A Blue Griffin, Sphere Sovereignty, and Discovering a Third Way

I biked to campus yesterday with one question in mind, “Why can’t I do what I am doing here in the United States?”

I park and lock my bike in front of the main building, and as I am doing so, I look up. A large blue griffin is plastered to the front of the thirteenth floor. At night the griffin is lit up, and when I stumble out of metaphysics or epistemology with my full and tired brain, I have to be careful not to stare too long at its open wings. One wing represents the church, the other the state, while the griffin is itself vrije (free) to be a school. The Vrije Universiteit was renamed the VU University to avoid tuition questions, but despite the recent name change, the philosophy department has remained true to its Calvinist roots. I am studying philosophy under Christian philosophers. John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis is brought up in my core epistemology class. “Christian Philosophy: Basic Themes” is open to the public, and non-Christians join the conversation. Recently my friend and professor, Gerritt Glas, current Dooyeweerd chair, asked where all of the young American Christian philosophers were. He said, “How come you are the only one?”

 The blue griffin at VU University.

The blue griffin at VU University.

Gerritt’s question, “Where is everybody?” ties into my first, “Why can’t I study in the United States?” and I can write to it, just as I spoke to it last week. Like all human stories, the answer is a narrative, deeply embedded in culture, history, politics, and sociology, but since I am short of space, the griffin is a good place to start. The Vrije Universiteit, with its Calvinist philosophy department, receives funding from the Dutch government. The school contributes to the public good by educating students and cultivating leaders. Schools contribute to the public good, and the public is diverse, so religious schools and secular schools should be publicly funded. If government were to favor secular schools over religious schools, then government would not be properly public. Government should not claim that the secular school is neutral because it seeks justice for all. Claims to neutrality simply cannot exist in a plural society.

This is a big deal—let me give you a second example. A friend of mine works with the Red Cross (Rode Kruis) Netherlands. When I told her that there was a debate in the U.S. over whether faith based institutions should receive public funding, she said, “That is discrimination!” The purpose of the Red Cross is to provide assistance to those in need. The government cannot discriminate in favor of a neutral position, because the claim of neutrality is derived from the liberal tradition. To favor neutrality is to favor liberalism over say socialism, or Catholicism, nationalism, or conservatism.

The same friend told our Christian philosophy class that she did not believe as we might believe, yet she wanted to take courses from Gerritt Glas, Govert Buijs, and Sander Griffioen because, “they are real Christians.” There is an appreciation for authenticity in this country that floors me. If I confess Christ as King, Christ should walk into the classroom with me, He should be present in the boardroom, and He should stand with me at the podium of a political party. Likewise, if I were to confess the neutrality of the liberal tradition, I should walk into the classroom, the boardroom, and stand at the podium of my political party bearing the scepter of progress, social contract, and private property in my hands. Abraham Kuyper, the founder of my university, had much to do with this authentic pluralism. He called my walking into the classroom, boardroom, and standing at the podium sphere sovereignty, or perhaps better named by Jonathan Chaplin as sphere universality.

Seamlessness is not common in the U.S. because our system is not set up for it. The Christian faith is represented in American politics through civil religion. American presidents make constant references to an omnipresent God who succeeds somehow in drawing us together without a specific doctrine. A large part of America holds a theistic belief (78.4 percent of the overall population is Christian according to thePew Forum) , but our faith is privatized. We are Sunday morning Christians. Our faith in the God who provides and sustains us does not translate into our work because we are told that the workplace is sacred ground, we must drop our religious convictions because we want people to agree with us, and the Liberal Tradition tells us that agreement is had only upon the basis of neutral claims. But if we cannot bring God into our workplace, our classroom, our boardroom, or our political party, He cannot grow. Our faith will inevitably become restricted to the individual and rights based talk will reign.

One reason why there are few American Christian philosophers is because the Liberal Tradition has made us fearful of drawing Christ into philosophy, just like it has made us fearful of drawing Christ into our schools, our workplaces, and our politics.

I have moved to the Netherlands because I think that there is a third way, a distinctly plural way of engaging our world that makes room for Christian philosophers at publicly funded universities. Kuyper opened the Vrije Universiteit with the resounding statement, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human life of which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”

I will continue to stumble out of metaphysics and epistemology, staring up at that huge plastic griffin, thanking God for this world, and for Christ, our great hope.

- Courtney Kane is a candidate for the Master of Philosophy (Christian Studies) at the Free University of Amsterdam. She studies American Civil Religion and Western Individualism, and is learning Dutch in order to read the original text of Herman Dooyeweerd. Courtney graduated from Gordon College with a degree in Political Science.