A BIBLICAL WORLDVIEW IN A MODERN WORLD

Jen has an interesting post on a topic that has long interested me, the difficulty of maintaining a traditional religious worldview in today’s culture:

[A]t the Young Life conference last week Chuck Colson talked to us about how important it is for youth ministers to be teaching teenagers how to have a Biblical worldview, especially before they get to college. Because we all know that most colleges are going to challenge, even deny the validity of, conservative, traditional, Biblical values and thought. [links omitted]

Having spent much of my life, and all of my teaching career, in the Deep South, I’ve heard many stories of churches getting young people about to head off to college together and telling them, in effect, not to let their secularist professors brainwash them.

Jen points to a longer post by Joe Carter, which in turn links to ongoing debates on blogs I’m unfamiliar with, questioning an assertion made on one of those blogs that the vast majority of Americans who call themselves “Christians” don’t actually believe these things:

–Absolute moral truths exist.
–Such truth is defined by the Bible;
–Jesus Christ lived a sinless life;
–God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today;
–Salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned;
–Satan is real;
–A Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people;
–The Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.

Without survey data at hand or a sufficient command of the literature, I’ll not take those points one-by-one. But I would assert that, just from my observation, very few Americans–indeed, very few Southern Baptists–really believe most of those things. They might profess them, but simply observing their lives makes it evident they don’t really believe them.

To keep it mainly on the social-cultural plane, I’ll restrict my remarks to two of those tenets: “God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today” and “The Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.” Let me dispose of the last one first, since it’s simpler. Many if not most Christians believe in the big picture teachings of the Bible, especially the New Testament. But very few Christians and, indeed, few American Jews, actually practice most of the teachings of the Old Testament (the rigorous dietary rules being just one example). Virtually none of them believe the world was literally created in six days or that Eve was made from Adam’s rib, for example. They tend to treat these sort of things as allegorical rather than literally true.

“God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today” is much more interesting. Certainly, this is a core belief of not just Christianity but of Judaism and Islam as well. But very few modern adult Americans literally believe in an omniscient, omnipresent God that rules the universe. Not really.

Most Christians, like most non-believers, violate the letter and/or spirit of biblical teaching on a pretty regular basis. Not so much the murdering, stealing, and other big ticket Commandments, certainly, but many of the lesser Commandments, the Golden Rule and all manner of lesser sins*. The vast majority of Christians have sex long before they’re married, since their sex drive kicks in around 13 and marriage is postponed into their mid-20s or later. Now, if they believed God was literally watching them, would they do it? Let me ask it in another way: If they believed their mother was in the room watching, would they do it? Some professed Christians commit adultery. Would they do it if they believed their spouse was in the room watching? Christians sometimes bear false witness against their neighbor. Would they do it if they believed their neighbor was in the room listening?

Indeed, I’d guess a significant plurality of American Christians are, to coin a phrase, “Howard Dean Christians.” They believe in being nice to people, helping their neighbors, doing good works, living a decent life, and all the rest. But they don’t have a deep sense of the supernatural, mythological aspect of the faith. Nost Americans who call themselves Roman Catholics are what used to be called “cafeteria Catholics;” they pick and choose from the teachings of their church that they like and ignore the rest. They think the Pope is a really sweet man who deserves a lot of respect, but they don’t really think he’s the Vicar of Christ or the infallible interpreter of the will of God. Many of the taboos of Christianity simply no longer make much practical sense in the modern world, and most modern people have discarded them.

None of this is to say that Christians are bad people or even hypocrites in any conscious sense. Most Christians–and I’d argue, most other people–try to behave decently and struggle with our natural impulses to do otherwise. It’s just that modernity, almost by definition, creates a non-mystical mindset that makes fundamentalism a poor fit.

*I’ll concede that the idea that sin is hierarchical is controversial. I have no theological position on this, just a practical, secular one.

Update (2257): All of the above excepting Stephen Baldwin, of course.

FILED UNDER: Religion
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey James,

    Good post, except I think you are missing the point on one of the beliefs.

