Moving From Heat to Light: Worldviews in Conflict

(You can listen to this blog post here.)

Cultural conflict doesn’t come from just nowhere. Ours has been building for a while. The intensity of it comes out of Westerners’ incredibly diverse worldviews, our way of seeing reality.

For much of European history most people shared a more-or-less common worldview, and the same has been especially true in Americans of European descent and influence. Because that worldview was so dominant, it was also unifying. We got along because we agreed on the basics.

I am speaking of Judeo-Christian theism, of course, which, as everyone knows, no longer holds that same central position in our culture.

Rising up powerfully against it in this century have been the strongly competing worldviews of scientific materialism and Marxist/postmodern critical theory.* In this post I’m going to compare them to Judeo-Christian theism, and do so from a very high altitude, by examining their answers to several of the most basic questions every person must answer regarding life on this earth.

This is not the time for me to define either scientific materialism or critical theory in any depth. That will come later. I’ll stick for now with this oversimplified version:

  • Scientific materialism is neither scientific nor materialist in the way those words are commonly used. That is, it’s not materialism as in stocking up material goods in this world, and it’s not scientific as in using the scientific method. Rather it’s the belief that reality consists in nothing but matter and energy (material stuff) interacting according to natural law, the sorts of things science can study, at least in principle. It denies God, angels, the human soul, and all spiritual reality; and it is the most common form of atheism in Western culture. It also commonly goes by the nearly-synonymous name naturalism (everything is nature, and there is no super-nature).
  • Critical theory is more complicated by far. It’s the worldview driving the LGBTQIA movement and Black Lives Matter, along with other prominent race-based conversations, and it’s connected with other movements as well, although those are the main ones. It’s a totalizing view of human interactions, which holds that the main issue of interest between persons is their power relationships. It holds in particular that “cisgender,” heterosexual, white, male culture has held so much power for so long, the effect has been oppressive to members of any other identity group.

Those are the definitions; now for a comparison. This table is necessarily oversimplified. My purpose here isn’t to provide a fully accurate description of each worldview, but to illustrate the magnitude of the distance separating them from each other. It all leads in the end to an important question, and a very crucial observation, with an unusual sort of take-away I want to suggest for you. So please read it through carefully.

(For the theism group, I’m narrowing down to historic orthodox Christian theism. This is going to be hard to read on mobile devices, and I’m sorry I don’t have a good answer for that.)

Christian Theism

Scientific Materialism

Critical Theory

What is the basic nature of reality? God is the eternal, holy, loving, Triune Creator, and the visible world is his creation. He spoke it into existence by his will and for his glory. Nothing exists but matter and energy interacting according to natural law. Most would agree with materialists, if they’ve given it any thought. Some would say there is a God, but the God (or god) in whom they believe is malleable: He or it looks a lot like someone who’s there to go along with everything they believe.
Where did humans come from? Humans are the special creation of God, in his image, to be loved by him and to honor his glory. Humans evolved from prior organisms by unguided, essentially random genetic variation and natural selection. Again, most critical theorists would either agree with materialists or else have a vague “God was there” viewpoint. Functionally, though, American critical theorists treat things as starting up for the first time when English settlers brought African slaves to Jamestown in 1619. Not much matters before that.
What does it mean to be human? Because we are in God’s image, every human is an individual of inestimable worth, having moral freedom , intellect, and will (although that’s all constrained by sin). We are unique individuals intended to live in loving community. Humans are material entities, without souls. For many in this camp, we are “meat machines”:  Our experiences of free will, moral purpose, and even individual identity are all illusory, planted in us by evolution because it led to reproductive advantage among our ancestors. Persons’ nature and identity derive from the groups to which they belong: Ethnic groups, straight or gay orientation, sex, gender identity, age, and so on. Each person is the product of their group memberships.
What is the basic human problem? Sin: Attitudes and/or actions, either active or passive, that reflect and reinforce our alienation from a holy God. We’re not fully evolved, or educated, or enculturated properly enough to get along. And we’re all going to die and be gone forever anyway. Racism, sexism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and other forms of oppression imposed by dominant culture on marginalized groups.
By what means is the basic human problem solved? God has initiated the solution to humanity’s problem through Christ’s death on the cross. Those who have faith in Christ receive forgiveness, the filling of the Holy Spirit to enable more godly living, and ultimately eternal life. Mutual love and forgiveness can (and should!) ease many of our interpersonal problems, although not in any final way until Christ’s return. More evolution. Or education. Or better cultural conditioning. And then we die and it’s all over anyway. Whites must become anti-racist, although they can’t, so there’s not much hope there. Similarly for male, straight, “cis” categories. Members of oppressed groups need to throw off all oppression, though there’s not much hope of that, either. So we just muddle along, the oppressors being under a yoke of shame, and the oppressed being essentially innocent so they don’t have much to solve other than all that oppression.
What is truth and how do we access it? Truth is the expression of the way things are, above all as personified in God, who reveals it through his Word and through the consistent and rational nature of the world he created; so we learn through both revelation and experience, with revelation having authority. Truth is the way the world is from a scientific perspective, and science is how we learn it. Truth is a power game. The powerful use language and other means to impose and enforce their “truths” on others. We would do better to understand that all persons have access to truth, that it isn’t always what the oppressive class says it is, and that there is special truth in marginalized persons’ lived experience.
Where is everything heading in the end? An eternal state, in which those who have entered a living relationship with God through faith will live in eternal glory, and those who have not will suffer lasting judgment for their rebellion against God. We’re all going to die. That’s it. Except ultimately the whole universe is going to die, too, in the “heat death” of maximum universal entropy. Then it’s all over for real. Who knows? Probably what the materialists say. Unless there’s a God, in which case we’re all going to heaven with him. But why worry about that, when there’s all this oppression?


