As the West gradually drifts from its Christian roots, how can we reconnect society not just with a personal salvation, but an all-encompassing Christian worldview that reaches every area of life?
In part one of this new series by Joe Boot, Joe digs right to the root of the disconnect.
In the gospels, Christ Jesus claims to be the light that leads to life – life in all its fullness (John 1:4; 10:10). Scripturally, if we turn from that light and life, we are left only with darkness and death. The apostle Paul makes clear that if we exchange the truth about the triune God for a lie and worship and serve the art and imagination of men, the cultural consequences are devastating (Rom. 1:18-32). We are undoubtedly witness in the modern West to the societal implications of widespread religious apostasy. Faithful Christians sense a need to respond, but how?
A Radical Disconnect
Perhaps the most significant obstacle that must be overcome if the Christian faith is to again reshape the direction of Western cultural life, is the near absence of a coherent scriptural world-and-life-view amongst Christians. By world-and-life-view, I mean the essential structural features of a grand story of reality (worldview founding narrative) – a lens of basic assumptions through which we interpret all of human experience. For Christianity, this means a comprehensive understanding of Creation, Fall and Redemption in Jesus Christ in the communion and consummating power of the Holy Spirit, and the applied significance of this profound, all-encompassing religious motive-power for the totality of life – an ethos ruling a transformed heart which is the radical unity of the human person from which all the issues of life flow. This is a more technical way of saying that the majority of believers today do not have an adequate understanding of the gospel of the kingdom – the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all life and thought. As such, where Christ is embraced as a saviour and redeemer from personal sin, he is rarely adequately appreciated as both the creator and sustainer of all things, the Lord and root of all creation and redemptive King over every facet of life, bringing creation to its ordained fulfilment.
This far-reaching deficit in understanding leads to a radically truncated view of the gospel and its significance for all areas of life for the believer. The result is a faith abstracted from the totality and unity of life in creation, being sequestered instead into one or two limited ‘domains’ or ‘sectors’ of life – typically that of personal devotional or ‘spiritual’ disciplines and the functioning of the church institute.
Over the last eighty years especially, this problem has naturally and logically led to many believers withdrawing from vast areas of cultural life (i.e. education, law, politics, arts etc.,) or at best having no interest in engaging culture on distinctly Christian terms. The outcome of this world-abandonment has been the radical secularisation and re-paganisation of society and its steady decay. In some cases, the studied irrelevance of church leaders and theologians to the daily reality of cultural life for God’s people is a serious consequence of this denuded gospel – the kingdom of God being reduced to a vague and ethereal future hope disconnected from creation and its ongoing reconciliation and fulfilment in Christ who is both Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end.
Reaching the Root
In order to begin to overcome this profound problem, its source or root must first be understood, exposed and pulled out. If weeds have invaded a flowerbed, choking the life from the flowers, it is no use simply pulling off the visible leaves of an invasive species that are trying to disguise themselves as part of the flower or shrub – they need to be carefully separated and rooted out or the flowers will eventually shrivel and die. The same is true with this persistent problem. Something invasive from outside of Biblical revelation has buried itself deep within the thought life of many believers that prevents them from realizing the full significance, unifying power and beauty of their life and calling in Christ. If this invasive and unscriptural principle is not dealt with, eventually it can choke the meaning, hope and vitality from the Christian walk. In this article we will briefly examine one major cause of this problem and seek to separate it out from the scriptural perspective to allow the flower of the gospel to flourish in its fullness and grandeur.
To penetrate to the root of this thorny problem we need to appreciate the role of foundational religious presuppositions which, at a deeper level, emerge from ‘ground motives’ (a formative religious ethos in a culture). These together inform and shape how Christians approach and read the scriptures and understand the gospel. Because of the pervasive and formative influence of philosophical and religious assumptions about the origin and nature of reality that are hidden deep within culture, it is not unusual for Christians to bring a spirit as yet unsubmitted to the central thrust or direction of Scripture to the reading of the Bible, and therefore miss its radical (going to the root) character and integral (all-encompassing) meaning for life.
For this reason, it is possible for ‘personal salvation’ to be treated by many Western Christians as an essentially private, ‘spiritual component’ within a broader, largely secularized conception of life – perhaps a convenient compromise because, in part, this perspective garners general cultural approval. In other words, because of secular and increasingly pagan assumptions ubiquitous within all aspects of Western culture, believers all too often view themselves as one species of ‘people of faith’ who happen to be ‘more religious’ than most of their neighbours in their ‘personal lives’ At the same time, they do not conceptualise reality, human experience or societal institutions in distinctly Christian terms; they believe they share most other values essentially in common with unbelievers in public, social and cultural life. The idea of a distinctly Christian vision of human identity, social order, politics, education, law, arts, science, business and so on, seems a strange and foreign notion. For the non-Christian looking in, this kind of private, interiorized faith appears little different from other popular approaches to the ‘spiritual component’ of life which, instead of involving church-going and praying, might include mindfulness meditation and yoga. In seeing Christian ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ as essentially a ‘component’ or one small terrain of one’s life (albeit an important one for some), there is no true grasp of the radical, central and total nature of the religious root to life, whether that be grounded in the truth of Christ or an apostate faith.
