Myodicy, Issue 17, December 2002

David Naugle
and the Quest
for a Theory
of Everything

by Theodore Plantinga

Part I

Christian colleges compete with secular schools for students. In doing so, they are aware that they cannot take the loyalties of students from Christian high schools and Christian homes for granted. Hence they work hard to attract such students, who might be considered their natural clientele. The recruiters or "admissions counselors" employed by the Christian colleges like to point out that the institutions they represent are well equipped -- surprisingly so. To be sure, they do not quite match the secular schools when it comes to laboratories for natural science classes, but in some of the schools the athletic facilities are remarkable, there are oodles of computers around, and the dorms seem cozier and homier than residences at secular schools. And then there is the chapel or worship area, and perhaps also a room or rooms set apart for private or small-group prayer.

In the academic area there are many majors to boast of. Some of the colleges even have a subject area that secular schools seem to ignore, namely, "worldview studies." One might wonder: what would students focus on in a course in "worldview studies"? Wouldn't it have to include everything? How could anything be excluded?

In effect a worldview amounts to a "theory of everything." To acquire such a theory and have it available for future reference would be a handy way to begin one's higher education. The general idea seems to be that by the time the student graduates, no major question should be left unanswered. Once the student has the approved "theory of everything" in hand, the mysteries should be dispelled. Using one's "theory of everything," which is presumably a Christian theory, all issues in life can be neatly related to one's deepest religious convictions.

But not all Christians agree that a theory of everything is possible, or that it is wise to try to develop such a theory. Indeed, there are some Christians who get criticized for having entirely the wrong view when it comes to these matters. They are called dualists. And their dualism is often associated with Thomas Aquinas.

At the outset one might be led to think that all dualists are Roman Catholics, but this would be a misunderstanding. Yet there is a grain of truth in this mistake, for dualism has more than a little to do with Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian and philosopher who has shaped the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition more than any other thinker. On the other hand, it should be noted that not all Roman Catholics agree with Aquinas. And many Protestants have come to agree with him on the matter of dualism.

When the Christian colleges hanker after a theory of everything, we should interpret their desire in part as a response to Aquinas and what we often call the "sacred/secular split." Or sometimes we speak of a "nature/grace dualism." Life, according to such a dualism, is split into two domains or realms or sectors which have little to do with one another. In my own teaching, I identify the split with five elements on each side, namely: Reason vs. Faith; Nature vs. Grace; the World vs. the Church; Philosophy vs. Theology; and the Human Element vs. Christian Element. [NOTE 1]

What's wrong with such a split? For Calvinists like me, it represents a denial of the Reformation-era notion that one's entire life is to be lived before the face of God (coram Deo). Many Calvinists (probably not all) deny that any part of life or thought should be considered religiously neutral. In more positive terms, the coram Deo affirmation means that any type of legitimate human activity is able to be carried out as praise and worship of God. May God be glorified in all the activities to which we set our hands! But if we accept the sacred/secular split, we are allowing that much of our life -- perhaps the largest part -- falls outside the sphere of God's immediate concern. We are then creating the impression that God is pleased especially with the service offered by priests and monks and nuns, whereas the daily work of the humble shoemaker does not count as service of our Maker in the deepest sense. And so we would wind up distinguishing between those who serve God on a full-time basis and those who serve him part-time (presumably the humble shoemaker goes to church on Sundays).

Whoever perpetrates such a dualism is in effect a foe of Christian education, for an obvious outcome of the sacred/secular split is what we might call practical positivism. Now, positivism in philosophy is associated with such thinkers as Auguste Comte and the heirs of the British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Part of the positivist thesis is that all knowledge is grounded in sensory experience, which is basically the same for all people. Thus facts are facts. We all see the same world; moreover, we see it in the same way. So-called religious convictions -- or "subjective" factors of any sort -- should be and can be kept out of scientific theorizing; likewise, they play no role in the primary observation on which theorizing is based.

If all of these positivist claims are true, it should follow that Christians and non-Christians will come up with the same results when they study chemistry or biology or physics. (I use examples from the natural sciences because genuine positivists regard the sciences as the best examples of knowledge; the status of much of the rest of what's taught in universities is suspect.) Even in such dubious areas as historical knowledge, "religious" factors should play no part.

"Practical positivism" has significant consequences for the enterprise of Christian education. It admits that facts are facts, math is math, chemistry is chemistry, business is business, and so forth, and then suggests that if we are to have separate programs for Christian instruction, those programs should restrict themselves to areas in which Christians can be expected to have unique views, views that differ from those held by non-Christian thinkers, namely, theology and perhaps ethics and church history. In all other areas of study, Christians would have basically the same views -- and would accept the same theories -- as non-Christians.

In that case, there would be no need -- strictly speaking -- for separate Christian schools. It would be argued that Christian and non-Christian children are taught the same theories and facts in most areas of instruction if they all attend the same schools and are under the tutelage of atheistic teachers. If we still insist on maintaining separate Christian day-schools and colleges, it must be for non-curricular reasons. It might be argued that we would have an easier time maintaining our Christian standards of behavior if Christian children are segregated from non-Christian children. And we can certainly place academic work within the framework of a life of prayer and devotion by having it take place in a Christian school: nowadays, "public" schools do not leave room for prayer and the singing of Christian hymns. And then there is the business of dating and marriage: we would like our children to be exposed to potential marriage partners who are also Christians. And so, for such reasons as these, we do find some "practical positivists" within the Christian camp favoring separate Christian day-schools and colleges. If the money for such schools could be found, why not?

Part II

Because Thomas Aquinas played a leading role in articulating the "nature/grace split," he is a favorite "bad boy" in many Christian colleges. But dualisms have a way of reinforcing one another, and there are more of them around. Another prominent dualism is that of body and soul, which our colleges associate prominently with Plato, although it is not his invention (such a notion was widespread in the ancient world). And so Plato is another well-known "bad boy" in the Christian college curriculum.

In my own introduction to philosophy course, I also make prominent mention of Descartes, who has given us a mind/body (and also mind/matter) dualism, which, for many reinforces the harmful effects of Plato's soul/body dualism. Anyway, in my course, and in a great many courses in the Christian colleges, Aquinas, Plato and Descartes are three major thinkers with whom we must take issue, lest they wind up misleading us. One enrolls in such a college in part to find out what these intellectual giants taught and thereby to be equipped to avoid their dualistic errors.

My comments above about my own introduction to philosophy course might make the course seem rather negative, as though it consisted almost exclusively of criticism. Not so. Because negation and affirmation are two sides of a coin, logically speaking, I can also express what I teach in more positive terms by stating simply that I advocate holistic thinking.

Holistic thinking is the opposite of atomistic thinking. In ontology atomism is the view that reality consists of separate entities, some of which that might look united when they appear together as forming a thing on the level of ordinary experience, whereas in truth the thing which we experience is made up of endless discrete bits of matter that are only loosely related. In epistemology atomism is the view that entities and process can be understood in isolation from one another.

The process of abstraction, without which scientific theorizing as we know it would not be possible, is in effect a modified or provisional atomism. On the one hand we must abstract and concentrate and focus on one thing to the exclusion of others: we cannot look at or think about everything at the same time. On the other hand, we must not make the mistake of supposing that what we focus on when we exclude other things truly stands apart and is comprehensible in terms of itself or as standing alone. As holistic thinkers we must always be willing to step back, as it were, in a quest for a comprehensive view of the subject. In other words, we must try to embed the object of our immediate attention within a larger context. Thus holistic philosophy is a habit of thought as much as it is an ontological theory about the interconnectedness of all things.

To plead for holistic thinking is not to deny the validity of the specialization on which contemporary science is based; rather, it is to point to the value of interdisciplinary approaches in which we seek to relate items which, for a moment have been taken out of context for purposes of scientific analysis, to the larger web of meaning within which they stand in everyday human experience. In theoretical thought we need to be able to move back and forth between particular focus and specialization, on the one hand, and a larger context and matrix that gives meaning to the particular, on the other.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. We human beings do not come equipped with an infinite intellect. And so, within the context of a philosophy class, I do not so much demonstrate such a movement back and forth as plead for its importance.

