Worldviews: Ultimately a Theological War

Everywhere we look we find conflict. There are political wars, there are ideological wars, there are culture wars, and there are religious wars. Overwhelmingly, behind all this is a much larger war – a war of worldviews. To understand the many battles waging around us, we must get a grasp of worldviews and their importance. It is imperative that we see this bigger picture.

Let me draw upon a recent interview to amplify my point. Last year former political leader John Anderson conducted a very important interview with psychologist and intellectual Jordan Peterson. The 85-minute conversation is well worth watching. Peterson is always worth listening to, and Anderson does a good job in leading the discussion. It can be found here:

One of the many important parts of the discussion takes place around the 1:08 moment. Just prior to this there was a discussion about freedom of speech and how absolutely central it is. Peterson mentioned that Christ is the word made flesh – the idea being that the perfect individual speaks truth and acts out the truth.

He goes on to say that as he saw the ferocious assault on free speech – especially the push for compelled speech – that’s when he drew the line in his own life, and decided he had to take a stand. (Of course here he refers to how he was expected to use PC pronouns for trans people, and the legal stoush that ensued.)

At this point Anderson jumps in and says “Perhaps that’s why the left is so determined in this country to get Christianity out of the classroom.” He then proceeds to move on, but Peterson sees the need to respond to that:

There’s no doubt that’s why they’re determined. I mean people like Derrida, he called the West “phallogocentric”– male-dominated logos centric. That is the West: it’s logo-centric. If you want to take the West down, you remove the idea of the divine word from the substructure of the society. So you have to do that. It’s like this is the level at which this war is being fought – it’s fundamentally a theological war. People don’t like to think that, but…

Unfortunately Anderson then moved on in another direction, so that particular line of thought could not be further developed. But I thought this was really quite crucial. Peterson is not a Christian of course, but he rightly sees that this is “fundamentally a theological war”. It is a war of worldviews. It is a battle of presuppositions.

Many Christians have pushed this point of view, especially those in the Reformed camp. One thinks of Dooyeweerd and Kuyper and Van Til for example. One of the more well-known popularisers of presuppositional apologetics was of course Francis Schaeffer. He studied under Van Til at Westminster and made the idea of presuppositions a household word in evangelical circles.

For those not familiar with Schaeffer and his work, see this:

It is not my intent here to offer a major discussion on worldviews and presuppositionalism. It is simply to point out how Peterson was certainly on the right track when he said what he did in the interview. He sees the big picture – he knows that the battle really takes place at a much higher level.

The many fights today over transgenderism and victimisation and identity politics and political correctness are all aspects of this larger war of worldviews. So we must deal with the fundamental battle in order to be best placed to deal with the lesser ones.

Here I want to draw into the discussion just one Christian thinker who knows quite a bit about this. American pastor Douglas Wilson has written numerous books and articles on these matters. His three volumes on the new atheism are all really quite helpful:

Letter from a Christian Citizen (American Vision, 2007)
The Deluded Atheist (American Vision, 2008)
God Is: How Christianity Explains Everything (American Vision, 2008)

The first book is a response to Sam Harris; the second a response to Richard Dawkins, and the third a response to Christopher Hitchens. And bear in mind that Wilson even had a close and deep friendship with the uber-atheist Hitchens before he died.

Writing from a Reformed and evangelical perspective, he knows full well that worldview thinking matters. Let me draw upon two of his articles to get some of his insights on this. In 2007 he penned a brief but important piece entitled “Who’s Theo?”

Theos is of course the Greek word for God, and in this article Wilson critiques the 2006 book by Rod Dreher, Crunchy Cons. (Dreher today is even more well-known, due to his 2017 book, The Benedict Option.) Dreher speaks about “a sacramental worldview” and Wilson offers a two-fold criticism.

First: “Someone who is steeped in the VanTilian understanding of the antithesis can see the incipient problem immediately — ‘some form of a sacramental worldview’ misplaces the antithesis. There is a sacramental worldview that is faithful to Scripture, and there are sacramental worldviews that are wholly idolatrous.”

He continues:

This is related to my second criticism.

“I sure don’t want to live in a theocracy; a society in which one is free to choose one’s religion, or no religion at all, is the best of all alternatives, it seems to me” (p. 189).

But if we are talking about lifestyle, and if lifestyle refers to something more than a personal consumption item, at some point we are going to have to enact laws. Culture is impossible without them. But cultures differ because they serve different gods, and different gods require different things. This means the laws are different. Every society is a theocracy. The only question is, “Who’s Theo?”

When any behavior is criminalized, that is always done to fulfill the will of a god, whoever that god may be. As Dylan put it in one of his better moments, “you gotta serve somebody.” Dreher here says that he wants a secular democracy to run things, and believers of various stripes can choose their religion, just like we choose our clothes and our food.

