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Worldviews? Meh! Let's talk History

It has become quite fashionable for believers to speak of having a "Christian worldview." For a time, not so many years ago, to have an opinion about a "Christian Worldview" (please note the quotes), was a badge that said, "I have a better philosophy than you." Soon more and more believers caught on to this little phrase and everyone began to repeat this like a magic password, "worldview," until it simple fell into cliche.

Now, the use of the word is so commonplace its significance has all but disappeared. This is especially true since more often than not, the person using the word is not really speaking about a worldview at all. Too often the idea of a "Christian worldview" is used to refer to a certain philosophy or a point of belief far removed from the central tenant of that person's foundational perspective on the world. Speakers and writers use the phrase to mean they hold to a high view of Scripture, or they believe in God's providential care of creation. Or worse, to have a Christian worldview simply means the speaker holds to a moral standard that somehow is derived from the Bible.

None of these, however, go deep enough to be considered an actual "worldview," at least not with the meaning the phrase was originally intended. The discussion of those questions happens four or five levels of thought above and beyond a true worldview.

A true worldview should be the foundational starting point for critical thinking. A viewpoint on truth, how it is derived, how it is determined, and from whence it comes. A worldview goes deeper than philosophy and comes before philosophical questions can be addressed. A worldview is more closely linked to the foundational, faith-assumptions with which we begin when we enter into thought and reflection on reality.

What is reality? What is truth? How can we know? These questions may seem foundational, but they still do not go deep enough to get to the core of our worldview. And each of us has a worldview of one kind or another. To reflect on a true worldview is to consider the very first assumption we must make about the nature of reality before we can even get to these other questions about reality. And everyone who has a worldview, which means everyone, makes that first assumption by faith, because it is the first thought to be considered in the investigation.

So instead of talking about worldviews, let's talk about history. Or more specifically, how we should interpret and understand history. That gets us closer to the center of our "worldview."

We each have a way to interpret history.  In Reinhold Niebuhr's classic, Faith and History: A comparison of the Christian and modern views of History, he navigates the intricacies of classical, modern, and Christian views of history, showing how each balance immanence and transcendence while delineating human responsibility in the face of divine sovereignty or simple randomness. Through the discussion, he shows clearly just how strongly the modern view of history is based on a belief in the forward progress of reason and rationalism to redeem humanity. Many others have since made the same point, that since the enlightenment, modern historiography has become positivist, with the belief that continual progress will be made in philosophy, technology, and politics as mankind moves towards a brighter future.

More recently, Polish philosopher and politician Ryszard Legutko has produced a challenging work, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, in which he defends his thesis that the former communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union and Western democracies all share the same view of history. (For a wonderful summary of this book, see the review offered by The Gospel Coalition.) In short, both free democracies and Marxism share a positivist view of history, in which man, with his nearly infallible reason, is directing history towards a Utopian future. The two sides want to get to the same goal, they just have chosen different paths to achieve it.

Legutko's main premise is a significant warning for evangelical believers in Europe and North America.

And to take this thought a little further, I would suggest that in the current American political experience, conservatives and liberals both share a common historiography that undergirds their unique and apparently disparate political agendas. Certainly the left and the right in America have chosen conflicting paths for progress, but they both believe in an ideal goal to which they seek, and that goal involves the progress of human history and human thought towards a higher and more-perfect state.

So what? What difference does it make if the left and right are seeking to achieve higher human ideals through such conflicting means? Well, my point is that both sides have extremely unbiblical views of history. Neither political side views the world, its past, present, or future, in the way Scripture presents it. And if nothing else, Scripture offers us God's interpretation of history.

Consider the history of creation. God made man in his image, that is, man was created with the goal of ruling as God's representative within creation. But man had a choice, and decided to rebel against the creation order. God then initiated his plan for our redemption, and He chose to work that plan within and through human history, leading up to the savior, Jesus the anointed messiah.

To bring us this redeemer, God chose a people, protected them, blessed them, redeemed them, instructed them, provided for them, and made covenant-promises to them. But their history resulted in more rebellion, which led to a broken covenant and exile. Just as Adam was exiled from the Garden, Israel was exiled from the promised land. Even God's chosen people, with God's laws and God's promises as a guide, could not make history work towards a Utopian end. They rebelled and failed.

God still loves them and is still keeping his promise of redemption, but the Babylonian Captivity, which is central to understanding old Testament History, shows us that no amount of human reason, willpower, or might will work in man's favor as history unfolds. Left to ourselves, we will always fail. We are doomed.

This is a biblical view of history. Human failure. Our only hope is the redemption that Jesus offers us as the rightful King of kings and Lord of lords. Any other view of history, including the modern view that mankind can advance on a wave of technology, growth in knowledge, or progress in morality, will only lead away from the necessity of finding redemption in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Having a biblical view of history helps us better understand what we mean by a worldview.