The Biblical Worldview versus Modernity

In a recent interview it was revealed that Michelle Bachman, recent winner of the Iowa caucuses, is a follower of Francis Schaeffer, having been deeply influenced by his famous book “How Then Shall We Live.” It is a book that had much currency in the Christian circles I was raised in. Schaeffer, sipping wine at his retreat center L’Abri in the Swiss countryside, was reflecting amidst the ruins of European Christendom on what had gone wrong. And his answer, rooted in Calvin (he was Presbyterian), was that Christians needed to escape the modern worldview and embrace a Biblical worldview. It was an attractive proposition.

As Schaeffer saw it, and as generations of evangelicals since have seen it, a Biblical worldview is one shaped by God’s revelation, and thus not only allows us to see reality from the perspective of the Divine, but is all lit up with God’s graciousness and love. By contrast what Schaeffer and other evangelicals saw as a modern worldview was confining – extending as it did no further than the limits of human vision and reason. And in the wake of two devastating world wars it was dehumanizing, seeing humans as simply the latest extension of the evolution of the animals rather than the summit of creation, made in the image of God.

Although Schaeffer and his followers were no doubt unaware of it, at about the same time he was formulating his ideas the Muslim world was seeing the rise of intellectuals offering a close analogue to their followers. Maulana Mawdudi’s book “Come, Let us Be Muslims” and later Fazlur Rahman in the United States would in their different ways promote the embrace of a Qur’anic worldview. Like Schaeffer they argued that such a worldview not only gave humans a divine perspective on reality, but also restored their preeminent place in the natural order. Rahman would even put forth a plan for the Islamization of knowledge. It would inspire the building of Islamic universities around the world to compete with supposedly “modern” universities. Whether he regarded Liberty U. and Bob Jones as models it is hard to say, but the intention was much the same.

The problem with both Schaeffer and his Muslim analogues was that they misunderstood modernity, as their followers (including Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry) continue to misunderstand modernity. Modernity is not a worldview constrained by the limits of human sight and reason. Modernity is an attitude of openness toward the possibility that new knowledge may force us to change our worldview. It is the recognition that all frameworks within which we place our human experience are and should be provisional – open to change based on the availability of new data. To live as a modern person is to recognize the possibility that worldviews can and must be chosen precisely because our human vision is limited. It is the recognition that the spectacles of revelation can never fully cure our myopia.

This is why Schaeffer, and Rahman, and Bachman, and Mawdudi and Perry and every other Islamist or Schaefferite evangelical, far from having chosen a Biblical or Qur’anic worldview in preference to a modern worldview is simply a modern person who has chosen to quite choosing. The moment they chose a supposedly divinely revealed worldview they exercised the purely modern prerogative of deciding how to frame their existing experiences. Since then they have chosen to ignore or distort the flood of later human experience for which their worldview does not make and cannot make provision. They will ignore modern genetics and deny evolutionary theory and they will ignore modern economics and deny environmental science. But even in doing so they are engaging in the modern task of choosing their worldview rather than having it presented to them by their culture. A modern person can choose a worldview, but he or she cannot choose to quit being modern.

Perhaps, instead of a Biblical worldview we need to choose a Biblical orientation within whatever worldview best accounts for our unfolding experience of a complex world. This, it seems to mean, is the real meaning of faith. (See

It is a great comfort to live, like Mole in the Wind in the Willows, among the enchanted fields bounded by the Wild Woods and well protected from the great Wide World. And in the coming elections Americans may well choose that comfort. But with that understood, is choosing ignorance really the best choice?

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