May They Know Us for Our Love:
A Look at Worldview, Culture, and Reaching a Postmodern World
By Sloan Milliken
In my early twenties, I would sometimes find myself talking with a wise friend from church about my brokenness, pain, and bad decisions. Without fail, at some point she would suggest that "we do the things we do for a reason," and we would continue talking, trying to uncover those underlying motivations. I found those conversations to be quite challenging and quite helpful because on my own I was usually just beating myself up and blaming those things on my flesh or sin nature.
I think as Christians we often react to others more like I would react to myself and less like my friend did with me. When we are baffled by some of the crazy things people do and say, we write it off to them just "being lost," "being sinners," or "being backslidden," but we tend to not consider that there is a reason—an internal, often unconsciously held belief system—behind why they do what they do.
This principle is not just true for individuals, but also for cultures, even when what is happening culture-wide doesn't seem to make sense. Certainly, from a Christian perspective, our culture is going crazy. As of the writing of this article, the news is awash with the story of a gold-medal-winning man who is wanting to live as a woman, my metropolitan area is discussing the merits of legalizing transgendered bathrooms, the US Supreme Court is looking like it's about to pave the way for gay marriage across the country, and the White House is squirming, unwilling to confront militant Islam as Islamic.
I want to suggest, however, that the way a culture thinks actually makes sense to that culture, even if it isn't ultimately grounded in the truth. As Christians, we would be wise to try to understand why our culture thinks the way it does. The crazy things the world is doing actually don't seem so crazy when you realize the type of lies it is believing.
Needing a Silver Bullet
In classic Millennial fashion, I started to learn this lesson through a Facebook post.
In the spring of 2012, North Carolina had a huge decision to make at the ballot box, and at least for those of us who lived in the state, Facebook was in uproar over the matter. Even though the presidential primary was also on the ballot, no one was really talking about that. People were locked in debate over the proposed state marriage amendment.
Every time I logged on, I could not escape the posts arguing for or against the legitimacy of gay marriage in the state. After a while, I began to mostly ignore the vitriol from both sides, but one friend's posts always caught my eye. While he had always been vocal about his support of gay rights, the controversy around the marriage amendment took his posts to the next level. Even though he tended to express his opposition to it in inflammatory ways, and even though I almost always disagreed with his conclusions, I usually took the time to consider what he had to say. He is a gifted thinker and writer, and I enjoyed having to wrestle through what he posted.
A week or two out from the election, I think he got tired of posting elementary discourse, and he decided to post a lengthy, line-upon-line argument on why homosexuality is morally okay and why gay marriage should be celebrated. He had around twenty well-thought points, and after eloquently discussing them, he ended with a challenge that went something like this—"My view on this is impossible to argue against and win."
After reading his post, I sat in front of my computer stunned. Then, I read his entire argument again. Even though I firmly believe the Scripture teaches the exact opposite of his conclusions, as I thoroughly analyzed his argument, I realized it actually was bulletproof.
That bothered me. I knew he was wrong, but I also felt like I could not argue convincingly against anything he said. I was looking for a silver bullet, but none seemed to be available.
A Question of Worldview
For the rest of the afternoon, I pondered and prayed about what my friend had argued regarding gay marriage. I was thoroughly perplexed for a while, but to my relief it eventually dawned on me that he was both totally right and totally wrong. I realized that within the intellectual assumptions of our day, his argument was completely impenetrable. No stereotypical conservative Christian argument would win. I also saw, however, that I had a legitimate response—to challenge his conclusions, I had to first challenge his assumptions about reality. In other words, before we could have a moral discussion, we first had to have a worldview discussion.
Worldview, simply put, is the way that one sees and understands the world. Different cultures, religions, and philosophies answer the questions of how we got here and why we are here differently. Ultimately, these different ways of looking at the world are exclusive truth-claims about the nature of the universe. While some worldviews may share similar characteristics, simple logic states that all of them cannot be true at the same time.
Therefore, if we are going to go into the world and be "as wise as serpents but as innocent as doves" like Jesus commanded, we need to try to understand the reasons people in a culture think and behave the way they do. While I do not pretend to be an expert in philosophy, history, and culture, I do want to take a little time to examine history to help us understand how our Western culture arrived at the postmodern worldview it holds today.
The Fruit of Darwin's Seed
From around 1500-1800, Western culture slid away from a predominantly Christian worldview. Throughout this time, humanity's perceived ability to discover truth through reason was being exalted and the divine revelation of the Scriptures was being largely rejected. In the midst of this, though, this increasingly scientific society had a problem—apart from God, they did not have a convincing, thorough, alternative way of explaining how the world came into existence. While many people at that time held materialist views of the world—that matter is all there is—until Darwin's Origin of the Species was published in 1859, no one had proposed a theory of origins that seemed to be fully compatible with the scientific outlook of the day.
To make a long story short, Darwin's theory of evolution complemented the developing cultural attitudes and propelled atheism into the mainstream. Within a decade or two, Darwin's theory had become widely adopted, and by 1950, after additional advances in science and evolutionary theory, evolution had become the unquestioned explanation of origins in academia and mainstream culture.
In this context, in the middle of the twentieth century culture began to become what is called "postmodern."1 In brief, this new way of thinking developed as the Western world shifted away from the reason-driven orientation of earlier decades and into a more experiential emphasis on life. As a cultural phenomenon, postmodernism is marked by things like tolerance, multiculturalism, and people being free to determine their "own truth" through their life experiences. This way of thinking has saturated Western culture, and today, especially beginning with the Millennial generation, most people are thoroughly postmodern.
