Many authors in the early part of the twentieth century dealt with the frustrated hopes created by the American Dream of prosperity for anyone willing to work hard enough to get it. John Steinbeck, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, felt and generated sympathy for those who could never quite fulfill the desires created by the drive for wealth and social standing. Steinbeck’s last finished novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, illustrates how the pursuit of that dream could actually lead an honorable man to turn from a simple life of integrity to one where he was willing to do just about anything to get what his wife, children, and the larger society told him he ought to want and have. The result is a powerful demonstration of Paul’s maxim that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6:10). In our materialistic society where many people think that they deserve all the material benefits that a culture driven by computerized gadgets has to offer, this novel is a significant cautionary tale, though Steinbeck lacks the Christian’s answers to the destructive power of materialism.
Racism involves assaults against the image of God in man, often to the point of denying the full humanity of those of another race. In modern American society, racism is decidedly unpopular. Politicians try to gain advantage over others by playing the “race card,” accusing the other side of racism whenever a slip of the tongue occurs or whenever anyone says anything that can be misinterpreted as racist language. Too often, however, politically-correct language masks what is in the heart rather than revealing it; what people say in unguarded moments often indicates attitudes quite different from those displayed for public consumption. Despite significant progress in the last fifty years, no one could seriously argue that America is now a post-racial country.
The issue is an important one for Christians, not only because of the biblical mandate to love one’s neighbor, but also because of the sad track record of the church on the issue in American history. The segregation of the American church remains in many ways a scandal. But the worst part of the problem is that Christians have all too often been defenders of racial bigotry. While today such attitudes are written off as the province of ignorant rednecks, in the nineteenth century many moral and upright Christians seriously attempted to argue from Scripture that blacks, in particular, were inferior to whites. Thus we should note that the arguments below were not simply advocated by crackpots from the lunatic fringe, but have been seriously advanced by competent biblical scholars in the past. We will approach this subject by focusing on arguments used by Christians and taken from the Bible on both sides of the issue.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS FOR RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
• The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27) – Probably the best-known passage used to support racism, it has been directed explicitly against blacks, and thus became a defense, first of slavery, and later of segregation. The incident itself is a peculiar one. Noah plants a vineyard and partakes of the fruit thereof, getting himself thoroughly drunk in the process, so much so that he lies down naked in his tent and dozes off. Ham sees his father’s condition and tells his brothers, who back into the tent with a cloak and cover Noah with it. When Noah recovers from his hangover, he becomes furious when he finds out what Ham did and issues a horrible curse, condemning Ham’s descendants to perpetual servitude to the descendants of his brothers. This raises all kinds of questions.
• How is this passage used to justify racial discrimination? According to Genesis 10, the Table of Nations, which describes the regions of the world where the descendants of Noah settled, the children of Shem settled in the Middle East, those of Japheth settled in Europe, while the children of Ham settled in Africa. Thus, the conclusion goes, Africans are the descendants of Ham and have been cursed by God, through Noah, to perpetual servitude, thus justifying the enslavement of millions of Africans by Arabs, Europeans and Americans. This interpretation encounters several significant problems, however.
• Who is cursed? Strangely, Noah’s fury at the behavior of Ham leads him to curse, not Ham, but Ham’s son Canaan. Note that, of the sons of Ham, Canaan was the only one who did not settle in Africa. Thus the curse has nothing to do with Africans at all, but sets the stage for the later wrath of God against the Canaanites when He ordered Joshua to exterminate them during the Conquest.
• What did Ham do that was so bad anyway? The whole situation seems rather innocuous, and critics have struggled to explain the precise nature of Ham’s sin. Some have suggested that he ridiculed his father before his brothers, not showing him proper respect, or criticize him for not covering Noah up himself. One of many explanations I have encountered over the years proposes an interesting solution, though it does not by any means answer all the questions in this difficult passage. This commentator pointed out that the phrase translated “saw the nakedness of his father” is a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf. Leviticus 18:6-19; 20:17-21). If this is indeed what Genesis 9 is saying, Ham was actually guilty of the homosexual rape of his father while he was in his drunken stupor, and thus Noah’s rage and the resulting curse were totally understandable.
