Faith and worldview, part 2 — the definition of faith

This is the second of a series of posts on worldview theory and implications for faith.

The first, an introduction, is here.

The third, on “Kingdom of God” theology, is here.

The fourth, on the role of the church, is here.

Part 2: On the definition of faith

In this section, I discuss some ideas about faith as world building. It should be noted at the outset that this discussion is specifically about worldview theory.  As such it will not touch much on basic beliefs, and it might sound like I’m discounting experiential issues of the Christian transformation.  I want to say at the outset that I am a believer in the divinity of Jesus, in His death and resurrection, and in His atonement for our sins.  These things are core beliefs for me.  However, they are not emphasized in this discussion of belief structure (which is fairly independent of specific beliefs) and it may seem like I’m discounting those beliefs.  I am not.

1) A definition of faith

1.1  Faith is choice

As I noted briefly in my previous post, building a worldview is an ongoing and complex process that involves a fair amount of give and take.  Our existing world view affects what information we accept, and how we integrate it.  At the same time, the data we receive can lead us to modify, or in extreme cases, reject our worldview.

So, let’s look at faith from a worldview perspective.  Faith, in this theology, is simply the conscious choice to build a worldview that accepts some basic premises.  Different faiths have different basic premises, some simple, and some complex.  One classic example is the “five pillars of Islam,” which states that (for Sunni Muslims) there are five things that a Muslim must do.  For Shia Islam, I believe, there are twelve.  There is great diversity of belief in Christianity, because there is inherent ambiguity in some surprisingly basic concepts of the religion, but there are a very few basic premises that almost all Christians believe (with the exception of social Christians, which I will discuss later).  These basic ideas are returned to over and over again during the two thousand years of Christianity.  It was outlined in the letters of Paul to the Romans and revisited in the Apostles’ Creed.  More modern discussions include “Real Christianity” by the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce in 1797, by the authors of “The Fundamentals” at the turn of the 20th century, and Mere Christianity by CS Lewis in the mid 20th century.  There are differences between these, but they are generally surprisingly similar. “Real Christianity,” in the words of William Wilberforce, consists of a very few concepts, as described below.

Faith is simply making the conscious choice to build and maintain one’s worldview in a way that accepts these basic premises.  A couple of very basic things derive from this:

A) All new information that one accepts into one’s worldview must be interpreted in light of these axiomatic beliefs.  Now, it might seem that this is difficult to do, or that it would require rejecting a lot of “real” information, but that it not so.  When atheists, for instance, insist that this or that particular “fact” is inconsistent with core Christian faith, that is never (in my experience) the case.  What they really are saying is that their interpretation of these facts and the way they incorporate it into their worldview is inconsistent with the Christian worldview.  This may be true, but it is only a negation of the Christian worldview if one first axiomatically (and tautologically) accepts that the Christian worldview is flawed.   This is discussed at greater length in part 2.

B) One must be very careful about adding things to the basic axiomatic issues.  One of the greatest problems that Christians have in dealing with challenges to their beliefs is that people have a strong tendency to accrete ancillary issues onto to the core Christian beliefs.  This is a particularity big problem for the Christian worldview because some surprisingly basic issues in Christianity are very ambiguous.  These include such basic “mysteries” as the nature of the Trinity, the exact nature of the incarnation of Christ, the exact nature of heaven and hell, and many other things.  One of the most frequent topics of Jesus’ teachings involve the “Kingdom of God,” but it is described almost entirely by allegory and analogy. Many Christians plant a flag on some of these issues and construct much of their worldview on it.  Because of this basic ambiguity, however, bitter disagreements can arise on the basis of what are, for all practical implications, inferences about God rather than axiomatic issues.  These added components create significant vulnerability when it comes to worldview threats.

1.2 The working out of faith is intentional world building

The key here is the intentionality of building a worldview.  There is the famous analogy that Jesus used when talking about His teachings.  As noted in Matthew 7:24-27 at the completion of His sermon on the mount:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

If one considers sand and granite, one will note that the building blocks of both are essentially the same — collections of small grains of rock, mostly quartz and feldspar.  The difference between sand and granite is not so much what it’s made of, but of how all those little granules are connected.  The analogy with world building should be obvious.  Both the person whose base of faith is sand, and one whose base of faith is granite are working with the same pieces of information and basic building blocks of a worldview.  The difference is how they are connected.  With sand, the parts are there, but they are not connected, and as such they cannot support each other — you can penetrate it with a finger.  With granite, the parts are strongly connected and fitted together to form a coherent whole.  And just like building a sound worldview, it’s done under challenges — heat, pressure, and time.

This conscious choice-based building of a worldview is faith. It is the mindful decision to sit down and do the work to fit together all of the pieces in order to build a solid structure.   It is the decision to intentionally interpret things in a certain light.   It is specifically *not* being convinced by some evidence that makes this choice trivial.  It is not fighting off all comers in some intellectual arena.  It is not “disproving” all other ideas.  It is making a choice.  This was the mistake of Thomas when he refused to believe in the resurrection of the Christ.  He had a choice to believe, and he chose not to.  Instead, he chose to maintain a different worldview until “forced” to change by receiving evidence acceptable to his previous worldview.

A few days ago, my wife and I took a vacation to North Myrtle Beach.  We were sitting on the balcony of our room one evening looking out over the beach.  We were talking a little about the difference between the antichristian position of the secular Democrats and the pro-Christian approach of the Republicans in the upcoming election.   We started talking about how important our faith was to us.  She turned to me and said “Have you ever thought we might be wrong?”  I said “I choose to believe we are right.”

