Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
Discussions about worldview can quickly become discussions about discussion with very little insight given, but Nancy Pearcey delivers in humble style a readable manual of the Christian worldview which, in my opinion, belongs in every library. A student of Francis Schaeffer, her work resembles his in many places—his is the biggest entry in the index, and for good reason. She builds on Schaeffer’s groundwork insights and formulates them into practical tools for the modern Christian, making the ideas more accessible and more poignant. Her book is chock-full of worldview insights, but also includes a lot of social, cultural, and philosophical commentary, and even some commentary on the academic disciplines themselves (like philosophy, psychological, metaphysics, etc.). Her mission is to reclaim Truth from relativism and error, starting with the church.
The book begins with a simple definition of worldview and a commentary on the importance of worldviewish discussions. A worldview is the mental map of reality which we use to make judgments, judgments of value, morality, ethics, etc., and in our culture, any worldview which claims absolute authority is inherently evil. The base of that claim is determined by one’s epistemology, so you could say Pearcey’s entire argument is for a thoroughly Christian and holistic epistemology—meaning, a view of Reality which upholds absolute truths based on an Absolute Being who supports all of Life. The principles or values or standards that come out of that Reality is what we call Truth, and if Truth is to be True it must reflect that ultimate Reality, otherwise it isn’t really True.
This seems like a “given,” but in our culture common sense is no longer a given. We have inherited a unique set of baggage that undermines Truth and logical thought itself. Pearcey uses Schaeffer’s image of a house to communicate the divide that has crept into modern thought, the dualistic epistemology which separates cognitive thought from spiritual feeling. Using that trope, she evaluates the major thinkers of history to determine where they land in that dichotomy, and while it is a simplistic overview, it’s a great example of her clarity of thought and humility to simplify the complex into the simple (a rarity in academia). The point of that review is to show the intellectual heritage of modern Christians who are riddled with dichotomies (like the divides between sacred and secular, mind and heart, reason and emotion, intellect and spirituality, etc.). If we do not shore up those divide, we lose the culture wars because we give away our minds to some degree of anti-intellectualism.
Another handy tool she uses in tracing the development of worldview is the trope of narrative, especially the three-part Biblical narrative of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Each of these pieces are present in every worldview and actually define its core values. Here again, instead of giving us a typical laundry-list of questions to use in identifying those core values, she humbly presents these three simple concepts for us to use in discerning truth from error. Everyone believes something about Creation (where we came from), about the Fall (why we are messed up), and Redemption (what hope we have for life after death, and attaining an utopia), and she uses that as a way of analyzing the digression of thought in Western Philosophy, leading us up to our postmodern period.
We Americans are in a difficult spot because we live in a country that possesses a worldview entirely opposite of the Christian narrative. The meat of Pearcey’s book is spent tracing the effects of Darwinism on America as the Enlightenment principles have filtered down to their logical conclusions in our puny postmodernism. History is a flow of causes and effects, and it’s the gift of a true intellectual to point out not only what we think but why, and where our ideas come from.
The climax of the book, I think, is in the way she treats the Evangelical church. The main idea she is seeking to communicate is why the church has accepted a passive anti-intellectualism and thus a cultural antipathy. She is able to tie in the previous discussion of Western Philosophy as it narrows into the Evangelicalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, from the Great Awakenings into the modern culture wars of sexual identity. Before we go to war for Truth in the culture, we must first get our minds straight, and that’s no easy task given the mess of current philosophy and religion.
As I said at the beginning, it’s popular and easy to throw stones at error, but difficult and rare-to-find to lovingly and humbly seek the good of another. Pearcey isn’t writing merely to critique but to equip. She says, “The best way to drive out a bad worldview is by offering a good one, and Christians need to move beyond criticizing culture to creating culture” (58). This idea of creating culture is what Schaeffer called the “Cultural Mandate,” the original commission given to Adam to subdue the earth, to tend it, and to fill it. Too often Christians forget the Creation aspect of their worldviews and focus too much on Fall or Redemption, standing back a safe distance from the dirty reality of life, castigating sin and evil and those who fall prey to it, and dreaming of a heavenly, “other-worldly” utopia. But it’s our commission, our most basic mission as humans, to make the earth good—its gardens, its art, and its people.
