Who Are You and What are You Up To?

Jan 29, 2004 |J.P. Moreland

A three-way worldview struggle rages in our culture between scientific naturalism, postmodernism and ethical monotheism (especially Christianity).

In 1989, the state of California issued a new Science Framework to provide guidance for the state's public school science classrooms. In that document, advice was given to teachers about how to handle students who approach them with reservations about the theory of evolution:

At times some students may insist that certain conclusions of science cannot be true because of certain religious or philosophical beliefs they hold ... . It is appropriate for the teacher to express in this regard, "I understand that you may have personal reservations about accepting this scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no reasonable doubt among scientists in their field, and it is my responsibility to teach it because it is part of our common intellectual heritage" (cited in Hartwig, Nelson, p. 20).

A flourishing Christian revolution requires that every Christian disciple approach his or her vocation or college major with more than a surface understanding of the bearing of this statement on our calling as Christians. The real importance of this statement lies not in its promotion of evolution over creation, though that is no small matter in its own right. No, the real danger in the Framework's advice resides in the picture of knowledge it presupposes: The only knowledge we can have about reality and, thus, the only claims that deserve the backing of public institutions are the empirical knowledge claims made by the hard sciences (knowledge claims that can ultimately be quantified and tested by the five senses).

Non-empirical claims outside the hard sciences — such as those at the core of ethics ("you should treat others as you'd have them treat you"), political theory ("man is basically good/bad") and religion ("God exists") — are not items of knowledge but, rather, matters of private feeling. Note carefully the words and phrases the above quote associates with science: conclusions, evidence, knowledge, no reasonable doubt, intellectual heritage. These deeply cognitive terms express the view that science, and science alone, exercises the intellectual right (and responsibility) to define reality. By contrast, religious claims are described in distinctively non-cognitive language: beliefs, personal reservations.

This is the culture in which we live and move and have our being as Christians. Among other things (and whether we like it or not), we Christians are in the knowledge business, imparting knowledge to others through evangelism and discipleship, and providing the tools necessary to obtain knowledge. We are not in the "belief business," passing on a mere set of beliefs, a mere religious "tradition." So it is crucial for us to understand how our secular culture defines the nature and limits of knowledge. With this in mind, I want to characterize secular culture more thoroughly, tell you more about me, and offer a solution to the problem as I challenge you, the reader.

A Three-way Worldview Struggle

Currently, a three-way worldview struggle rages in our culture between scientific naturalism, postmodernism and ethical monotheism (especially Christianity). I cannot undertake a detailed characterization of these worldviews here, but I want to say a word about them and their role in shaping the task of evangelism and discipleship.

First, scientific naturalism takes the view that the physical cosmos that science studies is all that exists. Scientific naturalism has two central components, one metaphysicalIn general, a theory, idea or sentence is metaphysical if it is about something (real or imaginary) that exists beyond or outside of the perceptive ability of our five senses. and one epistemological.A theory, idea or sentence is epistemological if it has to do with knowledge — if it has to do with good vs. bad manners of believing. Put another way, a theory, idea or sentence is epistemological if it tells us what sorts of things we should believe and what sorts of things we should not believe. Metaphysically, scientific naturalism implies that everything that exists is composed of matter or emerges out of matter when it achieves a suitable complexity. Among other things, this amounts to a denial of the existence of soul and the possibility of disembodied life after death. Epistemologically, scientific naturalism implies that physical science is the only way of gaining knowledge or, at least, that it is vastly superior to other ways, such as reading the Bible.

Christians sensitive to worldview issues must meet these two components head on. They must show others that a number of things that exist are not physical: God, the souls of men, consciousness, virtues such as love and kindness, aesthetic beauty, various kinds of normative judgments (judgments about what should and should not be the case), the laws of logic, mathematical numbers, theories (yes, theories are mental entities in people's minds!) and so forth. They must also show that there is knowledge to be gained outside the hard sciences. Immaterial reality and non-empirical knowledge constitute two key items of focus for the Christian sensitive to worldview struggles.

Second, I want to comment on postmodernism. As a philosophical standpoint, postmodernism is primarily a reinterpretation of what knowledge is and what counts as knowledge. More broadly, it represents a form of cultural relativism about such things as reality, truth, reason, value, linguistic meaning, the self and other notions. From a postmodernist view, there is no such thing as objective reality, truth, value, reason and so forth. All these are social constructions, creations of linguistic practices and, as such, are relative not to individuals, but to social groups that share a narrative. From a postmodern perspective, what is real in one culture may not be real in another; what's true in one culture may be false in another; what's valuable and rational changes from culture to culture as well, and no culture is more "right" or more "wrong" than any other. Thus, from the postmodern view, if one culture believes that the earth is round and another believes that it is flat, it is naïve to ask "Which culture is right? In reality, is the earth round or flat?" All the postmodernist can say is that in our culture — in reality as we understand it — the earth is round, not flat.

