A Brief History of Worldviews or…How did things get so crazy so fast?
Why are we hearing a new vocabulary of “white fragility,” “whiteness,” “intersectionality,” etc? Why are we seeing peaceful protests continue weeks after George Floyd’s death, police and their precincts still targeted by rioters and looters, and people losing their jobs if they don’t adhere to a new race-based orthodoxy? The short answer is…because we are seeing a shift at the worldview level. A view of oppressors and victims that originated in, and has been percolating in the Academy, is reaching the tipping point. Rising into the mainstream with surprising speed.
Worldviews explain the way the world works by answering the big questions of life like, Where do we come from? How do we know what is true? What is wrong with the world? How can it be fixed? How do we find meaning and hope? A good book on worldviews, like Mary Poplin’s Is Reality Secular? describes worldviews in greater depth and detail.
But what follows are very brief overviews of the main worldviews that have influenced where we are in America today. They simplify the complexities, hopefully without being simplistic, and offer a brief road map that shows how the post-pagan West began with a Christian worldview and has ended up here. You can trace how our changing view of truth has provided the primary energy for changes in Western worldviews. And glimpse how the weaknesses of one worldview have led to the next. I hope these four summaries will help you better understand what we’re watching on the nightly news.
Western civilization was founded on Greek, then Roman culture. In the 4th century, Roman Emperors Constantine and Theodosius steered the Empire towards acceptance of Christianity as the Empire’s official religion. It was still the mainstream worldview of America at its founding in the 18th century.
How does the Christian Worldview explain the way the world works?
- There is an Author. In the beginning was the Word. All things were made through him.
- There is a larger story: creation/fall/redemption What is wrong with the world? Sin. The enemy. The fall. Our failure to love God and one another. How do we fix it? We can’t. But Jesus died to reconcile us to God through his blood. He offers a life of blessing and forgiveness when we place our faith in him.
- Truth corresponds w/ reality. What is true is what is real as God sees it. Truth is revealed and discovered in creation/ Scripture/Jesus Christ
- We acquire knowledge of truth through our senses, reason, imagination, direct acquaintance (I know my own thoughts and moods), the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit
- We have a great hope through the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus and eternal life in the presence of God.
After the fall of the Roman Empire the City of God became so important that the City of Man lost its rightful place. But beginning in the Renaissance, gaining great momentum in the Enlightment and coming to full strength in the 20th century the pendulum swung so far toward the City of Man that we’ve seen the rise of the more secular modern worldview.
How does a Secular Modern Worldview explain the way the world works?
- There is no Author. In the beginning were the particles. And the particles randomly bumped into each other and combined until they formed everything that exists.
- No author, but there is a story: Science, Progress and the Ascent of Man. What is wrong with the world? Ignorance. Lack of money, education, opportunity. (No Enemy. No fall. No sin.) How do we fix it? More education. Technology. Money. Opportunity. With Science leading the way.
- Truth still corresponds w/ reality. Truth is discoverable. (We hold these truths to be self-evident) But as faith in God declined, knowledge of facts and values began to divide=facts are true/discoverable, but values are relative/created by my group.
- We acquire knowledge of truth through our senses, what we can see, hear, measure etc. (empirical inquiry) and reason/logic. Science=source of knowledge. Denial of spiritual knowledge
- Hope=with enough money/education/ technology we can solve our problems; create a Utopia. Just give us until tomorrow. But it is a false hope.
But reasonable people disagree on discovering what is true. With so many truth claims, how can we know truth? Furthermore, the Modern worldview has not delivered on its promises to solve our problems. If anything (further from God) our problems have multiplied. Beginning in the 60’s and maturing in the 90’s this disillusionment with the promise of the modern worldview has led to a secular, mainstream postmodern worldview.
How does a Secular Postmodern Worldview explain the way the world works?
- There is no Author. In the beginning was God, the particles, whatever.
- If there is no Author, there is no larger story. What is wrong with the world? Nothing. Everything. The world just is. If there is no larger story, there is only a “tournament of narratives.” Everyone lives in their own small story. Life is messy, painful. Make your own story as interesting as you can. Fix what you can. Or not. Whatever.
- Truth: no longer corresponds to reality because reality is not discovered “out there.” Reality is a matter of group/ individual perception. Truth is no longer discovered “out there” but created in my mind, my heart. From my own experience. My “truth,” my reality—my facts and values—is created.
- How can we acquire knowledge of the truth? With so many competing “truth” claims, we must conclude that the brain and powers of reason are not reliable and limited to our own perspective. Language cannot reliably convey thought and reason. The result? Subjective “truth.” My “truth” created through senses, experience, imagination, direct acquaintance. A devaluing of empiricism & reason, but openness to spiritual “truth”/”knowledge.”
- We create our own meaning and hope, but it’s smaller. Resulting in a cultural crisis of transcendent meaning and hope.
A postmodern worldview doesn’t provide much by way of a larger story or transcending hope. Which is why I think that Critical Theory has been able to gain such momentum in the last few decades. It makes a turn toward a Marxist worldview and infuses a larger story and the hope of revolution into a worldview that was hopelessly bleak.
How does a Postmodern worldview fused with Critical Theory explain the way the world works?
- If truth is no longer discovered but created, then power is the only game in town.
If I want my truth to prevail, then I must fight for it. Make my voice louder than all others. Protests. Violence?
If we share the same identity then we can contend for our truth together.
We can create a new metanarrative/larger story, based on our shared identity.
- There is a larger story. But instead of interpreting life through the lens of creation/fall /redemption, or particles and progress, Science and building a Utopia that leaves too many out, we interpret life through the lens of a power struggle between oppressors and victims.
What is wrong with the world? Not sin against God. Or ignorance. Rather the injustice of the powerful oppressing the weak. The original sin of America is Racism. Then Homophobia. Transphobia.
How do we fix it? Revolution. Taking the power from the oppressors and giving it the victims.
- How can we acquire knowledge of truth? Facts/history/biology etc. must be understood through the lens of victims/oppressors-Project 1619 for history, LGBTQ for gender identity/biology etc.
Schools must impart knowledge through this grid.
- Meaning and hope come from solidarity with my identity group and other victims and our liberation and empowerment. Revolution=Winning the power game.
A Christian worldview also has much to say about giving justice to the oppressed. But since it defines sin as rebellion against God and offers the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the way to be reconciled to God, it intrinsically offers grace to sinners and seeks reconciliation in relationships with God and people. A secular worldview based on critical theory results in cancel culture an endless, divisive, power struggles, with little to no grace for those who offend or resist.
As believers we can work for social justice from a Christian worldview, promoting dialogue and being serious about making change. I highly recommend George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock as a roadmap to social justice without the graceless power struggle of Marxism and Critical Theory. May God help us to seize this cultural moment with a gospel message and a commitment to see real change for people who have seen too much oppression and discrimination for too long.