On Classical Education and Being a Classical Teacher

A Needed Caution About “Worldview Thinking”

As I sometimes do, in this post I’m going to take a remark made by someone else in a different, but somewhat related, context, and use it as a springboard for some of my own thoughts.  The following remark is from R.R. Reno’s introduction to James Jordan’s The Glory of Kings:

Thinking about culture—having the conceptual sophistication to identify and analyze cultural practices and patterns—has taken the place of participating in a culture and arguing about what is right and wrong, what is true and false. We have been romanced by Hegel’s dream of absolute knowledge, which turns out not to be knowledge at all, but instead a knowingness about how knowledge is produced, disseminated, and preserved in all cultural systems. The result? A deracinated intellect skilled at debunking but increasingly incapable of sustaining substantive beliefs.

Reno’s point is set in the context of celebrating Jordan’s “scriptural realism,” which, Reno explains, sets itself against a long trend in Western thought to focus more on the how of knowing than the what.  Thanks to an increasing obsession with epistemology, Western thinkers, particularly Christian theologians, have created what Reno describes as “An increasingly abstracted faith that tends to affirm doctrines or theologies or “faith dispositions,” always at one or two removes from the concreteness of scripture and worship.”  Reno goes on to say this of how Confessions of Faith function in this rationalistic environment:

Confessional standards grew out of a sustained engagement with the vast and heterogeneous sweep of biblical details, and the living authority of these confessions depends upon their continued immersion in living exegetical practice. Taken in isolation, confessional standards easily become deracinated. They become “theological” in the bad sense of floating free from the anchoring concreteness of the Bible. They become instruments for bureaucratic boundary marking rather than instruments for guiding the faithful toward orthodoxy.

I think it natural to apply this critique to the common advocacy of “worldview thinking” among conservative Christians.   For what is a “worldview” in its popular conception as a tool of apologetic demolition of falsehoods but a variety of what Reno calls “Hegel’s dream of absolute knowledge, which turns out to be not knowledge at all, but instead a knowingness about how knowledge is produced, disseminated, and preserved in all cultural systems”?

Think about it: many proponents of “worldview thinking” tend to reduce complicated matters of reason’s interface with faith, along with the wholistic cultures of which this interface is a part, to simple, easily analyzed grids of ideas and their consequences.  Take any given non-Christian “belief system” (defined as an intellectual matrix of propositional statements mainly about ontology and epistemology), run it through the coldly logical mechanism of the Acme Presupposition Identifier, and presto! out comes an unbeatable “Christan worldview answer” to anything and everything that any holder of said non-Christian “belief system” could ever say.  If they say this, turn to page 443 of The Christian Worldview Manual and consult Roman numeral II, subpoint C, sub-sub-point 3 for the objective answer.  If they say that, however, the objective answer is on page 225, Roman numeral I, subpoint A.  In no case will it ever be true that “the Christian worldview” doesn’t have an objective answer to some question.  It is, after all, a worldview: it encompasses without remainder the whole world.

There’s no need to try actually to understand life outside of apologetics and theology books, a life populated by real people who have real, embodied situations that can’t be reduced to clean and tidy propositional matrices.  What’s to understand other than their Ideas?  There’s no need to treat them like embodied creatures, like creatures whose minds are more easily moved by non-rational loves and/or by incarnated circumstances than by Pure Disembodied Reason Alone.  There’s no need to treat our relations with them as the art of navigating slippery “human things” that, like politics and ethics, have a lot more to do with (uncomfortably) changing things than with (comfortably) unchanging ones.  And so there’s no need to learn the uncertain art of rhetorical persuasion, which allows one to approach people from all sorts of angles, not merely propositional ones.  No, for “worldview thinking” the propositional matrices are everything, and if we only master those, we can have that Hegelian-like absolute knowledge both of our “world and life system” and the objectively true ways it must answer the other “world and life system.”

Let’s take an example close to my own experience.  As conservative Reformed Christians, especially if we are involved in classical education, we do not pick up the Greeks just to read them, with the goal of actually learning something from them.  We pick up the Greeks so that we can perform “worldview thinking” operations upon the propositions of their writings, and, having slid all the levers into proper place on the Presupposition Identifier so as to receive a neat little package marked “The Biblical View of the Greeks” (the definite article is essential), laughingly congratulate ourselves for not being so silly as to believe all that “autonomous” rot.  It doesn’t matter if a week ago we had never read Sophocles at all, or how fast (and almost certainly carelessly) we have at last read him.  All that matters is that we turned on the “worldview thinking” machine, fed the “clear” propositions of Sophocles’ plays into it, and achieved, as Reno says, “the conceptual sophistication to identify and analyze cultural practices and patterns.”