    ***But very few Christians and, indeed, few American Jews, actually practice most of the teachings of the Old Testament (the rigorous dietary rules being just one example). Virtually none of them believe the world was literally created in six days or that Eve was made from Adam’s rib, for example. They tend to treat these sort of things as allegorical rather than literally true.***

    The belief is that the Bible is “accurate in all of its teachings.” This is not a claim that it must be taken literally (for example, I’m not a “six day creationist”) or that the OT applies to us today (the NT does away with that stuff anyway).

    The Belief is simply that when the Bible teaches something it does so accurately. Now obviously this could include everthing from strict literal fundamentalists to more generally orthodox evangelicals (like myself). But it isn’t a claim that the Bible is either inerrant or that it must be interpreted literally.

    On the rest of your post, I’m afraid you are probably all too accurate.

  2. About 12 years ago author and researcher Robert Wuthnow published his study that showed that the vast majority of persons who described themselves as Christians and churchgoers also said that their faith made little difference in the way they live their lives.

    Later I read a Gallup study that revealed that only 7-10 percent of Americans described themselves as “committed Christians,” but that those men and women were influential in society far out of proportion to their numbers.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Anonymous guy: I agree that it’s debatable as to what constitutes “teaching” vs. mere allegory. But I’d argue that this is not only a parsing of words but probably doesn’t make much difference with respect to my argument that people don’t live their lives as if they truly believed. Don’s point is quite right, I think, and his expertise on this certainly exceeds mine.

    Don: Neither of those stats would surprise me. I wonder how much of the second stat has to do with discipline versus faith itself, although the two are likely intermingled.

  4. Joe Carter says:

    Oops…sorry about that James. I’m “anonymous guy.”

    Your right, of course. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.”

  5. James Joyner says:

    JC: No prob. And yep on Chesterton.

  6. Mac Swift says:

    This actually consistent with the Bible’s own numbers on how many people within the Christian community will actually be the real deal.

    Isaiah 29:13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near [me] with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.

  7. Paul says:

    hmmm You are starting to sound like Howard Dean when he said homosexuality can not be a sin because God created homosexuals so therefor homosexuality was not a sin. (I guess by extension murder is not a sin since God creates murders right?)

    But to the point, the people who believe the above tenants also believe God gave us free will. With free will comes responsibility for our actions.

    Further, simply because people do something they believe is wrong does not mean they believe it to be right. If you believe that you have never spent time with children. 😉

    It is quite possible to believe what you are doing is wrong yet do it anyway. There’s that free will thing again.

    Paul

    BTW sorry for comparing you to Howard Dean- Yer not gonna ban me are ya? LOL

  8. Meezer says:

    Most people would probably not have pre-marital sex with their mother in the room but how many have sex knowing their mother disaproves and *will probably find out about it*?
    The problem with God and faith is not that many Christians do not really believe, it’s that the confrontation is put off by a lifetime (and when you’re young you won’t die anyway).
    People procrastinate, or even “disobey” every day with their jobs, knowing they will have to pay the piper at some point. Yet they do it anyway. For most people whether their boss in fact exists is not a matter of faith.
    I also think that even Christians are beginning to believe in C.S. Lewis’s “Grandfather in Heaven” and think they’ll be let off the hook when it really comes down to it, because they’re basically good people, right?

  9. craig henry says:

    I’m not sure modernity creates a completely non-mystical mind-set. Just as there are cafeteria Christians, so there are cafeteria rationalists. Note how many thoroughly modern people hold “New Age” beliefs about crystals, reincarnation, etc.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Paul: You’re safe for now–but watch it!

    Paul and Meezer: My argument is that most Christians profess to believe in a Holy Spirit/Ghost–a literally omnipresent God. So, it’s not just that they think God will find out about their sins but that he’s literally in the room watching them. But, unlike a similar belief about their mother, boss, or other corporeal being, they don’t really ACT as if they believe it, which I submit means they don’t REALLY believe it.

    Craig: Certainly true. I think people need “something” to believe in. We’re rational beings but we have a spiritual side as well.

  11. jen says:

    James,

    You said, “…people don’t live their lives as if they truly believed.”

    That’s all too true. I readily admit that I often fail. And not to make excuses, but it’s because I’m still human, still prone to sin, to make unwise and selfish decisions. The whole point of the Gospel message is that God loves me despite of my sin and through Jesus Christ I’m forgiven of it. And yes, I’m called to live a holy life and I desire to live that holy life. But I’m not God. I’m not Jesus. I’m just me and I make mistakes.

