The “worldview” culprit

July 9, 2013

world

The popular expression of “Christian worldview” or “biblical worldview” can be serviceable as a shorthand for “how I view the world in the light of Christ and his gospel.” However, more often than not, “worldview” is a convenient circumvention of responsible intellectual inquiry and dialogue. It is in this sense that I have criticized worldview-ism on this blog. It is a cover for the anti-intellectualism that lingers in evangelical circles. Furthermore, it underwrites the doctrinal laziness that invariably accompanies such worldview amaurosis. Thereby, dogmatics becomes a mere repristination of past accomplishments when a supposedly Christian worldview dominated.

In its more extravagant forms, “worldview” can service a wide array of Christian foundations, as Vern Poythress (of WTS) has done for both logic and the authority of Scripture, as well as a book on science with no science.

So, I was happy to read Paul McGlasson’s insights on the phenomenon of worldview-ism in the church today. This is from the soon-to-be-published first volume of his projected five-volume systematic theology (from Wipf & Stock):

The Bible may not say what we at first expect, whether our inclinations are conservative or liberal; but it is our expectations which must give way to something infinitely more valuable than yet one more liberal or conservative platitude. The Bible may not proclaim what we first desire; but it is our desire which is ultimately absorbed by a divine satisfaction qualitatively greater than all possible human fulfillment.

On the other hand, the logic of Scriptural freedom in the church has eroded considerably on the religious right. The culprit is the now almost universal notion within conservative evangelical circles of a “Christian worldview” into which the Bible itself is inserted. Though often portrayed as a traditional idea, the fact is clear that the very notion of a “worldview” did not come about until the Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Only on the condition of the possibility of a transcendental Self is the idea of a worldview even meaningful; nor was it ever asserted before Kant. The first observation therefore that needs to be made — contrary to expectation, certainly — is that the use of “worldview” language among Christian conservatives is an embrace of the Enlightenment, certainly not traditional church doctrine.

[Paul C. McGlasson, Church Doctrine: Volume 1: Canon, Cascade Books, pp. 34-35.]

This is just a small excerpt from a larger discussion. My own inclinations are definitely conservative, as should be no surprise to readers of this blog, and therefore this challenge from McGlasson is worth heeding, lest cultural values displace the ability of Scripture to challenge us to obedience. To be sure, McGlasson is equally dissatisfied by the left’s own unique form of cultural pandering.

Yet, I am not certain that we can actually transcend entirely the “conservative” and “liberal” ideologies, as McGlasson repeatedly contends (with the help of Barth’s rejection of natural theology). To my mind, it is not likely that both are equally offensive to God’s law, even if both have an abundance of cultural idols. Thus, it may be that obedience to God requires a certain identification with one or the other, or a mix, of cultural ideological positions.

For some of us, this would be “conservative” more than “liberal.” For others (including many other “Barthian” bloggers!) this would be more liberal than conservative, while remaining cognizant of the temptress of cultural idolatry.

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12 Responses to “The “worldview” culprit”

  1. Cal said

    I appreciated this as one both critical of “world-view” ghetto pitfalls but also one who ends up speaking much of the same language.

    I appreciate the “world-view” approach, especially in light of Van Till and Presupposionalism. It’s nothing new, it’s a rebirth of the Socratic method. We all hold certain conviction about how things work, and using the tool of “world-view analysis” is like a stick of dynamite. Clears away possible impasses, but it is dangerous.

    Anyway, you’re right it becomes laziness at times, especially lazy arrogance. It don’t feel pleasant when someone slaps you with “that’s not biblical” or “this/that is apart of the Christian world-view”. Maybe the Scripture does say it, maybe it doesn’t, but there are no mere blueprints in there.

    I like the way you put it: the way some use it, it’s shorthand for seeing everything in light of Christ, in life, death and resurrection. That’s the truth of it. Of course there is objective right/wrong when it comes to sorting things out, but it takes sorting things out, and not building a babel-system and label it a “biblical world-view”.

    When you say one can’t transcend “conservative” and “liberal”, what do you mean? Are you talking in a specifically American context? Or in terms of “Conservatism” as family-oriented, traditional society and “liberalism” as individualistic and secular?

    • I am not convinced by Van Til and presuppositional apologetics, even though I appreciate (as you mention) some of the Socratic awareness that is involved. It may appear that Barth’s own approach, of rejecting classical apologetics, would be similar to presuppositionalism, but I think they are entirely different enterprises. In short, Barth is a realist, whereas presuppositional apologetics is Kantian idealism. Obviously, Van Til would strenuously deny that (and, in fact, he relentlessly accused Barth of being a Kantian!), but the widespread disparagement of science among presuppositional folks is the proof in the pudding.

      As far as transcending conservative v. liberal ideologies, I am indeed thinking largely in terms of American social-political discourse. I am thinking of certain theologians (and theology students) who are rightly fed-up with the “culture wars,” noting the deficiencies on both sides, and therefore concluding that we should not take a stand on any specific issue. Thus, they prefer to highlight the “ambiguity” of controverted topics like abortion and gay marriage. In this way, they remain “pure” and above the fray, but I am skeptical. It is a quietism, if not cowardice. This is immensely complex, and I am just thinking off the cuff right now — but it is something that we need to interrogate further. Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Mike Cheek said

    As we have all heard, “do not ask a fish about water.” Most of us cannot see our own worldview. It was not until I studied at Fuller that I met students from other cultures and far parts of the world. To give one example, for most of us in America, we think individually. Other cultures … important decisions are all decided as a group. A question that will really illustrate this is to ask “if you had to choose between saving your wife or your mother-in-law” who would you save? Surprise! In some cultures even the Christians would pick their mother-in-law! I learned a great deal about prayer and worship from other Christians at Fuller who came from different backgrounds.

