Is There a “the Christian Worldview?” If So, What Is It? Part 1

Is There a “the Christian Worldview?” If So, What Is It? Part 1

A while back I posted here a very positive review of Molly Worthen’s excellent book Apostles of Reason. I had almost nothing but praise for it. Now I want to express one perhaps (but perhaps not) quibble with the book’s analysis of the problem with evangelicalism.

Worthen criticizes evangelical scholars’ obsession with “the Christian worldview” and connects that with Reformed rationalism. Worthen is not a theologian and so I want to give her some slack. However, in my opinion, concern to identify and promote “the Christian worldview” is not unique to Reformed theology or evangelical rationalism. Perhaps “Reformed rationalists” (or rationalist Reformed thinkers) have been in the forefront of debates about the Christian worldview—fine tuning it to the point where it comes out nearly identical with “the Reformed life and worldview” including TULIP.

I see no reason, however, why Arminians and Wesleyans (they are almost the same but not quite) cannot be concerned with and participate in the project of identifying and promoting the Christian life and world view. In fact, in some cases they have been, even if, for the most part, that project has been led by Reformed thinkers.

Bear with me while I give a little background to my own interest in this project. My own introduction to the larger evangelical world was through magazines such as Christianity Today and Eternity. Both published articles about the Christian worldview. I noticed right away, even as a theological novice, that there was some disagreement among evangelical scholars about the details but that there was broad and deep agreement among evangelicals that there is a conflict between a Christian view of reality and several other basic views of reality—especially naturalism and idealism. Atheism tended to depend on a naturalistic view of reality, “Weltanschauung” to use Kant’s and Dilthey’s term for these basic “pictures” of reality, and certain strands of vague, spiritual humanism tended to depend on an idealistic one.

Reading the articles in CT and Eternity drove me to look deeper into the matter. It seemed (from the articles) that one could not count oneself a reflective evangelical without knowing about and understanding worldviews. I easily found another publication that seemed devoted to explicating and exploring the borders and intersections of the Christian worldview, as understood by evangelical scholars, with disciplines such as the hard sciences, the human sciences, literature, etc. That was (and is) Christian Scholar’s Review. (My first two publications were book reviews in Eternity and CSR.) I also found and read several books about the Christian worldview and other worldviews by evangelical scholars such as Arthur Holmes, long time professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, and James Sire, long time lecturer for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

I settled into the belief that there is a very basic set of ideas about reality that are implicit within revelation and that are rational and lie at the foundation or center of Christian thought. I resisted the idea that it is a whole systematic theology—recognizing that evangelicals come from many denominational and confessional backgrounds and that it would be wrong to equate “basic Christian thought about reality” with any single confessional heritage or tradition and its doctrines. I came to believe that the Christian worldview was what all the evangelical (and other authentically Christian) belief systems had in common—the central, unifying ideas such as James Sire’s “God is God and I am not.” (Sire identifies this as the starting  point, thought-wise, of all authentically Christian belief systems.)

With Sire and Holmes and others, I thought of the Christian worldview as that set of beliefs about reality that are shared by Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, all Protestant denominations insofar as they are uncorrupted by abject accommodation to Enlightenment humanism, and even sects of Christianity that would not identify as any of those (e.g., Churches of Christ, many Anabaptists, etc.).

Later, perhaps in a follow up (“Part 2”) I’ll set forth in more detail what I think must necessarily be included in any robust, faithful and holistic Christian life and world view. Sticking to my “background” explanation, however, I will say that I was shocked to discover in my first two teaching positions in evangelical universities that not all self-identified evangelical Christians accept the idea of ‘the Christian worldview’.” How can that be, I asked myself?

Over the many years of my service in evangelical higher education (“evangelical” very broadly defined) I have experienced a few very serious “shocks” to my personal spiritual and theological system. One of the first ones was the discovery that some self-identified evangelical Christians reject the idea of there being a “the Christian life and world view.” I went out of my way to engage in conversations with colleagues who expressed strong rejection of that idea. I found they were the same people who had great difficulty with “integration of faith and learning”—the project of integrating the Christian life and world view with all disciplines taught in a Christian college or university.

The “shock” I experienced was that my conversations with these protesters seemed like the proverbial ships passing in the night. We had trouble making our minds meet on anything beyond “Jesus is Lord.” Even that was sometimes somehow a problem—especially when exploring its meaning and implications.

Most of these people were professors in the social sciences—anthropology, sociology, etc. Sometimes they were professors and scholars in the human sciences—psychology, communication studies, etc. (I realize these realms overlap a lot.) Some of them were missiologists.

Most often these good folks, friends, actually, insisted to me that there neither is nor can be a “the Christian worldview.” Every culture, they informed me, must develop its own Christian worldview and we “Westerners” have no right to shape it or correct it. Our only task is to translate the Bible into people’s languages and allow them to develop their own Christian worldview.