Of course, Christians sensitive to worldview issues must respond to these claims as well. They must show others that truth and reality are neither social constructions nor creations of cultural linguistic practices. They must show that cultures (including our own) can be, and often are, mistaken. Most importantly, they must show that there is a difference between a culture's perception of truth and reality and truth and reality themselves. The existence of a reality beyond human cultures and the possibility of knowing this reality constitute two more key items of focus for the Christian sensitive to worldview struggles.

In light of these needs, I plan to write a monthly article in Boundless for the next year or so to help equip you to understand these issues more deeply.

Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?

So, who am I to be so presumptuous as to think I can help you with these issues? I was born on Mar. 9, 1948 in Kansas City, Mo. and was raised in Grandview, Mo., a Kansas City suburb. My father died while I was in second grade, and I was raised largely by my mother, though she did marry again during my seventh grade year. My mother and stepfather were good to me, though neither could help much with my academic instruction. Neither went beyond high school. My mother worked in a paper cup factory and my step father was a welder. Through high school I attended a mildly liberal United Methodist church and, as a result, I saw Jesus as a fairly boring, middle class white person who espoused a somewhat benign set of moral platitudes.

I received a scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Missouri, so in the fall of 1966 I set out for college, not knowing that during my tenure there, I would make a decision that would forever alter the course of my life. I had two goals: to prepare for Ph.D. work in chemistry so I could become a university professor and to date as many attractive girls as possible and increase my chances of obtaining a wife — so I joined a fraternity and took all the chemistry, physics, and math courses I could. I had a disdain for the humanities but, like most undergraduates then and now, I was virtually ignorant of what they were.

It was the 60s and I lived a fairly typical pagan lifestyle. I never took drugs, but I drank and partied hard. Meanwhile I was very successful in school, graduating with honors in chemistry. On occasion I would pray to a vague father-figure whose depiction I had managed to glean from the watered-down instruction I had received in a liberal Sunday School prior to college.

Through a series of spiritual and intellectual encounters with sharp, winsome Christians, I enlisted as one of Jesus' disciples my junior year. Among other things, a whole new world of knowledge was opened to me in philosophy, theology, biblical studies and history. I came to see that science was merely one source of knowledge and that the humanities (which I had disdained prior to my conversion) were a rich source of knowledge as well.

Early on I was taught that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3). I came to believe that while popular in His style, Jesus Christ was the smartest man who ever lived and that, as the inerrant word of God, the Bible was a source, not only of truth, but of knowledge.

Armed with these beliefs, I began to explore the world of ideas confident that a biblical view of any subject would eventually be vindicated in light of the relevant evidence and proper reason. Along the way, I encountered difficulties in areas such as gospel criticism and the various quests for the historical Jesus, naturalistic evolution, moral relativism, physicalism and the denial of the soul. Each time, I entered the area of difficulty with the confidence that there would be solid, intellectually satisfying answers that harmonized with a careful, faithful interpretation of biblical teaching. And time and time again I found this to be true! It was puzzling to me to see believers who reinterpreted clear biblical teachings to bring scripture into harmony with a politically correct secular outlook when such a move seemed intellectually unnecessary and spiritually unfaithful to Jesus Christ Himself. What an adventure it has been to explore the world of ideas as a student and co-laborer of the smartest man who ever lived!

My conviction about Jesus led me to finish a B. S. in chemistry from the University of Missouri, a Th.M. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M. A. in philosophy from the University of California, Riverside, and a Ph. D. in philosophy from the University of Southern California. Currently, I am Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, Calif., and director of The Center for Christian Worldview and Spiritual Formation.I wish to thank the Center for supporting me in writing the articles in this series. If you wish to receive information about contributing to the Center, contact the editor of Boundless and he will forward your request to the Center.

So What Do I Want You to Do About All This?

In the next year, I will write a monthly article for a series in Boundless designed to help you understand worldview struggles, have more confidence in Jesus, and be equipped to dialog with others who reject a Christian worldview. I must warn you in advance that the articles in this series are going to be intellectually challenging. Are you up to the task of digesting some difficult material? I challenge you to give a positive response to this question and, thus, to work hard at learning and using the fairly heady material to follow. I dare not water this material down and, in fact, it should be as challenging as the lectures and readings you get — or got — in your university courses. Given the urgency of the hour and the worldview crisis we are in, my job is to challenge you to a higher level of Christian thinking, and your job is to rise to that level. Are you ready for the adventure? Then do three things: Put on your thinking hat, ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and discernment, and prepare for the next installment! And for the really motivated reader, get a copy of my book Love Your God With All Your Mind, and read it this year as you study the series of articles to follow.

Copyright 2004 J. P. Moreland. All rights reserved.  

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