• If this is true, why did Noah curse Canaan rather than Ham, who had been the perpetrator of the nefarious deed? The only possible suggestion I can make here is that Canaan, alone among the sons of Ham, shared his father’s perverted proclivities, and thus Noah did not want the curse to fall on the innocent sons. One possible substantiation for this interpretation is the later history of the Canaanites, who were surely among the most sexually perverse civilizations ever to leave their blot upon the earth. They openly practiced male and female ritual prostitution in their worship, along with child sacrifice and other abominations. In any case, however, the so-called “Curse of Ham” cannot be used to support racial discrimination against Africans.
• The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) – This became an argument to justify segregation after the end of slavery in America. The gist of the argument is that, as a judgment against man’s arrogance, God separated the different peoples of earth by confusing their tongues (resulting in the population distribution recorded in Genesis 10). Unlike the marriage ceremony, which uses the words of Jesus in saying, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6), racists here argued, “What God has separated, let not man join together.” If God intended man to live in separate groups (Acts 17:26), is it not rebellion against God to try to bring them together again? Did He not intend for them to live apart so they would no longer become arrogant and rebel against Him? Note the following:
• If God thought separating people into distinct groups would prevent rebellion, He was sadly mistaken. Clearly this is not the case, and one might even argue that segregation is just one more pathetic example of man’s infinite creativity in rebelling against God.
• Pay attention to the basis on which people were separated – it was language, not race. In fact, one might easily argue that races arose following this division of peoples as certain groups lived in geographic isolation and recessive genetic traits emerged and became dominant, producing what we know today as secondary racial characteristics (which occupy only a very few of the myriad genes in human DNA). Have you ever heard anyone argue that an English-speaking man should not marry a French woman because the mixing of language groups would involve rebellion against the judgment of God?
• Besides, the judgment of Babel was reversed at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). Here, instead of confusing the tongues of a linguistically-uniform people, God took a linguistically diverse people and brought them together so that they could all hear and understand the same speech. God’s redemptive work overcomes the consequences of His judgment of human sin.
• The Segregation of Israel (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4) – In these passages, God clearly orders the Israelites not to marry people from the surrounding nations. These passages have often been used not only to justify segregation, but also to support the prohibition of miscegenation – the intermarriage of people from different races. Yet several highly-visible interracial marriages are clearly blessed by God in Scripture. Joseph married an Egyptian princess (Genesis 41:45); when Moses married a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1-2), Aaron and Miriam put up strong objections, but God silenced them, even to the point of punishing Miriam with leprosy; Rahab was a cursed Canaanite from Jericho, but she married an Israelite man, became the mother of Boaz, and is found in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5); Boaz, in turn, married a Moabite girl named Ruth, who was the great-grandmother of David and also appears in the Messianic line (Ruth 4:18-22; Matthew 1:5). What is the answer to this apparent contradiction between the commandments of the Old Testament and the actual practice of God in dealing with His people? The obvious solution is that the prohibition of marriage with the surrounding nations had no racial intent at all, but rather a religious one; God was not prohibiting interracial marriages, but interreligious ones (cf. II Corinthians 6:14-18). As long as someone like Rahab or Ruth became a worshiper of the true God, she could be readily accepted into the nation.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
Here we will look at three common arguments that make absolutely clear God’s hatred of discrimination based on race.
• The Unity of the Human Race – Human beings are ultimately one, both on the basis of common descent (Genesis 3:20) and common plight. All people are alike in being created in God’s image and being lost in sin. If you go back far enough, we are all related.