In making such points, I stand in a long line of holistic thinkers. In my introduction to philosophy course I make mention of various of the great holistic philosophers, including Hegel, Dilthey, Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, and H.G. Gadamer. I quote Dilthey's famous claim: "One would first have to await the end of history in order to possess all the material necessary to determine its meaning." [NOTE 2] Gadamer is known especially for his championing of hermeneutics (interpretation theory). Many people think of hermeneutics as limited in its application to the old-fashioned humanities disciplines, although they may concede that it spills over a bit into the social sciences. But in my course I go further, and so I quote G.B. Madison, who tells us that hermeneutics

... embodies a general theory of human understanding ... [and] is anything but new. What currently goes under the heading of "philosophical hermeneutics" (represented most notably by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur) has roots reaching deep into our intellectual tradition. ... As a general movement of thought, hermeneutics draws together some of the most innovative thought-currents of our times, not the least of which is the hermeneutical approach to the philosophy of science instigated by Thomas Kuhn. [NOTE 3]

Part III

Some of the professors in the Christian colleges make similar holistic points but then proceed to link such thinking with the term "worldview." The idea seems to be that worldview thinkers are holistic philosophers who emphasize the interconnectedness of all things and criticize specialization and abstraction and believe that life is religion and that therefore religious neutrality is an illusion, and so forth. Such professors encourage their students to mix the term "worldview" freely into their academic discourse and to look for the "worldview" of any thinkers they are reading; indeed, some even insist on extending the hunt for worldviews to the domain of the arts.

During the last twenty years, a number of books have been published explaining and defending the worldview approach to Christian education and scholarship. Easily the best of the ones I have encountered is David K. Naugle's Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

The title is too modest, in my judgment. Naugle, who is a philosophy professor at Dallas Baptist University, doesn't only write the history of this notion: he also explains and defends it and wards off objections. He ranges far afield and winds up summarizing all sorts of thinkers and traditions and even attributes "worldviewish" (his term) insights to some who make no such claim on their own behalf. In these respects Naugle has moved the worldview discussion ahead.

When I criticize the concept of worldview, as I have done off and on for quite a number of years, people ask me, "Well, what would you call it, then?" Their question presupposes that there is something out there in need of a name, and so it seems appropriate to ask which name would be best. Naugle, however, knows better. He recognizes that the real issue here is that of the style -- or perhaps method -- that is appropriate for philosophy as such; the name issue is secondary. He allows that there are thinkers and traditions which are "worldviewish" by his criteria, even though they do not use the term. An example is Pope John Paul II, to whom Naugle attributes a "worldview" (see pp. 38-43). After summing up much of John Paul's thinking, Naugle concludes:

This view of the world and the dignity of human persons arising out of the mystery of the incarnate Christ is the cornerstone of the pope's Christian Humanistic worldview, whose implications embrace the totality of life. ... This biblically based, tradition-rich interpretation of life with its unrelenting emphasis on the dignity of the human person is the worldview orientation of the pope ...." [Pages 42, 43]

I suppose Naugle could go through the entire history of philosophy and theology, sorting thinkers into two categories: those who are worldviewish and those who are not. And the use of the term "worldview" would not be the decisive criterion in the sorting process: one need not even be aware of the term to be "worldviewish.".

Part IV

Naugle's book touches on many thinkers and professors who are well-known in the Reformed colleges. But I did not find any mention of the late H. Evan Runner, who taught philosophy at Calvin College and influenced me very deeply during my undergraduate days. Runner would surely count as a worldviewish thinker in Naugle's sense, although he did not advocate the term when I was his student back in the years 1964 through 1968. My memory is not sufficiently comprehensive and accurate for me to be able to state that the term never passed his lips while I was in his class, but I certainly have no memory of it. Just recently I hunted through his books The Relation of the Bible to Learning and Scriptural Religion and Political Task for a discussion of this concept. I found the word "worldview" once, and also a short section in which "world-picture" was used a few times in the E.J. Dijksterhuis sense, [NOTE 4] but I found no explanation of the term "worldview" or any recommendation to the effect that we should use it frequently and shape our thinking in accord with what people have taken it to mean. [NOTE 5] Nor did Runner use it in his tribute to Herman Dooyeweerd, published after the latter's death in 1977.

What I do recall about my college days is that Richard Tiemersma, a wonderful English professor from whom I learned a great deal, would occasionally introduce the German word "Weltanschauung": he would then apologize for using this foreign word in English. The reason he had to use it, he told us, was that we have no English term for what it expresses. Now, what Tiemersma said was not correct: the word "worldview" was already in circulation in English at that point, but Tiemersma seemed to think that no one would understand it. And so he took the trouble to explain the concept, linking it with the main German term for "worldview." There are also some other German words for worldview, as Naugle explains (see pp. 55ff).

I was a philosophy major at Calvin, and I also took a number of courses with Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. As for Alvin (he and I are third cousins), he would probably not qualify as a worldviewish thinker -- too "analytic" -- and I don't recall hearing him use the term. The Wolterstorff of more recent years certainly has worldviewish leanings, but back in my undergraduate days he was also markedly analytic and not terribly sympathetic to the holistic tendency.

To some degree, of course, the line between holistic and non-holistic thinkers (the latter preferring the appellation "analytic") is the line between the British and "continental" traditions in philosophy. (By "continental" is meant the European mainland, excluding the British isles.) Runner was a lover of continental European philosophy; so was I. Plantinga and Wolterstorff identified with the British tradition. In more recent years, the line between the two camps has begun to fade, and that's a good thing. The continentals need to be more analytically oriented, and the lovers of British philosophy have returned to some degree to hermeneutics (a form of holistic thinking); some even allow a dash of "metaphysics" to enter their discourse.

In terms of Naugle's analysis, I am like my undergraduate teacher Runner in that I am generally worldviewish but without advocating the use of the term. Yet there is a significant difference. Runner never criticized the use of the term "worldview," as far as I can recall, but I do. And my criticism of the term is the real reason for writing this essay. If I simply wished to commend Naugle's book to those who look at Myodicy now and then, I could have done so much more briefly.

And so, in what remains of this essay I need to explain two things. First, what my objections to the term "worldview" amount to, and secondly, what it means to be a mildly worldviewish thinker who recognizes the dangers in being too "analytic." By the end of the essay I hope I will have explained why I regard the quest for a theory of everything as a mistake, however well-motivated it may be.

Part V

Before I tackle the issue at hand, I should add a few words about my own credentials in this area. I have always emphasized that the operative meaning of the term "worldview" has a great deal to do with the philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey, in whose hands the term was used in an essentially relativistic fashion. In his famous short piece called "The Dream," Dilthey wrote:

This immeasurable, incomprehensible and unfathomable universe mirrors itself palpably in founders of religion, in poets and in philosophers. These all stand under the influence of time and space. Every world view is conditioned historically and therefore limited and relative. ... These types of world views exist alongside each other through the centuries. ... each world view expresses within its limitations one aspect of the universe. In this respect each is true. Each, however, is one-sided. To contemplate all the aspects in their totality is denied to us. We see the pure light of truth only in various broken rays. [NOTE 6]

Now, I am a definite admirer of Dilthey and can even claim to know a fair amount about him. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on him, and a revised version of that study was later published as Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (University of Toronto Press, 1980). Moreover, during the period in which I pondered Dilthey's use of the concept of worldview, I was also studying the writings of Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper, that great lover of the distinction between the organic and the mechanical: indeed, I have read literally thousands of pages of Kuyper and Bavinck in the original Dutch. When I make informal remarks about the concept of worldview, I usually say that Bavinck and Kuyper got it from German thinkers like Dilthey and then made it popular in Christian circles.

Thus I had plenty of occasion to ponder this concept before it came back into Christian vogue in the 1980s. I concluded that Prof. Tiemersma was in error when he used to say that the notion of worldview was largely unknown in the English-speaking world: it was already in Bavinck and especially Kuyper, who published some of their major works in English and were read in both Reformed and Presbyterian circles.

At Redeemer University College (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), where I have spent most of my teaching career, the concept of worldview is often connected with that of Christian philosophy: the latter, it is suggested, is essentially an outgrowth, or perhaps a more nuanced form, of the former. And without Christian philosophy, such an institution as Redeemer would make no sense. Hence we often talk about worldview.

I agree with the worldview advocates about the importance of Christian philosophy: the question that remains to be discussed is just what does -- and does not -- count as Christian philosophy. Worldview advocates are inclined to argue that we need an "integral" Christian philosophy, and that not everything that calls itself Christian philosophy can be recognized as such.

But what does "integral" mean? Of course the term bears a relation to "integrated": all things in the theoretical domain need to be connected with one another, or perhaps they must be shown to flow from some central reference point or basis or foundation. Thus a Christian philosophy would be one in which there is a single, all-determinative starting point, perhaps like the great monistic metaphysical systems of old (Spinoza comes to mind) in which initial definitions play a huge role.

