– What religion looks like in terms of modern philosophy –
– A Biographical Sketch –
In American reviews of significant philosophical literature, the name which turns up regularly is that of the native Dutch liberal pastor and theologian Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg. Without exception, in as far as I have been able to verify this, his name is found under the heading of analytical philosophy. Most often together with the mention of his best-known work, An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, published in 1958, which established once and for all his reputation as an important pioneer in a still relatively young field of the philosophical thinking of that time.
Preceding his first acquaintance , in 1946, with the United States where he was able to go thanks to scholarship grants from the World Council of Churches and Chicago Theological Seminary, he served as Remonstrant pastor respectively the communities of Groningen, Hoorn, Boskoop/Waddinxveen, Eindhoven, and Nijmegen. In the last city, Nijmegen, he handed in his resignation “for purposes of study,” and left for the U.S. on December 30, 1946.
In Chicago he became acquainted with the modern philosophy of language by attending classes of Charles Hartshorne, Rudolf Carnap, and Charles W. Morris. This period of study was followed by an appointment as “Visiting Instructor for Religion” at Elmhurst College (Illinois) , a function he traded two years later, in 1948, for an appointment at McCormick Theological Seninary, where, in 1950, he attained the position of Professor of philosophy of religion. In November 1949 he had joined the Presbyterian Church in the USA.
Willem (Wim) Frederik Zuurdeeg was born on May 20, 1906, in Rotterdam, son of the school principal Johannes Zuurdeeg and Hendrika Josephina van Ommen, a teacher at the same school. He had a brother and a sister. His parental home was characterized by soberness which instilled in him precision and attention to details.
On the advice from the well-known pastor Dr. Fetter, he began the study of geography. He received his candidate’s degree in Social Geography at the University of Utrecht in 1927, and the candidate’s degree in Theology in 1930, both cum laude. In order to meet the requirements of the University of Leiden, he took private lessons in Latin and Greek, after which he rounded off his theological study with the doctoral exam in 1934, again with the judicium cum laude. That same year he was ordained as minister of the Remonstrant Brotherhood.
He left for Groningen to serve as pastor of the local Remonstrant Church for a term of five years. His brother Jan Zuurdeeg (1909-1980 becomes a minister in the Reformed Church and is actively involved with the VPRO (Liberal Protestant Radio Station.) Wim too can be heard via this station’s broadcasts, but according to his dissertation, he applied himself especially to the discovery of new paths which might make the old opposition between liberal and orthodox superfluous.
The Professors De Bussy and Westendorp Boerma in particular gave direction to the independent course of his promotion research. On December 13, 1946, Zuurdeeg received the Ph.D. in Theology at the University of Amsterdam with the defense of his dissertation The Consequences of the Vienna Circle Philosophy for Ethics. He had arrived at the choice of this topic under influence of the Second World War. Himself a fierce opponent of Nazism – he hid many fugitives in his spacious manse in Boskoop – he struggled intensely with the question whether resistance against the enemy who violates moral principles is itself based on universal moral principles.
In effect, are there universal moral principles? One of his conclusions is that striving for purely objective science is impossible, because this is always strongly influenced by spiritual elements. The search itself already has a moral rather than a spiritual character. The fact that even the members of the Vienna Circle in their search for objectivity did not realize this, is regarded by Zuurdeeg as a shortcoming as well as an opportunity. This fundamental weakness of our knowledge frees us namely from the thought that, because of the absoluteness of the laws of nature, there would no longer be room and perspective for how we regard reality in the light of a worldview of religious conviction. Values and norms indeed are not part of the objective reality. Religiously speaking, so claims Zuurdeeg, man is free only if he has connected with God. Norms and values do not exist objectively: they form a force which impels people to set out on a quest for the Kingdom of God which also does not exist objectively. It is a force which wants to be realized.
The philosopher Rudolf Carnap, recognized as the most prominent representative of the Vienna Circle, praised Zuurdeeg in particular with the pronouncement that he had never yet read a work on logical positivism written by an outsider, that was as unprejudiced, to the point, and clear, as his (Z’s) research. Carnap’s colleagues Charles Hartshorne and Charles W. Morris, were also favorably impressed by his book. Even though none of these three completely agreed with his conclusions, they were of the opinion that his book brought a new approach which merited broader attention. However, the University of Chicago Press refused to publish it, arguing that the readers of this Publishing House were all deeply convinced that a Christian who wants to see anything positive at all in logical positivism, surely himself has understood nothing of the essence of the Christian faith.
In autobiographical remarks, Zuurdeeg describes his own philosophical “Werdegang.”
Since he can not subscribe to the traditional views of MCCormick Theological Seminary, they graciously offer him space to write his own “job-description.”: “ I formulated my task as follows: in a Seminary the philosopher of religion should consider it to be his main task to introduce the students to the significant thinking done outside the boundaries of the church, in order to be able to enter into dialogue with its representatives. In regard to his own scholarly work, the philosopher of religion should ask for the implications of contemporary philosophy for the thinking of Christians.” In an explanation he gives as argument that students of theology already have more than enough religion “in their bag” and that it is therefore necessary that they be confronted with the thinking of – what he calls – a different kind of people.
Zuurdeeg has his life long remained true to this insight; there was his origin, laid down as a lasting monument in his vision of the Vienna Circle. He sought dialogue and wanted neither to approve nor to disapprove of logical positivism. What counted for him was the challenge: he wanted to make the insights of the language philosophy object of discussion and application among theologians. That would be to their advantage.
He visits Holland in 1951 because of a serious illness of his father who dies soon afterwards.. During the summer he is invited to preach at his former congregation in Nijmegen At that occasion he met again Agatha (Atie) W. Dingemans whose acquaintance he had made earlier. The daughter of a veterinarian, she was finishing her study of psychology. They marry in 1952 and will live on the Campus of McCormick Seminary. They will have three children.
In 1955 Zuurdeeg becomes an American citizen and is selected to have an audience with President Eisenhower in Washington D.C.
Next to his scholarly work he remains active as pastor. During many summers he takes the place of local ministers in various parts of the country. He also travels in Europe and gives lectures in Oxford, at the University as well as at the Socratic Club.
Zuurdeeg had planned to spend a sabbatical in Switzerland in 1964 with a Fellowship he received from the American Association of Theological Seminaries. From his analytical perspective he wanted to make a study of The Philosophy and Background of Karl Barth’s Theology. It never came to that. He was working on his third book with the preliminary title The Origin of Philosophy in a Cry of which he had finished two thirds when he became seriously ill. He died on December 3, 1963, of colon cancer.
Wim Zuurdeeg is described as a warm personality, an accessible man, and an excellent docent. A jovial man with a good sense of humor and the unmistakable dedication of a strongly developed social conscience. Driven by a yearning for truth and averse to dogmatism – also to liberalism in as far as that had become dogmatic – he wanted to show “what religion looks like in terms of modern philosophy.”
(Foto: University Campus Evanston, the author Heine Siebrand and Atie Zuurdeeg-Dingemans, widow of Wim Zuurdeeg)
(De Nederlandse versie van deze tekst is te vinden in het boek Tegendraads)