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Further Scandal: Christian College Professor Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview

November 8, 2011

Preface to “Further Scandal: Christian College Professor Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview”:

In 2004, when I wrote this essay, the institution I worked for was still a college, rather than a university, now Huntington University. As I was writing this, I knew the direction I was going in with my argument, but I lost my way to the conclusion, so I should acknowledge now that this essay reflects the input of the editors of the now-defunct online journal The New Pantagruel, Dan Knauss and Caleb Stegall. I am grateful for their help. I should also observe that the titles of these essays were intended to invoke a tabloid, sensationalist tone; I will leave the reader to judge their accuracy for the essays.

While the first essay of these two received much more attention, I have always believed this essay has the more radical implications for the current state of American Christianity. This essay was followed by a critical response from David Naugle, a worldview scholar from Dallas Baptist University, available online here:  I have never followed up on his criticism, largely because I believed my response would have been mostly restatement. However, I would point out that I have since written an unpublished essay based upon “Expostulation XIX” of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions with some responses to Naugle’s criticism. That will be posted next on this blog.

Further Scandal: Christian College Professor Doesn’t Teach from a Christian Worldview

I am now into my third year of teaching English at Huntington College, a member institution of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities. Because of where I teach, students, parents, and administrators take it for granted that I will teach from a Christian worldview. But what does teaching from a Christian worldview mean? Is it my task to critique every work of literature from some doctrinal perspective? Do I say of Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome that it presents from a naturalistic worldview the struggles of a man against his social isolation through his desires for his wife’s cousin? Do I then contrast naturalism to biblical theism and say that Wharton, for her naturalism (or her secular humanism, if one prefers), falls short of Christian belief, and therefore a proper response is a rejection of her ethos? I am very disinclined to let students evade the issues the text raises by dismissing it as stemming from a naturalistic worldview. I am more inclined to discuss how Wharton creates her fictional world and let students process for themselves how truthful they find that world to be. Worldview criticism too often depends upon facile labeling that makes a work’s artistry mere window-dressing for amateur philosophizing.

My approach to teaching does not conform to some descriptions of a Christian college professor’s job. Claude O. Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, complains that “Tragically, a number of faculty within our own Christian colleges and universities struggle with how to think Christianly about their disciplines. We have lost the unification of knowledge under the lordship of Jesus Christ.” Pressnell defines the task of Christian college professors:

Christian scholars are charged with the task of teaching their academic disciplines with a well-informed knowledge base and from a distinctly Christian worldview perspective. The task requires rigorous study and a growing and intimate relationship with Christ. The need for attention to the sanctifying process of Christ is of utmost importance when we are dealing in the arena of ideas. Because of the fallenness of our intellect, we must always be kept in check by the standard of God’s Word and the community of fellow believers.

I have a confession to make: I don’t feel a connection with that description of my task. It splits apart for me in several directions. First, I do believe in the fallenness of the intellect, so much so that I don’t think it can be separated from that which is labeled as my Christian worldview. How does a person gain a sense of confidence in his worldview if, in fact, the intellect from which it proceeds is fallen?

On the other hand, I am not convinced that my teaching Shakespeare or Wharton successfully depends upon my having an intimate relationship with Christ. I certainly had no such expectation of my professors in graduate school, only two or three of which would have identified themselves as Christians and none as evangelicals. One professor I had who asserted the need to attend to Shakespeare’s Christian faith was gay and not a Christian. While I hope that I develop in my Christian faith, I don’t believe that the merit of my teaching should be measured by my faith.

Pressnell evades a question that his description of the Christian scholar’s task begs to have answered: What does he mean by “a distinctly Christian worldview”? As his reader and putative audience, I don’t take on the responsibility of defining this phrase for him. Pressnell sets up an incomplete contrast: at some point I am asking questions that he would find tragic. Why? What version of a Christian worldview should prevent my having these questions? The catch-22 for Pressnell is, of course, that if he defines his term, he moves from “a distinctly Christian worldview” to “the distinctly Christian worldview.” That might clarify whether or not my questions remain tragic, but it would also open the definition to critique from historical, sociological, theological, and other perspectives.

