Last night was the second session in our church discussion of The Truth Project, a DVD series that aims to promote a biblical worldview. Following on from last week’s session I was slightly sceptical about the way the DVD series approaches the idea of truth, but was interested to hear what they had to say on the topic of Philosophy and Ethics.
Well, the session was interesting. On one level I agreed with much of the content, about how it is potentially problematic for any philosophical system to explain life and the universe using only what is contained within the universe. However, the session for me was overshadowed by two things, one ironic and the other tragic.
My first, and less serious, issue with the session was that in talking about different philosophies it seemed to be blind to its own cultural presuppositions and philosophy. A great number of philosophies were named (secularism, pantheism, humanism, post-modernism), quickly caricatured (post-modernism was simply portrayed as the denial of absolute truth – an easy target for evangelical Christians…) and then knocked down. However, the one philosophy that was not mentioned was post-Enlightenment modernism. This worldview, which seeks to simplify the world and reduce it to objective universal abstractions, was never named or critiqued, but was certainly the one running the show behind the scenes.
But is modernism really any more biblical than post-modernism or any other philosophy? Does the way it uses power and knowledge to suppress the views of minorities line up with the gospel? Does the way it values abstraction, detachment and logic over relationship, involvement and compassion tie in with the God who is intimately tied to his creation and ultimately became human? Does its reductionist view of the world do justice to the unfathomable and utterly untameable God?
To me the supreme irony of the DVD session was that various philosophies were stood up and knocked down, only for the presenters to be apparently oblivious to the way that they were merely replacing these easy targets with their own equally flawed philosophy. And that in itself is classic modernism – seeing every other view as providing a certain perspective on the world, while believing that your own view is universal, objective and absolute.
Although it has some serious issues, one of the strengths of post-modernism is its awareness of how each person’s perspective affects the way they see the world. If the presenters had taken what others were saying more seriously, they might have been more aware of how their own philosophy and culture is not necessarily universal and absolute. It would have been great to hear for example how Christians from Asia, Africa and South America would engage with these questions, and their perspectives on what a biblical worldview might look like. (My guess is that the first two sessions wouldn’t have been on the topics of truth and abstract philosophy). As it is, this proposal of an apparently universal biblical worldview seems in practice to be remarkably North American and modern in approach and style.
While this blindness to the limitations of one’s own philosophy seemed ironic to me, I was much more upset with what another aspect of the DVD.
At a couple of points during the session, people with various beliefs (most of whom wouldn’t have claimed to be Christian) were asked questions in front of the camera, for example how they decided what was right and what was wrong. What I found particularly uncomfortable was the way their responses were edited to short soundbites and then very quickly dismissed as illogical, unbiblical or both. These people were not given the chance to explain the complexities and nuances of their beliefs, or the experiences that had shaped their thinking, and were never allowed to respond to the way their opinions were quickly dismissed by the presenters. There was no indication that anyone in the show built any serious relationships with the contributors or saw them as anything more than sources of useful soundbites for the DVD.
Surely Jesus would have sat down with each person, listened at length to their views on life, asked further questions, and respectfully and sensitively pointed them towards himself as the truth. This is exactly what we see Paul do in Athens in Acts 17 as he engages respectfully and at length with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The DVD on the other hand caricatured often complex philosophical positions, quickly dismissing both the philosophies and those who put them forward. I realise that there is a limit to how much you can engage with complex philosophies in an hour-long session, but if it can’t be done in a way that respects the participants, honors God and reflects the way Jesus engaged with people, maybe it shouldn’t be done at all.
To me this is a huge problem. I dread to think what the five or six people interviewed thought when they watched the finished DVD. How did the way that they and their views were treated make them feel about Christianity? How did it make them feel about Jesus? Did it bring them closer to him or put up a barrier? Whatever the benefits of the DVD series it can never ever be worth the cost of turning someone away from Jesus.
As I think about why this happened, I’m wondering if one of the underlying issues here is that the series producers are not thinking missionally. The series, which is apparently aimed at a Christian audience, doesn’t seem to be focused on helping the viewers to look out into the world but rather on getting their own individual theology straight so that they can stand up to non-Christians. The problem with this approach is that in focusing on our own need for security (and seeking to find that security in the certainty of our beliefs rather than simply in Christ) we end up putting up walls to protect ourselves against “contamination” from the world, and then when we do finally start to think about mission we are left shouting over our walls at those on the outside, who have already dismissed us as self-obsessed, irrationally fearful and slightly crazy.
I just wonder if the way our culture defines truth as knowing the right facts has blinded us to the ultimate truth which is Jesus, and his humble and loving life, selfless and sacrificial death, and glorious and hope-filled resurrection.