Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Christianity and worldviews

Christians are often engaged in the project of "building a biblical worldview." This project more or less entails interpreting all the components of the world around us in light of the narrative of Scripture, specifically the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Particularly among Reformed apologists, the biblical worldview is the only proper "starting point" for knowledge, and other "starting points" (e.g. modernism, postmodernism) are shown to have serious failings. Our presuppositions must be exposed for what they are, and we must understand the gospel to be the only presuppositions which truly make sense of the world. This isn't the only way to put it, and, indeed, there are many evangelicals outside the Reformed camp who have different takes on the nature and importance of a "biblical worldview." But one thing they have in common: it is the truth proclaimed by Scripture which must be the lens through which we view the world.

At first glance, this is a cogent argument against modern rationalism, which puts its faith in autonomous human reason to evaluate truths. On the other hand, I think this approach ignores some important observations as well as recent discoveries about the nature of the human mind.

In particular, most of our thought and reasoning is unconscious. Our "worldview," in any meaningful sense, begins to take shape not when we begin to consciously assess the truth claims of Christianity, but really when our neural circuitry begins to form before birth. This can sound like a characteristically modern statement, using science to trump theology, but I mean to use it quite differently. What we ought to recognize is how vital grace is in the growth of all human knowledge. We can learn absolutely nothing without most of what we know simply given to us. Grace is first present in an individual's life not at the first reading of the Bible, but in the womb.

And from there it is quite impossible to enumerate all that we are given before conscious thought is even possible. The rhythms of language are first heard in the womb; they are then continually reinforced until an infant is finally able to reciprocate with hand gestures or vocal imitations. Everything is given to a young child: the words to say, the inflections that go with them, the actions they represent, the feelings and situations connected with them, which questions to ask, how to answer them, and so on. Reason would literally be impossible for a child if not for the protective care of adults, and based on what I know it appears that any human who experience utter neglect from birth would be altogether deprived of the ability to consciously reason.

Thus, whatever we mean by a "biblical worldview" surely cannot constitute any more than a small fraction of how we really see the world. In the tradition of the Church, the claims of Scripture have always demanded conscious assent. By the time our categories of thought our sufficiently developed to consciously evaluate these claims, it would appear in my estimation that an entire "worldview" has already been constructed.

This should not in any way be construed as saying that the die has already been cast before a person makes a decision about Christianity or any other religion. By no means. In fact, that is part of what is so interesting about living in this pluralistic age. We have seen how people with many of the same categories for viewing the world are capable of coming up with dramatically different conscious ideas about how things are, philosophically, politically, and religiously. And that is a fact that I want to dwell on.

Most of us humans really have the same material to work with. The way we see the world is very much shaped by our physical embodiment in this world. The result is hardly that "truth is relative" because all of our truth claims emerge from a certain embodied point of view. On the contrary, our embodied state in this world is the product of many generations of fine-tuning that had nothing to do with our particular individual efforts. We have all inherited an enormous wealth of genetic and cultural material which allows us now to see the world the way we do. And most of this material really is common to all of us.

This yields two consequences. First, as I mentioned above, we really owe our ability to think and reason and understand to grace, that is, an enormous free gift which we did nothing to earn. Human reason is hardly autonomous, and that is precisely because it is a gift. And yet, it has its limits, which are at times frustratingly difficult to cope with. Its limitations are the result of its embodiment. Reason is not transcendent but is rather built upon the basic building blocks of life itself.

Second, most of us humans really do share most of a worldview in common. The fact that languages even translate one to another demonstrates how many of the same categories we share. Just the fact that all the languages on the planet have so many common constructions--questions and answers, commands, declarative sentences, etc.--means that we all share a pretty rich common cognitive heritage.

I think this has some pretty important consequences. Philosophically, it means I think we can reject three different options which are often taken to be the only options. One, we can reject the modernist notion of man as an objective observer confidently exploring (and conquering) the universe by means of his own Reason. Two, we can also reject the postmodernist notion that truth is relative, that all cultures have equally valid traditions, and that the search for truth is nothing more than a competition for power. Both of these are quickly dispensed with when we realize that 1) reason itself is a gift given through our genetic and cultural heritage and 2) reason is not autonomous, but is bound by its embodiment in the world.

But there is a third option which I also think can be rejected, which is that the goal of a Christian seeking knowledge must be a specifically "biblical worldview." Now, on the one hand, many advocates of biblical worldview are mainly saying that the full pursuit of truth can only be done in a living relationship with God. This certainly means many things which do not only involve the consciousness; the liturgy and other rituals in the life of the Church involve the whole person, thereby shaping even the unconscious mind. But on the other hand, it is often insisted that we ought to be able to consciously interpret all ideas through the lens of the narrative of Scripture. This, it seems to me, is biting off more than one can chew. In fact, this approach seems to be based on the same rationalist assumption as modernism that all truth can be consciously apprehended.

