World Views in Our Culture

by Steve W. Lemke
delivered at the 1995 annual seminar
of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary


        The pluralism of our age has brought an incredible diversity of world views within our culture. Only a few decades ago, one dominant world view was accepted by consensus in American culture--a world view with conservative values shaped largely by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Of course, there have always been other world views within our culture which our constitutional freedoms protect with toleration. But one world view was consistently presented in the media and mainstream culture. The situation has changed, however. Our culture has lost this sense of identity. We have become legion, a multiple world view cultural personality disorder which has led to the psychological disintegration of the nation's soul. We no longer know who we are or what we believe as a culture. As James Hunter documents in his books Culture Wars and Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War, our numerous world views do not merely offer a variety of alternatives, but competing and unreconcilable rival positions vying against each other in a war for dominance in our culture. Network television presents us with a cacophony of competing world views screaming for our attention. In fact, it seems that every effort is made to magnify the views of non-traditional world views while silencing or debunking the world view that has been our tradition.

        What are the leading world views in our culture? I would like us to examine five world views that have arisen as the principal rivals to the Judeo-Christian world view--materialistic naturalism, consequentialist pragmatism, underculture nihilism, enlightenment modernism, and eclectic postmodernism. In each of these world views, I would like to contrast how they view God, persons, and ethics, and how they would approach an ethical issue such as abortion. As we will see, very different world views may agree on a specific issue, but for very different reasons. This agreement of strange bedfellows sometimes creates the illusion that our culture is more unified than it is in fact. Of course, when making such an overview survey, generalizations must be made. Individuals may choose various aspects of different world views, but often people remain basically within a single world view.

        One could name many other world views which deserve our attention, of course. They have become so numerous that time would not permit dealing with them all. Perhaps the Islamic world view will become the next major world view on the scene, since in the next year Islam will replace Judaism as the second major religion in adherents behind Christianity in America. There are already half as many Muslims as Southern Baptists in the United States, and Islam is growing at a faster rate than Southern Baptists in several recent years. Christians need to become much more aware of the world views of other world religions in a nation in which already Buddhism is the dominant world religion in one of our fifty states. As Richard Cunningham has stated,

        The Christian apologetic task today is defined by our new setting in a pluralistic world. . . .
        The church is at a juncture in history where it is increasingly important for ministers and
        many laypersons to better understand the alternative belief systems and worldviews that
        challenge the Christian faith's proclamation of Jesus Christ as the way to truth, reality,
        and God. The mission of the church to people who hold alternative religious or other
        kinds of beliefs is no longer the special task of missionaries alone.(1)

        It is important to emphasize the distinction between our ethical duty to make justifiable, rational choices and the constitutional right we Americans have to choose our own beliefs. An emphasis on American constitutional freedoms and the ideology of multicultural pluralism has led many to assess all truth claims as being essentially equal. While teaching ethics at a secular college, I often encountered students in ethics classes unwilling and unable to defend their own beliefs. They were somewhat indignant when I suggested that their beliefs were inconsistent or illogical. "What right do you have to challenge my beliefs?" they would say. "I can believe whatever I want." They do have that right, of course, but that doesn't mean that those beliefs are correct. I may choose to believe that three plus five equals ten, but that is not a correct belief. As Americans, we all have an equal right to believe the world view we choose, but that does not mean that these world views are equally right. With that caveat in mind, let us examine the world views of our culture.

Materialistic Naturalism

        The world view of materialistic naturalism has presented the greatest challenge to the Christian world view in most of this century, although it has lost much of its popular appeal in the last decade and a half. It views the universe strictly through empirical eyes, seeking to explain everything in the universe by physical causes alone. Strictly speaking, materialistic naturalism cannot have a theology, since the "God hypothesis" cannot be proven in the scientific laboratory. But some have attempted a deistic or process theology to reinterpret the God of Christianity for the world view of materialist naturalists. Deists view God as a divine watchmaker who winds up the universe and then leaves it to work by itself according to natural and moral law. Process theology, on the other hand, identifies God as being within nature. God himself is in process along with nature in an evolutionary spiral. The anthropology of materialistic naturalism views persons as highly developed animals, the product of chance evolution. They deny a spiritual side of human life, explaining emotions in terms of glandular activity or conditioned response and debunking the mind or soul by saying there is "no ghost in the machine."