As Joshua said to the Israelites (Joshua 24):

Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Notice that this is all about choice.  In the modern world, our choice is often between belief and disbelief in God.  In Joshua’s time, the choice was between a plethora of gods.  But faith is always about choice.

1.3 There is no “proof of God” that removes the need for choice.

It’s a choice for us Christians – but it is also just as much a choice for atheists.  They are just less likely to admit it.  It’s important to recognize that there is no way to “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God.  There is no way to “prove” or “disprove” the divinity of my Lord Jesus the Christ.  All the “facts” I have, and all the information I can get simply cannot address it.  Even the evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins admitted it.

From the link above:

Dawkins explained himself further by pointing to his book, The God Delusion, which contains in it a seven-point scale he created for people to evaluate their beliefs with. The number one on the scale means “I know God exists,” and number seven means “I know he doesn’t exist.” On that scale, Dawkins said, he is a six (though he half-jokingly increased that number to a 6.9 later on in the discussion).

“What I can’t understand is why you don’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that we can’t explain the world, universe [and] life,” Dawkins said to Williams.

“That is such a staggeringly elegant and beautiful thing. Why would you want to clutter up your worldview with something so messy as a God?”

Thus, for Richard Dawkins, his radical anti-theist worldview is based primarily on an aesthetic choice.

Within the context of a coherent Christian worldview, everything makes sense, and it becomes increasingly self-supporting.  But the same thing can be said of a well-constructed atheist worldview. Or a well-constructed Islamic or Pagan or Buddhist worldview.  A very interesting book from MIT press looked at arguments for and against the existence of God from a cognitive science viewpoint.  Their conclusion was essentially that because both the atheistic and theistic worldviews are based in untestable axioms, there is simply no way to “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God from an evidentiary standpoint.  More importantly, neither position was cognitively superior.  They conclude

We can now see why theists and nontheists end up with very different conclusions about what we can gather from the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs and, more specifically, about the intuitions that underlie natural theological arguments. Nontheists start from the assumption that the natural world is all there is and attempt to explain religious beliefs by appeal to everyday, natural cognitive processes. One of the challenges for the metaphysical naturalistic worldview is to explain why such beliefs are widespread if their referents (supernatural entities) do not exist. It also has to account for the enduring appeal of natural theological intuitions, such as the observation of design, or the apparent normative force of moral evaluative judgments. A promising explanatory strategy is to argue that such intuitions result from the normal workings of our cognitive faculties, which spontaneously lead us to recognize causes, design, and beauty. In this view, the inference to a supernatural reality is a mistake, a misapplication of intuitions that have evolved for a different context than the one they are applied in when we engage in natural theology. While these cognitive processes are reliable in general, they are unreliable when applied to metaphysical questions.

By contrast, theists begin with the supposition that God is responsible for the design of reality, including human minds. From this perspective, it is reasonable to state that our natural cognitive processes are working properly when they generate the intuitions that underlie natural theological arguments. If there is a God, and God wants humans to be aware of him, it seems plausible that he would make himself known to everyone and not just to those who engage in formal theology. The intuitions that govern our daily interactions with the world are reliable. In this view, it is likely that these intuitions are also on the mark when they point us to God’ s existence.

Taking into account their respective outlooks, it seems that both theists and nontheists reach reasonable conclusions and are justified in holding them.

(Helen de Cruz and Johan de Smedt.  A natural history of natural theology:The cognitive science of theology and philosophy of religion.  MIT press. 2014)

So, if you really can’t “prove” the existence or nonexistence of God, and you really can’t “prove” the divinity of our Lord Jesus the Christ, what do you do?

You make a choice.  You fish or cut bait.

2) It is reasonable to describe radical change of worldview as being “born again.”

We theologically conservative Protestants like to talk about being “born again,” and that gets a lot of ridicule by people who are not of faith or for those Christians who do not see it as the radical transformative thing it really is.  But really, being “born again” is more than “just”  “believing in Jesus.”  It is this radical and threatening choice to change worldviews.  Let’s review what Jesus says in the Gospel of John:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

And Paul in his second letter to the church at Corinth:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

This idea of death to one worldview and rebirth to another is part and parcel of worldview theory.   One of the things that humans have as a basic existential task is to deal with the fact that we will die.  No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we lose.  One of the purposes of worldview construction is to create some cognitive structure that will allow us to deal with our ultimate annihilation.

Christians like me deal with it by choosing to believe in life after death.  Some atheists do it by believing in the importance of long term impact on the world that lasts after death — in mentoring young people, making life better for those who follow you, etc.  Others create empires, become famous, or gain other kinds of notoriety.  In this sense, for instance, George Washington is “immortal” because of his lasting influence. Other philosophies, such as Taoism, do it by focusing on one’s integration into the world or universe.

In Bushido, death is integrated into life.  There is a  famous book by Yamamoto Tsunetomo called Hakagure, which is a series of reflections by a person raised in the tradition of the samurai.  He writes:

The Way of the warrior (bushido) is to be found in dying, If one is faced with two options of life or death, simply settle for death. It is not an especially difficult choice; just go forth and meet it confidently. To declare that dying without aiming for the right purpose is nothing more than a “dog’s death.” It is the timid and shallow way of Kamigata warriors. Whenever faced with the choice of life and death, there is no need to try and achieve one’s aims. Human beings have a preference for life. As such, it is a natural tendency to apply logic to justify one’s proclivity to stay alive. If you miss the mark and you live to tell the tale, then you are a coward. This is a perilous way of thinking. If you make a mistake and die in the process, you may be thought of as mad (kichigai), but it will not bring shame. This is the mind-set of one who firmly lives by the martial Way. Rehearse your death every morning and night. Only when you constantly live as though already a corpse (jōjū shinimi) will you be able to find freedom in the martial Way, and fulfill your duties without fault throughout your life. 

