This interview took place at the 2012 Edwards Institute Conference at Manchester Presbyterian Church. The conference theme was “Baptizing the Imagination,” and featured lectures by Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio, along with Tolkien scholar Matthew Dickerson of Middlebury College.

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Touchstone Magazine CoverChris reflects on a visit to the Pittsfield Shaker Village in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Here he examines the Shaker aesthetic and draws lines of connection between it and Shaker theology. In the process he makes a few points about the constitutive elements of a truly Christian aesthetic.

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Touchstone Journal

This is the first sermon in Chris’ preaching series on Ecclesiastes entitled, “Vapor.”

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People who say, “Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship” demonstrate that they do not know what the words, “Christianity,” “religion” or “relationship” mean.

The second worldview that contrasts with the Biblical view of reality is as ancient and slippery as Naturalism appears to be modern and matter-of-fact.  It is Gnosticism. Whereas Naturalism is too materialistic to be compatible with Christianity, Gnosticism is too spiritual.

That may sound odd.  How can anything be too spiritual?  Here is how.  The original Gnostics – the ones who came onto the world scene in the second century, believed that reality is made up of two very different and hostile things.  One of those things is matter and the other is spirit.  Everything wrong with the world can be attributed to the first – things like sickness, ignorance, and death.  On the other hand everything that is good can be attributed to the spirit – life, love and beauty and so forth.  Wait, you may say, don’t we know about those things through the material world?  Yes and no, the Gnostics said.  While it is true that those two things are mingled in our world, the knowledge we have of spiritual things is muddied by their association with material reality.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful, the Gnostics said, to know spiritual things without having all that dirty matter in the way?  It can be done, they said, but is very difficult.  There is a personal and spiritual way of knowing.  One must turn inward, away from the world of matter is one is to acquire an inner, spiritual knowledge.  It is this promise of spiritual knowledge that earned the Gnostics their name.  Gnostic means “knower”.


It seems reasonable to think that Gnosticism would be rare in an age as materialistic as ours.  But the reverse is true.  Gnosticism flourishes in materialistic ages.  It does so because it provides a clear alternative to materialism.  It can concede a great deal of ground to materialism without doing any harm to itself.  A materialistic account of human origins such as Darwin’s actually encourages Gnosticism. Extreme Darwinists – the sort who maintain that natural selection explains all aspects of human nature – drive people to Gnostic spiritualities.  Since people long for values of a higher order than Darwinism can provide many take a Gnostic turn away from the world. This is clearly what is happening with the surge of interest in eastern religions like Buddhism. Why don’t people turn to Christianity? Because, as the “material girl” Madonna once said, “Christianity is too materialistic.”(ref).  By that she meant Christianity looks for spiritual truths in the material world.  Christians believe that public knowledge of spiritual things can be gleaned from a study of material things. More about that later.


Why Gnosticism is relevant at this point is because people can confuse Gnosticism with a Biblical worldview.  There are at least two reasons for this.  First, people assume that a system of thought that is directed toward spiritual things must in some sense be Christian or at least compatible with Christianity.  This is naïve.  There are as much nonChristian spirituality as there are flavors of ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s.  But more insidious is the fact that Gnosticism often comes to us wearing the clothes of Christianity.  It can use Christian lingo without blinking and you will even find it taught by ordained ministers in historically Christian churches.


The two indicators that you are dealing with a Gnosticized Christianity are and over-emphasis on the private and inward dimensions of spiritual life at the expense of the public and social life of the church and a sort of other-worldliness that either neglects the material aspects of this world — like conservation of natural resources or the common good — or shows outright contempt for them.  A relish for the end of the world in fiery destruction is a manifestation of this view.  Last days millennialism that stresses the destruction of the physical world instead of the destruction of evil smacks of Gnosticism.  Just because you use a Bible to make your point does not mean you represent the Biblical view of the end of the world.


This book will contrast a genuinely Biblical view of the world with both the materialism of the Naturalists and the spirituality of the Gnostics.

 

Let us begin by looking at a couple of worldviews that contrast starkly with the view of the world we find in the Bible. The first will seem obvious, the second may catch you a bit by surprise. This will give us a chance to use those tools I mentioned.

The first is Naturalism. I think many devotees of Naturalism will take exception to the presentation of their view as a story of the world. That is perfectly natural since they see their story as more than a story. It is fact, brutishly expressed with propositions that only the most benighted would dare to deny. This is one of the features of their story. If it is not told with a sense of unassailable confidence and a contempt for other ways of seeing the world it is not told in a spirit in keeping with the story.