        The ethic of materialistic naturalism is something of an oxymoron. Since they do not believe that values exist in any ontological sense, it is inconsistent for them to pontificate about right and wrong. Moving from empirical statements to value judgments is a leap of categories often called the naturalistic fallacy. Many materialistic naturalists thus prefer a subjectivist, emotivist approach to ethics, in which ethical claims are understood as merely expressions of personal preferences. Others derive their ethic from Darwin's notion of survival of the species, valuing cooperation and adaptation to the environment. Dealing with an issue such as abortion then, most materialistic naturalists would simply see this as a matter of personal choice. Others might see abortion as a useful tool in reducing world population, thus aiding the survival of the human species.

Consequentialist Pragmatism

        Pragmatism is the most American of the world views in its inception and popularity. In my view, pragmatism is by far the most dominant world view on the American cultural landscape. And while materialistic naturalism has usually been seen as a threat to orthodox Christianity, more common ground could be found between pragmatism and experiential Christianity. I am concerned, however, that we must look this Trojan gift horse in the mouth before we naively accept all the implications of its world view. Consequentialist pragmatism as a world view seeks whatever meets the most human needs. There is no objective right or wrong, but rather, as James said, "truth happens to an idea." Ideas are sought which have "cash value," which have good consequences or results in meeting human need.

        The theology of pragmatism is probably best expressed in William James's classic text in psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James surveys exhaustively virtually every expression of religious faith in both high and low church. In his final chapter, one may expect James to recommend which religious expressions are better or worse. But he merely says that people should pursue whatever form of expression works for them and meets their needs. None is inherently right or wrong, or even better or worse. Religion is good if it works for you. The anthropology of pragmatism thus views humans as consumers, as people who have a right to have their needs met.

        The ethic of consequentialist pragmatism is the pleasure principle. The greatest happiness of the greatest number of people is its highest good, with happiness equated with pleasure. The way to determine an ethical choice, then, is to weigh consequences. Will it make my life more pleasurable or more painful? One doesn't address, for instance, if premarital sex is really right or wrong, but merely what the consequences of each choice would be. Applied to the issue of abortion, consequentialist pragmatism merely compares the consequences of having or not having the baby. If the consequences would cause financial stress, embarrassment, or inconvenience, an abortion is viewed as the "right" choice.

Underculture Nihilism

        Perhaps the most overlooked world view in our culture is that of the underculture. It finds philosophical expression in the atheistic existentialism of Sartre and Nietzsche. On a more popular level this perspective is rarely articulated in scholarly circles, but has emerged as an important player in our culture. Undercultural hedonism is a revolt against most of the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Its world view forsakes things of lasting value for things of immediate pleasure. Drugs, sex, alcoholism, gambling, and luxury items replace traditional values such as life, family, and sexual morality. Its breeding ground is the gang and drug culture. It is opposed to every vestige of excellence and stability in traditional culture.

        A granddaughter of some members of a church I pastored encountered this world view in a middle school in Houston, Texas. She happened to be fairly gifted intellectually, but was not making good grades in school. Her parents investigated, and the teachers said that the daughter had not been turning in her assignments. But the parents had seen her doing these assignments at home. The explanation that emerged was that she was under such pressure from her peers in school not to succeed that she had done the assignments but had not turned them in to the teacher. Her underculture classmates intimidated her with various threats so she would not show them up by doing good work. It was not that they had any illusions about doing better work than her; they had nihilistically reversed the definitions of success and failure. They wanted everyone to fail. To succeed would be to cling to traditional values.

