Total Truth

Nancy Pearcey Total Truth cover“Your earlier book says Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals,” a schoolteacher commented, joining me for lunch at a conference where I had just spoken. Then he added thoughtfully, “I’d never heard that before.”

The teacher was talking about How Now Shall We Live? 1 and at his words I looked up from my plate in surprise. Was he really saying he’d never even heard the idea of being a redemptive force in every area of culture? He shook his head: “No, I’ve always thought of salvation strictly in terms of individual souls.”

That conversation helped confirm my decision to write a follow-up book dealing with the worldview themes in How Now Shall We Live? Just a few years ago, when I began my work on that earlier volume, using the term worldview was not on anyone’s list of good conversation openers. To tell people that you were writing a book on worldview was to risk glazed stares and a quick change in subject. But today as I travel around the country, I sense an eagerness among evangelicals to move beyond a purely privatized faith, applying biblical principles to areas like work, business, and politics. Flip open any number of Christian publications and you’re likely to find half a dozen advertisements for worldview conferences, worldview institutes, and worldview programs. Clearly the term itself has strong marketing cachet these days, which signals a deep hunger among Christians for an overarching framework to bring unity to their lives.

This book addresses that hunger and offers new direction for advancing the worldview movement. It will help you identify the secular/sacred divide that keeps your faith locked into the private sphere of “religious truth.” It will walk you through practical, workable steps for crafting a Christian worldview in your own life and work. And it will teach you how to apply a worldview grid to cut through the bewildering maze of ideas and ideologies we encounter in a postmodern world. The purpose of worldview studies is nothing less than to liberate Christianity from its cultural captivity, unleashing its power to transform the world.

“The gospel is like a caged lion,” said the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. “It does not need to be defended, it just needs to be let out of its cage.” Today the cage is our accommodation to the secular/sacred split that reduces Christianity to a matter of private personal belief. To unlock the cage, we need to become utterly convinced that, as Francis Schaeffer said, Christianity is not merely religious truth, it is total truth — truth about the whole of reality.

Politics Is Not Enough

The reason a worldview message is so compelling today is that we are still emerging from the fundamentalist era of the early twentieth century. Up until that time, evangelicals had enjoyed a position of cultural dominance in America. But after the Scopes trial and the rise of theological modernism, religious conservatives turned in on themselves: They circled the wagons, developed a fortress mentality, and championed “separatism” as a positive strategy. Then, in the 1940s and 50s, a movement began that aimed at breaking out of the fortress. Calling themselves neo-evangelicals, this group argued that we are called not to escape the surrounding culture but to engage it. They sought to construct a redemptive vision that would embrace not only individuals but also social structures and institutions.

Yet many evangelicals lacked the conceptual tools needed for the task, which has seriously limited their success. For example, in recent decades many Christians have responded to the moral and social decline in American society by embracing political activism. Believers are running for office in growing numbers; churches are organizing voter registration; public policy groups are proliferating; scores of Christian publications and radio programs offer commentary on public affairs. This heightened activism has yielded good results in many areas of public life, yet the impact remains far less than most had hoped. Why? Because evangelicals often put all their eggs in one basket: They leaped into political activism as the quickest, surest way to make a difference in the public arena – failing to realize that politics tends to reflect culture, not the other way around.

Nothing illustrates evangelicals’ infatuation with politics more clearly than a story related by a Christian lawyer. Considering whether to take a job in the nation’s capital, he consulted with the leader of a Washington-area ministry, who told him, “You can either stay where you are and keep practicing law, or you can come to Washington and change the culture.” The implication was that the only way to effect cultural change was through national politics. Today, battle-weary political warriors have grown more realistic about the limits of that strategy. We have learned that “politics is downstream from culture, not the other way around,” says Bill Wichterman, policy advisor to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. “Real change has to start with the culture. All we can do on Capitol Hill is try to find ways government can nurture healthy cultural trends.” 2

On a similar note, a member of Congress once told me, “I got involved in politics after the 1973 abortion decision because I thought that was the fastest route to moral reform. Well, we’ve won some legislative victories, but we’ve lost the culture.” The most effective work, he had come to realize, is done by ordinary Christians fulfilling God’s calling to reform culture within their local spheres of influence — their families, churches, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, professional organizations, and civic institutions. In order to effect lasting change, the congressman concluded, “we need to develop a Christian worldview.”

Losing Our Children

Not only have we “lost the culture,” but we continue losing even our own children. It’s a familiar but tragic story that devout young people, raised in Christian homes, head off to college and abandon their faith. Why is this pattern so common? Largely because young believers have not been taught how to develop a biblical worldview. Instead, Christianity has been restricted to a specialized area of religious belief and personal devotion.

I recently read a striking example. At a Christian high school, a theology teacher strode to the front of the classroom, where he drew a heart on one side of the blackboard and a brain on the other. The two are as divided as the two sides of the blackboard, he told the class: The heart is what we use for religion, while the brain is what we use for science.

