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The Modern Worldview

In Worldview on September 21, 2013 at 7:12 pm

The modern worldviewLesslie Newbigin’s book, Foolishness to the Greeks, changed my life.  I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, but by reading this book I came to realize that I was looking at the world through some very thick and tinted lenses.  Everyone looks at the world through the metaphorical spectacles of a worldview.

There are competing worldviews in the West, by which I mean Europe and North America.  One of the dominant ones has been around for a while–the Modern story.  This may be in the process of being replaced by the newer “Post-Modern” story.  Another worldview that has been around much longer is derived from the Bible.  Although very different, we in the West look at the world through a weird blend of all three.

If you are going to understand the glasses through which you are view yourself and the world, you need to begin by understanding the basic characteristics of each worldview which is tinting the lenses by which you look at everything.  In our culture, all our glasses are being strongly tinted by modernsim.  The roots of the Modern worldview are in the 18th century, the Enlightenment.  While it took some pretty big hits in the 20th century, many of the ideas which characterize this perspective are with us today.

Here are the main ideas:

    1. Human reason is the source of truth; the light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes really got this idea going and it has suck with us.  They trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality. Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason to lead to the truth.
    2. Reality is material.  There is nothing that transcends the material world, or, if there is, it has no relevance to one’s life.  In other words, there is no such thing as the supernatural, only the natural.  This idea is called materialism or naturalism.  If human reason is the source of truth, then Bacon’s approach, called empiricism, will help us to discover the truth.  This only works on the natural world, but since nothing else is real, there is no problem.
    3. The individual is of primary importance.  In the modern worldview, human reason is autonomous.  So also is the individual whose motto has become, “You’re not the boss of me!”  Our history is one of emancipation from those who would curb our independence: kings and queens, God and the church, communism and socialism, and tradition and social conventions.  Our free economies and liberal democracies are testaments to our individual autonomy.  One source of this idea is Rene Descartes whose “I think therefore I am” not only grounded truth in the reason, but in the reason of the individual.
    4. Faith in Progress. Humanity is on an upward trajectory.  Because of human reason and its offspring, science and technology, Modernity places a lot of faith in progress.  It has long believed that we need to get rid of silly superstitions and religious beliefs.  Reason rather than religion will allow the human race to continue up the road toward perfection and science and technology will solve the problems that we face.
    5. Categories and more categories. Because human reason is only autonomous if the world is only material, the modern mind establishes and defends boundaries between categories.  There are many.  Here are a few: mind/body, natural/supernatural, material/spiritual, imminent/transcendent, public/private, rational/emotional, fact/value, reason/faith, knowledge/belief, sacred/secular and objective/subjective.
 The Biblical worldview differs significantly with the Modern worldview on each of these points.
  1. Human reason is part of God’s good creation, but it has also been distorted by sin, so it cannot be completely trusted.

  2. Obviously, the Biblical worldview is not materialist or naturalist because it proclaims a transcendent God who is the source of objective realities like The Good, The True and The Beautiful.

  3. The communal nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit challenges the idea that those created in the image of the triune God ought to be understood first as an autonomous individual.

  4. God’s Grace and not man’s ability will be the cause of any progress we experience in this world, and that’s only if we surrender to Christ because he’s the only one that can deal with our real problem–SIN.

  5. Christ, who is wholly God, became wholly human and yet did not surrender any of his divinity; this alone presents a challenge to the clean categories so loved by the Modern mind.  An honest reading of the Bible will blur many of the other boundaries between the other categories held so dear by modernism..

The problem is, the Biblical worldview and the modern worldview are not kept distinct.  Our glasses are tinted by both of these (and other) contradictory worldviews.

A Christian Worldview?

In Worldview on September 14, 2013 at 4:28 am

Secular freedom storyThe term “Christian worldview” is often used, but not always understood.

Too often, people think that if you simply believe the Bible, oppose abortion and avoid R-rated movies you have a Christian worldview.  OK, this is a bit of a caricature, but my point is, Christians often have a far too superficial understanding of worldview.  Even Nancy Pearcy’s book Total Truth, which is a book about worldview, begins with the story of Sarah, a Christian woman who works as a counsellor in a Planned Parenthood Clinic.  Pearcy explains this incongruity:

“Sarah’s story illustrates how even sincere believers may find themselves drawn into a secular worldview–while remaining orthodox in their theological beliefs” (32).

Although Sarah’s story may illustrate what Pearcy says it does, it does not help readers to understand the depth at which we hold worldviews–Christian, Secular or whatever.

Here’s an illustration that I think better illustrates how deeply worldviews are held and the conflict between a Christian and a “Secular” worldview.

