Regaining a Christian Worldview in the Church
By James Emery White
Near the end of their lives, John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States: “My friend, you and I have lived in serious times.”1
He was right. Yet, I would argue that those times were no less serious than ours.
One of the more intriguing observations about church history surfaced in an essay written just after the Second World War. Historian Christopher Dawson suggested that there have been six identifiable ages in relation to the Church. Each lasted three or four centuries, and each followed a similar course. He contended that each of these ages began and ended in crisis. The heart of each crisis was an intense attack by new enemies — within and without the church. These attacks, in turn, demanded new spiritual determination and drive by the Church.2 Without this determination and drive, the Church would have lost the day.
Dawson accounted for six such ages at the time of his writing. I believe we are now standing at the beginning of another. This is why a Christian mind — informed by a biblical worldview — is more critical than ever. Here is why.
The Second Fall
There has been a second fall. In the first fall, God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In the second fall, we returned the favor. In today’s world, most leaders of science, commerce, education, and politics, no longer operate with any reference to a transcendent truth — much less God.
This is a new and profound break with the history of Western thought and culture. Even in times and places that might have been called pagan, true secularism in today’s sense was unknown. Whether it was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the gods of Greece and Rome, people assumed there was a world beyond the one in which they lived, and they lived accordingly. It would have been alien to anyone’s thinking to begin and end with themselves alone in terms of truth and morality. The second fall changed all of that. We now live in a deeply fallen world.
Even if one wanted to prove that this is not the case, it is universally recognized that an entrenched secularized subculture is the primary influence in the American educational system, the media, and the upper echelons of the legal system. These are the epicenters of culture and the means by which culture creates and disseminates values and ideas. These epicenters are fiercely influential and control the institutions that provide the official definitions of reality.
The Supreme Court — not God-given revelation — is shaping and guiding our sense of right and wrong. The educational system — not the family — is shaping values and socializing our children. The media — not the church — is forging our sense of identity and community.
While this is a serious time, it is also a momentous time, a time of opportunity, largely because the world is feeling the sickness of this disease. We have a crisis of values. We need values, but do not have them, and are divorced from any means of finding them. There is a lack of vision. There is nothing calling us upward to be more than we are beyond ourselves. We have empty souls, and everything we have built apart from God has proven inadequate for human experience.
We are experiencing a world that is operating apart from God, but cannot. It is breaking down. This is the world’s great crisis. We are not plagued by the first part of Nietzsche’s famous claim — that God is dead — but increasingly by his second, lesser-known assertion — that we have killed Him. Out of this crisis comes the true challenge of the modern world that Nietzsche also articulated: “How shall we, the murderer of all murderers, comfort ourselves?3
The Postmodern World
At the heart of the postmodern condition is a growing sense that something new is beginning to take hold of our culture, something different from the modern world created by the Enlightenment. But this is not so much the end of modernity, as it is exhaustion.4 Whether art or politics, literature or music — it all seems tired.
The currents of postmodernism seem to reflect the morning after a hangover. We seem to be trying to sort out the night before so we can get a handle on the day at hand. In the midst of this hangover, at least three primary reactions are taking place.
A changing view of reality
Our view of reality is changing. There is a growing conviction that what we think we know is vague and separate from ultimate truth. We cannot really see the world as it is because no one is truly objective. You cannot stand outside your own context — including experiences, biases, and historical-cultural current — and be free to make unconditioned observations.
This is more than saying, “That’s your opinion.” It is the idea that everything is opinion. As Walter Truett Anderson entitled one of his books, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be.5
A changing view of truth
What has happened to truth? Some believe there is no such thing as truth. This is the second change postmodernism is bringing. Since everything is simply perspective, postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty argued that the goal is to talk about things but not arrive at any conclusions.6 Today, there is skepticism toward any story that claims to be the story. If the bias of the Enlightenment was that we could know everything, the disposition of postmodernism is that we cannot know anything.If we do, it is not transcendent truth.
The search for the spiritual
Where does this leave the soul? Empty, but at least sensing it. This is the third change that people feel in our day. Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard University’s department of sociology, noted that civilization tends to swing in one of two directions: toward the material or toward the spiritual. One is rational or scientific; the other is theological and spiritual.
The medieval world was a spiritual world. From the Enlightenment forward, we have lived in a rational, scientific world. The postmodern shift is toward the spiritual. It seems people are rediscovering the validity of faith. This is why books narrating spiritual journeys are best sellers, spiritual themes run throughout contemporary music, and films and television increasingly explore religious ideas and settings. People are interested in spiritual things. They are asking spiritual questions, and they are beginning to see that many of their deepest needs are spiritual in nature.
