This is the third part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois
A major shift in worldview during the Classical Age in the West can be traced to a single sentence, purportedly uttered by Greek philosopher Xenophanes (d. 475 bc): “Men have created the gods in their own image.”
The rejection of “the gods” as mythical realities was certainly not as abrupt as this. Ancient cultures long continued to revere mythic deities, but more as a matter of civil pride than of actual worship. If we no longer look to the heavens and our “gods” for our story, what’s next? Simply look around you and shape your “Story” around the things you can actually experience (touch, taste, smell, hear, see). This is the beginning of what we now call “science-based” worldviews: materialism & naturalism
“Science” comes from Latin skiente “to learn.” There’s no doubt God created us with intellectual curiousity and the ability to learn from our environment. The Big Question is: can we learn all there is to know about the human identity, condition, destiny only through experience and our senses?
“Natural philosophy” in many civilizations challenged imaginative stories and supernatural explanations as the valid ways of understanding the “real” world. Two big questions to begin with were:
- Is there a basic substance everything is made of? If so, what is it? (the beginning of materialism)
- Is there a constant order to everything? Or is there constant change? (the beginning of naturalism)
At first, though, the new “natural” and “material” stories were just as imaginative as the old ones. Basic elements (earth, wind, water, fire) or essences (phelm, blood, bile). By the 5th C. bc, Greek thinkers were getting little more sophisticated in their considerations:
- Parmenides (c. 515-450) viewed matter as an essential, unchanging substance. Our perception of change in the natural world reflected changing conditions, not changes in substances themselves.
- His contemporary Heraclitus (c. 535-475) viewed change itself as the constant. We draw conclusions from experience, then look for the universal order (logos!) that transcends the change.
- Democritus (c. 460-370) with his “atom theory” reduced all reality to matter alone. All things can be divided until reaching an indivisible “building block.” These atoms were the essences of reality.
- Aristotle (384-322) centered his metaphysics what he called the four causes of being (“causal explanations” of being). The material cause of a thing is its physical properties. The formal cause is the structure or design. The efficient cause is the catalyst or acting element. The final cause is the ultimate purpose for which a thing exists.
If the material/natural world is all there is, that reality determines how should we live. Three famous Hellenistic “schools” of philosophy (c. 300 bc to 300 ad) offered these possibilities:
- Epicureans—life is to be enjoyed; the greatest good is pleasure (a hedonistic extreme)
- Stoics—life is to be endured; the greatest good is perseverance (a fatalistic extreme)
- Cynics—life is as it is; there is not greatest good; it’s all up to me! (an existential extreme)
The triumph of Catholic Christianity in the West restored the importance of spiritual realities, but in the context of Medieval dualism (suffering on earth, reward in heaven). The subsequent cultural and religious challenges of the Renaissance and Reformation, in different ways, shifted focus to man himself and the desire to bring “heaven” down to earth through humanism, the arts, individual faith, and personal piety.
In the 17th-18th centuries, pendulum shifted back toward materialism and naturalism with the “Scientific Revolution.” Three important figures give us a framework for what becomes a “scientistic” worldview:
- Bacon’s scientific method—science will help us explain all things (modern empiricism)
- Descartes’ universal method—reason will help us understand all things (modern rationalism)
- Newton’s universal laws—mathematical precision will help us control all things (modern physics)
Darwin’s theory of evolution (19th C.) was the turning point toward a fully materialist, naturalistic, “scientistic” worldview. Naturalism focuses on what can be gleaned only by experience using the senses, leading ultimately to science as a primary foundation for explaining the world and the materialist presumption that only physical substances and forces constitute “reality”.
Is this all there is? Let’s think Biblically about what the material, natural world is created for and what role experience is supposed to play in our “understanding”!
We know from Genesis that God created the “heavens and the earth”—creation consists of both a natural/material reality and a super-natural/immaterial reality (and that is was created “good”). He created humanity “from the dust of the ground” but also “in His image & likeness” (and he breathed life into us—Spirit is immaterial!)
So our IDENTITY and the CONDITION of life consists of both a natural/material reality and a super-natural/immaterial reality. How does God use our embodiment in the natural/material world for our good
- To make Himself known to us (Romans 1: 18-20)
“God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.”
- To provide sustenance and vocation (Genesis 1-2)
God placed the first humans in a garden “and caused to grow out of the ground every tree pleasing in appearance and good for food, including the tree of life in the middle of the garden, as well as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God gave them charge to work it and watch over it and to be fruitful: “multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.”
- To allow us to learn! Proverbs 15 tells us “The discerning heart seek knowledge,” but it also extends a number of cautions into that process lest we be consumed by hubris and think ourselves equal to God. We don’t want to be like the people described by Paul to Timothy as “always learning, but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.
4. To give us a reason to look to Him in the struggles of life (Genesis 2, Job, Ecclesiates)
- The natural/material world is cursed because of the fall (consequences of disobedience)
- Our faith will always be tested (can we say with Job, “Even if He kills me, I will hope in Him”)
- All of our “worldly” experiences and achievements, while often beneficial, are ultimately insufficient in providing fullness of meaning and purpose
- But there is hope! In John 16 Jesus promises, “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”
The World in its present form has always been “passing away.” It is not where we are called to look for eternal truths or for answers to questions about meaning, purpose, destiny. Remember the admonition in Col. 3: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”