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In Defense of Viewing the World

A lot has been written in recent days regarding Christian worldview analysis as relates to Christian classical education, and obviously, the thing to do in the midst of a cacophony is to chime in with another voice.

It all started with Rod Dreher, who wrote an article about the failures of Christian worldview education in which he responded to Joshua Gibbs’ plenary address at the recent conference of the Society for Classical Learning. Mr. Dreher’s article prompted challenges by, among others, Doug Wilson and Gregory Shane Morris. Then at the end of last week Gibbs published an article here at the CiRCE website that I find worth addressing.

His article makes two primary assertions. The first is that, in educational practice, “worldview” itself differs from “worldview analysis,” particularly when applied to literature study. Instead of studying a masterful literary work with wonder and honor as a source of wisdom and virtue, worldview analysis treats literature as fodder to instill within students a Christian worldview. It teaches them to evaluate any given work by the language and standards of worldview analysis. In this, I heartily agree. As such, worldview analysis degenerates into just another form of reductionist criticism, imposing an ideology onto the great tradition of the humanities.

A proper Christian worldview does not reduce the mystery of being human; it takes us deeper into it.

Gibbs points out that “worldview” is a relatively new idea in human history, and nowhere is that more evident than in this ideological approach to literary and artistic analysis, which is a product of Enlightenment rationalism fused with modern pedagogical practices that identifies conformity to a desired opinion as the goal of teaching. Even if the opinion is true, as we certainly believe Christianity is true, this approach is bad scholarship and bad religion, he claims. Ideology has no place in a humanities classroom, because both the humanities and our faith speak for themselves. We do not study literature to refine our Christian worldview; we study it to become more human, which is already piety in action. If the experience refines our worldview, well and good, but that is not the primary goal, which is the nourishment of the Imago Dei through goodness, truth, and beauty.

So far, so good.

But Gibbs’ second assertion is where I diverge. He claims that proponents of Christian worldview put too much emphasis on the importance of presuppositions. This is a crucial point, because it undergirds everything about the claim that we both make: that we should study the humanities, particularly literature, on their own terms rather than through ideological lenses. The reason we can do that is because we are Christians, and Christians see the world in a certain way. In a hostile culture, this is an endeavor under attack, and it behooves us to pay attention lest we forget that “Christian” is not a descriptor, but an identity. Capriciously enough, the goad that has dug most deeply under my skin in this debate is a question of grammar. Every writer and scholar has a soapbox, and this one is mine: the word Christian is not primarily an adjective. It is a noun.

A Christian is a person who lives by faith in the redemption of the world by Our Lord Jesus Christ. As such, Christians know the universal story of the world: creation, fall, incarnation, death, resurrection, reconciliation. This universal story is true whether we believe it or not, so every artifact the world creates tells this story whether it means to or not. Christians are simply the ones who recognize the story. This is a primary mission of both the worldview and the education of Christians: that we increase in holiness as we find the treasures of the universal story in everything. This is how Christians find Christ in pagan literature, The Crown, and good wine; because we view the world from the vantage point of being Christians. Christian worldview enables us to remember who we are as we encounter the world. If we fail to do so, we have no business reading pagan literature, watching The Crown, or drinking wine. The orientation of the inner life to our faith equips us to participate in the life of the world with discernment.

When Christians view the world intentionally, we read, for example, Cormac McCarthy and we find the fall of man, whereas a secular person reads it and finds despair. Our awareness of our own presuppositions as Christians matters here, because if we forget the universal story, we might, in spite of everything, find despair there. A proper Christian worldview does not reduce the mystery of being human; it takes us deeper into it. Developing a rich awareness of the universal story, which is the Christian worldview, is to remember what it means to be a noun-Christian so that we can orient ourselves to the mercy that is reconciling the world to God in everything. This is wonder. This is what Gibbs and Dreher invite us to see. That is what classical educators love to do. We know that there is something beyond us that is redeeming the world. We recognize transcendence in fallen things because we see beyond their frailty into the larger story.

To that end, I assert that practitioners within the classical education renewal should be free to discard Christian Worldview Analysis in humanities classrooms, but it has its place elsewhere. Theology, after all, is the Queen of Sciences, placed higher than literary and artistic endeavors in a classical education. But, as teachers, we must orient ourselves and our students to the way Christians view the world.

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