Considering the Universe Next Door

This article was first published on the Classical Conversations Writer’s blog.

“[A]s I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship…”
(Paul speaking to the Athenians)

“Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth.”
(Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Will our children grow up to be thinking adults who understand their beliefs, know where those beliefs came from, and know how those beliefs fare in comparison to competing beliefs? Let’s begin to answer these questions by first looking at the world in which our children will grow up.

Our present age

This world is disordered and has been since Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, but the modern soul suffers from a particular disordering. For millennia human beings lived within cultural boundaries of ready-made worldviews about nature and man, history and morality, life and death. Even as western societies expanded during the age of discovery they took with them the intellectual and social glue known as Christendom. They also brought along what we today call Christian, classical education (they would have merely called it education). But with modernity came a shifting of intellectual, social, political, economic, and spiritual tectonic plates possibly greater than any historical event save the coming of Christ. The shift (occurring mostly between the years 1650 to 1950) has been well documented, but it simply boils down to the movement from theism (with all its implications) to naturalism (with all its implications) to various reactions to naturalism.

A simple version of this shift might look something like this:

God exists, is infinite, personal, transcendent and
deeply involved in every aspect of His creation,
as seen most fully in the Incarnation.

God is transcendent but impersonal. He created the
world and set it in motion like a clock to run on it’s own.

Matter is all there is. God does not exist.

Therefore human beings are only complex, natural machines.
Therefore there is no basis for meaning and significance.

Human beings must create their own meaning.
One’s existence precedes one’s essence.
We are condemned to being free.

It is a downward path, from reason to irrationality, from God’s image in us to man is merely another animal. At this point one might seek answers elsewhere, perhaps in Eastern pantheistic monism, which says the soul of every human being is really just part of the Soul of the cosmos. Or one may find something more loosey-goosey, such as postmodern New Age spirituality, where one can create one’s own spiritual journey from a buffet of choices. And of course we often seek meaning in sports, politics, work, education, the arts, family, and the god of our age, consumerism. But it is still meaningless without an infinite, personal, transcendent and deeply involved creator God. The tragedy of mankind’s sinful nature includes the startling evidence that many choose ultimate meaninglessness rather than bowing the knee to God.

We are much like the frog in the pan of boiling water, unaware that we’re slowing cooking to death. We swim in these worldviews like fish in the sea. If we consider the world of just two hundred years ago and see what happened between then and now, we might see something like what Richard Tarnas described:

As the twentieth century advanced, modern consciousness found itself caught up in an intensely contradictory process of simultaneous expansion and contraction. Extraordinary intellectual and psychological sophistication was accompanied by a debilitating sense of anomie and malaise. An unprecedented broadening of horizons and exposure to the experience of others coincided with a private alienation of no less extreme proportions. A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life—the contemporary world, the historical past, other cultures, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche—yet there was also a less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty. The great overriding impulse defining Western man since the Renaissance—the question for independence, self-determination, and individualism—had indeed brought those ideals to reality in many lives; yet it had also eventuated in a world where individual spontaneity and freedom were increasingly smothered, not just in theory by a reductionist scientism, but in practice by the ubiquitous collectivity and conformism of mass societies. (Tarnas, p. 388)

Consequently, we live in a pluralistic age, much like the age of the first Christians. The Apostle Paul in Athens was confronted by a people who had an endless capacity for both credulity and incredulity. Athens was the center of the intellectual world, a place where the love of speculation and debate ruled. It was also a highly religious city. Athens was full of the enticements of idols and opportunities for worship. However, both stiff incredulity and groundless credulity will eventually produce cynicism born from an inevitable and corrosive relativism. Our present age is also corrosively cynical. But we do not need to visit a geographic location like Athens to be surrounded by gods. Our world comes to us, and it does so with an intensity and vehemence such that one either becomes quickly overwhelmed or must take the defensive posture of numbness.

I feel this pressure constantly. I find everywhere the cynicism of relativism. We must be prepared to understand and carefully judge the constant opportunities for belief that confront us daily. Let us not lose sight of the truth as so much flotsam and jetsam in a sea of ideas and competing worldviews. As a homeschooling parent I have the responsibility to prepare my children to be in the world but but not of the world. I must help form their minds so that they are capable of making wise judgements about “objects of worship.” And, hopefully, that they come to love the adventure of discernment.

Among the best gifts I can give my children are great questions and the time to think them through.

The questions

Can truth be known, understood, and communicated? Are some dogmas worth believing and holding fast, and others to be rejected? What is it that my neighbor believes? What is it that I believe? Is there even any value in trying to find the answers, or are we just playing games?

Children traverse a chasm on the way to adulthood. That crossing is the process of leaving the comfort of belief for the sake of family to the passion of belief for the sake of self. It is the journey from childhood to adulthood, and it is a journey God created as an important part of human nature. It is, in short, a necessary part of coming to faith. Needless to say, eventually our children will be among wolves, whether they are thrown among them or discover they walked willingly (and perhaps naively) into their midst. If we believe that the grammar stage of learning can help prepare a child for the dialectic stage, and the dialectic for the rhetoric, then perhaps we can prepare our children for the chasm which begins in the dialectic stage. Perhaps we can encourage right thinking that still allows for the natural and necessary struggle to proceed as a ship handles rough seas with a good rudder and plenty of ballast. What is committed to memory provides the ballast and good principles of dialectic provide the rudder.

To help our children (and ourselves) with the dialectical engagement with worldviews we might begin with seven questions that can be asked of any worldview, any philosophical or theological system, and even of the core beliefs at the heart of any book or film. These questions I am stealing from James W. Sire’s book, The Universe Next Door. They are:

  1. What is prime reality─the really real?
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
  3. What is a human being?
  4. What happens to a person at death?
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
  7. What is the meaning of human history?

Consider how powerful these questions can be as they lie in the background of our discussions. For most students (for anyone really) these questions are very difficult to answer. Surprisingly, most college graduates have never seriously considered these questions, or even know of their existence. But we are called to live examined lives. We are called to raise our children to live examined lives. We need to gently make these questions mandatory.

Belief has to come from within. We cannot make our children into authentic Christians. At some point they must personally choose to follow Christ or not. Like us they will feel the pressures of this age and the next. They will experience the chaos of competing ideas, the tensions of modernity, and the longing in their hearts for meaning. As parents we must acknowledge the reality of the world they live in, including its very real dangers. We must also model for our children good habits of thinking. And we must recognize that it is God’s design that our children will question the faith in which we have raised them, perhaps even rebel against that faith for awhile. One thing we can give them is a set of questions that will not let them off the hook.

Works cited:

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids: Eardmans, 1989.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that have Shaped our World View. New York: Ballantine, 1991.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christian Life, Education, Family, Homeschooling, World View

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s