An apocryphal story? A caricature of Christian anti-intellectualism? No, the story was told by a young woman who was in the class that day. Worse, out of some two hundred students, she was the only one who objected. The rest apparently found nothing unusual about restricting religion to the domain of the “heart.” 3

As Christian parents, pastors, teachers, and youth group leaders, we constantly see young people pulled down by the undertow of powerful cultural trends. If all we give them is a “heart” religion, it will not be strong enough to counter the lure of attractive but dangerous ideas. Young believers also need a “brain” religion – training in worldview and apologetics — to equip them to analyze and critique the competing worldviews they will encounter when they leave home. If forewarned and forearmed, young people at least have a fighting chance when they find themselves a minority of one among their classmates or work colleagues. Training young people to develop a Christian mind is no longer an option; it is part of their necessary survival equipment.

Heart Versus Brain

The first step in forming a Christian worldview is to overcome this sharp divide between “heart” and “brain.” We have to reject the division of life into a sacred realm, limited to things like worship and personal morality, over against a secular realm that includes science, politics, economics, and the rest of the public arena. This dichotomy in our own minds is the greatest barrier to liberating the power of the gospel across the whole of culture today.

Moreover, it is reinforced by a much broader division rending the entire fabric of modern society — what sociologists call the public/private split. “Modernization brings about a novel dichotomization of social life,” writes Peter Berger. “The dichotomy is between the huge and immensely powerful institutions of the public sphere [by this he means the state, academia, large corporations] . . . and the private sphere” — the realm of family, church, and personal relationships.

The large public institutions claim to be “scientific” and “value-free,” which means that values are relegated to the private sphere of personal choice. As Berger explains: “The individual is left to his own devices in a wide range of activities that are crucial to the formation of a meaningful identity, from expressing his religious preference to settling on a sexual life style.” 4 We might diagram the dichotomy like this:

Modern societies are sharply divided:

Personal Preferences

Scientific Knowledge

In short, the private sphere is awash in moral relativism. Notice Berger’s telling phrase “religious preference.” Religion is not considered an objective truth to which we submit, but only a matter of personal taste which we choose. Because of this, the dichotomy is sometimes called the fact/value split.

Values have been reduced to arbitrary, existential decisions:

Individual Choice

Binding on Everyone

As Schaeffer explains, the concept of truth itself has been divided — a process he illustrates with the imagery of a two-story building: In the lower story are science and reason, which are considered public truth, binding on everyone. Over against it is an upper story of noncognitive experience, which is the locus of personal meaning. This is the realm of private truth, where we hear people say, “That may be true for you but it’s not true for me.” 5

The two-realm theory of truth:

Nonrational, Noncognitive

Rational, Verifiable

When Schaeffer was writing, the term postmodernism had not yet been coined, but clearly that is what he was talking about. Today we might say that in the lower story is modernism, which still claims to have universal, objective truth — while in the upper story is postmodernism.

Today’s two-story truth:

Subjective, Relative to Particular Groups

Objective, Universally Valid

The reason it’s so important for us to learn how to recognize this division is that it is the single most potent weapon for delegitimizing the biblical perspective in the public square today. Here’s how it works: Most secularists are too politically savvy to attack religion directly or to debunk it as false. So what do they do? They consign religion to the value sphere — which takes it out of the realm of true and false altogether. Secularists can then assure us that of course they “respect” religion, while at the same time denying that it has any relevance to the public realm.

As Phillip Johnson puts it, the fact/value split “allows the metaphysical naturalists to mollify the potentially troublesome religious people by assuring them that science does not rule out ‘religious belief‘ (so long as it does not pretend to be knowledge).” 6 In other words, so long as everyone understands that it is merely a matter of private feelings. The two-story grid functions as a gatekeeper that defines what is to be taken seriously as genuine knowledge, and what can be dismissed as mere wish-fulfillment.

Just a Power Grab?

This same division also explains why Christians have such difficulty communicating in the public arena. It’s crucial for us to realize that nonbelievers are constantly filtering what we say through a mental fact/value grid. For example, when we state a position on an issue like abortion or bioethics or homosexuality, we intend to assert an objective moral truth important to the health of society – but they think we’re merely expressing our subjective bias. When we say there’s scientific evidence for design in the universe, we intend to stake out a testable truth claim – but they say, “Uh oh, the Religious Right is making a political power grab.” The fact/value grid instantly dissolves away the objective content of anything we say, and we will not be successful in introducing the content of our belief into the public discussion unless we first find ways to get past this gatekeeper.

That’s why Lesslie Newbigin warned that the divided concept of truth is the primary factor in “the cultural captivity of the gospel.” It traps Christianity in the upper story of privatized values, and prevents it from having any effect on public culture. 7 Having worked as a missionary in India for forty years, Newbigin was able to discern what is distinctive about Western thought more clearly than most of us, who have been immersed in it all our lives. On his return to the West, Newbigin was struck by the way Christian truth has been marginalized. He saw that any position labeled religion is placed in the upper story of values, where it is no longer regarded as objective knowledge.