In both cases, really, whether we're talking about our minds being consciously shaped by Scripture or consciously and subconsciously shaped by the common practices of the Church, it seems to me that we're missing something if we really aim at a uniquely biblical worldview. Our focus on constructing or adhering to a complete system of thought seems to have dangerous consequences for how we think about the world. This "worldview" talk has, in my opinion, led to an undue suspicion of secular culture; it has eroded what in my opinion is a proper belief in religious tolerance; and, at its worst, it has encouraged a kind of culture-warrior mentality which seeks to "win back the culture" for Christ through ideological domination. All of these ill effects seem to be natural results of the idea that our view of the world must be uniquely all-encompassing, so that any lack of uniformity in our thinking is the result of a serious deficiency. To some this may sound exaggerated; to others it will sound rather mild.

It is natural as people who believe Jesus Christ to be the personal revelation of God to human beings to want to take all things captive for him, to declare his kingdom come over all the earth. History has shown the fruits of these endeavors; in some ways it has been good, but it has been ugly. We may feel somehow that there must be a way to it right, to pick up where our forefathers in the faith left off, and try to take back what secularism destroyed. You can see this feeling at work in every Christian author who talks about how to have a Christian political system. You can see it in every book designed to keep young adults from losing their faith. You can see it in every blog posted railing against the New Atheists. You can see it in every book written by evangelicals to correct the "heresies" of certain other evangelicals. All of these are attempts to consciously influence the world around us according to a grand vision of what it means to live by the gospel.

But history is the story of human efforts resulting in things which they rarely ever intended. I admit I have taken a great deal of wisdom from the classical liberal philosophers, many of whom are or were secular thinkers, but most of whom seem to have a very realistic and humble approach to human nature. My view is that the Christian Church ought to take a hint from this philosophy, and think carefully about the limits not only of autonomous human reason, but also of consciously religious reason.

Yet I do not want to end with a negative statement. I think the commonality we have with all human beings in the world, all of us endowed with many of the same faculties, concepts, and desires, should give us reason to embrace a new movement of Christian humanism. Indeed, "all truth is God's truth," but moreover, it is also our truth, because God is in fact rather kind to the whole human race. Considering we deserve nothing, and yet are recipients of all kinds of good gifts, including many wonderful gifts of knowledge past down to us for generations, we ought to be very much thankful. We simply could not have given all these things to ourselves. We owe it to God as an act of worship to receive these gifts thankfully and humbly, to cultivate them to the best of our ability, and yet to recognize that we are not the movers of history. Truth, beauty, and goodness can be found in anything in God's creation, particularly in our fellow human beings, all of whom bear his image.

There may, after all my critique, be something to be said for a holistic biblical worldview. But consider this a warning about the limits of conscious knowledge. I have no doubt that there is such a thing as truth. It is just that we humans have this tendency to make the Truth something we can consciously control, and that has repeatedly been our downfall.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good set of cautions for anybody involved in the "biblical worldview" project. Have you actually read any Van Til yet? (Or Bavinck, for that matter?)

    Probably the strongest element of your critique is just pointing out how confused we all tend to be about what we mean by "biblical worldview" (or whatever phrase we prefer). I think the classic formulations of what's come to be known by that name tend to be pretty impressively conscious of what you're bringing up, acknowledging the limits of conscious human knowledge.

    Maybe it's a personality thing that you're rubbing up against - the type of people who insist on a biblical worldview tend to be the type of people who not only think there's a way to do a biblical worldview right, but that they've got it nailed down. Don't we all want to figure out how to do it - whether "it" is politics, liturgy, business, economics, art - right? I think there's a lot of room for the possibility of insisting that every area of human endeavor must be pursued with reference to our existence in relationship to the eternal God while at the same time never forgetting who is God and who is not, which is to say never forgetting that we don't have the wherewithal to do it right or even consciously bring about God's ends.

    For all the tendencies of popular evangelical rhetoric, I do think there are a lot of people out there (many of them in my seminary) who have this type of outlook. I think these considerations are at the heart of trends in the Church toward taking seriously what it means to raise children in covenant, for example. And we really never stop being brought up, do we? To be in relationship with God is to have the right kind of Father, after all, no matter when that upbringing begins in one's life.

    I guess that's a scattershot bit of reply, but I'm curious to hear what you're responding to and whether I've made any sense.


I love to hear feedback!