I immediately saw a problem there. If we “Westeners” (not nearly as monolithic as my interlocutors pretended) are not to shape or correct others’ Christian worldviews, how can ours be shaped or corrected, as it probably should be, by theirs? Shouldn’t we all, Christians of all cultures and tribes and languages, inform and correct each others’ worldviews? My interlocutors seemed particularly anxious for Western Christians (European and North American) to be open to correction and addition by Christians of other cultures but they did not want us to offer any corrections or emendations to others beliefs and practices—even of basic Christian theology.

This disagreement about whether such a thing as “the Christian worldview” exists or even should be developed or defended led to open rebellion against “integration of faith and learning”—except on a purely individual basis. The idea of filling the “faith” part of that project with any cognitive content was wildly objectionable to many of my colleagues.

I thought I saw some very troubling results of this rejection of any objective content of basic Christian belief about reality. Some of my colleagues, again, dear and valued friends, brought ideas about reality, including human existence, back from their secular university educations or back from their cultural encounters, that I believed (and still believe) radically conflict with Christianity.

I’ll mention an example. My wife and I sent our child to the college’s/university’s “Child Development Center”—a very good pre-school for pre-kindergartners. Every quarter or so the staff would host a special evening session for parents with a light supper and a lecture by a guest speaker—usually on some subject related to parenting and child development. One evening we attended and the guest speaker, a professor of the nearby state university, began this way (paraphrasing): “We begin with the belief that all children are born pristine, morally good, with no negative imprinting. Whatever negative traits they develop are given them by their social environment.” I looked around at other people present who I knew considered themselves evangelical Christians. Not one, including the staff of the Center, looked surprised or dismayed. This was said on the campus of an evangelical Christian college/university and under the auspices of one of its departments. Now, admittedly, the person who made the claim was not part of our community, but I hoped for some correction by someone in charge representing it. My hopes were disappointed.

Another example was my years long dialogue with a colleague in the “Cultural Studies” department. He was, in my opinion, teaching our students cultural relativism. I was not out to set him straight; I just wanted to understand him as he clearly wanted me to agree with him. So one day over lunch I asked him if he believed there is any doctrine or idea essential to Christianity as a life and world view that is true and important for Christians to know and believe everywhere. He said that there is not such a universally valid, trans-cultural idea, doctrine or belief. I asked him how that is not cultural relativism and he just smiled at me.

As editor of Christian Scholar’s Review, a journal dedicated to integration of Christian faith and disciplines of research and study in universities, I immersed myself in this “conversation” about “the Christian worldview” for five years. What I discovered is that among and within our fifty Christian (mostly evangelical) supporting liberal arts colleges and universities there was a battle over the very idea of a “the Christian worldview.” Some potential authors we approached to write articles informed us they felt caught between a rock and a hard place. The “rock” was their belief that there is such a thing, however minimal it may be in terms of content, and their administrators who agreed, and the “hard place” was colleagues who adamantly rejected it.

Another tension I felt as editor of the Review was that some supporters and critics thought my vision of the Christian worldview as too minimal. They (mostly conservative Reformed evangelicals and fundamentalists) wanted it to be identified with their favorite system of theology and doctrine—including in some cases “Christian Reconstructionism!” I resisted that with sometimes negative consequences.

In about 1990 I was approached by my college’s administration to create a new course called “Developing a Christian Worldview.” This was to be a required course in the college’s new “degree completion program” for “adult learners.” I did create it and taught it numerous times. So did others teach it. I began writing a book of that title based on the curriculum I developed for the course. I approached a major evangelical publisher with my idea and received no response whatever. I never did write the book (although it has always been in the back of my mind to do so). Instead, I required students to read and discuss Arthur Holmes book Contours of a World View (Eerdmans, 1983). It wasn’t the best “fit” for the course or the students, but it was the best I could find then.

I taught that course, using several collateral readings, throughout the 1990s. I got good feedback on it from Christian students but not so much from non-Christian students who said they did not appreciate having to study Christian “philosophy” even though they were informed about it before registering for the degree program.

Over the years I have found myself torn about this issue of a “the Christian worldview.” When I’m around people, especially Christians, who reject the very idea of it I tend to become defensive of it. When I’m around people who tend to identify it with a very detailed system of confessional theology (e.g., conservative Reformed thought with a heavy emphasis on “classical Christian theism” including divine determinism) and who think it is rationally provable I get nervous and back away from it.

It seems to me both its enemies and its “friends” have done it a great disservice—by misunderstanding what “it” is and even sometimes misrepresenting it (e.g., in order to undermine any expectation that they practice “faith-learning integration” in their classroom teaching).

In my next installment, Part 2, I will lay out in more detail what I think a “the Christian worldview” must include. And, to whet your appetites, I will say now that I do still believe there is a universally valid, trans-cultural “Christian perspective” with cognitive content deviation from which seriously undermines the claim to be Christian—anywhere and at any time.

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