  3. Mike Cheek said

    Another illustration is if you ask most American Christians to classify things such as rocks, trees, angels, demons and God, they will classify into two categories, material and spiritual. The Maasai of Kenya when asked how to classify separated into multiple categories … but they put God into His own category. The Maasai were theologically correct and not the American Christians, for God is certainly unlike anything else! Also, I meant to say above “It was not until I studied at Fuller that I met students from other cultures” … and I learned so much more about world view. Also, my example about the mother-in-law wasn’t meant to illustrate group choices. It’s late at night and I better go to bed before I confuse you even further. Suffice it to say meet and interact with Christians from other cultures. Go to Fuller for a semester and take classes at the School of World Mission (now renamed School of Intercultural Studies, I think.

    • Yes, I have no problem with recognizing the varying cultural expressions of priorities and values — indeed recognizing a certain relativity involved. I have a lot of respect for Fuller, and I am especially happy to see that Oliver Crisp is now their professor of ST. I disagree with Crisp over aspects related to Barth’s theology, but he is a top notch theologian doing serious work. By and larger, it seems that Fuller has striven to retain the best on offer in the broader evangelical spectrum — from Reformed theology to charismatic/Pentecostal expressions of the faith. I very much admire that.

  4. Mike Cheek said

    One final comment and I’ll be quiet. Just last weekend we had friends in our home who are missionaries residing in East Africa. They’ve been missionaries for the past 25 years and are returning for another term. The husband told me of a people group who had begun building their own church building. Midway through the process they felt the Lord was calling them to stop their work and go witness to their Muslim neighbors who were also their enemies.

    They were faithful to this call and to their amazement found this other group ready to receive Christ. My missionary friend told me he personally witnessed a thousand Muslims being baptized into Christ. At a later time an additional 3,000 were baptized. Dreams and visions were reported among this people group which helped prepare the way. This is not the only missionary from whom I have heard such an account.

    Reports such as these can challenge many western Christians’ worldview. I know it did mine some years ago. But the people who tell me these amazing stories are also people I’ve personally known for many years, and who are people of integrity. Based on similar encounters at Fuller some years ago convinced me that the Holy Spirit is not a retired author!

    • Thanks for this, Mike. I have a couple friends from Africa, and I have heard similar stories about miracles and profound manifestations of the Holy Spirit. These African friends are also some of the happiest, most content Christians that I have ever known. I have also befriended some charismatics who have humbled me and will continue to humble me. All of this has shaped my broader evangelical vision, while not diminishing my love and appreciation for the Reformed tradition. We have a lot to learn from each other.

  5. Joseph said

    This isn’t really the place for it, but…why is Barth a realist? That always seemed like non-sense to me, in spite of McCormack’s famous title/description of Barth’s position. Moreover, I’m no Van Tillian, but how does a rejection of science provide the “proof” of idealism? Whenever theologians talk about Idealism, I confess I get nervous.

    The Barth question is the one that really interests me, the Van Til is merely an adjacent quibble. Maybe you could do a post on what you understand Barthian realism to be?

    The most pressing reason to my mind, as a student of Idealism, that calling Barth realist is bizarre is that he is so obviously influenced by German Idealism, far more so than he let on, or understood (mainly because he had a poor philosophical education and never seriously studied the philosophical tradition).

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks, Joseph, for the question. I was using realism in the sense of “trustworthiness of our senses to attain access to reality” or something along those lines. This, of course, is what Kant also wanted to achieve — the whole point of the synthetic a priori. Regardless of whether Kant was successful, I tend to use “Idealism” in a pejorative sense of separating our sense-perception from reality, trapped in the projections of our mind. For a better and more sophisticated account of this challenge from modern philosophy, I recommend Etienne Gilson. I am admittedly still a novice on this, though philosophy was my minor in college and I’ve been studying it alongside theology for nearly ten years now!

      Before I tackle this topic in Barth in more detail, I want to first read Kenneth Oake’s Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy (OUP, 2012). Oakes was getting his PhD at Aberdeen while I was getting my MTh there. He is a brilliant guy, and his research has focused precisely on the charge that Barth “had a poor philosophical education and never seriously studied the philosophical tradition.” There is also the recent book, Barth and Rationality: Critical Realism in Theology, which addresses Barth’s realism. So, once I’ve gone through these two books, I will hopefully be better equipped to respond.

  6. Joseph said

    I am very familiar with Gilson, who was a great scholar with a lovely mind.

    It is, however, extraordinarily unhelpful when people use technical terms to express personal evaluations, in this case, “realism” meaning “I like it” and “idealism” mean “bad.” That has nothing to do with the historical (granted, incredibly complicated) senses of those terms. The ideal, in all of the German Idealists, is very different from Cartesian or Lockean focuses on thought or ideas as have primacy in our access to reality.

    Regarding Barth’s ignorance of philosophy, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of those books, but certain facts are clear, like that he never even seriously studied Hegel (he never finished the PhG), even though he wrote with some insight about him, thanks to secondary sources, etc. If you send me an email, I’ll send you an article dealing with this issue.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Point taken. I’m sure you’re right. I’ll be sending you that email, and thanks for the interaction.

  7. […] This actually makes Mohler a more extreme, and more insidious, proponent of Creationism than even Ken Ham. You see, Ham actually believes that the science is in his favor. That’s the main thrust, aside from the moralism, of Answers in Genesis, his ministry. By contrast, Mohler is truly indifferent to what science — including “creation science” — has to say. It does not matter. He’ll support AiG, of course, and the fake science it produces, but he really doesn’t care. The whole debate, not just this week’s Nye/Ham debate, is all about epistemology. This is the “worldview culprit.” […]

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