Author Douglas Coupland expresses it well: “Here’s my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God — that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”7
We live in a day of both peril and promise because this new openness to the spiritual is indiscriminate. It can be Wicca or Kabbalah, Mormon or Islam, and many are increasingly sensing all of the above. Today, people are more open to spiritual matters than ever, yet an extraterrestrial, an angel, or a spiritualist will serve as well as a minister.
As church leaders, what do we need to be doing? In my book, Serious Times, I discuss the importance of four things:
- Deepening our minds — forging a biblical worldview wielded by a Christian mind.
- Developing our souls — being so formed in Christ that we have something to offer to the world that it does not already have.
- Answering our vocational calls — following God in the adventures of faith, and taking our place in the great redemptive drama.
- Aligning with the church — whose enterprise is the great revolution set in motion through Christ for reclaiming the world.
Of the four, we may be least likely to take our own minds to task.
A Christian Mind
When Jesus summarized the command from Deuteronomy 6:5, He said we were to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our strength. He then added, “And with all of our mind” (Luke 10:27). Jesus wanted there to be no doubt that when contemplating the comprehensive nature of life commitment to God, we should not forget our intellect.
But we must not reduce His command to intellectualism. It goes deeper than that. The biblical vision concerning the role of the mind is at the heart of the renewal of character and culture. In the Book of Romans, Paul said: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).The Greek verbs are in the present imperative, challenging us continually to go on by refusing to conform to the patterns of the world, and by letting ourselves be renewed by the transforming of our mind. The Phillips’ translation reads: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”8Even better is Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.”9
Christian leaders must not become so adjusted to their culture that they fit into it without thinking, embrace it without discernment, mirror it without conscience, and enable it without challenge. Pastors must retain the prophetic voice because people tend to be imitative by nature — to adapt and conform to their surroundings. Only two forces shape people: the world, and the will of God. If ministers are to avoid becoming absorbed in the surrounding culture, they must take a stand through the renewing of their minds.
As a man “thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7, NKJV).10 Harry Blamires states: “There is no longer a Christian mind.” A Christian ethic, a Christian practice, a Christian spirituality? Yes. But not a Christianmind. Mark Noll has noted that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.
The National Study of Youth and Religion, a research project directed by Christian Smith, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and Lisa Pearce, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, catalogued the demise of a Christian worldview among Christians. While most U.S. teenagers identified themselves as Christian, the “language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States … to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.”
Principal investigator Christian Smith writes, “It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.”
Smith and his colleagues call this new faith Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This belief system holds that God demands little more of people than to be nice, and the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. This system teaches that people do not particularly need God in daily life except to resolve the various problems that come their way (a “Divine Butler” or “Cosmic Therapist”). Regardless of religious convictions, beliefs, or commitments, good people go to heaven when they die.
When Mark Noll wrote about the scandal of the evangelical mind, his lament was largely that Christians were not using their minds. Smith’s research reveals a more frightening scenario — the loss of the basic content of Christian thought and belief. Yet, thinking in light of God’s existence and His self-revelation is what it means to have a Christian mind.
Flannery O’Connor refers to herself as a Christian realist. This reflects her conviction that she lives in the presence of certain theological truths: the doctrine of Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. These are not matters of subjective belief for her; they are part of reality, as solid as the laws of physics.
This is at the heart of the leadership challenge. We must consider the big issues of our day in light of our faith. This is important because we often succumb to compartmentalization instead of having an integrated worldview that addresses the entirety of life. A compartmentalized mind separates life into distinct categories — job, family, a quiet time, the business section of the newspaper, and AOL — all without integration. As a result, our thinking in one area never informs our thinking in another.
A person who thinks this way can be a Christian, but not reflect on science or technology in light of his faith. Or even worse, never considers reflecting on science and technology in light of his faith. As a result, he seldom considers issues related to bioethics in light of what the Scriptures say regarding the nature of humanity or the doctrine of creation. Instead, he lets CNN tell him what a particular technological breakthrough will mean for the quality of his life, marvels at this progress, and then privately ponders whether he will be able to afford the procedure.
When people compartmentalize, the world of technology becomes distinct from the world of faith. It is the same with the worlds of film, literature, economics, and politics. Many Christians never integrate these areas with thoughtful reflection from a Christian worldview.