• Jesus’ Treatment of the Samaritans – Perhaps the most notorious example of racism in the Bible is the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans originated following the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The policy of the Assyrian conquerors was to prevent rebellion by mixing populations; they thus took many people from the Northern Kingdom and scattered them throughout their various conquered territories and brought in people from those places and forcibly settled them in Israel. The eventual result was intermarriage, along with a mingling of languages and religions, i.e., the Samaritans. The Jews looked down on and despised the Samaritans as ethnic half-breeds and followers of a mongrel religion (they worshiped in a temple on Mount Gerazim in Samaria – see John 4:20 – and practiced religious rites that combined Jewish and pagan elements), while Samaritans hated Jews because they were despised by them. Animosity was so great that Jews going from Judea to Galilee and back again would walk forty miles out of their way to avoid going through Samaria, which was located between the two.
Jesus, however, pointedly ignored this common prejudice and did everything He could to oppose it. In His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (John 4:1-39), He took the road through Samaria, asked an immoral Samaritan woman for a cup of water, and preached the Gospel to her and her neighbors; when He was asked what it meant to love one’s neighbor, He told a parable about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) – surely an oxymoron in the minds of His listeners; when Jesus healed ten lepers, Luke goes out of his way to point out that the only one who returned to thank the Lord was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19); even when Jesus was rejected by a Samaritan village He visited, He responded with mercy while His disciples were quite eager to call down fire and brimstone upon them (Luke 9:51-56). Later, when the Gospel spread beyond the Jews in the region of Jerusalem, the Samaritans were among the first to be evangelized (Acts 8:4-8), as Jesus intended (Acts 1:8).
• The Universality of the Gospel – We have already noted that Pentecost broke down the barriers between people resulting from the sin of man and God’s judgment of that sin. The Church is intended to bear witness to this removal of sin-caused barriers – Ephesians 2:11-18 speaks of Christ breaking down the wall between Jews and Gentiles, while Galatians 3:28 speaks of other artificial barriers as well that no longer exist in the Kingdom of God. The Church should thus be a place where prejudice and favoritism are unknown (James 2:1-9). This was a difficult task for the early church, as Peter’s vision of the sheet lowered from heaven in Acts 10:9-16 illustrates and Paul’s later confrontation with the same apostle in Galatians 2:11-14 confirms, as it is for the modern church. Progress has unquestionably been made in recent decades, but much remains to be done even though most barriers now are based more on cultural differences than on racial prejudice. The only difference that is of any importance at all for the child of God is that which divides the sheep from the goats, the Children of Light from the Sons of Darkness.
[This blog is excerpted from my Eternal Values for a Valueless Age]
I decided to celebrate the two hundredth literature study guide on the website by redoing the guide for my all-time favorite novel, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I have read the book at least a half-dozen times since I was in junior high school, but always in Lowell Bair’s excellent abridged translation (I discovered that, although it is a thousand pages shorter than the unabridged Modern Library version, it omits very little essential to the plot). I had always wanted to read the unabridged version, so this time I tackled it – all 1462 pages. I enjoyed it thoroughly and found that the themes of redemption, resurrection, and the futilityof revenge still struck a chord. Not surprisingly, the new study guide is more than three times longer than the old one. Though you may not be prepared to tackle the unabridged version in all its glory, I would heartily recommend taking the time to read Bair’s abridgement. By the way, this is not a good candidate for viewing the movie instead. The 2002 version starring Jim Caviezel does not come close to doing justice to the complexity of the plot, and even the 1998 French miniseries version starring Gerard Depardieu, which is generally quite good, deviates from the plot of the novel in a few ways that will disappoint the true fan of Dumas’ original.