(Book 1, section 2)

He continues:

With regards to the way of death, if you are prepared to die at any time, you will be able to meet your release from life with equanimity. As calamities are usually not as bad as anticipated beforehand, it is foolhardy to feel anxiety about tribulations not yet endured. Just accept that the worst possible fate for a man in service is to become a rōnin, or death by seppuku. Then nothing will faze you.

(Book 1, section 92)

But regardless of the specific strategy, one function of worldview construction is to deal with this problem.  The idea, as I get it from my reading, is that in the back of all our minds is this ever-present awareness of death and mortality that we push away to some degree by our worldview construction.  Because one’s worldview represents the basic bulwark to keep our cognitive recognition of death at bay, then losing that worldview represents a victory of death.  In their discussion of “terror management theory” (TMT), Arndt, Cook, and Routledge note:

One of the core issues of existential psychology has long been how the human organism fashions a world of meaning in a reality of inevitable despair. As Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, Norman Brown, and many others have articulated, it is the despair of inevitable mortality that poses a unique psychological problem for a species with a biological proclivity for self-preservation. Terror management theory (…) advances an explanation of how people manage the concerns that the awareness of death engenders. 

People, however, are usually not plagued by the anxiety this awareness might be expected to engender. This of course makes a good deal of sense given our relatively productive functioning. We have after all been able to overcome anxiety to invent Slinkies, rubber-band balls, and Shoe-goo. The original articulation of TMT focused on how people manage the unconscious resonance of death-related thought by identifying with cultural beliefs and ideologies (cultural worldviews) that prescribe not only a meaningful and enduring conception of reality but also avenues through which the individual can obtain and maintain a sense of self-esteem within that meaning system …  In support of this initial reasoning, over 150 studies to date have found that after being primed with thoughts of their mortality (mortality salience; MS), participants show enhanced favorability to that which validates their worldview and increased negativity toward  that which threatens it (worldview defense).

Arndt, J., Cook, A., & Routledge, C. (2004). The blueprint of terror management: Understanding the cognitive architecture of psychological defense against the awareness of death. In J. Greenberg, S. L. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of experimental existential psychology (pp. 35–53). New York: Guilford.

Thus, when someone suffers the destruction of a worldview they have embraced it really is, in a cognitive sense, a death.  And when one adopts a radically different worldview it really is, in a cognitive sense, a rebirth into a different world — because one is not just reconstructing one’s worldview, one is reconstructing his or her place and meaning within it.  Jesus and Paul, far from talking in cartoonish primitive ways about what happens during the conversion experience by describing this as being “born again,” are instead foreshadowing what terror management theory posits to be fundamental issues of self-sense and cognition associated with worldview change.

Those of us who grew up in the church and were born again (also referred to as “saved” in many Christian traditions) at an early age are often somewhat bemused by the rather radical effects that salvation has on people who are born again later in life.  But  from a worldview perspective, it makes perfect sense.  We who were blessed with Christian families and who grew up in the church often managed to absorb a basically Christian worldview from birth.  When we were saved we did not undergo a radical worldview change.  Instead, it was essentially a formalization of what we had believed most of our lives.  I was saved when I was around eight or nine years old.  There was, thus, no particular change in my worldview upon my salvation; instead, my salvation represented a commitment to continue on the path I had just started.  (As an aside, this is not to say that it was *merely* a commitment.   Those readers who are not Christians must remember that the act of salvation brings other benefits, in particular the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the direct guidance of God into the process as necessary components.)

In contrast, someone who grew up with a very different worldview and who lived long enough to construct it in a manner where it was resistant to attack and accommodation undergoes a much more radical change — a “Road to Damascus” experience.  To radically change your worldview from, say, that of an atheist or vague deist to that of a conservative Christian is transformation that requires both the destruction of your previous worldview and the adoption of a profoundly different one.  The radical transformation of Kanye West is a recent example.

3) Some implications of this in the natural history of personal faith.

With this in mind, the idea of faith as a choice makes a lot of sense.  But more important, faith is work — it takes effort and intent to turn that sand into granite.

This also allows us to put some of the other things we see about faith into a cognitive model.  Consider three situations — the exploding mess that some converts become,  disappointing paste of a worldview that nominal Christians have, and the issue of apostasy.

3.1 The burnout of the new convert — the incomplete worldview

Let’s first look at conversion. Consider Jesus’ parable of the sower:

Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

When the disciples didn’t understand, Jesus spelled it out for them:

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”.

(Gospel of Mark, Chapter 4)

From a worldview perspective, this makes perfect sense again.  In particular, consider converts who become Christian later in life.  Their enthusiasm is boundless.  They have the answer for everything.  They have made the faith choice, and their new perspective is exciting.  The experience of the Holy Spirit is exhilarating.  But they haven’t done the *work* of faith — that of building those strong connections between the grains of sand, and of fitting all the pieces together.  Worse, because the connections that a coherent worldview is built on takes time and modification, the connections that do exist may be a bit slapdash and poorly or incompletely formed. Their worldview quickly changes from sand to a brittle crust, but that granite of the mature Christian is years away.  During this early period, it can become challenged before it can truly solidify.  If that happens, and there’s no mentor, pastor, or church to provide additional support, it can break apart and everything collapses.  There’s is a huge flame-out.