Calling their account a story is leveling; it knocks it off the high-perch of blunt fact-telling and forces it to deal with other accounts on an equal footing. This brings up one of the worst features to Naturalism – it doesn’t play well with others. It must sit on the high-perch or it will take its ball and go home. Every worldview is comprehensive. But this can accomplish this in one of two ways. Either by eliminating the competition through reductionism (the process of writing off as meaningless those features that do not fit your system) or by some form of incorporation (making room and adapting to those features or adapting the features themselves). Incorporation is something Christianity does extremely well. It is something Naturalism does not do at all. Naturalists prefer to reduce. That means there are aspects to Naturalism that Christians can affirm. Unfortunately Naturalists do not return the favor. For Naturalists Christianity is nothing but bunk.

Despite all this the greatest apologists for Naturalism are its story tellers. And their best story tellers are plagiarists – using techniques in the crafting of their stories they never could have developed within the framework of Naturalism. And the best of their apologists in recent times was Carl Sagan.

Here is a clip from his critically acclaimed PBS television series, Cosmos. This clip is the introduction to the series and here he presents the story of Naturalism with great skill. As you watch the clip do so with the questions I mentioned earlier in mind. What does Dr Sagan say is real? How do we know it? And what should we do in light of this knowledge? Please use the comments box below to post your observations.

Worldviews are stories we tell ourselves about the nature and purpose of the world. How these stories get told is nearly as interesting as the stories themselves. The preferred means by which they are communicated says something about the stories. But more subtle and effective are the unconscious and indirect means that are employed to incorporate us into these stories. Perhaps the most illuminating thing I can do for you in this book (and startling!) is show you how your outlook has been shaped by quiet and powerful forces you have not been aware of.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before that can happen we need to take up the tools of worldview analysis.

Worldviews are living bodies of thought. They could be called philosophies of life but that implies a degree of intentionality and consistency that is not always present in a worldview. Philosophy does provide helpful tools for understanding the inner workings of different worldviews. This is what I mean by “worldview taxonomy”. These tools help us to classify worldviews.  I have already mentioned three questions: what is real?, how do we know?, and what should we do? By asking these questions of a worldview a good deal of the fog that can make a strange worldview incomprehensible can be cleared away.

This book is intended to be constructive in nature. Its primary purpose is to tell the Christian story of the world by examining the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. Along the way I will also compare and contrast the Christian view of the world with the most influential worldview in the world today, the Christian heresy known by the name, “Naturalism”. My work will be deconstructive in this regard. I will try to show the incoherence of that story. I am doing that because for most of my readers it is the worldview they know best. For many this will be the first time it will be brought to their attention let alone critiqued. The principal reason it has been unconsciously imbibed is because it is rarely advocated explicitly. The assumptions that operate beneath the surface in large corporations, governments, schools and media outlets are largely the out-workings of Naturalism. In this book I will attempt to identify those assumptions and present the worldview of Christianity as a better alternative.

Since the world is growing more interconnected the range of worldviews that present themselves to us is broadening. For that reason I will also address in passing other accounts with the goal of distinguishing the Christian view of things while also demonstrating its superiority.

Does this offend you? Perhaps you think my program is bigoted and narrow-minded? If so, I suspect you have been influenced by some form of relativism. Please, let’s strive for candor from the start. If my project offends you it is because you believe your relativism is superior in some way to my Christianity. Why would you hold your view otherwise? We submit ourselves to truths we believe are right. The view that maintains that all religious and philosophical outlooks are equally right – or more accurately said, equally unprovable – is an attempt to gain the moral high ground by ascending the hill from the blind side. Such an assertion is itself a judgment. And as a judgment it calls for justification.

Before we go any further let us try to agree on two things. If we can do so there is hope of progress. If not I suggest you not waste your time reading further. First, let us agree that all people hold beliefs they believe to be true and by doing so maintain the superiority of those views to alternative ways of thinking. And second, that the quest of truth is an act of humility, not arrogance. When we seek a reality that exists apart from us and for its own sake we do so not so we can bully others with it. (If that is why we seek the truth we are not seeking the truth but our own aggrandizement.) When we really seek the truth we do so with the goal of submitting to it. We do that because we want our lives to be solidly based on reality. And we do that knowing that reality may appear quite unpalatable at first.

“An atheist needs Christianity like moss on the north-face of a tree needs the sun.”

GUIDING METAPHOR

An essential difference between those who call themselves “Progressives” (liberals whether left bank or right) and “Conservatives” (true conservatives who actually conserve things) is their choice of metaphors.

For Progressives the metaphor is the machine.  For Conservatives it is the tree.
To Progressives everything is a mechanism — even organic things — with clearly perceived chains of cause and effect subject to human control.  For Conservatives everything is organic — even human institutions — deeply mysterious and irreducibly complex, to be pruned and shaped with care.

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