An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Interview with David Koyzis

David Koyzis has recently had his latest book We Answer to Another published - he kindly agreed to this interview. (David also blogs here.)

David, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am an American-born Canadian political scientist teaching at Redeemer University College since 1987. My mother was born in Michigan and my father in Cyprus, where I still have relatives living. I sometimes call myself a Franco-Greek-Cypriot-Finno-Anglo-American-Canadian, one of the smallest ethnic groups in North America!
I am married and have a high-school-age daughter. We live at the top of the Niagara Escarpment overlooking the lovely city of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, the gem of the Great Lakes. We have a bilingual (Greek and English) pet budgie who absolutely adores our daughter.

Who or what have been the main influences in your life?
Well, obviously my parents were a huge influence on me, and my new book is dedicated to them. I was raised in a Christian home and grew up knowing in no uncertain terms that God loves me and sent his Son to die for my sins. I've been reading the Bible ever since I can remember, and this has almost certainly been the biggest influence in my life. For nearly 40 years I have read through the Bible regularly in the course of a daily prayer regimen based on the historic Daily Office, as practised by the Benedictines and other monastic communities. To live the life in Christ calls for immersing oneself in God's Word and, as Lesslie Newbigin so aptly puts it, indwelling the biblical narrative, that is, finding one's own place within the larger drama of creation, fall and redemption.

I suppose I could also mention certain events that had an impact as well. In my youth, two developments moved me towards the study of political science after I had originally intended to pursue the arts. These were the Watergate scandal and the Cyprus crisis of 1974. I was indignant at the spectacle of a president abusing his office and attempting to subvert the constitution. Right around the time Nixon resigned the presidency, most of my relatives in Cyprus, including my elderly grandparents, became refugees in their own country as a result of an attempted Athens-instigated coup d'état, subsequent Turkish invasion, and forcible partition of the island. I've often found that students become interested in studying politics, not because they are inspired by the evident benefits of just governance, but because of concrete injustices they become passionate about correcting. This was my experience as well.

I was also inspired by my professors at what was then called Bethel College in Minnesota to think through the implications of the life in Christ for public life. Initially this moved me in an Anabaptist direction, but I didn't stay with this for very long.

Am I correct in assuming the work of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd have shaped your approach and writings?

Yes. Absolutely.

How did you get "introduced" to them?
Well, this takes me back to Bethel once again. I was around 20 years old at the time. A friend and fellow student named Doug Johnson, who lived in my dormitory, introduced me to them. I had never heard of them before, but I was quite taken with the notion that there are no sacred and secular spheres and that all of life belongs to God in Christ. Redemption in Jesus Christ covers, not just our so-called spiritual life, but everything we do. This is definitely a biblical insight, as we read in such passages as 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17. We do not follow Christ in church and then follow the gods of the age in the rest of life. Properly speaking, our lives are fully integrated into the service of God and neighbour, not divided into disconnected compartments. I began to read everything I could by and about Abraham Kuyper and ordered a number of books from the old Wedge Publishing Foundation in Toronto, including published lectures of Calvin College professor H. Evan Runner. This interest took me to the Institute for Christian Studies in the late 1970s where I studied under the late Bernard Zylstra and wrote a master's thesis on Hannah Arendt. Eventually I would come to write a dissertation at Notre Dame on Dooyeweerd and Neothomist philosopher Yves René Simon, who wrote thoughtful books on the nature and functions of authority.

Decades later I came to recognize that I had returned to something with which I had grown up as a small child, namely, the Reformed tradition of Christianity. Until age 11 I was raised in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church congregation near Chicago and was accustomed to the many Dutch and Frisian surnames of our fellow parishioners, such as Auwerda, Bosgraaf and Dykema. In fact, historian Mark Noll was a member of this congregation long after our family left, and he once told the story of an elderly member with whom I was familiar from childhood. As Noll was talking about Kuyper at a church function, she spoke up and said that her father had delivered Kuyper's groceries back in the Netherlands. I hope I am remembering this story correctly. If so, it is ironic that, although I knew nothing of Kuyper during my first two decades, someone I knew from childhood of my grandmother's generation already had a personal connection with him.

Your new book, We Answer to Another, has recently been published. Could you tell us a little about it?

