A Mind in Full
Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity
reviewed by Angus Menuge
There is no longer a Christian mind.” This is the shocking opening sentence of Harry Blamires’s The Christian Mind. Blamires, writing in 1963, did not mean that Christians could not think, but that they had lost the art of thinking Christianly about all things, sacred and secular.
Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) is among the historical studies that have tried to explain what went wrong with Christian thought. Other writers, such as C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, J. P. Moreland, and James Sire, have offered a philosophical analysis of how worldviews antithetical to Christianity have infiltrated the thought of Christians.
A Distinctive Way
It is in this philosophical tradition that Nancy Pearcey writes (she gratefully acknowledges a debt to Schaeffer’s L’Abri). A senior fellow of the Discovery Institute and with Charles Colson co-author of How Now Shall We Live?, she argues that the central biblical presuppositions of creation, fall, and redemption provide a distinctive way of looking at the world (a worldview), and that this should determine how Christians understand all of life.
The first section (“What’s in a worldview?”) identifies the problem of privatized Christianity and traces it to a series of unfortunate dualisms in past thought. Some readers will dispute Pearcey’s reading of particular figures, but many will agree with her that medieval Christianity went wrong in supposing that living a holy life required separation from the world. This belief easily leads to the idea that there is no distinctively Christian way of thinking about worldly vocations, a view, Pearcey notes, still prominent among twenty-first-century Evangelicals, who often suffer a sense of inferiority for not having gone into church work.
There were theological resources to resist this, such as the doctrine of vocation: In our secular work we serve as masks of God’s providential care for all people. However, theology proved insufficient to weather Enlightenment secularism, because it failed to provide a Christian philosophy that could engage non-Christian philosophies on their own terms.
Followers of the Enlightenment identified reason with scientific materialism and demoted religion, morality, and the arts to matters of subjective feeling. This caused the “modern schism” between “facts” (findings of science) and “values,” which Francis Schaeffer called the lower and upper stories. Christianity’s cognitive claims are thus no longer taken seriously as statements about reality, but are viewed as subjective biases.
In practice, Pearcey shows, this leads to an unlivable worldview. She cites MIT’s Steven Pinker, who wrote the best-selling How the Mind Works. Pinker argues that our cognitive architecture consists of a collection of gadgets that promote the survival of our genes. He admits that this provides no reason to think we have free will, rationality, or even personal identity. Yet he also realizes that an ethical life requires the assumption that we are free, rational persons, so he affirms this by a “leap of faith” quite unjustified by his materialist philosophy.
Here we see what Pearcey calls “the great intellectual lostness of our age: that many are forced to hang their entire hopes for dignity and meaning on an upper-story realm that they themselves regard as noncognitive and unverifiable.”
Discerning the Others
Many Christians capitulate to secular ideologies because they do not discern their incompatibility with the Christian worldview. This is due either to a failure to articulate the Christian worldview or to the lack of an effective method of comparing it with non-Christian worldviews. Pearcey follows the approach of focusing on the worldviews’ accounts of creation, fall, and redemption. All worldviews answer the questions of creation (what is the ultimate origin of everything?), fall (what has gone wrong?), and redemption (how do we fix it?).
For example, Marxism says: Matter has always existed (creation); we went wrong by allowing private property (fall); and we can fix this by revolution (redemption). It thereby denies not only God, but also sin. It exalts the human and communal but denies the transcendent value of each individual, thereby fostering totalitarianism. For another example, Rousseau said: Humans flourished in the “state of nature” (creation); we went wrong by developing societal obligations (fall); we can fix this by replacing obligation with free contracts (redemption). His worldview exalts the individual but undermines familial and social relationships by making them choices rather than orders of God’s creation.
Worldviews have consequences. Marxism and Rousseau’s lead to the extremes of totalitarianism and hyper-individualism. Pearcey argues that God’s triune nature shows how to avoid these extremes. If God is in his very nature a relational being and we are made in his image, then (in contrast to Rousseau) we are inherently social beings intended for sacrificial one-flesh marriage as the foundation of family and society, and (in contrast to Marx) each individual has an ultimate dignity and cannot be sacrificed for the alleged good of the whole.
The second section (“Starting at the beginning”) focuses on one particular worldview that is especially corrosive of Christianity, the “universal acid” of Darwinism, and the response of the intelligent design (ID) movement. Darwinism explains why, when most of those involved in the scientific revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were Christians who thought God’s providential plan was discernible in nature, most scientists today are “methodological naturalists,” who believe that all of science can be done as if there were no God. It is naturalistic philosophy, and not the scientific evidence, that most influences such people.
Unfortunately, many are deceived by the evolutionists’ claim that their science operates from neutral assumptions, not noticing that the evolutionary assumption that God’s action (if it exists at all) cannot be detected is not a neutral scientific judgment but a bias against the Christian claim that God has revealed himself within creation.
If Christians want to affirm that their belief in God’s design is more than a feeling, they need to show that design is objectively detectable. This is what the ID movement is all about. Design theorists provide strong evidence that our universe is fine-tuned for life, that the information in DNA could not have arisen by chance or physical law, that many biochemical structures could not be built in the gradual way Darwinism requires, and that all this points to intelligent agency.
The third section (“How we lost our minds”) looks at the paradox of Pearcey’s own tradition, American Evangelicalism: that the activism and fervor that are its strengths in spreading the gospel also promote an atrophied life of the mind. This leads to a second paradox: that Americans are very religious, but America is increasingly secular. Christian thought is the needed bridge between internal piety and cultural impact, and the bridge is in sorry disrepair. But the proof that it is possible to reverse this trend is found in a group like the Society of Christian Philosophers, which has succeeded in pushing distinctively Christian thought back into the public arena.
A short, concluding section emphasizes that Christianity is not just a worldview to discuss over coffee in overstuffed chairs, but a way of life. Living in accordance with Christian presuppositions means crucifying the worldly desire to seek praise among men, something that academics, who seek the esteem of their peers, find particularly hard to do.
Very well written, striking in its breadth and in its synthesis of a wide range of material, and spiced with anecdotes and insights into Pearcey’s own journey back to the faith, Total Truth has sufficient philosophical substance to be used in a college-level class on Christian thought. Would that every Christian pastor and youth-group leader would read this book and then develop a plan for encouraging authentically Christian thought in the laity.
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“A Mind in Full” first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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