The third and last of my chronological overviews of Scripture is now available from Planters Press. The Spread of the Gospel: A Chronological Overview of the New Testament Church After the Ascension completes the series the earlier volumes of which – The Greatest Life Ever Lived (an overview of a harmony of the Gospels) and The Road to Redemption: A Chronological Overview of the Old Testament – surveyed the other major portions of the Scriptures in chronological sequence. This final volume uses the book of Acts as a framework. Acts is treated verse by verse, and chapters on the other books of the New Testament are included where they fit into the time frame. Each chapter on the books of the New Testament includes an introduction, an overview of the contents of the book, verse by verse treatment of representative passages, and questions for study and discussion. The book may be obtained from Amazon or from the author at a cost of $19.95. Anyone who wishes to purchase all three books may do so for the special price of $40.00, obtainable only through the author; if you are interested, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pope Francis recently decided that capital punishment violates the Gospel and is never admissible because it attacks the inherent dignity of all humans, thus casting aside previous church teaching as outdated. This liberal pope, who has already shown himself to be soft on questions of biblical morality like abortion and homosexuality, is now rejecting another clear aspect of biblical teaching. Note the following:
• Capital punishment was mandated by God in cases of murder based on the inherent dignity of all humans – the fact that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 9:5-6). Thus human life is of great value. One who unjustly takes that life deserves to lose his own. Retribution is seen as justice, not vengeance. Scripture thus gives far greater attention to justice for the victim than humanists tend to do.
• Any attempt to use the Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13) against capital punishment is absurd given the fact that the next chapter enumerates six offenses for which it should be enacted.
• Concerns about the unjust administration of capital punishment are legitimate, which is why the legal system handed down by God included safeguards such as the requirement of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15).
• Part of the responsibility entrusted by God to the state is the use of the sword to punish evildoers (Romans 13:4), a power that Jesus Himself acknowledged (John 19:11), as did the Apostle Paul (Acts 25:11). These passages are particularly powerful because in both cases the state, in the form of a time-serving bureaucrat like Pontius Pilate and an insane megalomaniac like Nero, was acting unjustly. The remedy for the unjust application of capital punishment is not to eliminate it, but to carry it out in a just manner. Too often today, one gets the impression that the government exists to protect criminals from the society that has abused them and the system that seeks to hold them accountable for their deeds.
• One of the consequences of the Fall is that man became a violent being (e.g., Cain and Abel). Violence is therefore the result of sin and is now part of man’s sinful nature. When the Bible deals with the concept of violence, therefore, it does not take the simplistic humanistic approach that violence is always wrong. Instead, it recognizes that, because man is basically evil, those evil impulses must be controlled, and sometimes this requires violent actions against those who do evil, both as appropriate retribution and as a deterrent to future evil actions.
• Man’s sinful nature necessitates that he be held accountable for his evil deeds. Humanists, on the other hand, assume that man is basically good (contrary to their own evolutionary theory, which teaches “nature red in tooth and claw”) and needs to be reeducated or put into a healthier environment in order to change his behavior.
• Scripture assumes that people are responsible for the choices they make. To hear some defense lawyers tell it, today no one is considered responsible for his evil deeds; the fault is always laid at the feet of parental abuse, a horrible environment, poor education, psychological maladjustment, or some life-altering trauma.
Much more could be said on this subject, but the Pope’s recent comments cry out for a biblical response.
Much ink has been spilled in recent months about the question of immigration and how the complex problems associated with it should be handled. While I make no claim to presenting a solution to the question, I do believe it is important for Christians to look at the matter from a biblical perspective. In seeking a starting point for such a treatment, I have surveyed the passages in the Pentateuch that instruct Israel concerning the appropriate approach to strangers in their midst. We recognize, of course, that the Old Testament civil law was designed for a very different culture than the one in which we live, and that it was also designed for a theocracy, which is hardly our situation, so we should not expect that the laws found in the Old Testament can be directly transplanted into modern American culture. After all, the concept of legal or illegal border crossing did not exist in ancient Israel. We should expect, however, that the principles underlying those laws, which speak to us of God’s view of justice, should be applicable to all cultures in all ages.
The fundamental principle that is cited repeatedly in the Pentateuch concerning the treatment of strangers is that one law applies to all (Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 9:14; Deuteronomy 1:16). Non-Israelites who live among God’s people are to be subject to the same laws as native Israelites. This basic principle is worked out in a variety of ways.