I am tempted to speak here of "top-down theorizing," since this is how such a line of argument often comes across to those who are a mite skeptical. But perhaps it doesn't matter whether the presiding worldview or philosophy is above the other disciplines (dictating to them from on high, so to speak) or below them (providing them with their indispensable foundation). "Above" and "below" are only metaphors in this context.

The real issue, it seems to me, is whether the traffic between the sciences, on the one hand, and worldview conceived of as incipient philosophy, on the other, is one-way or two-way. The thesis that Christian philosophy needs to be "integral" seems to plead for a one-way understanding: one's worldview (or philosophy) is all-determinative for one's thinking on issues in science and everyday life. It's all a matter of the heart, from which flow the "issues" or "springs" of life" (see Proverbs 4:23). Naugle affirms: "What the heart is and does in a biblical way is what the philosophers were getting at unconsciously in coining the term 'worldview.'" [Page 270; see also p. 290] Naugle also speaks of the "hegemony of the heart in human affairs" (see p. 273).

I would like to see the relationship between worldview (or philosophy) and the sciences conceived of as two-way. If we admitted that the traffic flows in both directions, experience and what we learn via the sciences could help to shape our philosophy and ultimate ontological convictions.

Part of the difficulty with assessing the thesis that Christian philosophy needs to be "integral" is that the term "integral" is basically an honorific. In this regard it's like the term "scholar": you don't call yourself a scholar -- you hope that someone else will do so. And so to call a Christian philosophy "integral" is to affirm that it meets your criteria for Christian content and orientation.

It's a bit like the use of the term "deep ecology" in environmental philosophy. The obvious opposite of this term, of course, is "shallow ecology." Is there anyone who calls himself a "shallow ecologist"? Not as far as I know. But John Passmore gets called this name by those who disagree with him. [NOTE 7] Thus, to ally yourself with the "deep ecology" tradition (usually associated with Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess) is to compliment yourself on the depth and comprehensiveness of your thinking on ecological issues, while dismissing your opponents as superficial.

Does branding oneself a proponent of "integral Christian philosophy" then amount to dismissing all Christian philosophers in other schools of thought as superficial? In effect it does, although in practice this does not happen often. A more polite term is available, and it sometimes gets used instead: one winds up calling one's opponents "eclectic."

I don't suppose Nicholas Wolterstorff would like to be called "eclectic," but I have heard the term applied to him by those who disagree with him. (No footnote here -- I am recalling conversations in student days.) Part of the reasoning behind this charge is that when one reads something by Wolterstorff on a new philosophical topic (new in the sense that he has not addressed it before), one cannot easily predict where he will come out. It's not as though you can always see where he is headed because you know his "starting point." I suppose Wolterstorff himself would argue that "evidence" (I would prefer to say "experience") ought to play a significant role in the process of reaching philosophical conclusions, and I agree.

Could the problem with the "eclecticism" charge lie in the concept of a "starting point"? The metaphor embedded in this term suggests that there can be only one, because you can only start once. A well-organized, lengthy hike has a starting point and a destination: I don't know any hikers who start their hike from three or seven or nineteen different places. But philosophy is not quite the same as hiking. Might one have more than one "presupposition" (not the same as a starting point) in philosophy?

Here I am introducing a new term into the discussion. When people say to me, sometimes in exasperation, "What do you call it then?" meaning, "What is your term for worldview?" I sometimes respond by saying that when I attended a Christian college as an undergraduate, we were taught that people had presuppositions embedded in their thinking. They might be aware of those presuppositions, but quite often they were not. The process of becoming educated was in good measure a matter of realizing what one's own presuppositions were and examining them critically to see whether it was advisable to continue to hold to them. Philosophical discussion was aimed in part at exposing one's opponent's presuppositions and challenging him to think about them critically. All thoughtful people had presuppositions, we were told. Moreover, some of their presuppositions might clash.

Christianity could be understood in part as a set of presuppositions. Evan Runner pointed to the Greek presuppositions embedded in Christian theology because he wanted to root them out: this was thought to be a "reformational" activity, and indeed it was. We get presuppositions from divine revelation. Perhaps reason also supplies us with a few.

I still believe all that stuff. And I still use it in my thinking and teaching. But notice how it relates to worldview. Have you ever met anyone who has several worldviews, which clash with one another? The way I understand the worldview advocates, such a thing cannot be: every human being has one worldview, and from that worldview flows all the rest of his thinking and his conduct.

Part VI

Naugle, in defining the notion of worldview, makes much of what the Bible says about the human heart: he even concludes his book with such a passage (see p. 345). But we should bear in mind that the human heart is divided -- torn between conflicting impulses. We do not love and worship God with our whole heart; sadly, we leave room for other allegiances. Much spiritual anguish and emotional illness results from such division. Kierkegaard's emphasis on purity of heart should be considered here, for such purity is not easy to achieve.

The worldview doctrine in its robust form simplifies our emotional and spiritual life by allowing only one conception or powerful motif to take root in our hearts. In this regard it is open to the charge of "totalism," which Naugle connects with Wolterstorff (see pp. 22 and 208). Now, rationalists are known to go in for neat and tidy schemes. I am inclined to think of the worldview doctrine as rationalistic in this sense.

The battle between the rationalistic philosophers, on the one hand, and various existentialists and pragmatists and others who adhere to a "messy" conception of reality, on the other, is worth pondering here. Is the human heart truly such a neat and tidy place? Is it totally under the sway of a single principle?

Abraham Kuyper's famous doctrine of two kinds of science has a bearing on this discussion. Naugle mentions this doctrine, but he does not pursue the matter (see pp. 21-22). I have long thought that Kuyper's "two kinds of science" doctrine is the logical outcome of the worldview emphasis. If there is some all-determinative principle in the human heart, would it not make sense to connect this notion with the doctrine that there are basically just two kinds of people (those who believe in Christ and those who don't) and then say that all who believe in Christ have no choice but to think along such-and-such lines, whereas those who do not believe are doomed to hold to the only other philosophical option, with their thinking entirely shaped and governed by their "apostate" starting point?

Wilhelm Dilthey believed there were basically three kinds of worldviews and philosophies around, but Kuyper, at times, seemed to think there were just two. I don't believe that he stuck to his "two kinds of science" doctrine throughout his intellectual career; at one point he modified it significantly. [NOTE 8] Kuyper did not did not seem to know where to go with this idea, and neither does Naugle.

Perhaps Kuyper was too busy. After all, he did become Prime Minister of the Netherlands (a big job!), serving in that office from 1901 to 1905. Or maybe he thought that one of his intellectual successors would scoop up the "two kinds of science" football and run with it.

Many worldview advocates would tell you that Kuyper's chief intellectual successor was Herman Dooyeweerd, who was a professor with plenty of time for theorizing. So what about Dooyeweerd -- was he a worldview man? Not in the strong sense. Now, Naugle does hail him as such, but he does not discuss him at great length: he passes over him fairly quickly before taking up Francis Schaeffer (see pp. 25-29). I think I know why.

Presumably Naugle consulted the fourth and final volume of Dooyeweerd's main work, the New Critique of Theoretical Thought. This volume (257 pages long) consists entirely of an index which helps one to study the other three volumes. Now, the term "worldview" is not one of the index items; neither is the German "Weltanschauung," although there is a single page reference for Weltanschauungslehre (theory of worldviews). As a Kuyperian, Dooyeweerd was familiar with the concept of worldview, but he paid relatively little attention to it.

Dooyeweerd, like Evan Runner, was a very stimulating interpreter of the history of thought. Back in the days when I taught fourth-year courses in German idealism and nineteenth-century philosophy at Bishop's University in Quebec (my first full-time position), I used to require students to read parts of A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, which is Dooyeweerd's magnum opus. In this work Dooyeweerd does not present a catalogue of worldviews, as it were; rather, he emphasizes the notion of ground-motives, which have a dialectical character: eventually they leave you tied up in knots, as it were (Dooyeweerd makes an exception for the Biblical ground-motive of creation, fall and redemption).

Runner also taught this Dooyeweerdian theme, although in his course on the history of ancient philosophy he introduced the problem-historical method of Vollenhoven, which is significantly different from Dooyeweerd's approach to the history of philosophy. [NOTE 9] Part of Runner's reason for using Vollenhoven, I suspect, is that he had been trained under Vollenhoven himself.

Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd were colleagues at the Free University of Amsterdam, and also close associates and even brothers-in-law. They developed their contributions to philosophy in close collaboration. Yet they did not agree on everything by any means. On the other hand, they seemed to avoid criticizing one another; when they differed, they quietly went their separate ways.

Now, Dooyeweerd's reading of history of modern philosophy was deeply influenced by Kant. Kant sensed and embodied the dialectical tension between the notion of man's unbounded freedom (a major theme for Humanism) and the notion of full determinism, which would render human action predictable and thus beyond moral appraisal. How could these two themes possibly be reconciled in one philosophy? Dooyeweerd used the tension between nature and freedom as the key to his reading of the history of modern philosophy. And I had my students at Bishop's University, most of whom were not Christians, study Dooyeweerd's analysis. They learned a great deal from it, but they did complain that it was heavy going.

Dooyeweerd did not believe that there are basically only two worldviews or philosophies or bodies of scientific knowledge, although he did have an analogue in his thought to Kuyper's "two kinds of science" notion (see Naugle, pp. 26-28). He came close to Kuyper on this point but did not adopt his view. Naugle expounds Dooyeweerd as follows: "Though Christian revelation does not provide either a ready-made worldview or a developed systematic philosophy, it does give direction to both in a radical all-determinative way." [Page 29] Yet Naugle also affirms: "In due course Dooyeweerd rejected the romantic totalism associated with the Kuyperian model ...." [Page 26]

A Christian might be in the grip of either the Biblical ground-motive (creation, fall and redemption) or the nature/grace scheme associated with Aquinas and Roman Catholicism. As for a non-Christian thinker, the form/matter ground-motive is to be distinguished from the nature/freedom ground-motive. Could there be still more non-Christian ground-motives? Dooyeweerd says yes. He tells us that "... the apostate mainspring can manifest itself in divergent religious motives." [NOTE 10] Yet it remains true that the "apostate spirit" has unfolded itself in terms chiefly of two ground-motives, i.e. form/matter and nature/freedom. [NOTE 11]

For Dooyeweerd, the notion of ground-motive elbows out the notion of worldview in terms of doing the heavy lifting that is required when we try to make sense of the history of philosophy. Let's not forget that the notion of worldview was available to him as an intellectual option (Kuyper had made much of it), but he chose not to use it in his exposition of the history of philosophy.

Part VII

So what are we to make of "worldview"? In terms of the history of Calvinistic thinking in the Netherlands and among the Dutch Reformed in North America, the notion of worldview falls into the domain of what I sometimes call, informally, "pop Kuyperianism." It is Kuyperian in that Kuyper was its leading spokesman. And it is "pop" in the sense that it is used to popularize the thinking of this movement and bring it closer to believers not trained in philosophy. In other words, it is part of an effort to bring philosophy -- or something akin to philosophy -- closer to the people.

Now, I do not wish to create the impression that I am some sort of expert on the history of the line that runs from Bavinck and Kuyper through Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, and then over to Cornelius Van Til, and eventually on to a series of North American thinkers who call themselves reformational and are to be found especially at such schools as Dordt College, Redeemer, Calvin, and the Institute for Christian Studies. I must confess that what I am doing in this part of the essay could better be described as writing down impressions stimulated by Naugle's book than as reporting on research results. In other words, I have not been on sabbatical of late, investigating these matters and trying to figure out what all these thinkers have in common.

Perhaps someone else will go on sabbatical and sort out the complex relationships to be found within this tradition. I am thinking especially of the relationships between the notions of worldview (Bavinck and Kuyper), "two kinds of science" (Kuyper), the problem-historical method in the study of the history of philosophy (Vollenhoven), ground-motive analysis as applied to both philosophy and human culture in general (Dooyeweerd), presuppositional apologetics (Cornelius Van Til), worldview studies once again (Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton), and the current narrative emphasis and preoccupation with postmodernism, which I will connect with a Redeemer colleague (Michael Goheen).

Naugle even mentions the thesis that we are living in a "postworldview era" (see p. 174), which might be why we need such a concept as "narrative" to replace worldview. But just in case the reader suspects that the rise of postmodernism means the end of worldview thinking, Naugle asks: "Is not the postmodern denial of the cogency of any worldview itself a worldview, and therefore self-defeating?" [Page 186] Shades of a Monty Python approach to philosophy!

Is Naugle the man for the job? Can he untangle these relationships for us? Despite the very impressive display of scholarship which his book represents, I am inclined to say no. He pays elaborate tribute to the Dutch Reformed tradition, but he does not devote as much attention to its history as the length of his book (384 pages, including notes and index) might lead one to expect. I think if this job is to be done adequately, it will have to be tackled by someone with a longer association with the tradition in question, and probably someone who reads Dutch, since so much of the source material is not available in English. But I am not trying to elbow Naugle aside so that I can take on the assignment myself -- far from it. My historical comments on the tradition are incidental; my main interest is in a series of systematic questions, to which I now turn.


To begin with, I want to consider the question why it would be wrong to have -- or wish to have -- a "theory of everything." On the surface it sounds like a good idea. Indeed, it is somewhat reminiscent of the fascinating quest to "prove" God's existence. Many a student hears about this enterprise in an introductory philosophy class, only to be told: "But Calvinists don't believe in such a thing." Perhaps the student goes on to ask: "Why not? What would be wrong with proving that God exists?" The answer he gets includes a disquisition about the evils of "natural theology," bolstered by a reference to Karl Barth, who has taught us what is wrong with this sort of thing. (Barth also pops up in the Naugle book as an enemy of the worldview notion: see p. 335).

The concept of theodicy also comes to mind. David Hume gave us the classic formulation of the "problem of evil," when he wrote in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: "Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?" [NOTE 12] In response to this challenge one would like to prove that in spite of all the evil and misery around us, God is indeed in charge and is omnipotent and wishes us nothing but the best. Such a proof would count as a theodicy (a term made famous by Leibniz and lampooned by Voltaire in Candide, where the memorable Dr. Pangloss stands in for Leibniz). It was Leibniz who maintained that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Calvinist philosophers have generally considered Leibniz's argumentation to be misguided and have been more inclined to lay a hand over their mouth when asked about the problem of evil, thereby emulating Job (see Job 40:4). Some things are beyond rational comprehension, but we do know that Christ will triumph fully over evil when the end of time comes. Now we see in a glass darkly ... (see I Corinthians 13:12). But we still hanker, at times, after a theodicy, and we are probably not to be blamed if we think it would be nifty if there were a Christian theory of everything.

It is worth asking whether a theory of everything is really what Naugle has in mind. What does he take a worldview to be? He uses the term "comprehensive" to describe it: "When it comes to the faith, many well-intended saints understand it in limited terms as a church view, or a Bible view, or a doctrine view, or a ministry view, or a spirituality view, or a religious view, or a God view, but not as a comprehensive, all-embracing, wholistic world and life view." [Page 342] He even equates "Weltanschauung" (the German term for worldview) with "conception of the universe" (see p. 303).

When students argue with me about the concept of worldview, I sometimes ask them whether they have ever had a "golf ball view." Now, a golf ball is quite small, yet no one can see it in its entirety in one glance or view. One would have to move around it. Neither is one able to see the inside of the golf ball while looking at the outside: strictly speaking, we see only the surface and conceive the inside, of which we may have some inferential or second-hand knowledge while we perceive the outside. The same limits present themselves when it comes to planet earth. Even if we are granted a ride in a spaceship so that we get to behold our planet from outer space, we still only see the surface of one half of it at a time. Perhaps God, who was thought by some philosophers to occupy all points of view at the same time, would be capable of a worldview, but we are not.

And even seeing the whole world at once would not suffice, for a worldview is a conception of the universe. Nay, it is more than a conception, for Naugle tells us that Christianity, when understood as a "total Weltanschauung according to the recommendations by Orr, Kuyper, and others," is "... able to provide cogent explanations of the sum total of existing realities, including the divine, angelic, human, animalic, and natural realms." [Page 341] A worldview has to do with "... viewing the cosmos and all things within it through a particular set of lenses or from a particular point of view." [Page 106] In his exposition of James Orr's contribution to the theory of worldview, Naugle speaks of a "unifying theory of reality" and explains: "worldviews are generated by the mind's aspiration to a unified comprehension of the universe, drawing together facts, laws, generalizations, and answers to ultimate questions." [Pages 10 and 9] Elsewhere the "Christian worldview" is said to afford us "a unified vision of the cosmos" (see p. 252). And Naugle assures us: "Christianity does indeed come into its own as a profound theological vision of the total cosmos with the help of the notion of worldview." [Page 342]

Part IX

By this point I have launched into my recital of what's wrong with the worldview concept. My first point has to do with the term itself: the world (or universe) is not of such a nature that it could ever be viewed all at once. Neither is life: one of the worldview terms in Dutch is "levens- en wereldbeschouwing," which means life-and world-view. Moreover, to suggest that comprehensive knowledge is to be thought of as though it were a species of vision is to fall prey to visualism, i.e. the systematic overestimation of the importance of vision in the process of human experience and thought.

