25 June 2009

D. G. Hart and 'world-and-life-viewitis'

Darryl G. Hart has fought hard to make himself the bête noir of the christian university community in North America and, truth to tell, he has largely succeeded. This is a typical entry from his blog: If the Bible Speaks to All of Life, Why Not the Confession? Here's Hart in his own words:

[A] recent speaking engagement at Grove City College . . . got me thinking about the world-and-life-viewitis that has reached epidemic proportions among Protestants. Most evangelical Protestant colleges these days are justifying their existence and identity by saying they provide a wholistic [sic] vision on learning that is grounded in the Christian faith. The Lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, even the cultural mandate come in for aid and comfort.

This ideal is an honorable one and springs from generally wholesome motives. Who would not want to see Christ honored in all aspects of the created order, and who would want to be unfaithful where Scripture has revealed God’s holy will?

There’s just one problem: the Bible doesn’t speak to all the arts and sciences, let alone whether incoming freshmen should receive a laptop or whether it should be an Apple or an IBM machine. In fact, the one place where Christ is revealed, the Bible, has very little to say about the curriculum of an undergraduate education. If we say that it does, we are in danger of putting the imaginations of men above the Word of God — that is, making the Bible say what we want it to say.

This point becomes pretty plausible if we consider that the Reformed creeds and catechisms have nothing to say about rhetoric, logic, grammar, music — the list could go on but not much longer for the medieval university’s curriculum. It has even less to say about quantum physics or critical theory and the vast range of subjects offered by today’s universities. But if the Bible speaks to all of these areas of human endeavor and inquiry, don’t we need to revise the confessions so that the church may rightly speak on what God has revealed?

Or could it be that what the creeds and confessions teach is pretty much the sum of what the Bible reveals? In which case, for the other areas of life we are left to our reasonable ability to make sense of God’s created order, thus leaving the church jurisdiction over divinity and the university faculty authority over the arts and sciences.

Hart represents a particular school of Reformed Christians who not only put great emphasis on the confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, but also put something of a lutheranizing two-kingdoms spin on these confessions and on the Scripture on which they are based. This school is primarily associated with Westminster Seminary California, Hart's former employer. The expanding influence of Abraham Kuyper's worldviewish Christianity comes in for special criticism from this group.

In response three points can be made here.

First, Hart is correct to observe that the Bible has nothing to say about quantum physics and a host of other issues. He is also right to assert that we should not try to make it say what it doesn't say. My friend Roy Clouser has addressed this error in speaking of the encyclopedic assumption, i.e., the belief that the Bible is a kind of encyclopedia giving us scientific data about human origins, astronomy and, well, even political science.

However, Hart is missing something of the all-embracing character of the life in Christ as understood in Scripture as a whole. One need hardly accept the encyclopedic assumption to recognize that biblical religion has implications for how we live all of life, not just what we do in church on sundays: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31). Or this, also from St. Paul: "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:6-8).

Second, and perhaps more seriously, Hart's approach to Scripture is based on an inadequate epistemology. The Bible, it seems, is filled with a number of propositions, which have relevance to some of our activities in God's world, but not to most. In this huge swath of territory we simply rely on our own native reason, which we share with all human beings, whatever their religious commitments. Scripture informs our spiritual life, but not much beyond that. If Hart is correct about this, then it is little short of amazing that so many people emphasizing the need for a consistent christian worldview have found so much to write about. Are the issues to which they draw attention not genuine issues? Can their concerns be dismissed so easily?

In my own Political Visions and Illusions I undertake to explore the five political ideologies of liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism and socialism. Despite their respective followers having access to reason, they nevertheless manage to embrace quite different visions of politics and indeed of reality as a whole. It is not too difficult to see the impact of more than one mutually incompatible worldview at play. It is also evident that these are a matter of adherents making entirely too much of a good thing, which is what Scripture calls idolatry. If Scripture is silent on a lot of particular things, it speaks clearly on idolatry, which inevitably affects the whole of life, including those academic disciplines left up to "our reasonable ability."

Third, Hart's approach must be viewed against an historical trajectory that has seen the secularization of any number of universities over the centuries, despite their christian origins. Here's Hart once more: "Or could it be that what the creeds and confessions teach is pretty much the sum of what the Bible reveals? In which case, for the other areas of life we are left to our reasonable ability to make sense of God’s created order, thus leaving the church jurisdiction over divinity and the university faculty authority over the arts and sciences." I agree that the church as institution should not attempt to pronounce in the arts and sciences. But Hart appears to be saying more than this. If we read this in light of what he's said above, we are left with a pretty toxic mix, and one that has led to the erosion of the christian character of countless universities in the past, from Harvard and Yale to Hamilton's own McMaster University, whose Divinity College sits with increasing unease on its campus among the other faculties of arts and sciences.

Disparage as he might the supposed pandemic of world-and-life-viewitis amongst evangelical Christians, Hart's approach does not represent a workable alternative. There is simply too much that it does not take into account, and for that reason it is unlikely to gain a foothold in the christian universities of North America. Though he undoubtedly has much to offer in the fields of "divinity" and liturgy, if we seek discernment with respect to the idolatries afoot in "secular" areas of life, we had best turn elsewhere.

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