Is There a “the Christian Worldview?” If So, What Is It? Part 2

Is There a “the Christian Worldview?” If So, What Is It? Part 2

If you have not read Part 1 of this series “Is There a ‘the Christian Worldview’?” this second installment may cause some confusion; I suggest you go back and read Part 1 first.

I believe there is a “the Christian worldview”—a minimally necessary cognitive content to “seeing the world as” Christianly. “Seeing as” is what philosopher of religion Richard Hare called a “blik”—a basic perspective on reality. It is also the implicit biblical metaphysic—a set of assumptions about the nature of reality (ultimate, penultimate, appearance, etc.) implied by biblical revelation. Two philosophical theologians who worked on this idea of a “biblical metaphysic” were Claude Tresmontant and Edmond Cherbonnier.

Like everything else about Christianity, the Christian worldview is not just always already there in every Christian’s mind; it is developed through a process of what James Sire called “discipleship of the mind.” Unfortunately, most American Christians have abandoned that part of Christian formation. However, I believe that what theologian Hans Frei called “the Bible absorbing the world” leads one to seeing the world, reality, as what the Christian worldview includes. There are certain truths about the nature of reality embedded in revelation.

One way of understanding what something is is by understanding what it is not. So here I’ll distinguish between a worldview, as I am defining and describing it here, and things with which it is often wrongly confused.

A worldview is not a systematic or confessional theology even though those usually imply and rest on a worldview. A worldview is not as detailed as a theology. (Some Christians have distinguished between “worldviewish theology” and “systematic theology” with the latter attempting to account for all beliefs of a confessional tradition.)

A worldview is not an ideology even though it can be turned into an ideology. Also, an ideology can be turned into a worldview. An ideology is a socio-political program for solving society’s problems and bringing in a utopia. One usually implies a worldview. Some are explicitly attached to a worldview. (For example, classical Marxism is attached to the worldview called “dialectical materialism.”) However, an ideology is always totalizing; a worldview need not be.

I believe this confusion between “worldview” and “ideology” is a major reason why many, especially postmodern, people reject the whole idea of “worldview.” However, a worldview need not be totalizing in nature.

Finally, a worldview is not a metanarrative. A metanarrative is a story about reality; a worldview is an attempt to put that metaphysical implications of such a story into propositional form (however rudimentary, tentative, and open to change).

What’s the use of a worldview? As many “worldviewish theologians” have pointed out, every adult has a worldview, a way of seeing the world, reality, “as” something. For most people it is extremely simplistic and inchoate. Worldviewish theology is simply the attempt to make the metaphysic implicit in revelation explicit and to bring out its commonalities and incommensurabilities with other worldviews.

Whenever Christianity has come into contact with worldviews it has struggled to understand its own in relation to them. Of course, not every Christian values this project; some reject it. However, in a pluralistic society, whether that of the Roman Empire or that of contemporary America, it seems a Christian is faced with two options: either reduce Christianity to a non-propositional spirituality or to an ethic or both. In either case, alternative worldviews tend to appeal to inquiring minds. Many Christians in such contexts opt for syncreticsm—attempting to combine their Christian form of life with non-Christian worldviews.

That is, perhaps, the main purpose of the project of making “the” Christian worldview explicit—to avoid and correct Christian syncretism.

What are some examples of “Christian syncretism?” Polls show that about 24% of Americans (presumably adults in malls) believe in reincarnation. I have met devout Christians who believe in reincarnation. The Bible does not explicitly rule out reincarnation. Christian worldviewish theology is the attempt to show why reincarnation is incompatible with Christianity.

Many Christians have adopted what theologian Peter Leithardt calls “Americanism”—the near worship of America including belief in “American exceptionalism” (viz., that America is free to do whatever promotes America’s safety, security and flourishing because of its divine call and mission). Worldviewish theology is the attempt to show why nationalism is incompatible with Christianity even though there are hints of nationalism in the Bible and the Bible does not explicitly rule it out (except for blatant idolatry of nation).

Many adherents of Asian-based and esoteric “spiritual technologies” claim that their practices such as various forms of meditation are compatible with Christianity. Christian worldviewish theology is the attempt to determine when that is the case and when it is not the case. Many American Christians have come to use the name of a Hindu god as a mantra to enhance meditation. Some go further and participate in Hindu-based ceremonies as part of their meditation. Worldviewish theology asks where the line lies—between “all truth is God’s truth” and sacrificing something essential to Christianity in order to adopt a non-Christian spirituality or self-help technique.

Many Christians who attend non-Christian universities (and some Christian ones!) uncritically adopt certain ideas about the nature of reality that are alien to and corrosive of Christianity. If “Christianity” is reduced to a non-cognitive spirituality (e.g., “personal relationship with Jesus”) and/or ethic (e.g., “reverence for life”) there is greater possibility of this happening.

This latter example is what I have bumped up against numerous times throughout my life as an evangelical, and therefore basically conservative, Christian theologian. (Here I us “conservative” to indicate privileging the basic, ecumenical contours of holistic Christianity developed throughout the Great Tradition of Christianity.) I have known numerous academics (and others) who have, as part of their educations and professional associations, adopted beliefs about reality that are, in my opinion, totally alien and foreign to and even incommensurate with divine revelation and classical Christianity. Such people nearly always affirm Jesus as lord and therefore lay claim to being Christian. Sometimes they exude a profound Christ-centered spiritual and ethical life. However, they believe in and live by ideas about reality that are fundamentally contrary to a biblical and ecumenical “picture” of reality as historically understood by all branches of Christianity. Worldviewish theology includes the attempt to help such people (and organizations within which such people work and worship) distinguish between what metaphysical beliefs about reality are compatible with revelation and ecumenical Christianity and which are not.

