Friday, October 07, 2005

The Gospel is Good News, Not a Worldview!

Mike Kugler's Letter to the NWC Beacon, 7 October 2005

To the Editor:

Lately we’ve had chapels and Beacon articles about self-control in the Christian moral life and the Christian political stand, both the consequence of disciplined obedience to the Christian religion. These combine in different forms the commitments of patriotic politics, moralism and religion. This combination of ideas and convictions seems attractive to Christians across America. For the sake of time I’ll call it “the Christian world view”, or CWV. Those holding the CWV claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does and should encourage a consistent political, moral and religious way of living in the world. The political, moral and religious convictions expressed in this CWV reinforce one another in their distinct tasks. More specifically, religiously zealous and morally pure Christians would be “salt and light” in a back sliding, godless American society. If they prayed and worked hard enough, Christians with this proper CWV could take back America for God.

When I hear this I ask: how did the Good News get confused with this CWV? I’m not talking about a specific political party; a particular social or moral issue; or singling out one denomination over another. I’m wondering how anyone can argue that any combination of political, moral and religious convictions is the consistent consequence of thinking about the Good News. What in the Gospel implies a particular patriotic political ideology over against another? What in the Gospel tells us about sharply drawn moral behavior? Where in the Gospel can a religious life be found?

By the Good News I understand the story of the loving, merciful God who took human form in order to share our lives and suffering. When this man, Jesus Christ, preached the Good News that God had come to reconcile all humanity to Himself, He challenged the political, moral and religious authorities of His day. He did not challenge them because they had the wrong politics, morals and religion for His Kingdom. Jesus challenged them because they claimed that by our political, moral and religious righteousness we give God what He expects of us. When Jesus challenged their authority those powers murdered Him. God brought Jesus back to life again, not in order to lead a heavenly army to punish His murderers, but to confirm His confidence in the loving authority of His Son. The Son’s life and resurrection remain today a promise of the reconciliation awaiting the creation by God’s mercy.

I wonder just what in that story—where God unfairly gives abundant life to all of us, the undeserving—suggests a particular political, moral or religious life. Politics, morality and religion thrive on rule making and behavior management. It seems to me that the Scriptures teach that the only rule Christians must obey is to love God and their neighbors. If so, it’s hard to move from that to a Christian world view rich in political, moral and religious demands.

Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone else followers of Jesus Christ have to figure out what the best political, moral and religious life might look like. We will inevitably argue among ourselves and others, because all serious issues are the subject of dispute. But our job to think carefully about those responsibilities should never be confused with the Gospel. The Good News of God’s undeserved grace to humanity is frail; for all its power to redeem creation and transform humanity, we apparently have the power to twist it into a false Gospel, a program for making us and the world turn out right. Thinking Christianly about the world, then, seems different to me than having “a Christian world view.” Realizing that we and our political, moral and religious powers have hijacked Jesus’ Good News, are we forced to choose between a frail Gospel, and the power of the Christian world view?


Mike Kugler


Blogger wacome said...

And another thing….

1. Amen! The Christian faith is not a theory of the universe, not a program for the moral improvement of society, nor a technology for improvement of the self. It’s trust in the grace of the God who was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. Given the deep seated human propensity to try to justify ourselves by believing and doing the right things, this is something we need to confess again and again.

2. Kugler writes, “Followers of Jesus Christ have to figure out what the best political, moral and religious life might look like,” and I know that he’s not just saying this to cut off criticism. He’s first in line, not last, when it comes to asking what we should believe and do in light of the good news of the crucified God. An enduring curiosity about what beliefs, and an intense concern about what attitudes and actions, make sense in light of the gospel need not lead to replacing the good news and trust in the God it’s about with some sort of putatively Christian worldview.

3. Once upon a time, talk of worldview (separated from its antecedents in late 19th century historicist German philosophy) seemed like a good way to encourage Christians to pay attention to the fact that their faith in God presupposes that some things are true and others false, and that some attitudes and actions makes sense, and others don’t. The Christian faith has “empirical content;” to be a Christian is to commit oneself, epistemically, to things being some ways and not other ways. It’s to go out on a limb that the world could saw off, and we may as well admit it. So talk of a Christian worldview might well be therapeutic against the popular idea that Christian (or more generally, religious) beliefs are independent of how things are in the world, that faith is all about how to live in the world, not about how the world is. (Note the still prevalent rhetoric that assumes we can contrast Christian values with the scientific, historical, etc. facts.) Rhetoric about seeking a Christian worldview was equally therapeutic for those whose theological beliefs were compartmentalized, being at bottom logically inconsistent with other things they believed. Hurray for talk of worldviews if it means we should pay heed to the overall coherence of our beliefs and bring implicit inconsistencies to light.

4. On the other hand, there are aspects of Christian worldview rhetoric that should concern us, and we ought not to buy into it uncritically. We should reject the implicit assumption that grand schemes of belief come “pre-packaged,” and thus that we need not do any real work to ascertain whether a particular belief fits well with the Christian faith, but need only identify it as a component of the Christian worldview, as opposed to being a component of some competing worldview, in order to accept it. As a philosopher, I am keenly aware that there’s a long list of theories that are supposedly part of the Christian worldview, and many that are allegedly not part of a Christian worldview. The former are accepted by Christians, and the latter rejected, both out of hand, often on the basis of what amounts to nothing more than long association with Christianity, or with non-Christian views. But what’s traditionally associated with what is not a reliable guide to what actually best fits with what; it’s the residue of all kinds of contingent history, not the mark of truth. Maybe, e.g., mind-body dualism, and objectivist views about moral truth, and the correspondence theory of truth, and a libertarian conception of freedom, and exhaustive divine omniscience, and welfare statism, and metaphysical realism, and the view that human embryos are people, and anti-reductionism, and emergentism, and the idea that we have reliable metaphysical intuitions, yada, yada, yada…cohere with Christian beliefs better than the alternatives; after all, these ideas have all been long associated with Christianity, but glomming them together and labeling the product a Christian worldview has, as another philosopher said about something else, all the advantages of theft over honest toil. Christian intellectuals too often wind up doing little more than defending traditional ideas because they were believed by Christians—but also most everyone else—in the past. Taking the Christian worldview idea too seriously has the effect of rendering theoretical possibilities invisible. Doing that might be attractive to anyone who wants them to be invisible, but if our concern—our vocation as Christian thinkers—is to find out what’s true, it’s a bad policy. The whole truth, which presumably includes the essentials of Christian theology—whatever exactly they are—might turn out to conjoin beliefs that tradition saw as incompatible, and to separate beliefs that tradition put together.

5. E. J. Carnell (who taught at Fuller in the 1950’s) once said, “if you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you, but if you really make them think they’ll hate you.” In the evangelical Christian world today there is an industry of those trying get people to think they’re thinking without getting them really to think. (Note, for instance, the goings on reported in the CHE article Jensen linked to in an earlier blog.) Anyone who supposes that what all right thinking Christians should believe comes as a pre-assembled whole, to be accepted without serious consideration of what might actually be true, and of what might really cohere, or fail to cohere, with Christian theological beliefs, should welcome the worldview idea, it makes their job easier. If, on the other hand, an aspect of Christian intellectual faithfulness is an abiding, and sometimes bloody-minded, commitment to having beliefs that are true, come what may, and not merely the ones our side has and the other side does not have in some sort of ideological warfare, then we should be at least diffident about the worldview idiom.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Gunner said...

Kugler speaks the truth.

11:23 PM  

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