I remember as a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was this rise of young people who were living in the famous “hippie” culture but converted and became “Jesus freaks.”  They showed up at our church and were all filled with enthusiasm about Jesus, but they had no cognitive and intellectual foundation.  After awhile, the movement dwindled. Many new converts did the work and became mature Christians; they had an important effect on the course of Christianity in the 80s and 90s.  But many wandered away.  The problem is that enthusiasm is not structural strength.  It’s a little like marriage — the infatuation of early love is wonderful, but it’s not something that is sustainable.  It crumbles as you get to know your partner’s failings.  It falls apart as one discovers that successful marriage is work and compromise.  It erodes in the face of the challenges of finances, sickness, and age. The love of a couple that has been married for 40 years still can have flashes of that old infatuation, but at its base it is a very different – and much stronger — thing.  So it is with building a Christian (or any) worldview.  You have to do the work to develop the strength of structure to withstand challenge.

This is why I believe the church is so important. I will discuss this in a later post.  The church provides the worldview structural support that is necessary to get a spiritually young Christian through these early challenges.

3.2 The cultural/nominal Christian — accommodation and the secular worldview

3.2.1 Nominal Christians have a secular worldview

Worldview theory also provides a way of looking at the “nominal” Christian.  A nominal Christian is a person who generally accepts the teachings of a church and “believes” in Jesus in some casual sense, but whose worldview is essentially secular.  These are the people who tend to say that they are “spiritual but not religious” or who are not active in the church even if they attend occasionally.  Such an approach has been problematic for people of faith for the entire history of Christianity.  In 1797, William Wilberforce wrote the book “Real Christianity,” in which he distinguishes between nominal  or “cultural” Christians and “real” Christians.  Similarly, CS Lewis distinguished between nominal Christianity and “Mere Christianity” in his book by that name.

William Wilberforce said it well.  Bob Beltz “modernized” Wilberforce’s book in 2006, and did a wonderful job.  I will use his rendition of Wilberforce’s words.  In his introduction Wilberforce writes:

Before looking at the specific problems posed by what I am from here forward going to call cultural Christianity, I would like to address the problem of the faulty ideas many people have regarding the importance of authentic faith. You might think that if you consider yourself a “good” person and are against “bad” things, your faith is adequate. The fact is, you might not be a Christian at all but simply a moral person. You might understand the Christianity our culture has adopted without understanding what constitutes authentic faith. You might know some of the basic facts about Christianity but have no idea how those facts should apply to your life.

I hope you don’t think I am being arrogant or overly harsh on cultural Christians. Look at the facts. Do cultural Christians view Christian faith as important enough to make it a priority when teaching their children what they believe and why they believe it? Or do they place greater emphasis on their children getting a good education than on learning about the things of God? Would they be embarrassed if their children did not possess the former while basically being indifferent about the latter? If their children have any understanding of Christian faith at all, they probably have acquired it on their own. If the children view themselves as Christians, it is probably not because they have studied the facts and come to a point of intellectual conviction but because their family is Christian, so they believe they must be Christians also.

The problem with this way of thinking is that authentic faith cannot be inherited. When Christianity is viewed in this way, intelligent and energetic young men and women will undoubtedly reach a point where they question the truth of Christianity and, when challenged, will abandon this “inherited” faith that they cannot defend. They might begin to associate with peers who are unbelievers. In this company, they will find themselves unable to intelligently respond to objections to Christianity with which they are confronted. Had they really known what they believe and why they believe it, these kinds of encounters would not shake their faith one bit.

Wilberforce continues by looking at France during this period, where the French Revolution had transformed into the Reign of Terror:

I fear for the future of authentic faith in our country. We live in a time when the common man in our country is thoroughly influenced by the current climate in which the cultural and educational elite propagates an anti-Christian message. We should take a look at what has happened in France and learn a lesson from it. In that country, Christianity has been successfully attacked and marginalized by these same groups because those who professed belief were unable to defend the faith from attack, even though the attackers’ arguments were deeply flawed.  We should be alarmed that instruction in authentic faith has been neglected, if not altogether eliminated in our schools and universities.

(William Wilberforce (Bob Beltz, editor).  Real Christianity, 1797 (Belz interpretation 2006), Chapter 1)

This is as true today as it was 220 years ago.

Nominal Christians have not really adopted the Christian worldview.  What they have is a secular worldview which accommodates some Christian influence.  The Christian influence provides a convenient way of talking about some of the principles of the secular worldview, but it is nonetheless entirely secular.  This has been a cancer in “mainline” Christianity ever since it gained temporal power.  It was what drove Martin Luther to become a Protestant.  It is what caused religious scholars at the turn of the 20th century to write “The Fundamentals” (from which we get the term “fundamentalist”).

This was expressed well by the Dean of the National Cathedral in 2013 when the Very Rev Dean Hall spoke with the famous evangelistic atheist Richard Dawkins.  The Bishop turned to Dawkins and said “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in, either.”  As mentioned in the Washington Post:

He tells of sitting next to the renowned atheist Richard Dawkins at a dinner and discussing God. Hall told Dawkins, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.”

“That kind of atheism, though, is bankrupt. It’s like picking a fight with a cultural image no theologian would buy into. I don’t want to be loosey-goosey about it,” he says, “but I describe myself as a non-theistic Christian.”