        It is easy to underestimate the strength of this group because they may receive less public attention. A few years ago my wife and I were going out of our Texas state fairgrounds a few hours before a rock band was to perform in the Cotton Bowl. We began to see people by the hundreds coming into the fairgrounds for the concert who shocked us by their number and their appearance. By the thousands they were almost uniformly clad in black t-shirts, often with a skull or some demonic symbol on it. Their hairstyles and overall appearance suggested to us that they had been caught in a time warp from the 1960's, or that all the motorcycle gangs in America had suddenly multiplied miraculously like the catch of fish recorded in Matthew. As we moved out on the streets, we saw cars backed up on the interstate highway for miles. These same people were there, honking their horns or urinating along the side of the road. Dismayed, Carol and I kept asking each other the question, Where did all these people come from?" Perhaps a few of these people are executives at IBM, but I doubt it. They work at places and times we don't tend to see them. One should be careful, however, not to equate those who hold this world view with those who are merely poor. Although their outward appearance may be similar at times, many of the poor are godly people with high moral standards.

        There is no meaningful theology in this underculture, at least until crises bring on foxhole conversions. They live in Nietzsche's godless world where God is simply ignored. This world view approaches humans with cynicism, as objects to be used. Not only is another person's life viewed as having no value, but they do not expect to live very long themselves. Life is lived for the immediate moment, without a future. It is a life without hope. The ethic that emerges from this world view is hedonism--not altruistic hedonism as in pragmatism, but egoistic hedonism that seeks the pleasure of the moment. The rights and needs of others are disregarded; everything is judged by selfish desires. Deciding about abortion is done by considering self-interest alone, such as what government assistance one might get with the child. Sometimes the individual is so self-absorbed that no thought is given to the child's best interests.

Enlightenment Modernism

        Within the scholarly community, enlightenment modernism has raised a significant challenge to Christian belief over the last few centuries. Often allied with materialistic naturalism, it has been antagonistic to Christian orthodoxy. Arising out of enlightenment rationalism, however, it emphasizes reason more than the empiricism of materialistic naturalism. It is a world view which makes the autonomous rational thinker the judge of all things. Nothing supernatural which transcends reason is accepted. Alasdair MacIntyre identifies the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the canonical textual locus for this world view, and summarizes its three key assumptions of this view:

        (1) They assumed the assent of all educated persons to a single substantive conception
                of rationality . . . .
        (2) They understood the outcome of allegiance to the standards and methods of such a
                rationality to be the elaboration of a comprehensive, rationally incontestable
                scientific understanding of the whole, in which the architectonic of the sciences
                matched that of the cosmos. . . .
        (3) And finally they saw their whole mode of life, including their conceptions of
                   rationality and of science, as part of a history of inevitable progress . . .(2)

        Not content to leave religious believers unenlightened, enlightenment modernists have attacked biblical Christianity with evangelistic zeal, accusing it of being irrational and simplistic. Often enlightenment modernists have recreated Christianity in their own image, "religion within the limits of reason alone," as Kant called it, in forms such as deism, Kantian and Hegelian idealism, and secular humanism. While they may allow for a natural theology, they are critical of any revealed knowledge of God. Through higher criticism they have presupposed the elimination of any supernatural element in Scripture, resulting in a Bible without divine inspiration, miracles without divine intervention, and Jesus without a divine nature. These rationalistic recreations so mutilate orthodox Christianity that one could be excused for not recognizing their relation to the faith once delivered to the saints.

        Illustrative of the disdain enlightenment modernists have for religion is a mail solicitation from the American Humanist Association I recently received. Its bold face headline urged me to "Join the Champions of Reason!" After recounting in four paragraphs the foolishness of New Agers channeling to a 35,000-year-old Cro-Magnon warrior called Ramtha, Bette Chambers drove home her point:

        Now, you might be saying, "There are far worse examples of religiously inspired
        fraud than this Ramtha stuff." And indeed there are. Witness Jim Jones and David
        Koresh. And even as I write, people are dying because someone's god has offended
        someone else's god. Witness Bosnia, Israel, India. The Ramtha cult may be but a
        surface symptom of something far deeper. Bertrand Russell called it a "cruel thirst
        for worship." And consider this: according to a recent poll, 69 percent of Americans
        still believe in angels, many of them claiming to have their own personal "guardian angel."
        In the poll it traditionally conducts each Easter, Gallup found that only 8 percent of
        Americans stated that they disbelieved in a god of any kind. Trust in Ramtha pales in
        comparison to numbers like these.(3)