Right there a problem appears. Most educated, intelligent, self-identified Christians do not appreciate a Christian philosopher, theologian or bishop (whatever he or she may be called) interfering with their professional activities. I cannot count how many times I have heard non-theologians in Christian contexts assert that “We are all theologians.” What they mean is that simply being a self-identified Christian, “loving Jesus,” qualifies a person to develop and hold whatever beliefs about reality he or she deems true. In moderate Baptist circles the appeal is to “soul competency,” but, so it seems, most Christian tradition, except fundamentalist ones, have some “escape hatch” from intellectual accountability.

Let me drill down a little deeper to illustrate the problematic that makes developing a “the Christian worldview” necessary but difficult. Many intellectually-minded (but not only these) Christians, even in evangelical circles, will gladly affirm the doctrines of their denomination, university, organization, but deny the metaphysic that undergirds them. Or adopt an alternative one, often in bits and pieces, here and there, that fundamentally conflicts with it.

Again, I’ll illustrate. A few years ago an administrator of a Christian university, a devout Christian, a man noted for personal and professional integrity, a deacon in an evangelical church, informed me by e-mail that he does not believe in miracles as everything in nature and history is, in principle, explainable by natural causes. I believe this syncretism of Christianity and the worldview called “naturalism” is extremely common in highly educated Christian circles. For such people, then, “Christianity” is at least on its way to being reduced to a personal spiritual and ethical form of life. The cognitive-metaphysical aspect is gone.

Now, I know very well that many Christians will celebrate that loss. I don’t. In my opinion, without a metaphysical foundation spirituality and ethics cannot survive. Or, at least, when the metaphysical foundation changes so does spirituality and ethics.

By calling the Christian worldview Christianity’s metaphysical foundation I do not intend to say it is superior or sufficient; spirituality and ethics are equally important for holistic Christianity. What I see happening, however, is a neglect, if not outright denial, of the metaphysical foundation with catastrophic consequences for holistic Christianity. The result is a trend toward reducing Christianity to a folk religion.

So now, at last, I will lay out what I believe are the basic “contours” of the Christian worldview. What I mean is that anytime I come into contact with a denial of this Christian view of reality, or any part of it, I worry that “Christianity” is in trouble—no matter how devout and ethical the person (or group) may be.

First principle: “God is God and I am not.” (James Sire) This is basic monotheism: there is only one God who is transcendent as well as immanent and his creation is not him. Only God is worthy of worship. This rules out any pantheism.

Second principle: God is the source and sustainer of all that is. Everything outside of God, the whole cosmos and everything in it, is dependent on God. Only “creation out of nothing” really expresses and protects this fundamental insight and belief. This rules out classical panentheism.

Third principle: The ultimate purpose of everything is to glorify God and the ultimate purpose of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. All purposes are subordinate to this. This rules out nationalism and all forms of idolatry.

Fourth principle: The glory of God is the human fully alive. (Irenaeus) God finds satisfaction and glory in elevating humanity to full life—immortality and partial participation in God’s own nature. God cares about us.

Fifth principle: Nature is created by God and under God’s control and therefore is open to special events called “miracles” that are not explainable by natural causes. This rules out naturalism and deism and includes the “supernatural” as part of the Christian worldview.

Sixth principle: Something has gone drastically wrong with creation that is symbolized by the word “fall.” Things are not as they were meant to be according to their “essence,” their divine, created purpose. Nature, including humanity, exists presently under a “curse” and in a state of corruption. This rules out secular humanism and optimistic idealism.

Seventh principle: The nature of ultimate reality is personal and humanity reflects it and shares in it by grace (undeserved favor—gift). Human beings, individuals, are created in God’s image and likeness and that is the source and foundation for their special dignity and worth. This rules out materialism and any denigration of humanity according to gender, race, etc.

Eighth principle: The nature of ultimate reality is fullness of being and goodness itself. God, the ultimate reality, is the standard and embodiment of goodness, benefit. This rules out any cosmic dualism or belief in a “dark side” of God.

Ninth principle: Sin is part of human existence under the curse; it cannot be reduced to ignorance or lack of evolution. Sin is sui generis; it cannot be “fixed” by any natural means and affects all parts of humanity and the individual.

Tenth principle: The only ultimate source of hope is God’s grace; humanity alone cannot establish perfection or utopia. This rules out dialectical materialism and absolute idealism.

Perhaps there are other principles of “the Christian worldview.” I’m sure some readers will suggest some. Remember, however, that these are the metaphysical implications of biblical revelation; they are not “doctrines,” per se, but basic principles, perspectives, attitudes, dispositions, propositions drawn from revelation about the nature of reality. Together these principles serve as a kind of “critical principle” against syncretism. To put it somewhat dramatically and perhaps drastically, any belief that absolutely conflicts with this “picture” of reality, in whole or in part, is subchristian at best and ought not to be taught or tolerated in Christian organizations—even if their confessional statements do not explicitly contain these principles.

Stay tuned. Part 3 (final) will deal with “integration of faith and learning.”


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