And he goes on to expand on the concept:

“Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. . . . He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

It’s a lie, of course.  Jesus made very specific claims about Himself. These cultural Christians are doomed, because they are trying to accommodate two diametrically opposed worldviews — the secular and the Christian.  Those who say that they are not exclusive are those who have a secular worldview and are simply slapping a patina of Christian verbiage on it.

3.2.2 The addition of nominal Christianity onto a secular worldview represents an accommodation of traditional morality, but that morality is plastic with respect to cultural norms

The issue has to do with the concept of “accommodation” in worldviews.  Much of the worldview literature focuses on defensive mechanisms such as derogation of opposing views, inflexibility, denial, etc.  However, one surprisingly common method of defense is to accept those things that cannot be denied, but to incorporate them in a way that they do not actually threaten the core beliefs.  All Christians, to some degree, accommodate facts that are associated with secular attack.  A classic example is that of evolutionary theory, which I discussed in a previous post.

As one article notes:

The idea that accommodating beliefs may quell anxiety aroused by threats to those beliefs is not new. Indeed, some of the earliest cognitive psychologists, such as George Kelly and Jean Piaget, argued that this process is the engine behind all significant belief-change. Kelly (1955) maintained that people construct abstract representations of reality (a.k.a. worldviews; Becker, 1973) as part of a natural inclination to understand the world in order to anticipate future events. For Kelly, an accurate representation of the world is paramount, as significant errors could jeopardize the adaptive functioning of the organism. … Anomalous information that cannot be assimilated, however, represents a threat to the validity of the overall belief-system, creating a general sense of anxiety that signals that the belief-system is somehow in error. Classic theories of cognitive consistency (e.g., Festinger, 1957) are grounded in this same basic logic (see Gawronski, 2012). According to Piaget (1977), significant anomalies cause a state of cognitive disequilibrium (cf., Proulx, 2012), which produces anxiety and motivates a revision of the belief-system to more accurately capture the new information—a process that he called accommodation.

Although accommodation is often a necessary adaptation to novel information that cannot be assimilated by existing belief-structures, this process is not undertaken lightly. According to Block (1982), threatening information is approached cautiously, with a general attitude of “assimilate if you can, accommodate if you must” (p. 286). Likewise, Kelly (1955) argued that accommodation is as conservative as possible. Core constructs, which have multiple connections to other constructs and are thus central to the organization of the overall system (cf., Steyvers & Tenenbaum, 2005), are highly resistant to change. Modifications to these beliefs would lead to numerous inconsistencies with interconnected beliefs, causing a cascading threat to neighboring constructs and thereby necessitating large-scale changes throughout the entire network to maintain consistency and balance (cf., Heider, 1958). As such, accommodation ideally involves making changes to more peripheral constructs that lie on the fringes of the cognitive network and have relatively few connections to other constructs. According to Kelly (1955), “peripheral constructs are those which can be altered without serious modification [to the] core structure” (p. 483). Furthermore, when relatively central constructs must be accommodated, they will be changed in such a way as to minimize the spread of implicated inconsistencies.

An empirical illustration of accommodation can be seen in the work of Ahluwalia (2000), who studied attitudes toward President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. In this research, Clinton supporters who read difficult-to-refute evidence of his unethical behavior regarding the affair and lying to the grand jury under oath were compelled to downgrade their perceptions of Clinton’s morality and honesty. However, whereas this effect easily spread to influence perceptions of Clinton in other domains (such as compassion and leadership ability) among non-supporters, those who supported Clinton limited the impact of the affair to attributes that were directly related to his misconduct. Clinton supporters’ perceptions of his compassion and leadership ability remained unaffected by the information regarding his affair, and in some cases (such as intelligence), they even upgraded their perceptions in compensation  Thus, for Clinton supporters, whose worldviews were highly invested in Clinton’s overall ability to lead the country, the threat posed by the Lewinsky affair affected only relatively peripheral beliefs regarding his honesty and morality, but not core beliefs regarding his abilities as President.

Cultural Christians have a secular worldview that accommodates nominal Christian features in order to provide a convenient framework for certain basic beliefs, primarily about morality and social convention.  But, fundamentally, Christianity is not necessary for their worldview — it is a peripheral accommodation.  A more recent book describes this beautifully, describing a so-called “Post-Protestant” America in which social morality has replaced Christian morality.  For them, political redemption equates with spiritual redemption.

In America there has been a great deal written about the decline of Christianity and the church.  However, those same studies indicate that the proportion of devout Christians has not changed very much in a century.  What is happening is that cultural Christians are abandoning it because it has always been supernumerary.  It has been replaced with an almost identical secular morality.  The social advantages of church membership no longer outweigh the cost of the nominal commitment as society becomes increasingly antichristian.  There is now a social cost to being a Christian — one that nominal Christians are not willing to pay, but “real” Christians are.  In essence, the infamous “Church Lady” of the Saturday Night Live skits of the 1980s have been replaced with the “Karens” of the 2020s.

As Joseph Bottum writes in his recent book  “An anxious age : the Post-Protestant ethic and spirit of America”

But a contributing element is the emergence of a new class: the elites, as Christopher Lasch called them—a name that, as we have noted, took on a new life as a term of derision among conservative commentators. Even under an expansive description (Lasch seems at times to include nearly a fifth of the nation in the elite class), there’s something peculiar about the term. Not inaccurate, exactly, so much as nonessential. People [of the educated middle class] do not consider themselves elite, and the word has no bite when deployed against them. Yes, in obvious senses of educational credentialing and income—compared, say, with a single mother from the inner city, riding the bus to work as a hotel maid—they are comfortably in the upper tiers of America. But they do not feel themselves elite in any economic or political sense of real personal power.