A Question of Origins
If we would peel this erroneous tendency to divide life up into separate domains (practically unrelated to each other) back to its core, we must first consider the issue of origin – the reality and character of the creation of which the book of Genesis first speaks. If we reflect on the great diversity and yet beautiful coherence of the cosmos in which our lives are fully embedded as creatures (Gen. 1-2), we cannot escape the fact that all of creation displays both a coherence and dependence in part and as a whole. This dependence is seen in the lack of a ‘resting point’ within creation itself where we can say, “here is the independent source and root of reality – here is non-dependent being.”
This coherence and interdependency of all aspects of created reality is what makes our human understanding of creation possible. Which is to say, human beings encounter creation as meaning – a cosmos of pre-existing relationships, irreducible functions and categories that provide structure and limit to all our thought and activity making our lives intelligible. The truth is, we do not encounter the world as a chaos of brute facts waiting to be assigned a meaning, despite the pretence to the contrary of many rationalists and deconstructionists. Instead we live in a world which cannot exist by itself (certainly not by our thought or word) but presupposes an origin which creates meaning. Human beings do not create this meaning as creatures but discover it as we investigate created reality – including ourselves.
What is the root or ground of this meaning? The New Testament reveals explicitly the role of Christ as the one in whom all things are created and hold together and for whom all things exist (cf. Col. 1:15-20). In Romans 11:36 the apostle Paul deepens our understanding of creation profoundly by showing that Christ is the root and end of all things: “for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” The Christian thinker Herman Dooyeweerd in his monumental New Critique of Theoretical Thought expressed this truth in philosophical terms when he wrote:
“All meaning is from, through and to an origin, which cannot itself be related to a higher origin … all genuine philosophical thought has therefore started as thought that was directed toward the origin of our cosmos. From the outset, non-Christian philosophy sought this origin within the realm of meaning [i.e. creation] itself, although it gave many exalted names to it.”[i]
From the Christian standpoint, we therefore confess Jesus Christ as the origin and source of all meaning – the very root of created reality – the Alpha and Omega. This powerful truth comes to expression at the beginning of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-5). Lesslie Newbigin, in his commentary on John’s prologue, asks a penetrating question, “How do you begin to explain that which must, in the end be accepted as the beginning of all explanation?”[ii] Christ is for the believer the starting point, the foundation, the beginning, the sun by which all else is illuminated, the source of all meaning. He is the origin that is not related to a higher origin. As such, how could anyone, by the reach of their own mind, ‘shed light’ on the source of all light?
This is of course why we need revelation, and the coherence of God’s revelation is seen in the unmistakable allusion to Genesis in the stupendous beginning of John’s Gospel. The same two Greek words (in beginning) that begin the Septuagint’s book of Genesis (a Greek translation of the Old Testament used in the time of Christ) also open John’s gospel. There it is revealed to us that the root and unity of all things is not the impersonal abstraction of philosophers with their exalted names for some aspect or entity within creation, but the person of Christ who transcends it! For ‘in beginning’ does not simply denote when creation began as an instance in time. What the apostle John appears to be showing us here is something that the scriptures call ‘the fulness of time.’ By faith we gain the perspective that beyond and above all time, is the concentration of all time – where all time finds its focal point. This ‘time’ cannot be reduced to a moment in the distant past but is a time that remains present and in force at all times – alpha and omega.
When the apostle John is later on the island of Patmos and receives revelation into the meaning of all that is happening in time (religiously) and of the end of time (toward which, by faith, we are oriented), he sees things as though the eschaton has already happened – from the perspective of God’s throne. In these various texts in the New Testament where our understanding of creation’s beginning and ending is deepened by understanding that all things are ‘in Christ,’ we have a window to the eternal God and a truth grasped only by faith. We cannot form tidy concepts of this root-unity of all things transcending time who contains all things and sustains all things, but we can ‘see’ Him by faith as the eternal Word of God.
It is not easy for modern Christians to grasp the profound and revolutionary character of this Word-revelation as it burst onto the Greco-Roman world because we are distanced by centuries of Christianising thought from their underlying culture-forming ideas. Nonetheless, because of the influence of Greek philosophy and its categories on believers in the early centuries of the church’s engagement with culture and its continuing influence through the Medieval period, Reformation era, the Enlightenment and on into the present, there remains a nascent familiarity in our culture with the essential features of these ancient pagan concepts.
