Worldviews and Christianity: What the Loss of the “Culture War” Means

It is Sunday, but I didn’t make it to church this morning. When we lived in Las Condes, our church, San Marcos, was just a few bus stops down the road. Now, it’s over an hour away, and the public transportation is far less convenient (not to mention the six block walk from the metro station at the far end).

And my wife has been a bit under the weather, so I’m staying here. Some of it might be the pollution. Libertarians won’t like the idea, but Chile is likely to need something akin to a Clean Air Act before long. Or the city of Santiago, at least.

Went to church last week. Left with enough to think about for two weeks.

It was in high school that I became conscious of the reality of worldviews, as we philosophers sometimes call them: comprehensive theories or accounts of reality, merely incompatible in some areas but incommensurable in others. (Incommensurable means: unable to be translated into, or brought under, a single vocabulary and/or set of standards and/or values that will resolve core conflicts to the satisfaction of all who disagree. The term originates with mathematics: the incommensurability of rational and irrational numbers. Incommensurability in scientific vocabularies was my dissertation topic.)

Worldviews. The idea simply sat in my brain for a very long time.

The two clearest and closest-to-home examples of worldviews in conflict are Christianity and materialism, leaving aside for now variations within each. The first finds its ground of reality, knowledge, and valuation in a transcendent God as Creator, on which all reality ontologically depends, is inaccessible to the human senses (unless He chooses to make Himself accessible), and whose reality and nature is only partially graspable by the finite human mind. The second limits reality to the physical universe in space and time. Only science and reason, materialists insist, provide reliable knowledge of reality (reliability includes continuous revisability). The latter, they contend, is the key to progress. The former is not.

Christianity offers a transcendent ground of moral values intended to supervene over other sorts of values: aesthetic, epistemic, and economic. Materialism reduces all valuation to the status of cultural artifact: human animals evolved morality in culture because these have survival value. Western civilization as it developed was fundamentally (although not exclusively) Christian. Some writers credit Christianity for the very idea that the universe is both ordered, not random or chaotic, and intelligible to the human mind: ideas that does not exist everywhere. Without them, there is no motivation to do science. Gradually, beginning in the 1700s, continuing through the 1800s and culminating in the 1900s, various forms of Christianity were replaced by various forms of materialism. Materialism is essentially the guiding philosophy of Western civilization at present, and its prevalence I see as one of the main reasons U.S. civilization is failing. I don’t see this as the only reason civilization is failing but it is the most important one: it has precipitated an utter vacuum in morality and in culture, as materialism cannot produce a moral system with teeth in it: where there are actual rewards for virtuous conduct and decisive penalties for heinous conduct. There are only legal controls which are easily circumvented with money and personal contacts. Ask the Clintons. Do not expect an honest reply, however! Ordinary people can circumvent what they perceive as inconvenient rules. The 11th commandment: thou shalt not get caught!

Thus the materialist worldview enables, and encourages, an ethic of cynical opportunism, especially in one’s business or financial and personal affairs; and also especially in government. Both are about power and control over resources — and over people. What does all this have to do with the now-lost “culture war”? Plenty, as it turns out!

The “culture war” is essentially a conflict between the idea that there are universal standards of merit, quality, etc., in literature, philosophy, and so on, and the idea that all standards are local and history-specific, or group-specific. Since at least some standards are history-specific, there is just enough truth in the latter idea that materialism has enabled it to catch on and rise to domination in academia. To those who defend the latter, the former idea, of universal standards, is a delusion — an objectification of the local or group-specific (the group being straight white Christian males, of course). Just yesterday I encountered the strange idea that reason itself is a straight-white-Christian-male construct. The “philosopher” being interviewed apparently doesn’t realize the racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.., implications of his pronouncement (he’s a white male): other groups are incapable of using reason and so are fundamentally nonrational or irrational (take your pick: the position is not clear enough for decidability).

All this is somewhat beside the point. As far as the “culture war” goes, it is clear that Christianity has largely missed the boat. It missed the boat long before the ongoing clash began to be called that. Christians sat on the sidelines during the early civil rights movement, the early women’s movement, issues involving poverty, those involving the environment, and so on. Those arose because of a genuine sense of injustice, or in the case of the last, that commercial products (e.g., pesticides) were, as a matter of objective fact, damaging other species and ecosystems themselves in the name of profitability.

