Do Ideas Really Matter? A Review of Nancy Pearcey's "Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It's Cultural Captivity"
There is a line in one of Darlene Zschech’s numerous Hillsong masterpieces in which she laments that she worships passionately on Sunday but then “can’t even find my Bible on Monday.”
It is an apt description for many of us who claim to be Christians, especially among Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. The faith professed on Sunday has little to do with the decisions we make on Monday and the rest of the week. Faith is kept in a neat little compartment totally separate from the rest of our lives.
What does this have to do with philosophy? Nancy Pearcey wrote “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity” to explain how the once-Christianized West has come so to view Sunday and Monday and to point the way to recovery of a philosophically informed, politically dynamic and Biblically grounded faith that informs every thought and action of every day.
Let me first tell you a little bit about Pearcey. A precocious child of the 1960s, Pearcey grew out of a childhood Christian faith and ended up adrift in the post-modernist ocean of isms and false gods, studying violin at the Heidelberg Conservatory in Europe and wondering what it all meant.
As she describes it, this was a grim time for her in many respects: “Eventually I embraced relativism and subjectivism and several of the other popular ‘isms’ of modern culture. For I was determined to be ruthlessly honest about the logical consequences of unbelief. If there is no God, then what can be the basis for objective or universal Truth?
“I realized that it is impossible to step outside our limited experience – our insignificantly small slot in the vast scope of the history of the universe – in order to gain access to universal knowledge, valid for all times and places.
“And if there is no God, then what can be the basis for universally valid moral standards? I shook my head and began arguing that we cannot know right or wrong in any ultimate sense. Eventually, I began to wonder whether I could even be sure about any reality outside my own head.”
She had arrived at the same point of meaninglessness that afflicts so many today. It is the view that, since the material world is “all there is,” it’s all relative and nothing matters in the ultimate sense.
Humans are thus mere accidents of chance or perhaps only one transitory phase on the never-ending evolution of life-form from the original protoplasm in the swamp a zillion billion years ago to whatever we become a zillion billion years from now.
But then she discovered L’Abri in Switzerland and its then-obscure Christian theologian/philosopher, Francis Schaeffer. The place was full of hippies, aspiring young philosophes, academic vagabonds of numerous descriptions and assorted others from points around the globe.
These folks spent their time at L’Abri arguing theology, philosophy, sociology and politics with Schaeffer and each other, high in the Swiss Alps. Many of them weren’t even Christians! Pearcey was transfixed by Schaeffer and other believers she met at L’Abri because, she said, for the first time in her life she encountered Christians who not only knew philosophy and could articulate it, they also connected it with their faith in their everyday lives. She didn’t know it at the time, of course, but she was about to discover that God is there and He is not silent, not even to the atheist who denies Him.
The woman is nothing if not thorough. Having deconstructed the faith of her fathers and pursued the stark implications of that deconstruction to its logical dead ends, Pearcey began the process of philosophical and theological recovery at L’Abri and thereafter.
The recovery was not without struggle. Near the end of a night-long vigil waiting expectantly for a miraculous sign from God, she simply gave up and started “speaking to God simply and directly from the depths of my spirit, with a profound sense of His presence. I acknowledged that I did not really need external signs and wonders because, in my heart of hearts, I had to admit (rather ruefully) that I was already convinced that Christianity was true.”
Why? Because once seen against the black backdrop of their logical meaninglessness, the isms of post-modernity leave all the essential questions unsatisfactorily answered or not answered at all. Only those with the intellectual honesty to admit its futility can escape it after arriving at such a hopeless end.
“So at about four-thirty that morning, I quietly admitted that God had won the argument.” Now several decades of reevaluation, reconstruction and studied application of her faith later, Pearcey is emerging today as a Christian thinker and intellectual advocate of immense importance.
In “Total Truth,” she has written a highly accessible summary critique of Western philosophy since Plato that lucidly details the crucial influence of world-views in shaping culture, and a powerful challenge to Christians to recover the intellectual energy to confront the empty dogmas that rule the West today.
Everybody has a world-view that is based on a set of often unconsciously held pre-theoretical presuppositions that govern how we answer fundamental questions regarding who we are, why we are here and how we should live.
For example, if I believe the material world is eternal and uncreated – i.e. has always been here and always will be – then I have no need of a God to create matter at some historical point in time. My presupposition that the material world always has and forever will be existent is thus my starting point of thought and everything follows from that point.
With that pre-theoretical presupposition about the nature of the material world, I will then logically conclude that some aspect of creation can best explain creation, not some external agent.
Note that my pre-theoretical pre-suppositions cannot be “proven.” I can’t live eternally to demonstrate that an eternal material world has no beginning or end. That means my philosophy of life is faith-based whether I realize or admit it.
It also exposes as an illusion the Fact-Value dichotomy that divides reality into that which is objectively true because it can be measured or otherwise quantified (i.e. Facts) and that which is subjectively related to individual preferences or beliefs (i.e. Values).
puts it this way:
“Every system of thought begins with some ultimate principle. If it does not begin with God, it will begin with some dimension of creation – the material, the spiritual, the biological, the empirical, or whatever. Some aspect of created reality will be ‘absolutized’ or put forth as the ground and source of everything else, the uncaused cause, the self-existent.”
There is thus a dichotomized two-story view of reality with the absolutized aspect in the upper story and everything else in the lower story. Think of Plato’s Form and Matter, Thomas Aquinas’ adaption of Aristotle in Nature and Grace, and the post-modernist Fact and Value dichotomies. If you are also wondering if those more familiar Secular/Sacred and Public/Private dichotomies are involved here, you get bonus points.