What Do We Do With This?

Someone is going to tell me this table is oversimplified. They’re going to say I got their group wrong, or that I left out subgroups within groups. Don’t worry, I know already. But I also know that this comes close enough to take us to a very important question: What will it take for people in one of these groups to understand people in another?

I think of this in missiological terms, that is, in terms of Christian witness. We want people to understand Christ is their Savior from sin. In order to get there, they have to understand what sin means. To get there, they have to know what the word “God” means. They have to understand him not just as Creator, but as genuinely in charge, so that he gets to define what’s good and what isn’t. If we tell them this is the truth, they’ll have to re-orient their view of what “truth” means. If they seem themselves as members of an oppressed group, they’re going to want to know what God is doing to bring them justice.

Which is all to say, each of these worldviews is a package deal. You can’t just take a little of one, insert it into another, and make it work there. You have to take on the whole package. Similarly, if you don’t take time to understand another person fully, you’re probably not going to understand them at all — although understanding worldview basics like these can give you a decent head start on it.

And they’re not going to understand us, either. If we think they’re nuts for believing what they believe, don’t worry, they think we’re nuts, too. A lot of it has to do with trying to take pieces of our worldview and fit them into theirs. We believe Christ rose from the dead. Materialists know he couldn’t have because they know that no one can rise from death. How do they know that? Well, they know reality is nothing but matter and energy and natural law, and natural law doesn’t allow a resurrection, so therefore Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. But that’s a case of trying to stick a resurrection by the power of God into a worldview without God. Of course it doesn’t fit!

Whose Worldview is the Most Sensible?

So whose worldview is the best? You’re not going to answer it right if you judge everyone else’s worldview by how well it fits your own. It can’t fit yours, by definition. If we ever got to know the right worldview, it would be the right worldview, period; but it would look wrong from the perspective of all other worldviews — because these are all-or-none package deals.

The worldview that’s right, in my considered opinion, is the one that fits itself. It’s consistent. It explains reality, including human experience, without contradicting itself. I’m convinced after very much study that Christian theism fits that bill.

But Let’s Not Go There Quite Yet…

I’m satisfied that Christianity is true, but that’s not why I wrote this. I wrote it to help us all see the kind of trouble we’re facing as we try to overcome the heat, the conflict, that’s dividing our culture.

If you’re looking for a take-away, something to do with all this information, here it is: Think about it. Reflect on it. Consider what it means for your interactions with people who see reality differently than you do. I have more specific take-aways I can suggest in days to come, but there’s a reason I’m not rushing there yet, and it isn’t just that I’ve written plenty here for one blog post. It’s because there’s value in reflecting on these things. Give it some thought. By God’s grace I’ll be back with more in a week or so.

(P.S. for those wondering about my plans for a regular weekly update here: I was away helping my daughter with an unexpectedly complicated move to a new home. We have another family emergency moving forward in slow motion, too; my 97-year-old dad’s quickly declining health. I’ll be back next week if life circumstances allow it.)

*Other worldviews also rising in prominence are New Age/pagan spirituality, and the spiritual-but-not-religious view of the spiritually hopeless or apathetic. The first of those, New Age paganism, is likely to heat up significant conflict in our culture in the not-too-distant future, but has not done so yet. Apathetic spirituality is too apathetic to cause much trouble, though it’s not much help either.