Yes, certainly. I think I can best answer this by quoting the description from the back of the book:
The quest to escape authority has been a persistent feature of the modern world, animating liberals and Marxists, Westerners and non-Westerners alike. Yet what if it turns out that authority is intrinsic to humanity? What if authority is characteristic of everything we are and do as those created in God's image, even when we claim to be free of it? What if kings and commoners, teachers and students, employers and employees all possess authority?
This book argues that authority cannot be identified with mere power, is not to be played off against freedom, and is not a mere social construction. Rather it is resident in an office given us by God himself at creation. This central office is in turn dispersed into a variety of offices relevant to our different life activities in a wide array of communal settings. Far from being a conservative bromide, the call to respect authority is foundational to respect for humanity itself.

So, why should we read it?
Because it treats a phenomenon that is absolutely central to human life in God's world. Even when we think we are evading authority, we really do nothing of the sort. Each chapter begins with a story relevant to its subject matter. The introductory chapter starts with a day in the life of Michael, a university undergraduate who is engaged in all of the typical activities of the student. I've read this story to classrooms and audiences and asked them to describe each encounter Michael has with some manifestation of authority. It quickly becomes apparent that authority is ubiquitous. It is apparent at every turn, for example, in the calendar that governs his life, the professor's teaching authority and even in his own authority as student.

In our contemporary society, it is almost automatically assumed, primarily under Immanuel Kant's influence, that the mature adult must attain moral autonomy and question critically every directive that authority makes. When I was much younger, I think I would have found this a persuasive position, especially in the wake of the civil rights revolution, the Vietnam War and, of course, Watergate. Yet in the real world this is impossible. It is impossible to question authority in general. If we see fit to question specific manifestations of authority – as indeed we must – then we necessarily do so based on some other authority which we accord priority. This is what the apostles did in the book of Acts when they claimed to be obeying God rather than mere human beings (e.g., Acts 5:27-29).

Sometimes I'll ask my students who they think has authority in the classroom. Invariably they will point to me. Yes, I tell them, but I'm not the only one; you have authority too! Not the same authority, but authority no less. Everyone has an authoritative office within the classroom. Koyzis has the office of professor, while those responding to my question possess the office of student. Each office bears authority and is worthy of respect accordingly.

What prompted to you write on this topic?
The ideas in this book had been percolating since the mid-1980s when I was a student at Notre Dame. My final year there I taught four first-year seminar courses devoted to authority in which I had students reading a number of books and writing on the ideas therein. Then I put the topic aside for a number of years as I wrote my first book, Political Visions and Illusions, which was published in 2003. But my interest in authority never really went away, and I returned to it for my inaugural lecture at Redeemer later that year. That lecture eventually became this new book after seven sometimes difficult years of work.
As I researched the topic, I was surprised to discover, among other things, that everyone seems to give lip service to the distinction between authority and power. Authority and power are not the same. So far so good. Nevertheless, when they start to elaborate their understanding of authority in more detail, they still tend to identify it with some capacity at our disposal, such as psychological power, persuasive ability, superior knowledge or some such. In other words, as soon as they tell us that authority is different from power, they proceed to define authority as, well, some form of power! I knew this couldn't be right. This is when I began to conclude that authority must have something to do with office. An office is a calling, a commission, a task given us in fulfilling our duties before God. A Dutch Reformed minister, the Rev. Cornelis Sietsma, wrote a brief book on office before the Second World War and paid with his life at Dachau during the nazi occupation for living out his convictions. His story appears at the beginning of chapter 5 of my book.
Although theories of authority generally don't account for office very well, it occurred to me that virtually everyone already understands intuitively the relationship between authority and office. David Cameron's authority comes from his occupying the office of Prime Minister. People may – and do – question his ability, but no one questions his office. This is what many theoretical accounts of authority tend almost inevitably to ignore.

I mentioned Yves Simon a moment ago. He wrote three books on authority during his too brief life: The Nature and Functions of Authority, Philosophy of Democratic Government, and (posthumously) A General Theory of Authority. Since then a lot of books have been written on leadership, but very few on authority as such. It's almost as if we are afraid of it in some fashion. Simon himself began one of his books by writing of the “bad reputation” authority has acquired since the French Revolution. Simon too has been a major influence on me, as he seemed better able than most to understand that, although some functions of authority properly diminish with time, other functions are needed indefinitely for a flourishing society. Parental authority, for example, rightly recedes with the maturity of the child subject to it, but what I call the communal coordinative function of authority is needed even in a community composed of mature and virtuous adults, and it doesn't go away. Simon wrote his works more than half a century ago, but his insights are not as well known or understood as they deserve to be.