• Strangers in the land are to obey the laws of Israel, including not working on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14), avoiding leaven during Passover (Exodus 12:19), and fasting on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29). They are subject to the same punishment as Israelites for moral violations such as child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), and illicit sex (Leviticus 18:26). They may participate in Israelite religious rites if they submit to circumcision (Exodus 12:48; Numbers 9:14), offer sacrifices properly (Leviticus 17), and undergo the appropriate forms of purification (Numbers 19:10).
• Strangers enjoyed all the benefits of living in Israelite society. They could participate in the celebrations associated with the Feast of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:11), the Feast of Booths (Deuteronomy 16:14), and the Sabbatical Year (Leviticus 25:6). They had access to the Cities of Refuge should they be responsible for an accidental death (Joshua 20:9).
• The Pentateuch also emphasizes the need to love and care for strangers. The command to love your neighbor as yourself occurs in the context of caring for strangers (Leviticus 19:9-18, 33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19), often accompanied by a reminder that the Israelites themselves were once strangers in Egypt. Strangers are not to be oppressed (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:14, 17), but are to receive aid if they are needy in the form of being permitted to glean in the fields (Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; cf. Ruth) and receiving funds from the tithes collected from Israelites (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:11-13).
• Some differences did exist. Strangers were not expected to keep all the dietary laws; they could eat animals that had died on their own (Deuteronomy 14:21), though they could not eat blood (Numbers 15:14-16). They also were not eligible to serve as priests (Numbers 16:40) or kings (Deuteronomy 17:15). All in all, though, if non-Israelites were willing to live as Israelites among the people of God, they could partake in the covenant with God and all that it implied (Deuteronomy 29:10-15).
While these biblical principles cannot provide all the answers we would like to the vexing problem of immigration, they should serve as a starting point for calm and reasoned discussion from a Christian perspective on a subject that has generated far more heat than light in recent days.
I have just added the two hundredth study guide to the Notes on Classic Literature page. The work I chose to play this auspicious role was William Shakespeare’s final tragedy, Coriolanus. Imagine, if you can, a renowned public figure, known for his wealth and accomplishments but totally lacking in political experience, who decides to run for the highest office in the land. The professional politicians, who know how to play the game and manipulate the media, are jealous of him and are concerned that he will undermine their power in the government, so they determine to destroy him by accusing him of arrogance, claiming that he is an elitist who cares nothing for the common people, promoting class warfare, and spreading the rumor that he intends to make himself a dictator. The man in question does himself no favors because he is highly opinionated and says whatever he thinks, no matter the consequences, and often lets his temper get the better of him. If any of this sounds the least bit familiar, you understand why the play, considered the most political of Shakespeare’s works, has frequently been performed or filmed by those with a political agenda.
Many scholars of comparative religions have compared Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus, pointing out the following similarities:
• Both were born into the dominant religions (Hinduism and Judaism) of the regions in which they lived.
• Both are said to be incarnations of gods (this is true for Buddha only in the Mahayana version of the religion).
• Both are said to have come into the world through miraculous births.
• Both suffered temptations by the Evil One before beginning their ministries.
• Both challenged the religious authorities (Brahmins and Pharisees) of their day.
• Both gathered a select group of disciples around them.
• Both lived the lives of itinerant teachers.
• Both challenged their followers to leave all and follow them.
• Both sent out their disciples to spread their teachings.
• Neither wrote down their ideas, which were recorded by their followers after their deaths.
• Both are worshiped as gods by their followers (again, this is only true of Mahayana Buddhism).
The differences, however, are far greater than the similarities, and illustrate key differences between Buddhism and Christianity.
• Jesus declared Himself to be God, while Buddha explicitly rejected such an identification.
• Jesus taught that He deserved worship while Buddha repudiated it.
• Jesus proclaimed His message to all who would hear, while Buddha restricted his to the select few who were able to follow the ascetic lifestyle he promoted.
• Jesus died a sacrificial death to save His followers, while Buddha died from poisonous mushrooms.