This objection or family of objections has not escaped Naugle's notice: he discusses these matters on pp. 332-333, where he credits Martin Heidegger and Walter Ong with having developed some interesting ideas in this area. Ong, a Roman Catholic English professor and a student of Marshall McLuhan, is a major source for my own opposition to the worldview notion. Writes Ong: "The history of philosophy itself has largely been the history of a search after more and more adequate visualist and spatialist analogies by which to represent and deal with the real universe and the universe of the mind, but we are living in an age today which has begun to feel uneasy about this quest.'' [NOTE 13]

Ong also points out that the notion of a worldview would have been foreign to people living in Biblical times since it is a modern creation: "Terms such as civilization, culture, world view, form criticism, literary history, and many hundreds more have no equivalents in classical or medieval or, for the most part, Renaissance languages, for the concepts which they represent and which are the basis for intercultural awareness simply had not yet been developed. As these generalizing concepts have emerged, the humanities and all knowledge have become increasingly anthropologized or centered on man ...." [NOTE 14]

Is this a problem? Can there be such a thing as "a" or "the" Biblical worldview if the people in Bible times did not think in worldview terms? I do see a difficulty here, namely, that we fall prey to anachronism. I will grant that some degree of anachronism is virtually unavoidable in narratives, [NOTE 15] but it does seem to me that we would be guilty of sloppy scholarship if we insisted on attributing to so learned a man as the apostle Paul a "worldview" of such-and-such a sort if the truth of matter is that he would have no idea of what we meant by a worldview. Similarly, there is a distinction to be made between the phrase "Biblical doctrine of the Trinity" (did Paul go around quoting and explaining the Athanasian Creed?) and "Christian doctrine of the Trinity." What we call worldview is at most a Christian doctrine, one that was first formulated late in the nineteenth century and held by some Christians ever since. To call it "Biblical" is essentially to commend it: various things get called "Biblical" which are not mentioned in the Bible.

Naugle shows that he is aware of the visualism charge, but he does not seem to think much of it, for he does not devote a lot of attention to it. If pressed on the matter, he might well appeal to Jonathan Edwards, who made much of regeneration as having something to do with new eyes (see p. 288). But Edwards also mentions new ears.

The visualism charge, in brief, is that Western philosophy has placed far too much emphasis on vision as a way for human beings to orient themselves to reality. For the ancient Greeks (especially Plato), knowledge is basically sight, as we see from the etymology of some of the Greek words in our philosophical vocabulary: hence John Dewey complained about what he called "the spectator conception of knowledge." [NOTE 16] A "theory" is basically an unobstructed vision of some aspect of reality; the word "idea" is also etymologically grounded in vision.

The contemporary notion of neutrality and objectivity derives largely from this conception of knowledge as vision. Neutrality and objectivity are said to be possible to the maximal extent in the natural sciences, and the knowledge they offer us is then held up as an ideal to be emulated in other provinces of inquiry. Because only physical or material things can be seen, proponents of visualism, and perhaps even those who accept visualist assumptions unwittingly, wind up creating the impression that we can have knowledge mainly of the material realm. As for the non-material realm, we may have to rest content with "belief" (echoes of Kant).

In deciding whether it is important to avoid visualist terminology and assumptions, we should first ponder the elementary fact that vision requires some distance between the knower's sensory organ and the object of his interest: we cannot see things that are placed directly against our eyes. In this regard sight differs from some other senses, for taste and touch require full proximity.

Opposing the visualist tradition is not just a matter of emphasizing the other senses. In moving beyond the directly sensory aspect of knowing, I would argue that knowledge is more dependent on relationships and commitments than many of the earlier Western philosophers have been willing to admit. I also believe that it is no accident that the Bible uses the word "know" in connection with sexual intercourse: "Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain." [Genesis 4:1] Our knowledge of reality is not nearly so neutral and detached as many Western philosophers seemed to suppose when they glorified vision as the highest and purest of all the human possibilities for cognizing reality.

Part X

A second area of difficulty is that the worldview notion encourages us to engage in top-down theorizing in which the philosopher (unless someone else turns out to be the expert on worldviews) gets to dictate to people in other disciplines what sorts of theories they should embrace. Naugle is aware of this difficulty (see p. 208), but he thinks he can live with it. He does not shrink from it in the sense of arguing that no such dictation is intended. But he does not make a major point of it either. He does characterize a worldview as a "life-determining vision of reality" (p. 287), but I would judge that his hesitation in endorsing Kuyper's "two kinds of science" doctrine indicates that he recognizes the danger of "worldview" becoming dictatorial -- a new kind of queen of the sciences.

A third objection to worldview has to do with the verbal -- as opposed to visualist -- orientation of the Bible. While this is not a fatal objection, in my judgment, it does carry considerable weight. The argument, in brief, is that if we insist on understanding Christianity as a "worldview," we will wind up neglecting the Biblical emphasis on hearing (which is etymologically connected to obeying, as we see especially from the German and Dutch words for hearing and obeying). The worldview approach to Christian philosophy has the effect of discouraging us from exploring the auditory emphasis in the Bible. God wishes to be heard -- not seen. No graven images are allowed (second commandment), yet note the refrain: "Hear, O Israel." Opportunities for seeing God are reserved for the life to come, when our present impurity will no longer stand in the way.

The orientation in the Bible, which deals with life in the present and addresses itself to man's current sinful state, is very much toward the auditory. I will now run the risk of "biblicism" by expressing my conviction that the prohibition in the second commandment against "images" (which are seen, but not heard) is philosophically significant. God's people are told:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. [Exodus 20:4-6 RSV]

Just what the second commandment requires and forbids when it comes to everyday life and the fine arts is a matter of debate among Christians: some take it to mean that music, as an art form, is more amenable to Christian use and development than the various visual arts, with their "images." If this is the case, music would presumably make a greater contribution to our worship services than dance and the visual arts. Be that as it may, any systematic depreciation of the auditory in favor of vision seems out of step with the Bible.

Evan Runner's emphases are worth pondering at this point. On two separate occasions his former students dedicated a Festschrift or book of essays to him. The second was entitled Life Is Religion, for Runner used this phrase over and over again. But the first was called Hearing and Doing. This title is significant: it was not called Having a Worldview and Doing. [NOTE 17] If the phrase "Hearing and Doing" was accurate as an expression of what Runner emphasized, it makes sense to suppose that the visualist impulse with its tendency toward a detached objectivism was far from Runner's mind and soul. And so, to me, as a philosopher deeply influenced by Runner, it simply does not sound Biblical.

Part XI

A fourth argument against the worldview notion is that it promotes relativism. Is this charge plausible? The fact that the notion is promoted vigorously by many devout Christians might lead one to suppose that it is not. Yet the worldview notion stems originally from relativistic thinkers.

Naugle is very well aware of this danger (see chapter 4 and especially p. 105 and his treatment of Dilthey and Nietzsche in this chapter). He admits:

By the time James Orr and Abraham Kuyper appropriated Weltanschauung in the later part of the nineteenth century and began to employ it for evangelical purposes, it had already become drenched with modern implications. Within the framework of European idealism and romanticism, it had taken on its characteristic signification of a thoroughgoing subjectivism, and a person-relative or culture-relative perspective on reality. [Pages 256-257]

And the danger has not yet passed. The authority of Kuyper and Bavinck and Orr does not suffice to set all doubts aside. Naugle admits:

The evangelical Christian community, especially the Reformed tradition, has expressed serious concern about whether or not the notion of worldview is a suitable concept for Christian service. Because it has been associated since its inception with the unacceptable nuance of relativism, the question has arisen whether the expressions "Christian worldview" or "biblical worldview" are infelicitous and compromise the veracity of historic Christianity. [Page 289]

Again, for Naugle the relativism issue does not count as a fatal objection. He argues that the concept of worldview can be reclaimed and purified and transformed for Christian use. He appeals to the familiar theme in Augustine to the effect that the "treasures of the Egyptians" (Naugle speaks of "gold") belong to the people of God, provided that they are used for the service of God (see pp. 258-259, 270 and 290). The worldview notion should not be judged guilty by virtue of its association with Dilthey and other thinkers of that ilk; rather it should be cleansed.