I’m teaching Grade 9 Humanities this year so I started reading the textbook.  I think it’s a standard textbook for Social Studies across the province.   I didn’t get beyond the first page and I knew that this year I would be teaching a lot of worldview in my class.  Two sentences in the introduction to the first chapter entitled “The Early Modern Age” grabbed my attention.  They present a worldview that is completely contrary to a Biblical one.

Here’s the first sentence:

Sometime around the year 1500, Europe began to experience profound changes in its political, religious, social, economic and intellectual life.  As a result of these changes, European history began to enter a new era–the Early Modern Age.

This is the second:

All civilizations experience a kind of evolutionary change in their histories.

The significant word here is “evolutionary.”  The popular use of the term “evolutionary” connotes a positive change.  The Free Online Dictionary captures the developmental aspect of the word when it defines evolutionary as “A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.”

Together these sentences suggest that humanity is moving toward a better world and that the Early-Modern Age was a significant step in that direction.  Many people accept this without batting an eye.

It is true that there were a lot of changes going on in Europe around the year 1500.  It is also true that some things have improved over the last 500 years–transportation technology, for example, is much faster than it used to be.  But is it true to say that our civilization has improved just because some aspects of it has?  A survey of the last hundred years–with two World Wars, one Great Depression, the nuclear arms race, ecological disasters, new and deadly diseases–provides a lot of evidence to the contradict the idea that things are getting better.

So why does the textbook make this claim?

They make it because it is true; true within a certain story.

No claim (or “fact,” thing, event, person) means anything until we place it into a story.  This is why human beings always tell stories — we are always seeking meaning.

All stories, whether myths or movies, share some common elements.  They always have a protagonist, a person who strives for some goal.  This quest drives the story toward a meaningful end.  Stories also have conflict because there are always antagonists, that is, a person (or people or a force) that impedes the protagonist in the fulfillment of his or her purpose.

Two stories concern us here:  the so-called “secular” story and the Christian story.  In the secular story, the dominant myth in our culture, the protagonist, humanity, is on a long quest for autonomy (freedom from authority).   Some of the antagonists in the secular story are  kings and queens, God and the church, communism and socialism, and tradition and social conventions.  Many of these villains and monsters have been vanquished and only a few remain.

Because my grade 9 Social Studies textbook has placed the events following 1500 into this Secular story, it can claim that we have experienced evolutionary change in our history.

This is the dominant story in our culture, but it isn’t the only one.  The Christian story says that humanity will find fulfillment only in the presence of the loving God who made him.  Sin, the antagonist, thwarts humanity at every turn, but the hero of the story has come to find us and will bring us home (actually, bring home here).  This is the meaningful end of the Christian story.

When you consider civilization from this story, change has not been evolutionary–civilization has not improved because we have come no closer to dealing with our basic problem.  Freedom, according to this story, is a good thing, but Sin causes us to make GOOD things our objective instead of he who gave us the good things.  This inversion is, in essence, to make Freedom, into a god, a false god, an idol. Freedom is a good thing, but it is not the ultimate thing.

The secular story, or worldview, is foundational to my entire grade 9 social studies textbook and most of the other textbooks used in schools all over North America.  And it’s not just textbooks; it’s the worldview upon which the whole curriculum is built.  And it’s not just in schools, this story is reinforced by popular culture.  We are inundated with this story, and it is a powerful story.  When we consider the people who have fallen away from the church, I don’t doubt that many they left to seek autonomy–they wanted to do what they wanted to do and not have anyone or anything restrict their freedom.

One’s position on abortion is not a worldview–worldview runs much deeper–but your position on the issue of abortion is dictated by your worldview.  So will be your position on other issues that are, at their core, about human freedom.

I’m still using that textbook though, because discerning worldviews is one of the objectives of this and every other class taught at my school.  I worry for the Christian kids who aren’t in a school that is deliberate about exposing the competing stories in our culture.  And I also worry about the kids who are, because the secular story seems so true, because we are immersed in it.

I take more than a little comfort in the fact that none of the competing stories ring so true as the one where sin is the antagonist and the end is being reunited with the One who gave us every good thing–including Freedom.

 

 

“Just a Symbol?”–Communion in a Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on September 12, 2013 at 4:58 am

St. Augustin, ViennaThe Hapsburgs were christened, married and buried at St. Augustine in Vienna.  This cathedral has seen a lot of pageantry and ceremony and the mass still reflects a polish and flair consistent with this history.  I particularly noticed this in the treatment of the elements of the Eucharist. 