        The theology of enlightenment modernism, then, is usually agnosticism or atheism. The first two propositions of Humanist Manifesto II declare that "traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species," and that "promises of immortal salvation and fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful."(4) On that vacant divine throne, however, enlightenment modernists put the autonomous human person. Bereft of God, humanity becomes an end in itself and usurps the place of God. As Bette Chambers asserts,

        Humanism is a philosophy, life-stance, world view, or system of moral precepts
        which maintains that human beings shape their own destiny. . . . No deity or
        supernatural "force" governs what we do. . . . We must do it ourselves.(5)

        The ethic of enlightenment modernism is individualistic and rational. Any moral code imposed on the individual is resisted as an intrusion. The fifth proposition in the Humanist Manifesto II asserts that "we reject all religious, ideological, or moral codes" because they "denigrate the individual, suppress freedom, dull intellect, (and) dehumanize personality."(6) Applied to the abortion issue, enlightenment modernists reject any imposition on an autonomous human's free choice to "reproductive rights."

Eclectic Postmodernism

        The most recent rival to the Christian world view, one which has arisen in the past two decades, is postmodernity. It emerged out of the concepts of relativity, indeterminacy, and complementarity in the Einsteinian cosmology. Applying these beliefs more broadly, it approaches reality with the assumption that everything is relative. I am concerned that while many Christian thinkers have rightfully focused on resisting the onslaught of enlightenment modernism, they have overlooked this new significant threat which looms on the horizon. The dogmatic eclecticism and pluralism of postmodernity threaten to undermine the concept of absolute truth. The paradigmatic belief of postmodernity is that no one has a monopoly on truth, and so each person must choose his or her own path. In a sense, there is no such thing as an error in postmodernity. All paths lead to the truth.

        This subjectivity is exemplified in its hermeneutic of deconstruction, in which a word or phrase may be interpreted in any way the reader (or author) chooses. Decon-struction, as its name suggests, has the bold goal of destroying Western language and literature as we know it. It seeks to replace the canon of the classic texts of Western civilization (including the Bible) with politically correct feminist, counterculture, and esoteric texts. If you have read the deconstructionist theology of Mark Taylor or Stephen Moore, you know how destructive this approach could be in a Sunday School class. It has no concern for what the original author intended to say, but merely a subjective interpretation of what it means to each reader. Biblical authority will be undermined and ridiculed.

        Postmodernity is a strange rival because it resists the hegemony of materialistic naturalism and enlightenment modernism as strongly as does orthodox Christianity. Its critique of modernism and naturalism is that they overlooked important dimensions of human life--too much left brain thinking and not enough right brain thinking. It is a revival of interest in "spirituality" and mystical experience, long taboo in naturalism and modernism. But it is spirituality without limits. It can be pluralistic--all religious paths lead the same way, or syncretistic--an amalgamation of several religious traditions. The New Age movement is, of course, the best known example of a syncretistic postmodern belief system.

        Although the New Age movement has attracted a few well-known celebrities, the typical person involved in it is very different. Lowell Streiker, a California pastor and mental health specialist, visited scores of New Age conventions and bookstores. He has estimated that as many as 70 to 90 percent of the New Age market is comprised of women, many of whom have been abused by men. In his excellent analysis of the typical New Age adherent in New Age Comes to Main Street, Streiker describes the customers of one New Age/occult bookstore:

        They are almost all women in their thirties. They look wan and listless. They
        barely speak above a whisper. Many of them have racially mixed children. The
        husbands or lovers of most have long since abandoned them. The women are
        sweet, nonassertive, and physically weak . . . (which the bookstore manager
        attributes to macrobiotic dieting). She (the manager) tells me that half of the store's
        clientele is gay/lesbian and that most of the women have been abused by parents
        or parent surrogates as children and repeatedly by spouses or lovers as adults.(7)