• Buddha claimed to show his followers the path to Nirvana by his example and teachings, while Jesus claimed to be the way of salvation, paying for the sins of all who believe in Him.
• Buddha taught a way of salvation by doing, while Jesus taught that salvation comes only by faith in Him.
[Excerpt from my Defending Your Shield]
Detective fiction is a relatively recent genre, the earliest examples of which are Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In later years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popularized this form of literature with his stories about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, as did Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Detective fiction may seem at first glance to be frivolous, light entertainment, but the entire genre carries with it certain assumptions that correspond closely to a Christian view of the world. In the August 30, 1974 issue of Christianity Today, Lionel Basney wrote an article called Corpses, Clues, and the Truth in which he made this very point. According to Basney, the detective story contains the following key elements, all of which a Christian can readily affirm:
1. The story is based on a genuinely evil act. Evil is real, thus so is good, and the two are in conflict with one another.
2. Right and wrong are absolute, and so is truth.
3. The evil deed is the responsibility of an individual, and he is accountable for what he has done; one is not free to blame social maladjustment or the result of an underprivileged upbringing, thus shifting the blame to the larger society.
4. “Be sure your sin will find you out” – There is no such thing as a perfect crime; the criminal will always make some fatal mistake that will lead to his discovery.
5. Sin leads to more sin – Like Macbeth with his murders, one must add sin to sin, lie to lie, and often murder to murder in order to conceal the original dastardly deed.
6. The detective, in solving the crime, uses his reason and the clues that come to light. We live in a rational universe, and the detective story could not exist without it.
7. The detective, in solving the crime, acts as the representative of and for the good of society, which benefits when justice is done.
8. Good always triumphs. Though this may not seem to be the case in the real world in our daily experience, we know that ultimately this is the case.
It is also worth noting that modern mystery writers have deviated from the classic pattern precisely in the areas outlined above.
1. Protagonists tend to be as unsavory as the criminals. Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character is a classic example of this, but is hardly the only one. Conflicted heroes seem to be the order of the day, and all are inevitably morally ambiguous at best.
2. This leads to questions being raised about who the “good guys” really are. Since the emergence of the rebellious counterculture of the sixties, often the villains are the authorities, while the crooks display some sort of honor among thieves.
3. Some have even gone so far as to question the existence of the rational universe that is at the heart of detective stories. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a good example of this. Eco was an unabashed postmodernist and set about to write a postmodern murder mystery despite the fact that it is set a medieval monastery. Though he named his detective William of Baskerville in homage to Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, he constructed a mystery in which the clues did nothing but lead the detective to wrong answers and where the truth was discovered by pure chance. To add to the postmodern flavor, he chose a title that has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot or its characters.
Such non-Christian approaches represent a poisonous deviation from a Christian perspective and have the power to influence the worldviews of those who read or watch them.
[Excerpt from my Thinking Inside the Box]
The concept of a worldview is unfamiliar to many, both inside and outside of Christian circles, but an understanding of it is vital in order to interact fruitfully with those outside the Christian faith. In order to do so, you must comprehend both your own worldview and that of the one to whom you are speaking.
What is a Worldview?
A worldview is, in simple terms, the spectacles through which a person understands and interprets reality. Someone who wears glasses or contact lenses sees everything around him through those curved pieces of glass or plastic; nothing enters his range of vision that is not filtered through the lenses in front of his eyes.
Our understanding of the world around us is like that. The spectacles through which we view the world consist of a set of presuppositions or assumptions about the outside world, ourselves, and God (if we believe in God). These presuppositions then determine how we interpret and interact with everything else. While these spectacles can be changed (think of getting a new prescription for your glasses), they can never be removed; you wear these glasses all the time.
Does Everyone Have a Worldview?
Unlike daily life, where some people have 20-20 vision and some need glasses, everyone wears worldview spectacles. Each individual has a basic set of assumptions by which he evaluates the ideas and information with which he comes in contact. The important thing to remember here is that there is no such thing as presuppositionless thought.