Christians, at one level, what we might call “Christianity of the masses,” were more worried about whether it was sinful to have a beer, go to dances, etc. “Life application” ministries which dominated in many churches trivialized Christian teachings. At another level were those who read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, became obsessed with the “End Times,” and expected they would be Raptured any day now! They wouldn’t have to worry about it, as Planet Earth went through seven years of Tribulation! (A real eye-opener on this subject for me was Gary DeMar’s Myths, Lies & Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians 2004, although I’d dissected the insidious influence of Scofieldism on Christianity several years before.)

Secularists thus did all the heavy lifting, as it were, trying to make this world a better place, and naturally every one of those movements eventually went off course. Now their dark sides are on display for all today, just as the dark side of capitalism is on display for all to see. Whether your politics are “liberal” or “conservative,” whether your economics are capitalist or something else, if you combine them with materialism and its failed attempt at a secular ethic, whether based on utility or simply on money, what you get will eventually self-destruct.

The victors in the “culture war” are causing the various cultures that make up America to self-destruct. A few of us outsiders have figured this out. Others will, too, probably when it was too late. Christians, I predict, will not be “raptured.” But they are already being persecuted. They are even being physically attacked.

We saw the beginnings prior to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision in June, with business destroying legal declarations and then pronouncements that openly violate Christians’ rights under the First Amendment. I don’t need to rehearse all these details. But one upshot of last week’s thoughts: there is a sense in which Christian Churches had this coming, as the long term consequences of having dropped the ball long ago. Some of us were warning over twenty years ago that this day was coming. We were either ignored or dismissed as paranoid.

In case you haven’t figured it out, in the dispute between Christians and materialists, I stand squarely on the side of the Christians. If you’ve read this far and you can’t tolerate that, I am sorry for you — but I would suggest that you revisit your conception of tolerance. If you are honest, you might find it wanting.

But we are wanting as well, and I would never say otherwise. Today, sadly, we Christians are widely seen as narrow-minded, bigoted, hateful, intolerant, anti-intellectual, etc.

Secularists of whatever stripe see themselves as informed, open-minded, tolerant, progressive, etc. — even when behaving destructively. It is okay, in their view, to demonize and destroy those perceived as “intolerant.”

For my own part, I do believe the current state of affairs indicates that Christians need to get their own house in order, and be sure of themselves. If one reads the letters of the Apostle Paul and thinks in terms of context, who is he writing to? Is he writing to the Emperor or Rome, or to Roman authorities generally? No. He is addressing Christians. He says, for example, in I Corinthians 10: 6 – 12: “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolators as were some of them. As it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day 23,000 fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

Who is Paul talking to? Christians! Who is he referring to, who met with all these unfortunate consequences of bad behavior? Those who fell away, and acted no differently than unbelievers. One of the most striking things is how little Paul has to say directly to unbelievers, or about their practices. There was, after all, plenty of heinous behavior in the Roman Empire besides mere persecution of Christians: suppression of local peoples under the Romans’ heels, violent gladiatorial contests, and plenty of sexual misconduct. I Corinthians 5: 12 – 13: “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it is certainly your job to judge those inside the church who are sinning in these ways. God will judge those on the outside …”

This is not to say Christians shouldn’t engage the world. But they should do so from within full awareness of their worldview and what it requires of them: loving others, accepting responsibility including taking seriously the idea that when God gave us “dominion” over the world (Genesis 1:26) he meant respecting and caring for it, not despoiling and destroying it; and actually retaining the life Christ lived as a regulative ideal. There are themes Christians can glean from the progressives, many of whom are well-intentioned even if the fundamentals of their worldview were bound to steer them off course. Many progressives have a sense of community and of responsibility that is lacking in other ideologies, often just as thoughtlessly steeped in materialism as most progressivism.

It is too late, I think, for Christians to avoid open persecution in U.S. society, where the combination of progressivism, pseudo-tolerance, and hedonism now prevail. But it is not too late for us Christians to get our own houses in order, so that we do not live or act in ways Scripture condemns when trying to engage this world.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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