Lambert Zuidervaart. Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016; xii + 415 pp. ISBN: 978-0773598928.

Reviewed by Clarence W. Joldersma, Calvin College.

Lambert Zuidervaart is perhaps best known to continental philosophers through books such as Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (MIT 1993), Artistic Truth (Cambridge 2004), Social Philosophy After Adorno (Cambridge 2007), and Art in Public (Cambridge 2010). Although these works hint at what Zuidervaart refers to as “Reformational Philosophy” in the subtitle of this book, for the most part it remains submerged, such that readers of the those earlier books can easily make their way through them without knowing anything about this philosophical tradition. In contrast, this set of essays–written between 1973 and 2011 as independent articles and presentations–reveals that a tradition of reformational philosophy has underpinned all of his works to date.

Reformational philosophy first developed in the Netherlands during the late 19th century as an innovative re-articulation of Dutch Calvinism, a philosophical tradition in the continental style. Established by Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk Vollenhoven at the VU University in Amsterdam, it developed an elaborate set of interlocking concepts and distinctive terminology as it built a systematic philosophy that continues to set the problematics for reformational philosophers into the present. This systematic philosophy was transplanted to Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), becoming a second-generation hub of reformational philosophy, where Zuidervaart taught for 15 years. Zuidervaart’s subtitle refers to this tradition and locates the volume philosophically.

The essays are divided into three sections and organized more or less historically, not so much by date but instead according to interlocutor: each section addresses a particular generation of reformational philosophers. It should be noted that the original audience for these contributions consisted primarily of other reformational philosophers concerned with problems and unresolved issues within this school of thought. As a result, many of the essays have a very specialized feel with regard to terminology and scope that makes them difficult to penetrate for those not familiar with reformational philosophy.

The first section, “Critical Retrieval,” focuses directly on unresolved problems and issues of the first generation, Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. Here, Zuidervaart engages in what he calls “critical retrieval,” which (as the name suggests) involves giving a critique of unresolved issues with the first generation’s articulation and problematics, and retrieving what he believes to be enduring in these reformational philosophers’ ideas. The essays in the first section of the book are the least accessible, largely because Zuidervaart is engaging directly with the complex and multifaceted technical terminology and ideas of this generation, and his original audiences were fellow travelers in this tradition. These essays, unfortunately, offer no accessible bridge language for those not familiar with the reformational tradition.

The second section, “Reforming Reason,” does a similar critical retrieval, but this time with the ideas of the second generation reformational philosophers, especially those of his teachers at ICS, including Hendrik Hart, James Olthius, and Calvin Seerveld. Perhaps because these interlocutors were writing in the second half of the 20th century in North America, and English was their first language, the essays here are more accessible to the non-reformational scholar than those in the opening section. Although more bridge language is to be desired, they nonetheless help to show that the reformational tradition, though small, is a sophisticated philosophical approach that might contribute to conversations engaging continental philosophers.

Zuidervaart’s intention with this collection is not merely to bring together into a single volume his writings on reformational philosophy for the convenience of readers within that tradition. Rather, and more ambitiously, he is attempting to show how his own agenda, albeit rooted in the reformational tradition, has developed over time, not only retrieving certain ideas but also transforming them to address philosophical problems currently facing philosophers of many traditions and orientations. The volume’s final section, “Social Transformation,” thus takes up the critical retrievals and transformations of reformational philosophy laid out in the previous two sections, and takes steps toward his own “third-generational re-articulation of this tradition.” (219) Zuidervaart shows which reformational ideas are foundational for his own philosophical agenda, and he offers his own understanding of truth and social transformation, introducing and using his own terms to address issues and problems. As a result, these are the most accessible essays in the collection for those outside of the reformational tradition, and it is here especially that the book makes an original and interesting contribution to contemporary continental philosophy.

Thematically, this contribution primarily concerns the interconnection between religion and philosophy. For Zuidervaart, however, this is not about the interconnections between philosophy and theology, nor about philosophy of religion. Rather, he shows how religion animates his philosophy and, in particular, how it does so through a perspective in which all of existence is considered “from the standpoint of redemption” (3), a phrase he borrows from Adorno. Religion, for Zuidervaart, means an orientation of hope, “hope that, in the end, societal evil will not win out, that the voices of the oppressed and Earth’s lament finally will be heard.” (3) Spirituality is at the root of human existence for Zuidervaart, a response to a divine call to love. Zuidervaart ends up, therefore, with “a philosophy that does not ignore the suffering of God’s creatures, a philosophy that seeks comprehensive wisdom in order to critique societal evil.” (22) That alone makes for an interesting and worthwhile contribution to continental philosophy. This orientation illuminates Zuidervaart’s discussions about truth and social transformation. Without getting into the complexities of his notion of truth, he develops a sharp critique of the correspondence theory of truth while not giving up on the idea of truth or even the correspondence theory itself. Rather, he enlarges the idea of truth using Heidegger’s notion of disclosure to develop an original view in which truth becomes both holistic and historical. He understands truth as “a dynamic correlation between (1) human fidelity to societal principles and (2) a life-giving disclosure of society.” (221) These principles include political justice, economic resourcefulness, and social solidarity which, if embraced collectively and embedded in social institutions and practices, will manifest a life-giving society for all. (274) This implies a need for social transformation, not merely individual reorientation. It is ultimately in this way that the volume’s titular terms–religion, truth, and social transformation–come together.

A weakness of virtually any set of essays, of course, is that it doesn’t hang together as tightly as a monograph. But this can also be a strength, as it is in this case. For inasmuch as each chapter in Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation is not only an independent essay, but also shows insight into the other chapters without presupposing the same background scholarship, it allows for multiple entry points for different audiences. Readers familiar with the reformational school of philosophy would certainly want to start at the beginning and read the essays in more or less linear fashion, and likewise for those who wish to gain a clearer understanding of how Zuidervaart’s ideas developed over time. On the other hand, readers who are only familiar with Zuidervaart’s earlier works or that of his continental interlocutors (Heidegger, Adorno, Habermas), could profitably enter the text through the third section. Zuidervaart’s articulation of the interconnections between the reformational tradition and his own philosophical ideas–such as social critique, artistic truth, and societal transformation–will add a profound new dimension of insight to the continental understanding of Zuidervaart’s earlier works.