Part XII

A fifth objection I would raise is that worldview, as a theory of everything, claims too much. In the hands of my neo-Calvinist friends and colleagues, it represents at best a set of related theories about many things, theories that may be unified to some degree in tone -- but it is not a theory about all things. Take the business of health, disease, medicine, healing, and nutrition. The bookstores have oodles of books on these matters, and many of the books talk about how religious beliefs have a bearing on health and nutrition. This line of argument is of great interest to me personally because I am both a vegetarian and a cancer survivor. And so I bring these matters into some of my lectures, most notably in my course on Asian philosophy.

What is the Dutch Reformed or neo-Calvinist understanding of these things? I should be in a good position to know, since I teach in the midst of a lively colony of neo-Calvinistic, worldviewish thinkers. But the simple fact is that all sorts of opinions on these matters are to be found in the halls of Redeemer University College -- roughly the same range of opinions that one might find in a secular institution.

I have tried to do my bit to remedy this lack. More specifically, I have addressed the question of food selection in relation to Christian thinking in a 1997 Myodicy essay entitled "The Scoffer and the Believer: Toward a Christian Philosophy of Food Selection." I salute the Mennonites for their interest in these matters. As for the neo-Calvinists, they seem too academic (preoccupied by theory rather than practice) to pay any attention to how their philosophical beliefs (or worldview) might play a role in decision-making about food and health and healing. Their attitude seems to be: just leave that stuff to your doctor. To its credit, the Institute for Christian Studies does take a stab at such issues from time to time in the setting of a family conference, but I would be hard-pressed to name the neo-Calvinist expert who has worked out the details of the neo-Calvinist worldview for this area of life. So does the worldview cover all of life, as claimed?

Naugle is sensitive to this shortcoming as well. His book includes a wonderful section on the Eastern Orthodox worldview, in which he draws on the writings of Alexander Schmemann. Here the potential spiritual significance of food is beautifully brought out within the context of what Naugle calls a sacramental worldview (see p. 46). I was deeply moved by this section when I first read it, for I am also an adherent of a sacramental tradition and a believer in the familiar thesis that the Dutch Reformed tradition has been too much influenced by Zwingli's conception of the Lord's supper.

I would be more impressed by grandiose worldview claims if I saw them carried out in everyday life and spirituality. All too often, it looks like an academic, rationalistic business, with a practical dualism still in place. When you fall ill, pray (that's the religious part) and do whatever your doctor tells you to do (the secular part).

Now, in complaining that we don't really have a neo-Calvinistic worldview that applies to all of life, I am not maintaining that such a thing is impossible in principle. It is conceivable that one day the neo-Calvinist community, perhaps inspired by Naugle's fine section on Eastern Orthodoxy, will develop a view of food and healing and medicine entirely in line with (if not also determined by) the central worldview. My point is simply that it hasn't been done as yet, and people hardly seem to notice: they go on talking about how their worldview extends to all of life and then turn to secular sources for help when they fall ill. The "comprehensive" worldview isn't all that comprehensive.

On the other hand, I should not appear to be insisting on comprehensiveness, for I regard the notion of a body of thought (whether called worldview or philosophy) as based on a total perception or experience of reality or of the entire cosmos as an impossibility. I maintain that we are finite intellects and that our experience always remains partial. Since theory tries to transcend the limits of experience, it will always tend to make expansive claims in which we project what the rest of reality (more specifically, that which we have not yet experienced) must be like, based on our knowledge and understanding of what we have experienced.

We cannot escape acting like those famous blind men in the well-known Indian parable who each had hold of some part of an elephant and then proceeded to explain what the whole elephant was like, contradicting one another in the process. In thought we always project ahead of ourselves and assume that the unknown or the future will be somewhat like the known or the past. We may be aware of David Hume's words of caution in this regard, [NOTE 18] but we feel we have no choice: to operate in such a manner is simply to live as humans must live. Part of my objection to the term "worldview" is that it tends to confuse us on this score and leave us thinking that we could have a total experience or vision or comprehension of reality. We cannot.


A sixth objection to the use of the term worldview is that it systematically overestimates the amount of unity and uniformity between Christians. When we speak of "a" or "the" Biblical worldview, as Naugle does on occasion, we are creating the impression that all Christians -- indeed, even believers before the time of Christ -- have somehow believed the same thing. Or if they did not all believe the very same thing, they should have done so. Thus, Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel, Peter, and Paul all believed what Naugle and I believe today. Is this a credible claim?

It seems to fly in the face of the denominational divisions that we see all around us. If we all believe the same thing, why are there so many different churches with different theologies, worship styles, understandings of the sacraments, and so forth? A fallback position is available as an answer to this question: one could conceivably maintain that I and those who agree with me have the same worldview as Abraham and Paul, whereas all who disagree with me have gone astray and should come to me to be instructed in the proper worldview. In strictly logical terms, such a state of affairs is possible, although it seems a rather barren proposition from an ecumenical standpoint.

It also runs into difficulty with the ancient Christian insistence on the development of doctrine. (Bear in mind that the doctrine of the Trinity was not formulated until well after the age of the apostles.) The Old Testament version of this notion is usually summed up in the phrase "progressive revelation." God did not make his truth known all at once to the believers but unfolded it gradually. The career of Moses, which includes the revelation at the burning bush (see Exodus 3), is quite significant in this regard. Can we then say that Moses had the very same "Biblical worldview" as Abraham? I think not. As for David and Daniel, they knew not the Christ.

What about the believers of the New Testament era and beyond -- do they all have the same "Biblical worldview"? Again, our tradition says no, for it affirms the notion of the development of doctrine, which is a favorite theme of the Roman Catholics, with their expansive understanding of the church's teaching authority. But let's not forget that it is also embraced by Protestants, including the selfsame James Orr of whom Naugle makes so much (he hails him as a father of worldview thinking). In his book on the progress of dogma, Orr tells us that the development of dogma is rooted ultimately in God's purposes and plans for his church:

"... there is a true law and logic underlying its progress, a true divine purpose and leading in its developments, a deeper and more complete understanding of Christianity in its many-sided relations being wrought out by its labours .... [Its] advance has in the main been onward, and has yielded results which further progress will not subvert, any more than the future development of science will subvert, say, such discoveries as the circulation of the blood or the law of gravitation. [NOTE 19]

A worldview defender might wish to argue that the "Biblical worldview" (perhaps renamed the Christian worldview) develops over time, and that as it unfolds it takes all believers with it. If we took this tack, we would have the problem of the denominational divisions to deal with. Furthermore, in that case we would have a kind of Hegelianizing of church history underway: the World-Spirit would then be engaged in ecumenical work, steadily overcoming Christian disunity. So far I have not come upon such a hypothesis among the worldview defenders.

The thesis that we all have the same worldview also leads people to become doctrinaire. The more one hankers after a theory of everything, the more one is inclined to be puzzled by academic disagreements within the Christian academy. All professors should be teaching the very same thing in courses where the Christian worldview is thought to have a direct bearing on the subject matter. And as for the more distant disciplines, those for which the implications of the central worldview are less evident, the folks who teach them nevertheless need to attend very carefully to the worldview core to try to ascertain what line they should take as they wrestle with issues specific to their discipline. The whole business begins to sound ideological, and instructors in the distant disciplines become restive.

The philosophy professor may become restive too, for philosophy has not generally cottoned to the notion that it is in the business of ideology. Philosophers, including Christian ones, have by and large prided themselves on their reputation for shaking their students up and making them face hard questions. Philosophers like to think that they can get at least some of their students hooked on critical thinking. Therefore I have argued locally that if there must be a worldview emphasis in a Christian college, "worldview studies" ought to be a separate department from philosophy. If the worldview emphasis takes over a philosophy department, something valuable is lost.

Part XIV

My sixth objection can also be used to shed some light on what I call the Bultmann problem. Now, Rudolf Bultmann ranks among the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, and he was a user of the worldview concept. Yet he is not hailed as such by the worldview defenders -- not even by Naugle, who is very broad-minded in his appreciation of how the term has been used in other traditions. Why the avoidance of Bultmann, who can hardly be considered an unknown? The main reason, I suspect, is that his use of the worldview theme subverts the current neo-Calvinist and evangelical use of this notion.

