Yesterday, I began a conversation with Nancy Pearcey about her new book, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Today, we continue this discussion and focus on the benefits and limits of worldview training.
Trevin Wax: James K. A. Smith makes the case that worldview analysis isn’t enough when it comes to discipleship, since we are formed by cultural liturgies, not just philosophical beliefs. What are the limits of worldview training?
Nancy Pearcey: The issue raised by James K. A. Smith is whether we are shaped less by belief than by practice — by ways of life or what he calls “liturgies.” The idea of the primacy of practice comes out of postmodernism, which claims that people’s beliefs are shaped by the patterns of life embodied in their communities. On one hand, that seems obvious. On the other hand, when we borrow an idea from an existing intellectual tradition, we must analyze it carefully to make sure we are not absorbing non-biblical assumptions in the process.
The idea that individuals are constituted by their communities is a common theme in a philosophical tradition called continental philosophy. The theme can be traced back to the German philosopher Hegel, who taught that the real actor in history is not the individual but a Universal Mind, a kind of collective consciousness. As philosopher Robert Solomon explains, the Universal Mind creates the world “through the shared aspects of a culture, a society, and above all through a shared language.” Individuals are constituted by the customs, values, and habits of the groups to which they belong.
Over time, Hegel’s Universal Mind was dropped, but what remained was the idea that individuals are shaped by communal forces. They are not producers of culture so much as products of a particular culture with its forms of life.
In our own day, this has led to the postmodern claim that ideas are merely social constructions stitched together by cultural forces. Individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity. The implication is that people believe what they do not because they have good reasons but because they are black or white, male or female, Asian or Hispanic, or whatever.
This is radically dehumanizing. It implies that individuals are powerless to rise above the communities to which they belong. It is a form of reductionism that dissolves individual identity into group identity. Christian philosopher Dooyeweerd called it the “ideology of community.”
In Finding Truth, I argue that every worldview gets some things right, which means we can be open and respectful, gleaning what is good wherever we find it. Postmodernism has been a helpful corrective to modernism. It has done good service in countering the lonely individualism of the Enlightenment’s autonomous self. It rejects the modernist project of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes to start history over from scratch within the isolated individual consciousness.
But just as we should not uncritically accept Enlightenment-inspired philosophies, so we should not uncritically accept postmodernism.
Postmodernists reject the Enlightenment ideal of neutral, objective knowledge on the grounds that everyone’s perspective is “situated” in a context that is particular, local, and historically contingent. But they often overlook the fact that their own claims are likewise situated. After all, where did postmodernism come from? As we just saw, it is a strand of modern European intellectual history, stemming from post-Hegelian continental philosophy with its claim that consciousness is shaped by communal ways of life. Postmodernists are just as restricted by their own historical horizons as the more traditional people whom they tend to look down on.
Finding Truth gives guidelines for practicing biblical discernment with any set of ideas, identifying what they get right and where they go wrong.
Trevin Wax: You present a five-step approach to apologetics:
- Identify the idol.
- Identify the reductionism.
- Test the worldview.
- Show how it’s self-defeating.
- Make a case for a Christian worldview.
How did you develop this approach, and why do you believe it is a helpful way of conversing with unbelievers?
Nancy Pearcey: Romans 1 describes the dynamics of the person struggling to avoid God. It unfolds a series of actions — a drama of divine-human interaction — that is the source of all worldviews, from ancient times to our own. The great plot line of history is the tug of war between God and humanity. On one hand, God reaches out to humanity to make himself known. On the other hand, humans desperately seek to avoid knowing him by creating God substitutes.
When conversing with non-Christians, then, we can start where Paul does: with general revelation, a body of knowledge that is available to everyone because it is part of universal human experience. An important aspect of that knowledge is our direct awareness of human nature. As philosopher Étienne Gilson puts it, because humans are capable of choosing, the first cause that created them must have a will. Because humans are capable of thinking, the first cause that created them must have a mind. In short, because a human is a someone and not a something, the source of human life must also be a Someone. As the Psalmist says, “Does he who fashioned the ear not hear? Does he who formed the eye not see?” (Ps 94:9)
When humans create God substitutes, however, those lead inevitably to a lower view of human nature. The technical term is reductionism. Those who exchange the glory of God for something in the created world will also exchange the image of God for something in creation.
For example, take materialism, since that is the dominant worldview in the academic world. Its idol is matter. Everything else is reduced to material objects produced by material forces. Anything that does not fit in the materialist box is dismissed as an illusion, including free will, mind, spirit, soul, consciousness. Humans are said to be essentially robots — complex biochemical machines. Reductionism is a strategy for suppressing the truth: For if we can reduce humans to machines operating by natural forces, then we can explain their origin by purely natural forces.