Worldview is a key word. The term suggests more than a set of ideas by which one judges other ideas.11 Instead, one’s worldview provides a way to engage the vast range of human thought and creation from a Christian perspective. As Jonathan Edwards contended, the basic goal of any intellect is to work toward “the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.”12
For example, consider the question: Where did we come from? We have a limited number of answers at our disposal: We came about by chance (the naturalist’s contention); we do not really exist (the Hindu response); or God spoke us into existence. For Christians, the answers to: Where did we come from? and Who are we? provide a foundation for thinking that no other answers can provide. Because God created people, each person has value, meaning, and purpose. Someone above and outside of our existence stands over it as authority. This concept changes your leadership.
Because of the value of each person, Martin Luther King, Jr., could write these words from a Birmingham jail: “There are two types of law: just and unjust. … A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. … Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”13
King’s argument was based on the worth God gives each person regardless of what other people might say. King laid claim to a law above man’s law. No other worldview could have given King the basis for such a claim.
A pastor’s teaching and preaching must demonstrate a biblical worldview wielded by a Christian mind. He must help people think about today’s questions from a Christian perspective, and how their faith applies to these questions. Discipleship of the mind is as important as any other kind of discipleship. I wrote, A Mind for God, so pastors and leaders could have a primer to use for discipleship in their churches. Pastors must become active readers, learners, and thinkers to help people develop a Christian worldview. Much of this worldview begins with basic literacy.
In the late 1980s, E.D. Hirsch burst onto the cultural scene with his idea of cultural literacy. He detailed the importance of having a core of background knowledge for functional literacy and effective national communication.14 Hirsch ignited a national debate concerning the nature of education and the meaning of literacy. People asked questions about what was needed to form the content of such knowledge, and whether education can be reduced to such things. Nevertheless, the central thesis remained: There are certain things we need to know.
A body of knowledge lends itself to cultural literacy — and even further, to Christian literacy.15 This is why professors teach certain things, and then proclaim, “You will need to know this for the test.” Within education there is an inherent understanding that certain facts need to be known, certain books need to be read, certain lives need to be studied, certain events need to be remembered, and certain ideas need to be understood. So, what are these things?
The Early Church felt the need to identify what people needed to know from the earliest days. Luke, along with Matthew, Mark, and John, felt it was critical to record the central teachings and life events of Jesus. Furthermore, John acknowledged: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Beyond the Gospels, it is important that our core of knowledge includes: Why God gave us the Scriptures, the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the seven letters to the churches, the wisdom of the Proverbs, the great theological treatise of Romans, the evangelistic thrust of John’s Gospel, and everything else within the Canon.
The starting point of our education — or commitment to learning — is biblical literacy. This is arguably where the church has done its best, where we must recognize the spiritual gift of teaching, and where Christians have most devoted themselves as students. Nevertheless, we are always one generation from biblical illiteracy.
Beyond biblical learning, we need to know certain significant events in Christian history.
History is the story of God’s activities in, and dealings with, the world. To ignore history is to be condemned to repeat it. More specifically, to ignore history is to ignore the world in which we live, the people who have shaped it, and the events that have brought us to where we are.
History is walking back through time, listening to its better minds. It is easy to imagine that the issues of our day did not exist before our day, but this is a mistake. Many people have wrestled with these issues before. It is well worth our time to explore these wrestlings, or else we will cut ourselves off from the wisdom and insight that have gone before us.
What events in Christian history — and their significance — do we need to know? Historian Mark Noll suggests the following: The Fall of Jerusalem (70); the Council of Nicaea (325); the Council of Chalcedon (451); Benedict’s Rule (530); the coronation of Charlemagne (800); the great schism between the Eastern and Western Church (1054); the Diet of Worms (1521); the English Act of Supremacy (1534); the founding of the Jesuits (1540); the Conversion of the Wesleys (1738); the French Revolution (1789); and the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910).16
Beyond biblical and historical literacy is theological literacy. The Bible gives us God’s revelation, history shows how some of the better minds have wrestled with it, and theology assembles and applies these areas to the great questions of life and the spiritual formation of believers.
Theology has traditionally organized itself into 10 categories: the existence, nature, and attributes of God; revelation (the inspiration and authority of Scripture); creation and providence; humanity/human nature; original and actual sin; the person and work of Christ; human nature, sin, and grace; the person and work of the Holy Spirit; the Church; and the end times.