Bultmann maintains that the worldview of the authors of the New Testament is not acceptable to people today and should be scrapped: somehow the "kernel" of the New Testament message (which for Bultmann bears some resemblance to themes in the philosophy of Heidegger) should be extracted from the gospels. The cosmology and worldview of the people of Jesus' time is excess baggage. The thinking of people in our time is shaped by science: Bultmann emphasizes that we believe in electricity, the circulation of the blood, and a round earth. Even non-scientific and pre-scientific consciousness today is affected by science. Bultmann observes: "What matters is the world view which men imbibe from their environment, and it is science which determines that view of the world through the school, the press, the wireless [radio], the cinema, and all the other fruits of technical progress."

Perhaps we should argue with Bultmann here and not be so quick to give in. What about it -- should we try to revive the worldview of the New Testament writers? Bultmann advises against it: "... it is impossible to revive an obsolete view of the world by a mere fiat, and certainly not a mythical view. For all our thinking to-day is shaped irrevocably by modern science." [NOTE 20]

Would it perhaps suffice to somehow "apply" the Biblical worldview to our times? Again Bultmann shakes his head: "... it is mere wishful thinking to suppose that the ancient world-view of the Bible can be renewed." That ancient worldview simply cannot be sold to modern man: "... the world-view of the Scripture is mythological and is therefore unacceptable to modern man whose thinking has been shaped by science ...."

So what is to be done? Bultmann's famous answer, of course, is that we must "de-mythologize":

To de-mythologize is to reject not Scripture or the Christian message as a whole, but the world-view of Scripture, which all too often is retained in Christian dogmatics and in the preaching of the Church. To de-mythologize is to deny that the message of Scripture and of the Church is bound to an ancient world-view which is obsolete. [NOTE 21]

The problem, as I see it, is that the Christian worldview advocates open up the Bultmann debate by leaving us to suppose that the believers of Biblical times somehow had "the same worldview" that Christians have today. Why should we believe such a thing? Did Peter and Paul really have the same understanding of the sky, of the heart and blood, and so forth, that educated Christians have today? I propose to respond to Bultmann and others of his ilk by maintaining that the Word of God is not to be equated or identified with the cosmological and physiological assumptions of the writers of the Bible. God is the ultimate author of Scripture.

Part XV

This essay has something of a negative tone since it is largely a recital of objections to a concept which David Naugle finds very promising and useful for the service of the Lord. I don't enjoy rehearsing my objections to the worldview concept, and so I don't do it often. Back in 1989 I presented some of them at a conference in Chicago and later published my paper. [NOTE 22] In 1990 I included some of my objections in a small book on Christian philosophy. [NOTE 23] In 1999 I posted a piece on the idea of worldview in Myodicy: "New Age Thinking and Worldview Attribution." And from time to time I have commented on the topic formally or informally in discussions at Redeemer University College, where I have taught philosophy since the school opened its doors in 1982.

I suppose some of my Redeemer colleagues who are worldview advocates consider me a wet blanket when it comes to this issue. I don't like to rain on their worldview parade, and even this essay is occasioned not by any desire on my part to enter the fray yet again but by Redeemer's decision to have the faculty study Naugle's book. Thus I am obliged to share my thoughts on this matter. Instead of delivering a lengthy discourse at a Redeemer meeting, I thought I would write something. And it makes sense to share what I have written with a wider audience.

Those who are puzzled by my opposition to the worldview notion don't generally know my history. A few words of explanation are in order. When I was an undergraduate -- or perhaps I should also say where I was an undergraduate -- the worldview notion was not in vogue. I learned about it in college, but it was only a minor point in my thinking. Then I went to graduate school. I enrolled at Johns Hopkins, where I got my first intensive exposure to Hegel under the tutelage of George L. Kline, who was then teaching at Bryn Mawr and was some sort of an adjunct professor at Hopkins. I was intrigued. I transferred to the University of Toronto, where I furthered my studies in Hegel and German idealism under Emil Fackenheim, who eventually became one of my dissertation supervisors (the other was Thomas Langan).

I got quite a dose of German idealism and continental philosophy while in graduate school; I even made 19th- and 20th-century thought my area of specialization, as far as the history of philosophy is concerned. (It's hard for me to think of myself today as a specialist because I have been a one-man philosophy department for more than 20 years.) Eventually I wrote a dissertation on Dilthey, which I composed while I was a student at the University of Freiburg (the school where Heidegger succeeded Husserl as chief philosophy professor). While at Freiburg I learned still more about German philosophy.

During my graduate school days I also got plenty of exposure to Husserl. While working on my Ph.D. I translated Theodore De Boer's fine study of Husserl entitled The Development of Husserl's Thought (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978). During my Toronto days I also had contact with the professors at the Institute for Christian Studies and thereby kept abreast of developments in reformational philosophy; later I served on this institution's board of trustees. While all of this was going on I nourished my interest in Dutch Reformed thought by reading plenty of Kuyper and Bavinck. I even planned to write a book about Kuyper one day, but nothing ever came of it.

When I tell my story to friends, they sometimes ask me: "Why didn't you write that book on Kuyper?" I can't give a definitive answer, but I think one factor was that part of the thesis of such a book would have disturbed and upset some of the people I was close to. A book on Kuyper written by me would have included what I discovered during my graduate school days, namely, that there is a great deal of German philosophical blood running through Kuyper's veins. The more I came to understand the idealist tradition from my graduate courses, the greater my insight into Kuyper grew.

Times have changed: in the Netherlands, in particular, Kuyper is freely criticized nowadays, and so it is no heresy to say that he was deeply influenced by the idealist tradition. We see this influence in his "two kinds of science" doctrine, and also in his use of the distinction between the organic and the mechanical. On the latter point he is much under the influence of J.G. Fichte, whom he praises in his Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology. [NOTE 24]

Now, the reformational traditional likes the idea that its approach to Christian philosophy is "integral." The implication is that other Christian philosophers have fallen prey to "synthesis," which is the combining of pure Christian insights, derived in good measure from divine revelation, with philosophical systems that are alien to the Christian faith. Synthesis is to be avoided. Indeed, in that regard it's much like sin: we all do it, but we should cut it out. Easier said than done. I suppose most Christian philosophers would agree that we should refrain from "synthesis" as defined in this paragraph.

What makes me uneasy about some of the self-styled "reformational" philosophers is that they claim success for themselves when it comes to avoiding synthesis, but are quite hard on other Christian thinkers who stand outside their circle. This point came home to me especially at a public meeting in Toronto somewhere around the year 1970. Herman Dooyeweerd was in town, and he gave a public lecture at a United Church. After the lecture there was opportunity for questions. I took the floor and asked Dooyeweerd whether -- and to what extent -- he had been influenced by neo-Kantianism and phenomenology in the development of his philosophical views. Now, that Dooyeweerd was indeed influenced by those two schools of thought is evident to any philosophically learned person who takes a good look at his New Critique. I was inviting Dooyeweerd to reflect publicly on this interesting issue.

I believe I asked my question in a respectful tone. But something strange happened. Bernard Zylstra, who was chairing the meeting, uttered in a stage whisper, "A mischievous question." I don't know why Zylstra did this; he knew me very well, and we were on good terms. As for Dooyeweerd, he had no idea whether I was friend or foe. He took Zylstra's hint and launched into a very defensive answer to the effect that his philosophy was derived from Scripture and revelation and was not indebted to non-Christian sources. I was very disappointed in the answer and took it as another indication of a manifest weakness in the reformational tradition. It does not handle criticism well, and as a result it has suffered from a general inability to attract dialogue partners.

To what extent Naugle counts himself among the "reformational" philosophers I do not know. But his book certainly breathes a free and open spirit, which emboldens me to wonder whether he might not occasion some fresh debate among Christian philosophers and play a major role in that debate himself. I have written this essay and taken up contact with him in the hope that this will prove to be the case.

As for my misgivings about worldview, I started with the realization that it is a deeply relativistic notion. I came to this conclusion in the 1970s. When the term "worldview" came into renewed Christian vogue in the 1980s, I quietly made my point about relativism and stated it as my reason for not adopting the term in my own exposition of Christian philosophy. As the years went by, other reasons for avoiding the term began to occur to me -- the ones I have touched on above. But it all started with my study of Dilthey and German idealism. I became more and more convinced that to characterize Christianity as a worldview is to reduce its significance and undermine its claim to truth and to public allegiance. We fall into the mistake of offering worldview lingo as a cheap and easy defense of the Christian faith. It's as though we are saying, "Nowadays everyone has the right to a worldview -- mine is Christianity. What's yours?"

