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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.


1.1 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.

With regard to content of research fields, CHristians adopt one of three modes, usually one of the first two:

1.2 Antagonism.

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.

1.3 Acquiescence

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:


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:

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?


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?


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:

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):

So: Don't be too quick to defend the old - e.g. modernism against postmodernism.


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.

4.1 Affirm

4.2 Critique

4.3 Enrich

  • 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 [22006], 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.

    4.4 Overall

    4.5 Some Dangers ?

    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.


    I might make reference to some of these; some are published papers; others are the work of postgraduate students.

    NOTE: Some of those undertaken with those committed to Hindu, Muslim or humanist beliefs. From Biblical point of view, the implies either:



    NOTE 1:

    Note 2. The philosopher Dooyeweerd identified four presuppositions in Western thought, which he called ground motives:

    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 "".)

    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 "".

    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.

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    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.