What they do feel is that they are redeemed. Of course, that word, too, is not one they would use of themselves, but nothing else seems as precise. Going to church does not typically matter to them, for the churches have come to seem to them part of the social problem, and, anyway, church attendance is unnecessary for redemption. Belief in Jesus does not typically inspire them, for the nation’s strong Christians often appear to them to stand on the wrong side of the social divide, and, anyway, Jesus, too, is not needed for their salvation. What does concern them is the fact that they have awakened from the sleep of past ages and now see the evil, the metaphysical miasma, that is spread over civilization. They have been transformed—they “repent of our collective social sins”—and this transformation into the elect is the class marker by which the Poster Children recognize one another. In “the progressive regeneration of social life,” as Walter Rauschenbusch declared, “the fundamental contribution of every man is the change of his own personality.”

The consequent social resolution of spiritual anxieties, and the psychological bestowal of spiritual rewards, flows down exactly the channels one might predict after reading Walter Rauschenbusch’s contributions to the social gospel movement. The post-Protestants remain very Protestant in much of their spiritual feeling (leaving aside the fact that they long ago shed the dead weight of all actual Protestantism, as a distinct and theologically coherent form of Christianity). The old structures of community may have faded in America, but the post-Protestants have the benefit of a new class feeling to replace it. They have a vague and pleasant heaven as a cultural horizon—“always but coming,” in Rauschenbusch’s wonderful phrase—to give meaning to the future. They have a populated supernatural realm and a satanic reality to oppose with the existence of the Kingdom of Evil. And they have the self-esteem and confidence, the feeling of knowing they are redeemed, through their rejection of that metaphysical evil, which shows itself most of all in bigotry, militarism, the vulgar mob—in Rauschenbusch’s six sins of society.

An advantage of Christian morality in a practical sense is that we have two thousand years of learning how to deal with failure — a bad Christian is still a Christian.  Christian morality is demanding, but has an almost infinite capacity to forgive failure.  The scriptures are replete with statements to that effect — it is a given that we will fail to live up to our standards.  In contrast, the new secular social morality has not learned how to deal with the failures of humanity to be able to meet its demands. The excesses of the so-called “cancel culture” represent this failure to deal with failure in a responsible manner.  Any failure or relapse is “hypocrisy.”

The other problem with slapping a Christian patina onto a secular worldview is that these folk end up twisting Christian teaching into pretzels in order to accommodate the demands of the secular worldview.  This is most obvious in current culture with the approach that some “mainline” Churches are taking regarding homosexual marriage.  The Bible, the early Church Fathers, and two thousand years of teaching are consistent regarding the sacrament of marriage being between a man and a woman.  I recently listened to a pastor of a church as he attempted to convince his congregation to accommodate homosexual and polyamorous marriage.  It was a tour-de-force of dismissing, redefining, and ignoring the teaching of all of these in order to accommodate novel secular cultural demands.  (As an aside, this is not to say that I, as a libertarian, oppose the civil recognition of any kind of contractual relationship, including varying definitions of civil “marriage.”  However, it is absurd to pretend that these relationships are sacramental in the Christian religious sense, and it is profoundly intolerant to demand that we Christians change our faith to accomodate it.  It is also a rejection of a purely Christian worldview to accommodate these secular demands and pretend they are Christian.)

3.2.3 Maintaining the secular worldview removes many of the practical benefits

There are surprising practical earthly benefits of “Real Christianity” that lie in the construction of a mature Christian worldview.  Those who slap a Christian patina onto a secular worldview do themselves (and, of course, God) a disservice.  There is a huge literature on the practical benefits of faith, including lower long term mortality, less drug use, an amazingly lower suicide rate (in one study a greater than 70% lower rate in one cohort), and up to a 68% decrease in “deaths from despair” (e.g. combined metric of suicide, drug deaths, alcohol-related deaths, etc).  People of faith are more emotionally resilient to economic downturns and other life challenges. Youth who are people of faith do particularly well.  One study of adolescents found  “Compared with no attendance, at least weekly attendance of religious services was associated with greater life satisfaction and positive affect, a number of character strengths, lower probabilities of marijuana use and early sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners. Analyses of prayer or meditation yielded similar results..”  (See, for instance,  Chen Y, Koh HK, Kawachi  I, et al. Religious service attendance and deaths related to drugs alcohol and suicide among US health care professionals. JAMA Psychiatry. 2020;77(7):737-744. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0175,and  Chen Y, VanderWeele TJ.  Associations of religious upbringing with subsequent health and well-being from adolescence to young adulthood: and outcome-wide analysis.  Am J Epidemiology 187(11):355–2364,

However, these benefits accrue almost (but not exclusively) only to “true believers.”  So-called “casual” or “nominal” Christians tend to have more secular outcomes.  In the literature that explores this, it is often seen in the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” religiosity.  Many cultural Christians I know see these studies and argue that the benefits are not due to some divine intervention, but more due to social factors.  It doesn’t matter.  You can’t fake a worldview and get its intrinsic benefits.  And that’s true with any coherent worldview.  Reading about bushido and buying a sword at a flea market doesn’t make you a samurai.  Chanting a bit and parroting a few aphorisms doesn’t make you a Buddhist.  There is no shortcut to any of these.