The reality is that there was no room in the Greek scheme of thought for a creation as such by an infinite-personal God as revealed in the Bible. This is because the Greek understanding of nature (as it comes to full flower in Aristotle) was ruled by a ‘form-matter’ scheme that saw reality as consisting of an uncreated amorphous chaotic matter which by a forming activity of an impersonal divine principle achieves a coherence of ‘form and matter.’ This duality had the effect of dividing reality into two realms – the sensory and supra-sensory realms– the former being the realm we can experience with our senses and the latter which we cannot. However, this latter realm was nonetheless thought to be knowable by intellectual contemplation.
The essential, powerful idea here is that since everything in the cosmos is always changing (people, mountains, animals, trees etc.,) and yet we can still make judgements of identity (i.e. that person, that mountain, that dog, that tree), it was supposed that the true nature or ‘substance’ of these things must somehow lie behind their visible changeability (i.e. the essence of ‘treeness’). In this way the true ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ (nature) of things is shifted from the realm of our senses to a realm of experience beyond the senses where the true ‘being’ of what exists is concentrated.
These ideas may seem a little abstract and their relevance not immediately obvious, but critically, this powerful idea of ‘substance’ has had an abiding influence on the way Western people have thought about themselves – including Christians. South African philosopher Danie Strauss explains this well as it relates to our view of the human person:
“Led by the form-matter ground-motive, the Greek metaphysical concept of substance imprinted itself on their view of mankind, which still survives among us. Human nature is seen as assembled from two components, distinct in principle i.e. a mortal material body and an immortal rational soul. Plato acknowledged the substance character of only the soul-part of the human being, considering that the body was merely its ‘tool’. According to Aristotle, form is the divine, higher principle that is embedded in non-divine, chaotic matter as its essential unity. For him, neither soul nor body is substance; however, together they do indeed make up a substantial unity in which the soul figures as the ‘essential form’.”[iii]
So, in general, the Greek dualistic view of reality involved positing uncreated ‘substances’ or ‘essences’ in tension or uncomfortable union with each other – eternal ideas/forms and matter – existing and continuing to exist in and of themselves. This is a radical departure from Biblical faith because for Scripture there are no independent substances (uncreated soul substances, essences or chaotic material). Instead, everything that is, finds its root, origin and continuance in its bond with law-Word of God – that is, in its religious connection to Christ and His ever-present creative, sustaining and powerful Word. There are no autonomous ‘substances,’ eternal or otherwise, separated from the all-conditioning Word of God. Creation is distinct from Christ but not separated from Him. The whole idea of an autonomous and independent cosmos is the myth of a pagan and secularized culture that flattens and horizontalizes reality into meaninglessness. Rather, as Andree Troost puts it, “[Christ] is with God the Father, the creator and bearer of the entire cosmos which was created in him.”[iv] The apostle Paul shocks the Greeks in Athens with His application of this reality, “for in him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28).
From the scriptural standpoint, not only are all things created by the Word, all things are dependent on this Word moment by moment. As such, all truth and meaning and the meaningfulness of creation is found in this Word which is power – the power that holds all things together (Col. 1:17). In the gospels, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the centurion who came to Jesus asking Him to heal his servant had insight into this reality when he said to Jesus, ‘but just say the Word and my servant will be cured (Luke 7:7)’ – it is this same Word of power which commanded the seas ‘be still,’ the water to turn into wine, the blind to see, and commanded, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’
This Word of power holding all things together is humbling because it is the borderline or horizon of our reach. All things were made through the Word and this Word is also wonderfully given along with creation. The Word is unthinkable for us in abstraction from creation (which is why Greek philosophy terminates in a blank oneness principle) just as creation is unthinkable apart from the Word of God. What Scripture reveals to us on the creation side of the Word in the gospel is that the Word who created all things was ‘made flesh’ and ‘dwelt among us.’ Christ the Word is God and He is also the Word of God! This is only grasped in terms of the relationship between God and man – the boundary and bridge between creator and creation revealed to us in God’s covenant bond with His creation in Scripture.
[i] Herman Dooyeweerd, New Critique of Theoretical Thought: Collected Works, Series A – Volume One, trans. David H. Freeman & William S. Young (Jordan Station, ON: Paideia Press, 1984), 9.
[ii] Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 2.
[iii] D.F.M Strauss, “Scholasticism and Reformed Scholasticism at Odds with Genuine Reformational-Christian Thinking,” in Ned. Geref. Teologiese Tydskrif Vol. 5, March 1969, no. 2 (97-114).
[iv] Andree Troost, What is Reformational Philosophy: An Introduction to the Cosmonomic Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd, trans. Anthony Runia (Jordan Station, ON: Paideia Press, 2012), 166.