Writing at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher raises some concerns with evangelical use of the concept of “Christian worldview.” Working as I do at a Christian worldview ministry, and having recently met Rod at the Colson Center’s Wilberforce Weekend conference, I found the piece especially relevant. He makes a number of suggestions and statements with which I disagree, but two in particular stood out.
First, Rod suspects that teaching students to break down the world in terms of “worldviews” creates a kind of intellectual arrogance and dismissiveness:
“The problem with worldview education[…]is that it closes off the possibility of wonder by providing a rigid ideological measuring stick for texts. Gibbs said it gives students unearned authority over a book. Hand them ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ they open it up, say, ‘Marxist!’, then cast it aside. Hand them ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra,’ they open it up, see Nietzsche’s name, say, ‘Nihilist!’ — and cast it aside.”
Better, suggests Rod, to encounter a work on its own terms, without any preconceived notions about the validity or consequences of the philosophy it teaches. Oddly, though, he seems to see the problem with this approach.
Worldview instruction involves giving students “spoilers” as it were about communism or nihilism or Islam or atheism. Christian parents and teachers explain the gist of a worldview, and why it ultimately can’t account for reality or meet the needs of the human soul like Christianity can. But if, in place of worldview instruction, we allowed students to encounter these worldviews more organically (one might say “experience” them as their original adherents did), we run into a big problem. Far from gaining intellectual humility, young readers are notoriously prone to an even worse sort of intellectual arrogance–the kind that so often attends undergraduate apostasies. Rod writes:
“I remember encountering Nietzsche in a college philosophy course, one in which I had first been introduced to Kierkegaard. Meeting Kierkegaard was an important step on the road to my own religious conversion, but one of my classmates caught afire with the gospel of Nietzsche. He found ‘God is dead’ to be liberating. Once that semester, he stood on a bench at Free Speech Alley, the weekly campus forum, held high his marked-up copy of The Portable Nietzsche from our class, and proclaimed to the crowd: ‘God is dead!’”
Rod’s description is dead-on. I have met these kids. Oh, have I met them. And there is something palpably ridiculous about the freshman philosophy student who reads the seminal texts of nihilism or Marxism or transcendentalism or utilitarianism, and thinks he has received a revelation from Mount Olympus that no Christian has ever encountered, and which will upend the simple worldviews of everyone back home. Voddie Baucham describes this problem well:
“There ought to be a rule: You should not be able to talk about philosophy unless you’ve had more than a semester of philosophy. If you haven’t had any, that’s fine. Talk away! But if you’ve had a semester, you are messed up. You’d be better off just not taking it at all.”
Contra Rod, what I find most often gives students a sense of “unearned authority” isn’t instruction about other worldviews (at least not if it’s done right), but the unshakable and naïve belief that they are the first Christian young person to ever read Nietzsche (or more often Peter Enns or Bart Ehrman) and that there are no good answers to these men’s attacks on their parents’ and neighbors’ faith. Indeed, very often, these students are precisely those who have not received worldview instruction, have not seriously interacted with the claims of non-Christian thinkers, and have come to believe as a result that no Christian has seriously interacted with such claims.
One thing worldview instruction at its best does is create in middle and high school students an awareness that they’re not the first Christians to encounter alternative worldviews and challenges to their own, and that there are good answers to these claims. In other words, it fosters a kind of intellectual humility, and keeps freshmen from coming home for Christmas to beat their grandparents over the heads with class warfare or intersectionality or JEDP theory.
Yes, we should be willing to read the seminal texts of alternative worldviews deeply and carefully, understanding what makes them tick, and not fall prey to caricatures of those faiths and philosophies (which is what worldview instruction at its worst looks like). But to learn about a worldview is necessarily to form some kind of preconception about it, and specifically (when it comes to the worldviews behind some of the worst mass-murdering regimes of the last century) a kind of prejudice against them. There’s nothing at all wrong with that.