To give just one recent example, in the debate over embryonic stem cell research, actor Christopher Reeve told a student group at Yale University, “When matters of public policy are debated, no religions should have a seat at the table.” 8

To recover a place at the table of public debate, then, Christians must find a way to overcome the dichotomy between public and private, fact and value, secular and sacred. We need to liberate the gospel from its cultural captivity, restoring it to the status of public truth. “The barred cage that forms the prison for the gospel in contemporary western culture is[the church’s] accommodation . . . to the fact-value dichotomy,” says Michael Goheen, a professor of worldview studies. 9 Only by recovering a holistic view of total truth can we set the gospel free to become a redemptive force across all of life.

Mental Maps

To say that Christianity is the truth about total reality means that it is a full-orbed worldview. The term means literally a view of the world, a biblically informed perspective on all reality. A worldview is like a mental map that tells us how to navigate the world effectively. It is the imprint of God’s objective truth on our inner life.

We might say that each of us carries a model of the universe inside our heads that tells us what the world is like and how we should live in it. A classic book on worldviews is titled The Universe Next Door, suggesting that we all have a mental or conceptual universe in which we “live” – a network of principles that answer the fundamental questions of life: Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the purpose of life? The author of the book, James Sire, invites readers to examine a variety of worldviews in order to understand the mental universe held by other people – those living “next door.”

A worldview is not the same thing as a formal philosophy; otherwise, it would be only for professional philosophers. Even ordinary people have a set of convictions about how reality functions and how they should live. Because we are made in God’s image, we all seek to make sense of life. Some convictions are conscious, while others are unconscious, but together they form a more or less consistent picture of reality. Human beings “are incapable of holding purely arbitrary opinions or making entirely unprincipled decisions,” writes Al Wolters in a book on worldview. Because we are by nature rational and responsible beings, we sense that “we need some creed to live by, some map by which to chart our course.” 10

The notion that we need such a “map” in the first place grows out of the biblical view of human nature. The Marxist may claim that human behavior is ultimately shaped by economic circumstances; the Freudian attributes everything to repressed sexual instincts; and the behavioral psychologist regards humans as stimulus-response mechanisms. But the Bible teaches that the overriding factor in the choices we make is our ultimate belief or religious commitment. Our lives are shaped by the “god” we worship — whether the God of the Bible or some substitute deity.

The term worldview is a translation of the German word Weltanschauung, which means a way of looking at the world (Welt = world; schauen = to look). German Romanticism developed the idea that cultures are complex wholes, where a certain outlook on life, or spirit of the age, is expressed across the board – in art, literature, and social institutions as well as in formal philosophy. The best way to understand the products of any culture, then, is to grasp the underlying worldview being expressed. But, of course, cultures change over the course of history, and thus the original use of the term worldview conveyed relativism.

The word was later introduced into Christian circles through Dutch neo-Calvinist thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. They argued that Christians cannot counter the spirit of the age in which they live unless they develop an equally comprehensive biblical worldview — an outlook on life that gives rise to distinctively Christian forms of culture — with the important qualification that it is not merely the relativistic belief of a particular culture but is based on the very Word of God, true for all times and places. 11

Not Just Academic

As the concept of worldview becomes common currency, it can all too easily be misunderstood. Some treat it as merely another academic subject to master — a mental exercise or “how to” strategy. Others handle worldview as if it were a weapon in the culture war, a tool for more effective activism. Still others, alas, treat it as little more than a new buzzword or marketing gimmick to dazzle the public and attract donors.

Genuine worldview thinking is far more than a mental strategy or a new spin on current events. At the core, it is a deepening of our spiritual character and the character of our lives. It begins with the submission of our minds to the Lord of the universe – a willingness to be taught by Him. The driving force in worldview studies should be a commitment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” (see Luke 10:27).

That’s why the crucial condition for intellectual growth is spiritual growth, asking God for the grace to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). God is not just the Savior of souls, He is also the Lord of creation. One way we acknowledge His Lordship is by interpreting every aspect of creation in the light of His truth. God’s Word becomes a set of glasses offering a new perspective on all our thoughts and actions.

As with every aspect of sanctification, the renewal of the mind may be painful and difficult. It requires hard work and discipline, inspired by a sacrificial love for Christ and a burning desire to build up His Body, the Church. In order to have the mind of Christ, we must be willing to be crucified with Christ, following wherever He might lead – whatever the cost. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). As we undergo refining in the fires of suffering, our desires are purified and we find ourselves wanting nothing more than to bend every fiber of our being, including our mental powers, to fulfill the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come.” We yearn to lay all our talents and gifts at His feet in order to advance His purposes in the world. Developing a Christian worldview means submitting our entire self to God, in an act of devotion and service to Him.

Copyright © 2004 Reproduction rights granted by Crossway Books.