Because of this reality, to reach people in a way that will make sense to them, we must understand why the culture thinks how it does. While I must admit that today's postmodern culture has moved somewhat away from the dogmatic, atheistic, and materialist views of the world held by the modern era, I believe we need to recognize that the postmodern culture we live in is subconsciously driven by the philosophical fruit of Darwin's theory. To put it differently—regardless of what a postmodern says they believe, at least some of their thinking about the world has been shaped by the implications of Darwin's claims. In this way, postmodern culture is like the surface of a pond that has had a rock thrown into it. Our culture recognizes the ripples on the water's surface, but it has largely forgotten that those ripples were caused by the Darwinist rock.
Understanding the Ripples
Therefore, to understand the ripples, it helps to realize why the rock made the ripples it did. Ultimately, Darwin's theory claimed that the universe is all there is and it exists by chance. On a philosophical level, that has huge implications, including what it means for how history and religion will be understood within our culture.
Let me explain it this way: Our culture's theory of origins teaches that man evolved by chance, and that early civilizations were primitive and still evolving. In other words, as unscientific man started to populate the earth, because he didn't know science, he had to come up with other ways to explain how the universe works. As a result, different cultures in different places created different religions, gods, philosophies, and lifestyles to try to explain things and find meaning in life.
Today, however, because of evolutionary theory, our culture has pretty much said we "know better" than our ancestors. Furthermore, because of this, religion is no longer understood to be a truth-claim, but a socially constructed concept instead. Western culture has taught society to put its faith in science, and because science teaches that evolution is true, then it logically follows that religions cannot be true in an ultimate sense. While religions may express certain truths, to the postmodern the only logical way to see them is "true for you but not for me."
Of course, there is a subtle arrogance in the postmodern view of religion, simply because the validity of the scientific worldview is assumed. Somewhat ironically, though, to the postmodern culture, it still makes sense to celebrate this wide variety in culture and religion. On a foundational level, postmoderns embrace cultural diversity because, in their minds, different people and cultures have created beautiful ways to try to make meaning in a meaningless world. Furthermore, to expand that thought a little further, since life is seen as ultimately meaningless, it begins to make sense that the culture would start to say that it's okay to let others do whatever they feel like doing.
Few postmoderns would express what I just did that bluntly or bleakly, as most of what I just communicated has been understood through cultural osmosis. Still, those implications of a Darwinist worldview are the philosophical reasoning behind why diversity, tolerance, and multiculturalism are celebrated in our culture and why "alternative lifestyles" are gaining legal standing in the courts. Those ideas are part of the rock that created the ripples.
Being Salty Salt and Shining Lights
In my opinion, on a cultural level Christians in the West have played right into the postmodern hand, and as a result, we are losing the generations. We predominantly preach morals, good life principles, and having a "personal relationship with Jesus." All these things are good and true, but as we've tried to confront a post-modern culture in hopes of changing it, our methods have largely made people angry and more resistant to the gospel. Instead of asking our culture, "Is the worldview behind why you think what you think really true?" and gently offering an alternative answer, we usually try to convince people that our morality is right and our faith is the only way. In the process, in good-natured zeal we forget that to the postmodern mind all morality and "religious truth" is not really a truth-claim, but a culturally constructed concept. No wonder everyone thinks we're intolerant!
As salt and light, we must find ways to communicate the gospel that cut through culture, challenging the way that people see reality. To do so, however, we do not have to know the ins and outs of philosophical history, evolutionary theory versus intelligent design, or political movements like the LGBTQ agenda. We don't even need to be experts on different worldviews. Instead, we really need to know just one thing.
Over the years, as I have talked with people about the Lord, again and again I have found that I do not need to know everything or try to convince them to hold a conservative Christian worldview. If I find I have answers to their questions, great. If not, though, I've found it's okay to say "I don't know. Can I get back to you on that?" Then I return to asking, "What do you think about Jesus and who he said he is?" and to sharing my life with them. I believe we can win our world by living the basics—walking in the simple gospel, preaching Jesus as historical fact, and, most importantly, learning to obey Jesus and love like him in sincerity and in power. After all, the worldview that people are desperate to know is not a bunch of correct ideas, but the truth and love and way of a person—the man Christ Jesus.
That said, we find ourselves in a unique time, particularly with the younger generation. Though they increasingly don't want much to do with church, they are interested in being authentic. Even though that is a subtle indictment against Christendom, we need to see their desire to be real as the good thing it is. They aren't interested in pretense, and we won't be able to reach them with it. As a whole, they aren't interested in organized religion—they want to live in light of what they find is true and right.
That gives us quite an opportunity, but to seize it, we will need to take a different approach, a more relational and less dogmatic one. After all, Jesus is not a set of ideas—he is a person to be known, loved, and followed, and we have the privilege of introducing him to the world. I think in some ways, though, we have fallen into the trap of fighting for "our truth," and we have lost the compassion and the awareness that comes from authentically walking in the truth. As I see it, in many ways both inside and outside the church, we've been championing Christian morality but have neglected to offer people Christ—especially Christ experienced in us and through us.
I hope as God's children we will begin to recapture the confidence that comes with knowing Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and that his heavenly culture is more compelling than any earthly one. I also hope that we cultivate the humility it takes to be like him. Jesus didn't hold the truth as a standard against us, but he took on flesh so he could live the love of the Father before us and offer it to us. That is the true worldview. As we take him up on his offer and let it transform us, we will shine like stars in the universe, and within a generation perhaps our culture will know us for our love and not for trying to be right.
1For those who are unfamiliar with the term, or who find the term confusing, here’s a brief explanation—the philosophic era in the late 1800s into the first part of the 1900s was called “Modernism.” When people began to react against those ideas from the 1920s onward, they started calling their new ways of thinking about life “postmodern.”