The worldly benefits of faith do not accrue to pretenders.  From my perspective as a believer, it’s a twofer.  Not only are there psychological and behavioral benefits from the Christian worldview divorced from “real” communion with God through my Lord Jesus Christ, I *also* get the benefits of that communion in the real transcendent sense.  As an American I am spared the price that my brothers and sisters pay in communist, socialist, Islamic, and other countries who despise us and our faith.  But that cost may be coming to the United States as well, as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic party attacks churchgoers, vandalizes churches, destroys religious images and statues, and marches through the streets calling for the burning of churches.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.  Since nominal Christians don’t get many of the benefits of their “faith,” they are less tied to it, and more easily discard portions of it.  As such the truly  “Christian” part of their worldview inexorably shrinks.

This does not imply, by the way, that nominal Christians are deceitful in their self-description.  They believe that the patina of not-really-faith they have is what Christianity really means.  But it’s not.  Painting a rock pattern on a wooden wall doesn’t make it rock.  We as Christians are obligated to do the real work of building a coherent and complete worldview.  The accommodated worldview of the nominal Christian has a number of problems with self-contradiction, and with incompatibility with the basis of their supposed faith.  As Paul noted, if you don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the saints, then the gospels are meaningless:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Many of these nominal Christians do not believe in the divinity of the Christ, the resurrection, in heaven, hell, or even in sin itself except in the sense of having some vague aspirational guidelines.  Yet they firmly consider themselves “Christians” and take great umbrage when people like me don’t consider them “real” Christians.  There is a statement by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew regarding such folk:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Many ministers I have heard preach on this verse point to grifters and people who know they are false.  My personal belief is that these are unfortunate people who were cultural Christians who attempted to work out their secular morality and secular worldview by wrapping it in the flag of Christianity.  But it won’t work, and they will be surprised that their honest attempt to live up to the rules of their corrupted worldview is insufficient.

As CS Lewis notes in Mere Christianity:

We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centred on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When he said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment.

It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

(CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 4, Section 8)

These cultural Christians attempt to be ordinary, decent eggs.  They never really fish or cut bait. In the best case, they die before they hatch, and in the worst case, they go very bad indeed.

3.3 The apostate. — the problem of multiple magisteria.

A recurring problem in corporate Christianity are Christian leaders who spend years in the ministry and develop large followings, only to suddenly turn on their faith and renounce it.  This causes consternation and despair among their followers and delight among their detractors.  Recent examples include Marty Sampson of Hillsong, Jon Steingard of the Christian band Hawk Nelson, the minister Josh Harris, and others.  This is in distinction to those who are simply evil to start with, such as Jim Jones and Jonestown — I’ll deal with them in a different and much darker post.  Evil worldviews are evil, whether they make claim to Christianity or anything else.

Consider the statement by Jon Steingard.  He is the son of a pastor, grew up in a church, and was active in a music ministry.  But here’s the reasons he gave for announcing that he no longer believed in God (or more correctly, became an agnostic):

If God is all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil in the world?  Can he not do anything about it?  Does he choose not to?  Is the evul in the world a result of his desire to give us free will?  OK then, what about famine and disease and floods and all the suffering that isn’t caused by humans and our free will? If God is loving, why does he send people to hell?

My whole life people always said, “You have to go back to what the Bible says.”

I found, however, that consulting and discussing the Bible didn’t answer my questions, it only amplified them.

Why does God seem so pissed off in most of the Old Testament, and then all of a sudden he’s a loving father in the New Testament? Why does he say not to kill, but then instruct Israel to turn around and kill men and women and children to take the promised land?  Why does God let Job suffer horrible things just to.. win a bet with Satan?  Why does he tell Abraham to kill his son (more killing again) and then basically say “Just kidding! That was a test!”  Why does Jesus have to die for our sins (more killing again)?  If God can do anything, can’t he forgive someone without someone dying?  I mean, my parents taught me to forgive people – nobody dies in that scenario…

He then goes on to talk about his loss of belief in the inerrancy of the scripture, lack of appreciation of church, etc.  He also mentions that when he talked to his peers, a lot of them had the same questions.

There are a couple of things to say here.  First, his questions are good ones.  Every Christian asks them, and not everybody comes up with answer he or she finds satisfying.  There are entire branches of theology that discuss them.  The famous “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Why is there evil in the world?” even have a branch of theology devoted to it, called “theodicy,” with the resulting “anti-theodicy” movements and variants of “cosmodicy” and “anthropidicy” and on and on.  There is no space to give my answers to these questions, except to note that *every* Christian deals with them — and most do.

Second, however, is that this young man’s main problem is implicit in his complaint.  Merely noting an apparent moral contradiction on the part of God should not be a deal-killer even if *no* acceptable explanation presents itself — to a person of faith.  If we do not understand God’s morality, that’s our problem, not Gods.    But to Mr. Steingard, the deal-killer is that God does not follow his moral compass — how can God fail so badly to live up to Mr. Steingard’s standards, and still be a “good” God?

Let that sink in — because it’s profoundly important from a worldview position.  If God is not living up to your standards, then that *necessarily* means that your standards are not coming from a worldview in which God sets the standards.   That is, by the the way, the answer to Mr. Steingard’s question about Job.  When Job asked that question, God’s answer was pretty straightforward — “Suck it up, buttercup. I’m God and you are not.  You don’t judge me.  I judge you.”   Every Christian must *either* accept one of the rationalizations given by formal theology, or must just do as Paul does and accept that there are things we will not understand.  As he wrote in his first letter to the church at Corinth:

...As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

The technical term for what God talks about in Job and Paul talks about here is “cognitive closure”  using the philosophic rather than psychologic definition.   A technical definition of cognitive closure is given by MvGinn:

A type of mind M is cognitively closed with respect to a property P (or a theory T) if and only if the concept-forming procedures at M’s disposal cannot extend to a grasp of P (or an understanding of T).