In all Catholic services, the host is treated with a great deal of respect.  When congregants enter the door, they make the sign of the cross, and they genuflect before entering the pew.  Both these actions are directed toward the host.  After the Eucharist, the priest is careful that to gather and consume all possible remnants of the host.  Water is swirled in each vessel and consumed so even the residue is collected.   The plate and cup are then wiped with a cloth and this is folded and wrapped in an embroidered envelope and later taken to, what I imagine, is a ceremonial cleansing.  This reverence for the host is seen in every Catholic service. In the mass at St. Augustine, all this was done with particular precision and flourish. 

This elaborate treatment of the Communion elements is easily explained.  Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that is, the conversion of the communion elements into the body and blood of Christ.   They are treated accordingly–even the last crumb.

Because, in Protestant services, the elements are not seen as the actual body and blood of Christ, the sacrament has become less profound a ritual than is the Catholic Eucharist.   In Protestant churches, Communion is a solemn event, but while I watched the celebration of the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I wondered if we could do more, especially in the language we use in our Communion services, to increase the significance and mystery of this sacrament. 

I’ve had Communion in a variety of Protestant churches across North America.  On more than one occasion, I have heard the officiating pastor explain that the bread and wine are “just a symbol” of the body and blood of Christ.

I do not contest that Communion is symbolic, but the use of the word “just” indicates that the speaker has fallen into a very limited understanding of both symbol and sacrament: a Modern understanding.

The Modern mind is a rationalistic mind, and as such, it likes to establish clear categorical boundaries–nature/grace, faith/reason, spiritual/physical.  To say that communion is “just a symbol” is to accept these modern dichotomy and suggests the physical elements in sacrament merely point to an intangible spiritual reality. 

The Christian ought to understand the limitations of this approach and see the fundamental unity in all of reality.  The ultimate expression of this unity is the Incarnation; when the Word became flesh, “the eternal entered the temporal, but without ceasing to be eternal” (Zimmerman 265).   God’s redemptive work in the death and resurrection of Jesus occurs in both the physical and the spiritual realm.  The sacrament by which we remember this work is not simply a physical symbol, but also profound and literal spiritual event, for here, divine Grace intersects with nature, and the rational human agent partakes in faith and so is brought up to the divine.  And through it all, God remains fully God.    

Does that sound a little confusing?  It ought to be.  While I watched the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I was impressed with the mystery and wonder of it all.  I thought I could bring some of this this wonder to my own participation of the Lord’s Supper.  The Communion meal is symbolic but it is not “just a symbol.”  And although we don’t believe that it changes into the body of Christ, the bread is far more than just bread.  And should never be referred to as “gluten free Rice Chex” (even if that’s exactly what it is).  

Cathedrals just aren’t practical

In Worldview on September 6, 2013 at 4:02 am

St. Augustin, ViennaIn the modern world, we evaluate almost everything against the standard of practicality, utility and efficiency.

I know people who won’t buy a hybrid, because it will take 10 years before the additional cost of a hybrid is recouped through lower fuel consumption. Therefore, it’s simply not practical to buy a hybrid. All other considerations are irrelevant.

I have been asked, “What’s the point of a humanities degree? ” It’s not practical to get a degree that won’t get you a job that pays six figures. Unfortunately this is the reality in a culture that values science, technology and entertainment. The money goes to these fields while philosophers and literary theorists work at Starbucks.

We produce beef, pork and chicken very efficiently, but we disregard the wellbeing of the animal, the worker, the environment. And the taste doesn’t even factor into the equation. The same principles of efficiency are evidenced by the fact that almost every dress shirt in the major department stores comes from Bangladesh.

Practicality, utility and efficiency are more important than loving our neigbour or being stewards of creation. Whenever something gets preferment over these sacred tasks, we are dealing with an idol. When our culture abandons a relationship with God as the ultimate source of human fulfillment, there is a plethora of other gods to which to turn. One of the options was this petty, but dangerous, god of many names, Practicality, Utility and Efficiency.

Christians are a product of the times. When we build our churches today, we consider , practicality, utility and efficiency. There’s nothing inherently wrong in this, but when it trumps all other considerations? What do we lose when our physical building are primarily designed to, for instance, maximize the amount of seating space?

From my seat in the pew in St. Augustin it is obvious that its builders didn’t care much about efficient utilization of the interior space.

They had a different set of priorities. Perhaps I idealize their motivations, but it seems as if they were attempting to erect sacred structures rather than practical ones. Many churches took generations to complete. The carving of wood and stone clearly had objectives that went far beyond mere utility. Less than half of the available floor space is used during the service. Surely they could have saved a lot of building expense if the roof wasn’t so high.

Although I didn’t understand the sermon because of the language barrier, I did figure out that the sermon was about Mary and Martha. I recalled that Martha complained to Jesus that Mary was ignoring practical concerns like the clearing of dishes. Jesus gently rebuked her and told her, in essence, telling her that some things are more important that utility and efficiency.