Engaging the culture as a practice is falling on hard times these days between the extremists on the religious right who are calling for “The Benedictine Option” or some other form of monastic withdrawal, and the extremist religious left who have bought into the secular worldview of today and no longer stand for Truth, accepting so-called Christian homosexuals and a seeker-friendly come-as-you-are gospel. Both views have some element of truth, but, again, both fall short of making sense of total Reality. Somewhere in between extreme devotion to God and extreme love and acceptance of the sinner is a Gospel that says God loves the sinner but also condemns Him. That says man is good but also evil. That says the church is to love but also to discipline. Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the balance Jesus gave to his disciples when he commissioned them: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).
I think what should be done in the culture wars is impossible to actually do. The ideal we are to strive for is truly that—an ideal—and that causes some to take the easy way out, to accept as Truth only a half-picture of Reality (as the Benedictine group who have elevated purity over engagement, or the trendy Evangelicals who elevated engagement over purity). Both have lost a vital element to the Gospel and have reduced the meta-narrative of Redemption to mere Amish separation or country-club ethics. We need the courage to open the arguments anew and find peace in the paradox. While it is impossible to completely do the mission of God (because we are fallen and ineffectual servants of the Truth), it is our mission. We are to be faithful, and that means we are to be engaging, regardless of the outcome.
The Lord Jesus spoke directly to this issue of cultural engagement in John 17, during his high-priestly prayer. There he prays for his disciplines to be strong so they could go into the world to be salt and light. Typical American Evangelicals are ill-equipped to engage thoughtfully because they are, well, American Evangelicals. We possess a worldview that is anti-intellectual, spiritualistic, emotional and sensationalist, and riddled with dualisms (not the least of which is emotion over reason). What it takes to reverse those faults in our personal worldviews is typically the very thing we don’t value. An anti-intellectual Christian isn’t going to find out the error of his ways because that requires intellectual effort, and since He has a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows him to bypass the great discomfort of intellectual effort, we’re faced with a classic Catch-22.
Moving away from the individual, the church is commanded to engage the culture and provide alternates to every viewpoint. That requires a lot of effort intellectually, to be sure, but it also requires a love for others, a love that will bear their burdens, take on their intellectual and worldview errors and seek answers. So becoming equipped to critique worldviews is just the first step to becoming an effective Christian, able to truly be salt and light in more than pathetic, judgmental, moralistic ways. As Pearcey’s tagline states, the goal of American Christians at this time in history is to liberate Christianity from its cultural captivity. Once we do that, we can finally fulfill the commission we’ve been given and preach a Gospel that is about more than just personal sin and morality.
Pearcey’s book is a must-read for American Evangelicals because in it she gives the greatest gift of all: the knowledge of the Truth about ourselves. If we are to effective in ministering the Gospel to the world, we need to first understand our own baggage and second understand their baggage—then we can move forward wise as serpents. In the process, Lord willing, we will develop the deep humility which only comes as a by-product of such deep thought and time staring in the mirror, and become loving and innocent as doves. The path ahead is tough, but as Jesus said, broad is the way that leads to destruction, and afflicted is the way to life. If we are to be fully human, true ambassadors of God, why would we expect the most important sphere of battle to be easy to prepare for? God’s will is for us to communicate Him to the world, and that means that we must become skillful and effective at engaging the culture. We don’t know the plans God has for us, but this we know: the meaning of life is in fulfilling our purpose, and that begins with learning what we were created for, what caused us to be so messed up, and how God intends to fix it all. God is out to do more than give you eternal fire-insurance, and Pearcey is a great help toward finding out what exactly that is.