What was the highlight in writing the book?
That's a hard question to answer. I did have a bit of an epiphanic experience nearly a decade ago as I was sketching out the plan of the book. This occurred when the relationship amongst power, authority and office suddenly became clear to me. It hit me like a bolt from the blue as I was sitting with my preschool daughter in our dining room.
That said, I am more aware of the low points. My momentum was broken for a few years by a series of medical setbacks, beginning with a couple months of an environmentally-related illness in late 2005 (during construction on the main academic building), followed by a spell of depression, then a burst appendix, quickly followed by a bout with a potentially deadly case of C. Difficile, the after-effects of which took three years to run their course. Most unpleasant. I finally recovered my momentum in 2010-11 and was able to complete the book fairly quickly after that. But while it was going on, it seemed that so many obstacles were getting in the way of my completing it, and it was all rather discouraging for a time. That's now past, thank God.

How does a kuyperian/ reformational approach to authority differ from the usual Calvinist or evangelical approach?
Well, I'm not sure there is a “usual” Calvinist or evangelical approach to authority. Evangelicals are an extremely diverse lot, so their approaches – in the plural – are likely to take different forms. But let me mention one approach that has recently been in the news.

Without mentioning names and other specifics, there is a Christian organization that has been around for some four decades whose approach to family and social life is based on a chain of command or umbrella of protection. This is based on an excessively top-down view of authority, that is, the assumption that, within a particular communal context, only the higher-ups have authority while those under them simply defer to that authority. That's wrong. All of the members of a community bear an office relative to that community, even if it is limited to membership. Ordinary citizens bear no less of an authoritative office than a president or prime minister, even if it is not the same office with an identical mandate. A well-organized community will ensure that those at the top be accountable for their actions in some fashion. In particular, they must respect the offices of those who are under them. Chain-of-command language is unhelpful in this respect.
On the other hand we find those evangelicals who so emphasize mutuality in community that they ignore the necessary differentiation of offices within it and may even downplay office itself. Communities attempting to realize equality and mutuality at the expense of office too frequently find themselves subject in practice to self-appointed charismatic leaders unwilling to recognize limits to their competence. This too is unhealthy and, in many cases, results in situations not unlike the chain-of-command approach. History has demonstrated time and again that those who despise legitimate authority tend themselves to become tyrannical.

A focus on office I believe will enable us to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of authoritarianism on the one hand and an excessive egalitarianism on the other.

Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Yes, indeed. I am currently involved in co-editing with a friend and colleague an anthology of essays relating the creation-fall-redemption narrative to the various academic disciplines. Most of the authors are colleagues at Redeemer University College. We've provisionally titled the volume, Academy Regained, a tribute to my esteemed emeritus colleague, Al Wolters, whose Creation Regained has become a classic since it was first published three decades ago.

I have also recently determined to write something of my personal pilgrimage through the Psalms. This grows in part out of a 30-year-old project devoted to the Genevan Psalter. I've discovered so many wonderful things about the liturgical use of the Psalms – including, of all things, a 17th-century Turkish translation of the first 14 Genevan Psalms – that I think they would make a wonderful book accessible to a popular audience.
Since September of last year I have begun a second psalter project, in which I have written metrical texts for more than 40 of the Psalms and have composed original music for them to be sung to. I've not posted most of these on my website, and I may try to get them published as a single collection separate from my proposed book on the Psalms.

What do you do for fun?
Hmm. Good question. Music has long been considerably more than an avocation for me. I play classical guitar (albeit completely self-taught) and I love to sing and compose music as well. Collecting bow ties is definitely fun. I love old books as well. The jewel of my collection is a King James Bible dating back to 1637 – just before the outbreak of the English Civil War.

What books are you reading at the moment?
Well, I've not started reading them yet, but high in my list are three books: Jan de Bruijn, Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial History; David L. Schindler, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God; and my colleague Kevin Flatt, After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada. Recently I've been rereading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Rebuilding Russia to get his take on Ukraine's uneasy relationship with Russia. My favourite most recent read has got to be Jim Bratt's wonderful biography of Kuyper.

I'm not much of a fiction reader, but I did recently read Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, about how the automobile reshapes an Indiana city in the first years of the 20th century. Orson Welles made it into a famous film in 1942.

If you were on a desert island what two luxuries would you take with you?
Well, I think I'd take my computer, along with internet access, so I could summon help!

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