    What difficult for Christians is that those who don’t profess the same faith set us up on pedestals that we can’t live up to.

    You also said, “So, it’s not just that they think God will find out about their sins but that he’s literally in the room watching them. But, unlike a similar belief about their mother, boss, or other corporeal being, they don’t really ACT as if they believe it, which I submit means they don’t REALLY believe it.”

    That may be true for some who profess to be Christians. I know that I am constantly aware that God is watching me. I believe in God’s omnipresence wholeheartedly. And yet I still willfully disobey at times.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Jen,

    Interesting point. It’s just hard for me to square the fact that people who wouldn’t willfully disobey if their boss, mother, or whoever were in the room WILL when someone they believe omnipotent is in the room. It seems to me that the difference is that they really believe what they see.

  13. jen says:

    James,

    It’s not a matter of belief really. It’s a matter of what’s physically in front of you. I think you’re putting an unreasonable expectation on those of us who believe in the omnipresence of God and yet fail to act with circumspection every minute of every day. It’s primarily still a matter of our sinfulness – truth is that there are times when I consciously make the decision to disobey His commands, readily acknowledging that He’s there. I’m even bold enough to ask for His forgiveness while I’m doing whatever it is. It may seem contradictory, that’s because it is.

    The apostle Paul explains is perfectly in Romans 7:7-25. Verses 14-25 sum it up:

    We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

    So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!
    So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

    And there are plenty of people who do willfully disobey bosses, parents, etc. when they’re in the room. All children do it, all the time. How many times did your mother tell you not to touch something and you persisted in touching it anyway, while she was looking right at you?

  14. James Joyner says:

    Jen: It’s not a matter of belief really. It’s a matter of what’s physically in front of you. I think you’re putting an unreasonable expectation on those of us who believe in the omnipresence of God and yet fail to act with circumspection every minute of every day. Maybe so. It still seems like a different level/type of belief, then, than that we have of things we actually see.

    And the child example is an interesting one. But adults are much less likely to act that way, no?

  15. jen says:

    Who says? In God’s eyes we’re still children, right?

    What about the countless people who persist in robbing banks despite the security cameras? Sure, they’re idiots on some level, but they know the camera is there.

    The reality is that we do what we know is wrong, period. No matter who’s watching…

  16. Paul says:

    How many overweight people eat fattening things while they are trying to lose weight?

    You can’t make the case that a 250 pound woman eating a twinkie when she is supposed to be on a diet does not believe in the power of the twinkie.

    She believes the twinkie to be fattening but she does it anyway.

    If her doctor were in the room would she eat it? Probably not. Look how many adults sneak cigarettes when they know they are bad for them. They won’t smoke in front the kids or the doc but they still know the cigs will kill them.

    People don’t act rationally in the rest of their life, why would you expect them to act differently about matters of religion?

  17. James Joyner says:

    Paul: I’m arguing just the opposite: They are acting perfectly rationally. They don’t really BELIEVE there is an invisible, omnipotent person in the room watching them. They profess to believe it but their actions say otherwise.

  18. jen says:

    For some, that may be true, James. For others, me included, not so. I know that He’s in the room with me. My conscience (the Holy Spirit within me)speaks to me loud and clear that He’s watching. And I still disobey. I’m convicted about my misdeeds all the time. Sadly, it doesn’t stop me often enough. It’s not that we don’t believe, it’s that we’re ignoring His presence. Big difference.

  19. James Joyner says:

    jen: Fair enough. I wonder if his presence would be ignored so often if he were visible, though.

  20. jen says:

    We’ve reached some sort of concensus then – that’s the question, isn’t it?

    Consider this – The Bible says that God spoke to Adam and Eve (I believe this literally, so work with me here) – He gave them the freedom of the Garden, except for the fruit of one particular tree. Genesis 3 recounts the fall of man. Then we get to verses 8-11:

    Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

    He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

    And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

    How did Adam respond? By blaming it on Eve who then blamed it on the serpent – they made the decision to eat from the tree of their own free will. Disobedience and hiding and deception go hand in hand. In this case, I believe that God was clearly visible to Adam and Eve because it says he walked with them in the garden.