Pressnell’s essay appears in a collection entitled The Future of Christian Higher Education (Broadman and Holman, 1999). I was given this book for the orientation to my first year as a professor at Huntington. Its contributors include the presidents, provosts, and deans of such Christian institutions as Baylor University, Calvin College, Westmont College, Union University, and Beeson Divinity School, and such writers as Arthur Holmes and Millard Erickson. With varying degrees of nuance and qualification, most of the contributors speak of the Christian professor’s responsibility to teach from a Christian worldview while ducking the question of what that means. However, one of the volume’s editors, David Dockery, president of Union University in Tennessee, has no reticence specifying what a Christian worldview excludes:

Throughout education and culture, the very existence of objective truth is being challenged. We observe this in the academy in the poststructuralism of Lyotard, the deconstructionism of Derrida, the radical subjectivism of Foucault, the reader-focused hermeneutic of Stanley Fish; it is even found in popular culture, exemplified in the lyrics of country music artists like Diamond Rio singing that “it’s all interpretation, if you want to know the truth you have to read between the lines.” A normative view of truth and a Christian worldview are rejected or devalued, seemingly lost in our contemporary culture.

Recently, a high profile culture watcher [George Barna] observed this impact on Christians, noting that “an unbelievably small proportion of believers have what is called a Christian worldview … and because [most Christians] don’t think like Christians, they can’t act like Christians. Because they don’t act like Christians, they can’t have much impact on the world in which they live.”

This is utter rubbish. If Christians are not thinking or acting like Christians, it is not because of all the Lyotard and Derrida they are reading. There are many more likely candidates for blame than poststructuralist literary theorists—such as the weakness or sheer lack of teaching in many churches, insipid or pathological Christian bestsellers, and apologists for nationalism in the guise of faith. Or has there been a clandestine substitution of Of Grammatology into the covers of Glorious Appearing without anyone noticing?

Yet Dockery’s assessment is a good example of one of the inevitable problems with worldview discussions: the term is so fluid that sooner or later one must ask what is to be included and excluded from a Christian worldview. For all the references to a Christian worldview in The Future of Christian Higher Education, Pressnell and Dockery intuitively believe that something must be excluded, specifically anything that undermines a modernist, objectivist, Christian version of Truth.

I wrote previously about two accounts of that Truth that sound suspiciously like the Republican Party platform. But for all their faults, at least the Nehemiah Institute and Worldview Weekend specify their versions of worldview. The definition of “biblical worldview” used by the Nehemiah Institute to assess their test makes only one reference to the Christian faith: “Moral standards are seen as objective rather than subjective, typically from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and quite static.” No mention is made of the Bible itself or to any theological traditions. Evangelical worldview theorists might like to scorn these unreflective politically conservative cousins, but on what basis? Their definitions of “worldview” itself, not to mention “Christian worldview,” also leave the details up for grabs, so the politically motivated will of course seize the opportunity.

What really goes into the composition of one’s worldview? James Sire defines a worldview as “a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world.” James Olthuis says that a worldview “is the integrative and interpretive framework by which order and disorder are judged, the standard by which reality is managed and pursued. It is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns.” More recently, David Naugle has claimed that worldview is a semiotic phenomenon: “I … propose that a worldview as a semiotic structure consists primarily of a network of narrative signs that offers an interpretation of reality and establishes and overarching framework for life.” These three theorists of worldview, spanning four decades of thinking on the subject, reveal some of the changes in the concept—from presuppositions to a focus on narrative. Certainly a focus on narrative, in which a Christian would identify her role in a divinely-oriented story, opens up the concept of worldview to broader possibilities than those identified by Worldview Weekend.