McGinn, Colin. “Can we solve the Mind–Body problem?.” Mind 98.391 (1989): 349-366.

There are some things that humans simply cannot understand.  An ant is physiologically incapable of thinking about compound interest and the time value of money.  In fact, an ant cannot think of the issues that would lead to asking a question to which that would be the answer.  Dogs are much brighter than ants, but have similar limitations. A dog not only cannot understand electrons, but cannot form the thought to ask the question to which “electrons” would be the answer.  Humans are brighter than dogs and we have similar limitations — just at a different level.  This is demonstrated graphically during child development with the transition from Piaget’s “preoperational”, “concrete operational” and “formal”  phases of development.  A child in the “concrete” phase of development is structurally unable to think abstractly because the necessary neuronal connnections have not been created.  And then it happens.   God is to us as we are to an ant.  What God tells Job that not only incapable of understanding God’s thinking, he can’t even understand enough to ask the right question.


God says to Job:

Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant, empty words? Now stand up straight and answer the questions I ask you.  Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it.

Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it?
Do you know all the answers? What holds up the pillars that support the earth?
Who laid the cornerstone of the world?  In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy…

Job eventually replies:

I know, Lord, that you are all-powerful; that you can do everything you want. You ask how I dare question your wisdom when I am so very ignorant. I talked about things I did not understand, about marvels too great for me to know.

Job 38:2-7 and 41:2,3, Good News Translation

In other words, there’s no reason to expect that we would understand all of this.  That’s not our job as Christians — that kind of comprehension will come later.  Paul is much more polite than God, but his message is basically the same: “Suck it up, buttercup. He’s God, and you are not.  You don’t judge Him.  He judges you.”  It goes all the way back to the first part of this post, where “faith is a choice” and it’s a choice made in an underdetermined system with inadequate information.  You just have to make it and and stick with it.

Mr. Steingard can’t run with that.  He judges God and finds Him lacking. But where does Mr. Steingard’s superior moral compass come from? Clearly it didn’t come from God.  It doesn’t come from the Bible — which he has come to reject.

It comes from his secular worldview.

But wait, clearly Mr. Steingard is (or at least was) a Christian, right?  Yes, but…

There’s a variant of worldview theory proposed by Stephen Jay Gould that posits different “magisteria” for different aspects of our lives.  In other words, rather than building one coherent worldview, one builds multiple worldviews and applies different worldviews to different situations.  Thus, we view issues of meaning and morality using a religious worldview, and issues of science and existence with a scientific worldview. (Gould, S. J. (1997). Nonoverlapping magisteria. Natural History, 106, 16 – 22.)

This kind of compartmentalization is common in many people’s lives.  Many people (particularly those in intelligence work) separate their work lives from their home lives.  Many so-called Christians live one life on Sundays and another on Saturdays.  Using this paradigm, one holds *both* secular and Christian worldviews, then picks and chooses which one to use at any given time.  Note that this is different from the accommodation issue — one is not modifying a Christian worldview to accommodate secular thought or a secular worldview to integrate a few Christian concepts.  Instead, one is building two complete worldviews.

This is deadly for a “real” Christian.  It is simply unsupportable to believe the axioms of Christianity in one part of your life and not believe it in another.  Once again, you have to fish or cut bait.  The functional problem is that these magisteria are really not disjoint — they necessarily overlap in some areas, and when they do, they threaten each other.  A complete Christian worldview permeates every second of every day.  I cannot look at a tree and not see the hand of God.  I cannot look at my wife without thanking God for putting us together.  I cannot see a sunrise without thanking God for another day.  To attempt to compartmentalize the Christian worldview into a small teensy part of your llfe is, ultimately a denial of the worldview.  Eventually, there will come a time when the two worldviews will be in radical opposition, and it will not be able to compartmentalize the problem away.  When that happens, you have to choose one or the other.  These people, unfortunately, chose the secular worldview when this conflict arose.

Among evangelical Christians, there is always the question of whether or not these people are really “born again.”  The real answer is that only they and God know.  This worldview theology, to whatever degree it is correct, suggests that they were never truly born again — they never really made the choice to adopt the Christian worldview and base it on the axioms of real Christianity.

In the world of software engineering, there is the concept of a “sandbox,” which is a protected environment where programs can be tested and run in circumstances that emulate the real world, but in fact are isolated.  Thus, if the program fails or does damage, it only does damage in the controlled virtual environment — but it has no real effect on what’s important.  Running the program in the sandbox seems a lot like running it in real life, but it’s not the same.  You never “really” test your software until you deploy it in the real world.  Faith is not really faith until it is deployed.  The choice to follow God is not a choice to follow God until it is deployed in the real world.  And these people with nonoverlapping magisteria have not done that.  It’s still a toy, and it’s not a real choice.

4. In order to avoid these issues you need a couple of things.

Virtually every failure of a Christian comes from having a structural issue with his or her Christian worldview.  You have to choose a “real” Christian worldview, not try to accommodate a secular world view to accept a little Christian flavor.  You have to commit to a single worldview, not try to spend part of your life in one world and another part of your life in another world.  You have to do the work to deal with difficult challenges to your worldview.

There are many tools for this.  God has provided three right off the bat — the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the church.  Each is an important resource, and each is complementary to the others.  A Christian, particularly a Christian young in the faith, cannot go it alone.  But it’s worth the effort to use these tools.  In subsequent posts, I will deal with each of these in turn, though first, I will deal with kingdom theology.

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