Image Credit(s): Unsplash/Sushil Nash.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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3 Responses

  1. Dr Sarah says:

    My best wishes for your father’s comfort, and for the wellbeing of all of you at this time.

    Thoughts on this post from the perspective of a non-Christian:

    ‘What will it take for people in one of these groups to understand people in another?’

    I find this an ironic question for you to be asking right after you’ve finished writing a summary of other worldviews that you say you know yourself is wrong in some ways, and that seems to be trying to satirise or to snark these views rather than to describe them. The first thing it’s going to take is for people to be willing to listen to other viewpoints and make an honest effort to figure out where they’re coming from, and that… well, it isn’t what you just did.

    ‘We want people to understand Christ is their Savior from sin. In order to get there, they have to understand what sin means. To get there, they have to know what the word “God” means. They have to understand him not just as Creator, but as genuinely in charge, so that he gets to define what’s good and what isn’t.’

    ‘Understand’ doesn’t seem to me to be the right word here. I understand this belief system; it’s not about not understanding it. It’s that I don’t agree with it.

    ‘If we think they’re nuts for believing what they believe, don’t worry, they think we’re nuts, too.’

    For the record; no, I don’t think you’re ‘nuts’ for believing things that I believe to be wrong. (Apart from this not being a very constructive way of looking at things, throwing around terms like ‘nuts’, with all their associated stereotypes, is something that can potentially cause problems by reinforcing the stigma around mental health issues, which is something it’s worth trying to avoid. It’s OK, I get that this was probably just meant as a bit of a light-hearted spin on a serious subject, but… maybe worth rethinking that term for the future?)

    ‘We got along because we agreed on the basics.’

    We… did? Get along, I mean? From what I know of history (which is primarily English history), we seem to have spent most of history in land grabs or power struggles of some sort. I’m honestly not sure that we did get along much better in earlier centuries than in this one.

    ‘I am speaking of Judeo-Christian theism, of course[…] In this post I’m going to compare them to Judeo-Christian theism’

    OK, no. You’re speaking of Christian theism (particular varieties of Christian theism, at that) and comparing the other worldviews to Christian theism. Not only does Jewish theism differ on key points, but, during much of the time that you’re claiming we all got along because we shared a worldview, Jews were actually getting persecuted and sometimes killed for the ways in which their beliefs differed. With respect, it does seem tactless and inappropriate to talk as though Judaism and Christianity could be lumped together as one happily coexisting entity. Could you please not use the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ when what you actually mean is ‘Christian’?

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Point well taken on “Judeo-Christian,” at least to the extent that the two groups have different views of God, Jesus, and soteriology.

    As to your other comments, I would suggest that you take this more as what it was intended to be: a summary. So for example, “got along” was shorthand for, “We had all kinds of wars and crime and problems, but we weren’t at each others’ throats in terms of our basic understandings of reality;” and that short sentence is in turn an abbreviated way of something that would require a full chapters’ worth of discussion. We had our conflicts, but not so much in terms of worldview, which was the topic of this article.

    I compressed all that down to two words, thinking my readers would have the grace to recognize that no one thinks we “got along” without any land grabs or power struggles, etc.

    If you want to point out some specific point on which you think I misrepresented other worldviews, please feel free to do so. If I got it wrong I’ll own it and correct it.

  3. John Moore says:

    I think Christians could easily form an alliance with the critical theory people, if you guys just tried. You shouldn’t focus too much on the theory, but Christians should just work tirelessly to help the poor and the down-trodden.

    Of course Christians can do it their own way, and that’s fine.

    a) You don’t need to support Black Lives Matter or police reform or anything specific like that. But Christians need to be front and center in the great effort to build up our black communities and help black people be strong, prosperous citizens.

    b) You don’t need to campaign for gay rights, but you just need to encourage gay people to be honest with themselves and others, and then you need to help gay people take their place as full-fledged members of society. No shunning.

    c) You don’t need to agree with radical feminist politics, but you just need to help women who are in danger, support women who are struggling, care for women who have made mistakes in life. And again, encourage women to take their place as full-fledged members of society.

    d) Christians need to be the shining beacons of hope for the homeless and the drug addicts, providing safe shelters, medical care and vocational opportunities. Yes, Christians need to provide good practical education that will help people succeed in life.


    Maybe you will say Christians are already doing these things. But you have a serious image problem. Most people don’t associate Christians with helping. That’s the big disaster you need to fix.

    What if the popular image of Christianity in the U.S. was that Christians are always helping the poor and down-trodden? In that case, most of the critical theory people would stand with you. And the materialist humanists too, of course.

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