        The theology of eclectic postmodernism is as widely variant as its adherents. The idea that one religion is the one true religion is foreign and repulsive to them. Theirs is a cafeteria style religion in which one chooses one's own doctrines. Many New Agers combine doctrines from Native American and African animistic religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, neopagan goddess worship, and witchcraft, just to name a few. Consider the syncretistic theology of two female seminarians preparing for ordination who were interviewed by Streiker. Maya was an incest victim with a fundamentalist upbringing, but now is a practicing lesbian and witch. She told Streiker

        I'd rather carry a rock in my pocket to remind me of Mother Earth than wear a
        cross around my neck as a symbol of violence . . . . It's not that we necessarily want
        to worship God as Mother. It's that those who worship God as Father perpetuate
        violence against women."(8)

        Another seminarian, Angie, expressed a similarly confused theology when she asserted

        I want to be where God/Goddess is working, and that is among the marginalized. . . .
        I personally am not going to change the world. (But) I have a little corner . . . being a
        therapist for lesbians and other marginalized women, pursuing the study of lesbian
        theology, being an "out" lesbian. I love the winter solstice, praying that the sun will
        come back. Somehow I know that my prayers do help the sun to come back. So
        does being a lesbian, feminist, and political activist.(9)

Many postmodernists espouse theologies of pantheism or panentheism. Others believe that humans can become divine in a process of self-divinitization. The only theological belief they would adamantly oppose is exclusivism--that only one religion offers the way of salvation.

        The anthropology of eclectic postmodernism is essentially the same as that of enlightenment modernism--the individual self is of ultimate value. This is deceptive, since many postmodernists draw heavily from Eastern religions which have a low view of the self. But all the meditation and cybernetics techniques are designed to aid the individual to achieve greater self-realization--just the opposite goal of Eastern religions, which seek to blow out the self in nirvana.

        The ethic of eclectic postmodernism is subjective. All moral codes are relative to the situation. But postmodernity has a low view of personal responsibility, tending to decry social sin but overlooking personal sin. Regarding abortion, a postmodern mindset could justify abortion in many situations. Even if one views abortion as less than the ideal, however, it is society's fault rather than the individual's.

A Christian Response

        What can Christians do to respond to such a confused, pluralistic age? How can we proclaim the Christian world view in a culture dominated by competing world views? If time permitted, we could talk about specific points of debate with each of the world views. I believe we can make a good case that Christianity is the most reasonable of all the world views. But allow me to make five recommendations for how the Christian church should approach the world views we confront in the 21st century:

        (1) Approach those holding other world views with respect and compassion. A haughty, demeaning spirit is unattractive to anyone. We are called to give an answer with meekness for the hope that is within us (1 Pet. 3:15), and to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We are responsible in witness not only for what we say, but how we say it.

        (2) Investigate other world views continually as a part of your witness preparation.
I am concerned that we have made the evangelistic harvest much more manageable by arbitrarily cutting out a large part of the harvest. One of my assignments in teaching philosophy of religion at the seminary level is the area of world religions. I have lost count of how many students have told me (either during the semester or later) that they had an opportunity to witness to someone from another world religion, and how helpful it had been that they knew the basic concepts of that world view. That was not an essential part of witness training a few decades ago, but it is now. While pastoring in a university community with a number of international students, I discovered resistance in our church membership to visiting people on the new move-ins list with Asian or Hispanic names. They would gladly visit people very much like us, but they argued that these people would likely have other religious convictions. The witnessing time, they said, could be better spent with others who might be more interested in Christianity. I answered them that just because they had an Asian or Hispanic surname certainly did not guarantee that they were not a Christian. In fact, some of them might be better Christians than we are! But if they indeed weren't Christian, then what is witnessing about? Is it not bringing the good news of salvation to those who need to hear it? We must be prepared to witness to a much more diverse world than in the past.