And then, from our vantage point of True, Pure, Biblically Wise Insight into Sophocles, we write essays about it all so that we can sell books that teach Christian kids how to be cold, intellectually-insulated, triumphalistic rationalists just like we are.  Conveniently, then, we don’t have to actually participate in a culture that, to stay with the Sophocles example, spends time arguing about what is right and wrong, for we already have The Answers To All Questions.   The old idea of “the Great Conversation,” a mutual quest for wisdom conducted by people who are unafraid to admit that they don’t currently have wisdom, is anathema to us, for it looks like what those squishy “Emergent” types are always blabbing vaguely about.   That way lies Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, we think, and we know what’s wrong with those guys – they have a bad “worldview”!   (That we think this sort of ad hominem is an intellectually respectable argument says nothing about deficiencies in our own “worldview.”  Such things do not exist for us.)

Fearing to ever admit that we don’t accurately and fully understand something some non-Christian has said, we tend to substitute quasi-sophistical debunking via prooftexts and self-justifying theological circles for real intellectual labor in the pursuit of something that, if we were more conscious of our own problems instead of being experts on those of everyone else, we would have to admit we don’t already have.  Again to quote Reno, we have “[a] deracinated intellect skilled at debunking but increasingly incapable of sustaining substantive beliefs.”  Ironically, what we call “substantive beliefs” – the propositions of our completed “worldview” –  turn out to be mostly self-referential and self-congratulatory slogans.  And so we laugh in the general direction of all who are too stupid to comprehend how their “presuppositions” can be so easily refuted with simple applications of syllogistic reasoning that make all intellectual work a variety of the reductio ad absurdum argument.  All non-Christians are, of course, plain examples of the kind of idolatry described in Psalm 82 and Isaiah 44.  Really: how can we take seriously a guy who makes an idol out of the same piece of wood he used to start the fire to cook his dinner?  It isn’t as if we take the same God-given reason that we use to construct our “worldview” and make an idol out of its ability to distinguish ourselves from Those Dolts across the street.

But it’s not just non-Christians who suffer this sort of treatment.  Evangelicals like to say that the Christian army is the only army that shoots its own wounded, and in this context, it’s true.  For it is not often long before such “deracinated” and disembodied thinking is found not only deconstructing the unbelieving falsehood it was created to battle, but also other people who supposedly hold to “the Christian worldview” but, bizarrely, mess it up in ways that are so profound it takes a gloriously circular thinker to comprehend the scope of the problem.  The phrase “the Christian worldview” itself comes to function as, in Reno’s words above, an “[instrument] for bureaucratic boundary marking rather than [an instrument] for guiding the faithful toward orthodoxy.”

For orthodoxy is not something we all need to be guided toward; those who have the absolute knowledge afforded by their mastery of “worldview thinking” already have orthodoxy.  They haven’t arrived; they’ve always been there.  This is why they’re qualified to look down scoffingly on all those who think truth is something to be pursued.  There’s no journey of and to faith; there’s only the mountaintop of faith.  You’re either already there or you’re not – and woe to you if you’re not!  The problem is not with the “Christian worldview thinkers,” it’s with everyone else, and so it’s the responsibility of the “worldview thinker” to save everyone else from their silly errors, which are at root fully explained in terms of epistemology.  Worldview thinkers have mastered the knowingness of knowledge; there’s no need to actually possess knowledge.

If all this sounds like a version of gnosticism, that’s because it is.  But, to be fair, I admit that “worldview thinking” is a notion I myself spent many years advocating, and have only in the last 4 years or so begun to question.  Once upon a time the idea may have had some merit (and on this, see David Naugle’s excellent survey Worldview: History of a Concept.)  Nowadays, however, it functions most often as a convenient way to insulate ourselves from the complexity of reality – from the messiness both of other people’s lives and our own – by enabling us to retreat into the illusion of absolute knowledge that is really not knowledge at all, but only a pretended knowingess about knowledge.  In any case, it is certainly not wisdom, either classically or biblically defined.  Wisdom is more incarnate than (mere) propositions can handle, and the best corrective to the distortions of modern “worldview thinking” lie in the direction of what Reno calls “the anchoring concreteness” of texts that are engaged not just as words, but as symbolic representations of, and really doorways into, a full-orbed, embodied reality that is more often than not charged with a grand, exciting, faith-growing uncertainty.

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