it to) be.
- Paradigm is a way of seeing a field that enables us to formulate, develop and test theories; it is presupposition about what is meaningful.)
Note 2. The philosopher Dooyeweerd identified four presuppositions in Western thought, which he called ground motives:
- that reality, including 'the gods', exists and occurs by two fundamentally different principles, form and matter (Greek form-matter ground-motive, FMGM);
- that reality, not including Creator-God, exists and occurs by virtue of being subject to God-given laws (Hebrew/Semitic creation-fall-redemption ground-motive, CFR);
- that reality, possibly including God, exists and occurs as either secular or sacred (Scholastic nature-grace ground-motive, NGGM);
- that reality, ignoring God, exists and occurs in either a determined or free state (Humanist nature-freedom ground-motive, NFGM).
All but the CFR view is flawed, argued Dooyeweerd, and make it impossible for philosophy to fulfil its destiny. See the links above to see how so. (This New View finds some problems even in CFR.)
We don't need to accept Dooyeweerd's philosophical treatment entirely (it's the best worked out argument for this so far), but the main point is that deep presupposition allows and disallows certain notions within theoretical thought and discourse. For example, FMGM, NGGM, NFGM all divorce meaning from reality, so it becomes impossible to consider meaning except perhaps as an arbitrary attribution of humans to things or words. NFGM divorces Thing from Thought and Is from Ought.
Basden A, Wood-Harper AT. (2006) A philosophical discussion of the Root Definition in Soft Systems Thinking: An enrichment of CATWOE. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 23:61-87.
Basden A. (2008) Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems. Hershey, PA, USA: IGI Global (IDEA Group Inc.).
Basden, A. & Klein, H.K. (2008) New Research Directions for Data and Knowledge Engineering: A Philosophy of Language Approach. Data & Knowledge Engineering, 67(2), p.260-285.
Basden, A. (2010) On Using Spheres of Meaning to Define and Dignify the IS Discipline. International Journal of Information Management, 30, 13-20. (For full paper see "http://aisel.aisnet.org/ukais2009/10".)
Basden A. (2011a). Enabling a Kleinian integration of interpretivist and critical-social IS research: The contribution of Dooyeweerd's philosophy. European Journal of Information Systems. 20, 477-489.
Basden, A (2011b) A Presentation of Herman Dooyeweerd's Aspects of Temporal Reality. International Journal of Multi-aspectual Practice, 1(1), 1-28. Available at "http://chimera69.essex.ac.uk/IJMAP".
Basden, A., Brooke, C., Russell, R., Holt, P.S. (2011) "Religious Roots of Information Technology". In Technology, Development, Culture, Religion, ed. J. van der Stoep & S. Strijbos. To be published by Brill Publishers.
Gunton RM, vanAsperen E, Basden A, Bookless D, Araya Y, Hanson DR, Goddard MA, Otieno G, Jones GO. 2017. Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution April 2017, 32 (4), 249-257.
Hartley, A.M. (2008). Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference: Religious Controrl of Statistical Paradigms. Resource Publications, Eugene, Oregon, USA.
This page, URL= 'http://abxn.org/nv/engage.secular.html',
is part of the on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology and practice that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome by emailing
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden to latest date below, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Written on the Amiga with Protext in the style of classic HTML.
Created: 27 November 2011.
Last updated: 4 December 2011 sections numbers. 11 December 2011 toned down IntellDesign cmt. 15 December 2011 ID as engagement; dangers. 16 September 2020 link to enriching; new .end, .nav, bgcolor; added Gunton 2017.