It is important to explore and understand each of these areas of theology. For example, we say we believe in the God of the Bible, but what kind of God is He? A caring God or an indifferent God? We say we believe the Bible, but in what way? Is it truth without any error or a somewhat reliable guide that may not be completely trustworthy? If we hold to its inspiration, do we mean inspired in the sense of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, or something more? We say we believe in creation and that God made us in His image. What does that mean? Where is this image located? When does life begin? What gives it value?
These are theological questions. Before a pastor can contend with culture, he must first ground himself in a sound and vibrant Christian theology. This is why theology was called the queen of the sciences throughout the medieval era. Christians understood that no other field of study, no other topic held greater worth.
Talking about learning and getting an education are two different things. Where can a person take a course in Christian theology or church history? One answer is that churches must rise to the educational challenge.
Churches are increasingly developing a community college feel to their educational ministries. Mecklenburg Community Church offers an institute that provides new courses each quarter: Christian Theology, Bible 101, church history, or book studies. Such learning opportunities are vital and complement the learning from weekend and midweek services, and from small group experiences.
Many seminaries offer branch campuses and extension centers in key population centers throughout the United States. Even more are using the Internet to offer distance-learning programs that include audio lectures, printed study guides, lecture outlines, study questions, and a bibliography for further reading. Some Web sites allow significant interaction between students and between students and instructors.
A Battle of Ideas
Make no mistake about the nature of our contest and the foundation on which all transforming leadership has stood — Martin Luther King, Jr., William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or St. Patrick. As John Stott says, “We may talk of conquering the world for Christ. But what sort of conquest do we mean? Not a victory by force of arms. … This is a battle of ideas.”
This was Paul’s concern when he wrote to the Corinthians, reminding them that: “We do not wage war as the world does. … We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3–5).
This is the double-edged threat of our day. Apart from a Christian mind, the myriad of worldviews contending for our attention will either take us captive, or we will fail to make the Christian voice heard above the din. Either way, we must begin to think or lose the fight.
In 1995, Thomas Cahill wrote his provocatively entitled book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. “Ireland,” contended Cahill, “had one moment of unblemished glory … as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of Western literature.”
Missionary-minded Irish monks later brought back to the continent what the Irish had preserved on their isolated island, and refounded European civilization. That, Cahill concludes, is how the Irish saved civilization.
Cahill’s study contains more information than meets the eye. Beyond the loss of Latin literature and the development of the great national European literatures that an illiterate Europe would not have established, Cahill notes that something else would also have perished in the West: “The habits of the mind that encourage thought.” Why would this matter?
Cahill continues his assessment: “When Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans — just scattered tribes of animists, ready for a new identity.” Without a robust, Christian mind to engage the onslaught, the West would have been under the crescent instead of the Cross.
Never before have the habits of the mind mattered more. As Winston Churchill stated in his address at Harvard University in 1943, “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” Oxford theologian Alister McGrath notes that Churchill’s point was that a great transition was taking place in Western culture with immense implications for all who live in it. The powers of the new world would not be nation-states — as with empires past — but ideologies. Ideas, not nations, would captivate and conquer in the future. The starting point for the conquest of the world would now be the human mind. Yet, in the Christian realm, there are surprisingly few warriors.
Christians have too often retreated into personal piety and good works. One BBC commentator stated, thatChristians have too often offered mere feelings and philanthropy. Speaking specifically to the challenge from Islam, he added that what we needed was more hard thinking applied to the issues of the day.
That is how leaders will bring about renewal — real renewal — not only for us but also for our culture.
1. In a letter, as cited by David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 285, from Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 349.
2. Christopher Dawson, “The Six Ages of the Church,” in Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson, ed. Gerald J. Russello (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 34–45.
3. Nietzsche’s famed “God is dead” passage can be found in section 125 of The Gay Science in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1982), 95,96.
4. On this, see David Lyon, Postmodernity, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 9.
5. Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990).
6. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), 393.
7. Douglas Coupland, Life After God (New York: Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster, 1994), 359.
8. Scripture quotations marked Phillips are taken from The New Testament in Modern English, copyright Â© 1958, 1959, 1960 J.B. Phillips and 1947, 1952, 1955, 1957 The Macmillian Company, New York. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
9. Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright Â© 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
10. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
11. On how worldview has been treated by a variety of thinkers, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
12. Jonathan Edwards, “Notes on the Mind,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980), 341,342.
13. Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (Letter from a Birmingham Jail) (New York: Mentor/New American Library, 1963, 1964), 82.
14. E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know (United Kingdom: Vintage Books, 1988).
15. Jo H. Lewis and Gordon A. Palmer, What Every Christian Should Know (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1989).
16. Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).