Christianity and the Modern World-View

“World-view” is a semi-technical term that names something we all have, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is a way of seeing reality – of what is real and what is possible. In German, where I think the notion was coined, the term is Weltanschauung – the way the world appears to us, how we think of it. Not just “world” in the sense of “the earth” or “the globe,” but the whole of reality.

What is commonly called the modern world-view was born in the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. It continues into the present, even as some speak of our having entered “post-modernity” with a “post-modern” world-view. Often called a scientific world-view, it affirms that what is real is that which can be known by science, namely, the space-time world of matter and energy and how it operates. Of course, many contemporary (post-modern?) scientists think that understanding is inadequate and venture beyond it into string-theory and multiple dimensions of reality.

But at the level of popular culture, the modern world-view is still widely even if unconsciously accepted not only by secularists but also by many Christians, especially fundamentalist and many conservative Christians. That is why they argue for the factual interpretation of biblical stories: the stories of creation, Jesus’s conception by God, his miraculous deeds, and a literal material physical resurrection. Within this way of thinking, if these stories aren’t factual – if they didn’t happen in the space-time world of matter and energy, then they’re not true and are no better than fables.

Progressive Christians are often said by other Christians to elevate the modern worldview above the Bible and Christian tradition. That is one of the issues in the dialogue between Tony Jones and me about the resurrection of Jesus. Namely, that I (and other progressive Christians) believe that modernity defines what is possible and not possible, and that that is the reason that I do not believe in the material physical bodily resurrection of Jesus’s corpse. Even as I do affirm the central meaning of the resurrection: that Jesus is a reality of the present who continues to be experienced and also and importantly experienced as Lord, as vindicated by God.
So also Roger Olson, whose Patheos blogs I read and value, defines “liberal Christianity” as one that makes modern knowledge normative.

I acknowledge that I did so earlier in my life. From my mid teens through my early 30s, I took for granted the modern world-view: that what was real was what could be known through modern ways of knowing. And so I became skeptical about anything that didn’t fit within that world-view, including God and everything said to be done by God. What mattered to me was ethics, personal and social. I could see that emphasis in the Bible, and it mattered even as I was skeptical about God.

Then in my 30s I had a series of mystical experiences. I knew nothing about mysticism at the time, even as I had a doctor’s degree in religious studies and New Testament. In those moments, I saw everything filled with light, luminous, glorious. I later learned that the phrase “the glory of God” means the radiance of God, the sacred. What the word “God” referred to became real to me.

Those experiences shattered the world-view that I had absorbed growing up in a modern Western culture. And I began to see the central figures of the biblical
tradition, including Jesus, and the central figures of other religious traditions, as people for whom “God” did not refer primarily to an article of belief but an element of experience. Those experiences convinced me that “God” is real.

But they did not convince me that God intervenes on the behalf of some people and not others. The evidence against divine interventions to rescue some (and perhaps punish others) seems to me to be overwhelming. And not primarily because of the modern world-view. Rather, the issue is theological: if God sometimes intervenes, how can one possibly account for all the non-interventions? God rescued the Hebrew slaves by dividing the sea in the time of the Exodus, but didn’t during the many pogroms since, culminating in the Holocaust? If God intervenes, why do the wicked often prosper and the good often suffer? God fed hungry people through Jesus by multiplying loaves and fishes, even as hundreds of millions have died of hunger since? God raised Jesus in physical material bodily form from the dead, but nobody else? And the stories of Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter and the son of the widow of Nain are not really exceptions. If they were, the question would still remain: why them and not anybody else?

Some people today have experienced rescue when it seemed impossible. Some with a diagnosis of terminal illness recover. A few survive a plane crash when everybody else is killed. All of us an provide examples.

People who have these experiences will often say, “Thank God, praise God!” The exclamation is utterly natural. Gratitude is natural and to be applauded. How could one not be grateful? But to construct a theology of divine intervention out of such experiences is to ignore the elephant in the room: what about all of those who don’t get rescued?

So I do not think God intervenes. That is, I do not think that God is the direct cause of some things that happen.

Yet I am convinced that God is real, and known in all of the enduring religions of the world, the ones that have stood the test of time. And as a Christian, the paradigms of those who have known God are the great figures of our tradition: Moses, Elijah, the prophets, Jesus, Paul, and post-biblical folks like Augustine, Aquinas, Francis, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, and a cloud of witnesses too numerous to name.

A Christianity that robustly affirms the reality of God and the many who have known God is not deficient, even as it lets go of the notion of special interventions. It may well be the Christianity of the future. To quote Karl Rahner, often called the most important Roman Catholic theologian of the second half of the 20th century: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” And “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”

I would soften Rahner’s words, as he might also have: if God is not an element of experience and not simply an article of belief, then there is no reason to take the notion of God, the sacred, seriously. And affirming the reality of God, the sacred, as the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17.28) counters the modern world-view. There is a way of being Christian that goes beyond the modern world-view without affirming special divine interventions.

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