Pearcey points to the subtle dualism that was inherent in Medieval philosophy. To “save” Aristotle for the Church, Aquinas had to somehow adapt the Greek’s teleological view of being. Nature – the way a thing is, not the birds and bees – thus became the purpose or end of man, as designed by God, and could be understood with the natural reason. Grace was the gift of God that elevated natural truths already perceived by reason.
It was a short step, however, to arguing that the telos or end of a thing is contained within itself, again without need of an external agent. To put it in platonic terms, the form is contained within the thing itself.
Despite Aquinas’ best effort to keep Nature (Reason) and Grace (Faith) equally important, over time the view become dominant that there was really no need for the latter because of the power of natural reason. Faith (or Revelation) and Reason thus came to be seen as separate and even opposed realms.
Along comes Mr. Descartes with his “I think, therefore I am” ditty and the divinization of Reason is well and truly launched in Western thought.
Pearcey explains: “As the medieval period merged into the Renaissance (beginning roughly in the 1300s) a drumbeat began to sound for the complete emancipation of reason from revelation – a credo that bursts into full force in the Enlightenment (beginning in 1700s).
“The credo of the Enlightenment was autonomy. Overthrow all external authority and discover truth by reason alone. Impressed by the success of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment enthroned science as the sole source of genuine knowledge.
“Claiming to ‘liberate’ the lower story from the upper story, it insisted that nature was the sole reality and scientific reason the sole path to truth. Whatever was not susceptible to scientific study was pronounced an illusion. Though reason was touted as philosophically neutral, in reality it began to be identified with scientific materialism.”
But whose reason was the right reason? Things got really confused in the centuries that followed. Was it Marx with his dialectical materialism within history? Or Rousseau’s natural man throwing off the chains of convention to recover the state of nature? What about Mr. Darwin’s evolutionary processes? And Nietzsche’s Super Man counts, too, right? Let’s not forget Sartre’s existentialism, Camus’ absurdities or even Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
So many choices, so many blind alleys. No wonder intelligent people conclude that nobody has the answers because in reality there are none! Or so it seems.
The one place in which answers cannot be sought by the post-modernist seeker is the one that got left behind in the medieval split of Reason and Faith. The realm of Faith is private, subjective and unscientific, so it cannot possibly have anything to say about anything important, right? Just keep your Christmas crèches, your Ten Commandments displays and those nagging questions about evolution and abortion to your self, Christian!
Which brings us to the second of Pearcey’s task, that of recovery of a vigorously and explicitly Christian worldview that speaks to the worlds of philosophy, politics, economics, sociology, science and indeed all of Creation.
Understanding the two-story worldview paradigm is step one in the recovery. Step two is understanding that Christians – understood in an organization sense as folks who constitute the surviving strongholds of mostly orthodox doctrine among Evangelicals and Fundamentalists on the Protestant side and believing traditionalists on the Catholic side – can and must throw off the chains of post-modern convention and reintegrate their understanding of all of reality with the tenets of Biblical truth as their starting point.
Getting through step two requires understanding that American religion has had its own two-story dichotomy. Pearcey reminds us that before the Great Awakening, most American Christians held to a Reformed faith that was essentially Calvinistic, rational and industrious. It was a faith primarily of the head lived out objectively through family, church and profession. Cconsidering how many Scots and Scots-Irish were among the original generations of Colonial Americans, there should be no surprise that the Reformed faith was so influential prior to the 1730s.
But with the Great Awakening came a new emphasis on the heart, the passions and individual will. Conversion became something one felt more than chose. Pearcey notes Jonathan Edwards’ observation that “our people do not so much need to have their heads stored as to have their hearts touched.”
The Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s was the era of the Camp Meetings, Revivals and a fierce individualism borne of Arminian subjectivism. Everywhere traditional authority was challenged and democracy came to the church much as it had to government a few decades before.
If you think you detect the beginning of an evangelical two-story dichotomy, you are. Think Head versus Heart, Doctrine versus Feeling. Again, it’s only a few steps from that dualism to acceptance of the Fact/Value and Public/Private dichotomies. Which is what happened after the Civil War and especially in the first half of the 20th century.
It didn’t help that some strains of believers opted to withdraw entirely from engaging the world. The world is corrupt and Christians are supposed to pursue righteousness, they reasoned, so why get dirty by participating in worldly politics?
Others retreated into an explicit anti-intellectualism. To the extent that they articulated it, their logic went along this line:Science produces evolution, which tells us man came from monkeys, so there must be something fundamentally wrong with all science.
H.L. Mencken of course had a field day with both strains, especially during the Scopes Monkey Trial. His sarcastic filings from the Tennessee trial were typical of influences of the time that created anti-Christian stereotypes that are with us still in the popular culture.
How then do Christians go on to step three in the recovery process? By applying the Truth of scripture in our own lives to be sure, but that includes our families, our professions, our thinking and our acting.
As valuable as are all of the preceding chapters, Pearcey’s two concluding chapters - How Women Started the Culture War and What Next? Living it Out - are alone worth the price of the book.
“Total Truth” is not likely to become a runaway best-seller like “A Purpose-Driven Life” or an instant candidate for being made into a feature length movie like “Left Behind.” But Pearcey notes that the signs of intelligent life are blossoming in some unlikely places, including philosophy where Alvin Plantinga has “restored theistic philosophy to respectability,” while among historians, three neo-Calvinists – George Marsden, Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch – “are so prolific that a Yale professor has warned that an ‘evangelical thesis may be taking over the study of American history.’”
Then there are the many Christian thinkers, academicians and scientists who are subjecting Darwinianism to rigorous and amazingly effective challenges such as UCLA law professor Phillip Johnson.
In the end, Pearcey’s book just may prove more significant than either the Warren or LaHaye works because she ties it all together in such a way she could inspire fresh thinking and effective action by legions of thoughtful Christians in a variety of fields.
As the Master said, it is the Truth that sets us free.