        (3) Relate Christianity to contemporary world views as much as possible without compromising doctrinal integrity. We err when we are either divorced or married to a contemporary world view. When we are divorced from it, our gospel is not heard as being relevant to modern life. When we are married to it, our gospel becomes outdated as soon as the next world view comes along. This is a very difficult balance to maintain, but we must strike that scriptural balance of being in the world without being of the world (John 15:19, 17:15-16). We must be all things to all people that we may win some (1 Cor. 9:22), yet not compromise the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). It means we must relate intelligently to modern scientific paradigms without resorting to materialism. It means we should be concerned with practical results meeting needs in human life without making pragmatism the final judge of truth. It means we must have compassion for those driven to the underculture without affirming their values. It means we must demonstrate the rational evidence for the Christian faith rather than retreating into obscurantistic pietism, yet without making reason the final arbiter of truth. It means we must emphasize the individual's appropriation of truth without denying the objectivity of truth.

        (4) Insist that the Christian world view get a fair hearing. How odd that in our day people in America would suggest that Christianity is overrepresented in popular culture, or that Christians have no right to address significant moral issues! I find precisely the opposite to be the case. The Christian world view is dramatically underrepresented in the media. Leith Anderson said recently that the attendance at all the sporting events in our country amounts to just 2 percent of church attendance, but you would never guess that by media portrayals. When is the last time you saw a movie or television series where people went to a typical suburban evangelical church? When is the last time you saw a Protestant minister presented as a model of integrity and compassion? What I see are caricatures of television evangelists in outdated clothing with exaggerated Southern accents, with no touch of reality of what is really going on in most churches. I think we need an active Christian anti-defamation league to address such caricatures. Nor is this anti-Christian prejudice limited to the media. Francis Beckwith, an evangelical philosophy teacher at UNLV, recently researched the courses taught at community colleges in his area. He found dozens of courses teaching Buddhist and Hindu meditation techniques. When he proposed to the school administrators that courses be offered which replaced Buddhism with Christianity and meditation with prayer, they responded indignantly that such would violate separation of church and state. Why is that which is good for the goose not good for the gander? Christians have just as much right to speak their views in public as anyone else. We must insist on our right as Americans to equal protection and equal access.

        (5) Give people the gospel, not a watered-down cultural Christianity. We need to give them surgery, not a band aid. Only the gospel is powerful enough to transform lives. By the gospel, I mean the kerygma, the central facts of our faith (1 Cor. 15:1-4). We must proclaim the divinity of Christ, His virgin birth, His atoning death on the cross, His bodily resurrection, and his second coming. We must lead people into life-changing experiences that are nothing less than being born again. And we must base our message on a divinely inspired, authoritative, infallible, inerrant Word of God. Perhaps we might be tempted into soft-pedaling biblical authority in such a pluralistic age with so many claims to truth. But just the opposite is the case. A pastor in a suburban church recently shared his pilgrimage on this issue with me. His church is in a suburban area exploding with population growth from people outside the Bible Belt. While earning his Ph.D. in New Testament, he had served as a staff member in a large church in which "inerrancy" would not have been the word used to describe biblical authority. But ministering in an area with diverse world views led him to change his view. He found people searching for an answer to the emptiness and brokenness in their lives. "Some scholars say" or "what we think this means" or "Psychology Today says" was not enough. When they came to hear God's man, they expected to hear a word from God. We owe them nothing less.



1. Richard B. Cunningham, The Christian Faith and Its Contemporary Rivals (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 11.

2. Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 23-24.

3. Bette Chambers, American Humanist Association mailout, Fall 1994, 1.

4. The text of the Humanist Manifesto II and an evangelical response are in Josh McDowell, Handbook of Today's Religions (San Bernadino: Here's Life, 1983), 459-478. For the complete versions of both Humanist Manifestos, see Paul Kurtz, ed., Humanist Manifesto I and II (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1973.

5. Chambers, 2.

6. McDowell, 469.

7. Lowell Streiker, New Age Comes to Main Street (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 71.

8. Ibid., 126-127.

9. Ibid., 141-142.

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