In fact, there is a nascent liberalism in how broadly some worldview theorists want to stretch the concept. David Naugle affirms,

I would like to go on record as clearly affirming … the value of Christian worldview pluralism, just like Arthur Holmes does in his Contours of a Worldview (Eerdmans, 1984). I see great value in the fact that different Christian traditions have contributed remarkable insights into the nature and practice of the faith, and that these insights need to be appreciated, harvested, and applied.

But with a concept this elastic, at some point the question must be asked: Is it helpful? Can it tell us anything about the formative influences that go into making mature Christians? I have yet to find a worldview theorist who describes a specific confluence of influences that go into a Christian worldview. Many, like James Sire in The Universe Next Door, limit the discussion of worldview to religious and philosophical perspectives. Naugle considers what Sigmund Freud has to say about Weltanschauung, but he does not consider how a person’s mental, emotional, and behavioral processes shape his or her worldview. Does one’s psychological state precede the formation of her worldview, or is it shaped by her worldview?

These questions could go on. Surely, our cultures shape our worldviews. People from New Orleans, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from Bogotá, from Calcutta, and from Lagos are likely, I think, to have very different worldviews. Geography may shape a worldview; urban and rural residents of one culture are likely to have different values. Language itself may determine some of the parameters of one’s worldview. Other influences on one’s worldview may be historical, sociological, scientific, related to gender, related to economic class, related to age, even related to the sins one has engaged in. Are all these influences equally hospitable to the development of a “Christian worldview”? If there is a Christian worldview, could we say that such a concept unites such historically, culturally diverse writers as the Beowulf poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, Margery Kempe, Edmund Spenser, Martin Luther, Lady Mary Sidney, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Olaudah Equiano, Phyllis Wheatley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor? Would Coleridge’s opium addition, Auden’s homosexuality, Bunyan’s imprisonment, Dostoyevsky’s compulsive gambling, Kierkegaard’s Danish language, and Graham Greene’s frequent adulteries color their worldviews?

If we identify all of these writers listed above as having Christian worldviews, we have gone no further than to note that they were Christians. Proper criticism of these writers needs to emphasize the religious, cultural, psychological, aesthetic, and all other particularities in their expressions of faith, those parts of their Christian lives that show they weren’t all twentieth century evangelicals. A better way to honor the particularities of any Christian life or community of practice without the reductionism of “mere Christianity” worldviewism is to speak of “habits of thought.” This phrase—used as a critical term by Christian literary theorist Debora Shuger—acknowledges that individuals and societies (or better, individuals within societies) organize their thinking around certain dominant tropes. During the English Renaissance, those tropes were religious:

Religion during this period supplies the primary language of analysis. It is the cultural matrix for explorations of virtually every topic: kingship, selfhood, rationality, language, marriage, ethics, and so forth. Such subjects are, again, not masked by religious discourse but articulated in it; they are considered in relation to God and the human soul. That is what it means to say that the English Renaissance was a religious culture, not simply a culture whose members generally were religious.

The point of this isn’t that there was a Christian worldview on the issue of kingship or of marriage in the seventeenth century, but that people habitually turned to Christian language to express their contradictory multiplicity of ideas, fears, hopes, and desires about those subjects. Habits of thought do not lead to one thought, one definitive Christian worldview. Certainly not in an era when the major disputes were religious.

“Habits of thought” impresses me intuitively. It seems to more true to my experience to be able to identify my habits, some of which may be good and some of which need changing. “Habits of thought” fits well with the various biblical injunctions to examine our thoughts. “Worldview,” on the other hand, coming as it does out of the German Enlightenment, brings with it the secularizing insistence that the search for truth can terminate on proper positions and principles. A worldview can be true, but it would have an inherently reductive nature that butts up against the classic recognition that theory and theology are analogical approximations of divine truth. Perhaps that is why the Apostle Paul himself does not think much of his own current view of the world: “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Rather than imparting to my students the abstracted and naïve certainty of a worldview, I would rather leave them with strong mature habits of thought to which they may have recourse in all that their lives will bring them.

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One Comment
  1. Louise permalink

    Thanks for another thoughtful post on an issue that has bothered me for some time.

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