One of the problems that arises here is that most people are not aware of the worldview that colors their understanding of reality. They are used to looking at the world in a certain way and cannot imagine doing otherwise. If you were to ask such a person what his presuppositions are, he would be hard-pressed to answer because he doesn’t realize that he has any.
Worse yet, many people will vehemently insist that they operate without presuppositions. Such people believe that they look at the world in a neutral or objective fashion while insisting that Christians, because they believe in God, live by faith, and seek to follow the Bible, are biased. They thus assume the high ground intellectually while dismissing the credibility of believers. Such facile rejection of Christianity without even considering its claims cannot be allowed to stand.
Where Do Worldviews Come From?
Though in the final analysis all non-Christian worldviews come from man’s rebellion against God (see Romans 1:18-22), most people acquire their worldviews from their parents and other influences early in life. Because they have grown up in an environment where people look at the world in a certain way, they think it normal or natural to do so. Education also plays a major role in shaping worldviews; in fact, the American educational system has been in the business of altering the worldviews of students ever since the early part of the twentieth century when socialization became a big part of the educational process. Today, children in public schools are taught in an environment that conveys, either subtly or directly, that religion isn’t important and that truth and morality are relative. College campuses are even worse, with rampant political correctness enforcing certain accepted modes of thought while stifling the expression of Christian ideas and values.
Worldviews can change gradually as people learn to look at reality differently from the way in which they were raised. They can also change quickly and radically. For example, teenagers and college students rebelling against their parents and everything they stand for will sometimes profess ideas that are diametrically opposed to what they have been taught at home. The greatest means of drastic worldview change, of course, is conversion, where the Holy Spirit transforms the heart and mind (see Paul’s conversion experience in Acts 9).
Can a Worldview Be Proved?
By the very nature of the case, worldviews are not subject to proof, either rational or empirical. The simple reason for this is that a person’s worldview determines what he is or is not willing to accept as proof. Like Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), all thought must start somewhere; for him, the starting point was the assumption of his own existence, though other worldviews take other starting points.
For example, an Empiricist begins with the assumption that only what is discernible by the senses and their man-made extensions (microscopes, telescopes, etc.) is worthy of belief. He therefore dismisses out of hand any aspect of the supernatural (God, angels, demons) or non-material (the human soul or spirit). But can he prove that only what is detectable by the senses exists? Of course not, but he has ruled out any arguments concerning suprasensory phenomena because they do not fall within his presuppositions.
Can a Worldview Be Tested?
Does this then mean that we are lost in a morass of hopeless relativism? Because worldviews cannot be proved, must we conclude that one worldview is as valid as any other? Does this therefore rule out intelligent discussion, since talking with someone who does not share our basic assumptions about the nature of things is an exercise in futility? Not at all. Though worldviews are not susceptible to proof, they can be tested and compared on the basis of how well they meet the following tests.
The first test of the validity of any worldview is internal consistency. If someone professes to believe in a system of thought that contradicts itself, he is no better off than the inhabitants of Airstrip One in George Orwell’s novel 1984, who were taught to practice doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Secondly, a valid worldview must be consistent with human experience. For instance, if your worldview includes the belief that matter doesn’t exist, you should as a result be able to walk through walls, abstain from eating and drinking indefinitely, and get run over by a bus without harm. These, of course, along with an enormous variety of similar tests, simply do not work out very well in practice. Note, however, that this does not imply that tests of this sort are limited to sensory experience (or we would have to concede the game to the Empiricists). Consistency with human experience would also include such things as the reality of emotions and relationships, which certainly extend beyond the realm of the material.
The third test of a valid worldview is that one must be able to live it out in practice. If a set of presuppositions is no more than theory, it means nothing at all. For instance, one may profess to believe that right and wrong do not exist, yet such a person cannot go through a single day without making value judgments about his own ideas and behavior and those of others. Being able to practice what you preach is of the utmost importance here, though we must acknowledge that no one achieves perfection in living out his or her beliefs.
[Excerpt from chapter one of Defending Your Sword]