But can anyone actually live like a machine? Of course not. Philosopher John Searle jokes that if people deny free will, then when ordering at a restaurant they should say, “Just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.” It seems to be part of undeniable, inescapable human experience that we have the power to make choices, that we are not robots.
In Finding Truth, I give several astonishing quotes by leading scientists and scholars who admit that their own worldview does not fit the world as they themselves experience it. The example my students always remember best is Rodney Brooks, professor emeritus at MIT. Brooks writes that a human being is just “a big bag of skin full of biomolecules” interacting by the laws of physics and chemistry. It is difficult to actually see people that way, he admits. But “when I look at my children, I can, when I force myself … see that they are machines.”
But is that how Brooks treats them? Not at all. “I give them my unconditional love,” even though love has no “rational analysis” in his worldview. It sticks out of his materialist box. Robots don’t love. Brooks’s philosophy is too limited to account for reality as he himself experiences it.
So the Romans 1 strategy equips us to dialog with non-Christians because it incorporates what everyone knows by general revelation. The person before you has a profound experiential knowledge of being made in God’s image—and that knowledge keeps breaking through even when his worldview tells him he is a machine made in the image of matter.
Trevin Wax: Worldview analysis has been offered in other books. What’s really new here, and how can we use it with non-Christians?
Nancy Pearcey: : There are two major ways to test a philosophy or worldview: (1) Test it externally against the world and (2) test it internally for logical consistency. These are the same questions we raise in testing any idea — whether in a science lab, a court of law, or when asking a friend why she showed up late.
What makes the Romans 1 approach unique is that it tells you why these tests work.
We can be confident that every non-Christian worldview will fail the first test. Why? Because, as we already saw, every non-Christian worldview is reductionistic. As Romans explains, those who reject the Creator will idolize some part of the created order. You might think of it as trying to stuff all of reality into a box. But a part is never enough to explain the whole. Something will stick out of the box. The theory does not match the real world.
We can also be confident that non-Christian worldviews will fail the second test. Why? Again because of the reductionism. When you hold a lower view of humanity, that will include the human mind—our cognitive faculties, rationality, reason. Yet how does a worldview support its own case? By using reason. Thus when it discredits reason, it undercuts its own case. It is self-refuting. It commits suicide.
The technical term is self-referential absurdity, and you will see it applied regularly by philosophers and apologists — but with no rationale or method. What is unique about the Romans 1 approach is that it tells you why it works and how to apply it. Find the reductionism: That’s the point where it will commit suicide.
The Romans 1 strategy works with non-Christians because it relies on what everyone recognizes as good reasoning. Even the term “idols” is used by secular thinkers (ever since Nietzsche’s famous essay “Twilight of the Idols“). Afterward, we can draw back the curtain and explain the deeper metaphysical grounding: The Romans 1 narrative, with its dramatic account of idols and suppression, is the larger framework that gives these strategies their theological rationale and weaves them into a dynamic unity.
To quote one of my students, using the strategy in Finding Truth ”is like the difference between driving around Los Angeles with just a set of directions (turn left, turn right) compared to having a map of the whole city. The map gives you the overall perspective.” The five principles provide a map to navigate any system of ideas.
Trevin Wax: Several of the chapters in this book deal with both Enlightenment materialism and postmodernism, which critiques the hubris of Enlightenment philosophy. Which of these two philosophies do you believe is ascending today?
Nancy Pearcey: In the modern age, Western thought and culture has split into two streams. In the 20th century, they were labeled the analytic and the continental traditions. The analytic tradition traces its roots to British empiricism and is associated with philosophies that claim to be science-based, such as materialism and naturalism. The continental tradition traces its roots to the Romantic protest against the Enlightenment, and includes philosophies such as idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, and postmodernism. (I describe these two traditions in much greater detail in Saving Leonardo, showing how each give rise to distinctive schools of art, literature, and music.)
Analytic philosophy is taught in some 90 percent of American philosophy departments, so it is more familiar to most people (even if they don’t know the name). Continental thought, on the other hand, has swept through the humanities: English, history, theology, ethics, the social sciences, and so on.
Perhaps the best way to understand their relationship is summarized in the fact/value split: Modernism lays claim to the fact realm, while postmodernism is rampant in the value realm.
The upshot is that Christians need to know how to interact critically with both of these philosophical traditions, gleaning what is good while sorting out what is contrary to a biblical worldview.