The problem here is that it becomes irrelevant that Jesus disapproved of greed (p. 181). If the reigning god disapproves of greed then we can do something about it. But the reigning god most certainly does not disapprove of greed — his name is Mammon after all — and so we can do nothing about it. And if Dreher wants to do something about this greed, and he appeals to Jesus, well, then, he’s a theocrat now.

Two sentences here are absolutely vital: “Every society is a theocracy. The only question is, ‘Who’s Theo?’” Yes exactly. Every society and every individual are at heart fundamentally religious. In this sense there are no atheists. Everyone has a god that they worship. If it is not the one true and living God, it will be some other god – often oneself for example.

Wilson looks at this further in a piece from last year: “A Primer on Theocracies”. It is a response to Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention on “Why Theocracy Is Terrible”. Says Wilson:

First, theocracy is inescapable. Every society is theocratic, every society has a god of the system. The ethical expectations governing the members of that society are generated by the god of the system, and dissenters are clubbed in accordance with the divine will. In Islamic republics, this god is Allah, in secular democracies it is Demos, in Alabama it is Football. There is no such thing as a society with the great god Vacuum at the top. Any society that had no arche to hold it together would—for that reason—not hold together. Every society has an ultimate point of cohesion, and that point of cohesion, whatever it is, necessarily has religious value.

Second, working the other way, every social value has to be grounded (or not), justified (or not), in a worldview. If Christians commend a certain course of action to the larger society, and that larger society stares back at us and asks why, what do we say in response? All the ultimate ethical answers to questions that a society faces are answers that have to answer the two basic worldview questions—why? and who says? Societies don’t get to say, “just because.”

Third, we certainly have to deal with the popular connotations of the word theocracy, the sense of the word that Moore assumes throughout his article. By theocracy he means evil theocracies, with everything being made worse because it is being done in the name of God. Stealing and pillage is bad enough without being done under the aegis of Heaven. We are here confronted with the Iran of the ayatollahs, or the predations of the Spanish Inquisition. But what word should we use for those who, in the name of Jesus, fought to outlaw the slave trade, or overturn Roe, or restore a rightful definition of marriage? If it is done in the name of Christ, it is theocratic. If we ditch the authority of Christ (in order to avoid being called theocratic), we then have no answer when the inevitable why? and who says? questions come. We must as Americans protect religious liberty. Why? Who says?

And fourth, we must carefully distinguish theocracy, which is inescapable, from ecclesiocracy, rule by clerics, which is entirely escapable, and which should be escaped. In a Christian republic, the church would be a separate and distinct institution from the state. But the separation of church and state (an honored Christian position) is not the same thing as separating God and state, or morality and state, or ultimate questions from state. When you do that, for the sake of combating evil ecclesiocracies, you create a situation where we can no longer ban abortion mills on the basis of something that God said to Moses. This is because Agnosticism is now the official religion, and who’s to say? So when we remove a word from God, we are on our own. And when we go out on our own . . . well, fifty million and counting.

Last, the negative connotation for theocracy comes about in two ways. Either men establish an idol as the god of their system, and the outworking of this is consistent with the evil idolatry, or they establish the name of the true God but in such a way as to enable them to rule in His name without acknowledging His practical authority. I agree with Moore that both of these options are evil. But unlike Moore I don’t believe they are the only theocratic options.

He concludes with these words:

What is actually terrible is confused thinking about theocracies. Look carefully at what Moore says here — “the god behind them.” But all governments have a god behind them. All governments rest upon some ultimate authority. That ultimate authority will either be the true and living God or that authority will be an idol. We must reject the idolatrous option out of hand, for we are Christians.

But when we have acknowledged the true and living God, as we must do, we are not yet home free. As Moore points out, terrible things can be done in the name of the true religion. In fact, the true religion did the very worst thing that has ever been done by any human governing authority, and that was the crucifixion of the Son of God.

So yes, theocracies can do awful things. The solution is for prophets to confront them with an open Bible. The solution is not for prophets to tell the godless authorities that they may (or must) throw all the Bibles away, and govern us according to their own mendacious lusts. It may be just me, but I can see that going wrong somehow.

Wilson gets it – there are no atheists, only false gods. To close, let me appeal to Catholic philosopher Vincent Miceli, and his important 1971 volume, The Gods of Atheism. I love this quote of his:

Moses failed to write the following commandment: “Thou shall not be an atheist.” Instead his first commandment read: “I am the Lord thy God . . . Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.’ It was as if Moses had written: “Atheists are not godless men; they are men addicted to false gods”. Thus, the battle of love to which the Christian is honourably called today is the struggle to liberate his atheist neighbours from enthrallment to false gods and to help these neighbours find the True God.

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3 Replies to “Worldviews: Ultimately a Theological War”

  1. Thank you Bill for this excellent article. You mentioned Van Til. Would you consider an article on the late Rousas J. Rushdoony. It seems to me that Rushdoony deals with many of the issues that you raised in your article and it might be helpful to your readers whom might be unfamiliar with his writings to be introduced to them. Douglas Wilson is certainly thought provoking.
    Andy Thomas

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