Part XVI

Although this is a critical essay, I am concerned not to come across as mainly a negative thinker. Therefore I will conclude with some positive thoughts about how the general idea of worldview can be used in a helpful way in Christian undergraduate education, even if the word itself ought to be avoided.

I see three ways to be worldviewish (Naugle's term) as a Christian teacher of undergraduates. The first is to offer students a theory of everything. The second is to have them classify thinkers, artists and culture-formers into worldview categories. And the third is to follow Dilthey's lead in looking for the "Lebensphilosophie" (philosophy of life) substance in cultural works in many different areas, noting how much works of art, for example, may have in common with theological and philosophical doctrines in terms of their underlying "Lebensphilosophie." I will comment one each of these in turn.

First of all, as indicated above, I am not in favor of a theory of everything or top-down theorizing or making philosophers or theologians or worldview experts into kings. To what extent Naugle favors a theory of everything remains an open question: the passages in his book that touch on this issue have not made his position entirely clear to me. Thus I should not be taken as criticizing Naugle in what I am saying here.

Now, there are more thinkers who are wary of a theory of everything, thinkers who recognize that Christian thought needs to remain humble and open to achieving new insights through fresh experience and experimentation and additional reflection. One such is Arthur Holmes, who nevertheless favors the use of the term "worldview." But Holmes, who taught philosophy for many years at Wheaton College, so weakens the term in his qualification of it that one might as well discard it. He tells us that "... a worldview is exploratory, not a closed system worked out once and for all but an endless undertaking that is still but the vision of a possibility, an unfinished symphony barely begun." What Holmes has in mind is a far cry from a theory of everything. Further, he observes that "... it remains open-ended because the task is so vast that to complete it would require the omniscience of God." Such omniscience, of course, is beyond even the collective wisdom of an entire college faculty. Thus Holmes writes:

We should not expect the Christian college to propound a definite and complete Christian view of things, for it is premature to finalize all the details of a Christian view of this, that or anything. Christian perspectives are possible, but not a complete and definitive system. Who are we bungling, stuttering creatures to exhaust any subject? Now we see through a glass darkly; we know in part. [NOTE 25]

I agree -- we know in part. Those who wish to follow Holmes in using the term "worldview" should therefore avoid creating the impression that we as Christians offer a theory of everything.

Perhaps the difference between Holmes and the undersigned is that Holmes is more agreeable, wanting to stay on good terms with the worldview advocates while warning against the dangers in the term. I am more inclined to keep things simple: if "worldview" is not a clear and useful term, if it creates mistaken impressions, we should drop it altogether.

The second use of worldview analysis in the Christian colleges meets with greater favor in my eyes. In emphasizing Christian distinctives in literature, for example, an instructor may encourage students to find the worldview in or underlying the poem or novel being studied. That religious and philosophical ideas get expressed in literary works or are presupposed by the creators of such works is nothing new. When such works are discussed and analyzed, the religious and philosophical ideas reflected in them may well come up for discussion, although it should not be forgotten that there are other important facets to the study of such literary works, and those other facets should not be neglected simply because an instructor is preoccupied with worldview.

On the other hand, there is a danger that the worldview hunt in the English classroom may degenerate into a merely scholastic exercise, as though the point of studying literature were to engage in classification. If there are two or three worldviews operative in the period being studied in a given literature course, are the students then supposed to sort each of the writers (or perhaps each of the works) into one of the worldview slots? In that case they run the risk of overlooking what is fresh and unique in the writers and works. When this sort of thing is done, the use of the concept of worldview becomes stultifying and one begins to wonder whether the assignment is an exercise in scholasticism.

How effective might a "find the worldview" approach turn out to be? I suppose it would depends in good measure on how many worldviews there are. Dilthey thought there were only three, and so a strictly Diltheyan approach to worldview analysis in the English classroom would be in danger of looking scholastic and trivial. But if there are quite a number of worldviews, the danger is much less. Currently one hears that there is modernism and postmodernism and Christianity. The number three seems to have a lot of appeal for Trinitarian Christians.

In the third approach to worldview studies, which is the one that meets with the most favor in my eyes, one could easily dispense with the disputed term and then proceed to explore the interrelatedness between different sectors of one and the same culture. The idea would be to show how something common was coming to expression in various areas. Here one could again appeal to Dilthey, who loved such analysis.

In Dilthey the term "worldview" refers mainly to a less-than-discursive spiritual or cultural content which might manifest itself in such separate sectors of culture as art, religion and philosophy. This common content makes the Diltheyan project known as Geistesgeschichte (literally: history of the spirit, more commonly called cultural history) feasible: "der Geist" (the human spirit in its cultural manifestation) expresses or externalizes itself in various different ways that yet spring from a common root. In virtue of this element of commonness one could speak of "the German mind" and "the French mind" and so forth. A worldview emphasis is then a neo-Hegelian approach to historical study that seeks to maximize the commonness in a culture, thereby bringing out connections between art, religion, philosophy, political thought, and other fields.

Evan Runner, my undergraduate mentor in philosophy (he it was who suggested that I write my doctoral dissertation on Dilthey) embodied this type of analysis -- but without connecting it with the term "worldview." Moreover, Runner loved William Barrett's fine book Irrational Man and used it as required reading in his introduction to philosophy course. I also used that book with great profit for many years. Barrett is a philosopher in the continental tradition (also a former Marxist) who moves easily between literature, philosophy and the visual arts, relating ideas in all of these domains to one another and demonstrating that much philosophy (but not necessarily all philosophy) is connected with non-academic and non-theoretical developments in the surrounding culture and society.

In this respect Runner took a worldviewish approach to philosophy and intellectual history, even though he did not use the term. Or, employing a slightly different vocabulary, one might say that he was a great believer in "Lebensphilosophie," that is to say, in philosophy that makes a concrete, existential difference in how life is actually lived. It should be noted that the term "Lebensphilosophie" is also used in a more restricted sense to refer to Dilthey, Ortega and Bergson as representatives of roughly the same philosophical position.

Much of Barrett's book is an exposition of themes in existentialism, and Runner, while never calling himself an existentialist, was certainly an existential figure as he spoke to us not just from the heart but from the gut, often seeming to grasp at his innards as he did so. I have tried to emulate him in my teaching, always haunted by the fear that a budding Kierkegaard among my students might me find an odious, detached, inauthentic intellectual for whom philosophy is an empty parading of terms and concepts. I strive for honesty and authenticity in my teaching, but I am well aware that much of what we do in this life is drenched in pretense and falsity. I hope and pray that in this essay I have truly bared my soul with regard to the concept of worldview and the quest for a theory of everything. [END]


My source for these five pairs of terms, lest I be accused of foisting a Protestant misconception on Aquinas, is a Roman Catholic author: Hans Küng: see Theology for the Third Millennium, trans. Peter Heinegg (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 198.

See Theodore Plantinga, Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (University of Toronto Press, 1980), p. 10, quoting from Dilthey's Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. VI, p. 223.

"Hermeneutical Integrity: A Guide for the Perplexed," in Market Process, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring 1988), p. 2.

See E.J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture, trans. C. Dikshoorn (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

See H. Evan Runner, The Relation of the Bible to Learning, fifth edition (Jordan Station, Ont.: Paideia Press, 1982), pp. 124-134 and Scriptural Religion and Political Task (Toronto: Wedge, 1974), p. 55.

"The Dream" is available in English in Hans Meyerhoff, ed., The Philosophy of History in Our Time: An Anthology (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), see pp. 40-41.

James Sterba identifies John Passmore as a reform or shallow ecologist: see Michael Boylan, Environmental Ethics (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001), p. 262. Passmore himself rejects the label: see Passmore, Man's Responsibility for Nature, second edition (London: Duckworth, 1980), p. viii.

Compare the two chief passages on the two kinds of science. The simon-pure version of the doctrine is to be found in his Principles of Sacred Theology, trans. J.H. De Vries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 155-176. But in his Lectures on Calvinism (also called the Stone Lectures, published by Eerdmans in 1961), he presents a more modest and defensible version, in which the two kinds of science are called Abnormalism and Normalism (see pp. 132-140).

Vollenhoven's approach is ably explained by Albert M. Wolters in "On Vollenhoven's Problem-Historical Method," in Hearing and Doing, ed. John Kraay and Anthony Tol (Toronto: Wedge, 1979), pp. 231-262.

See p. 63 of the second volume of the New Critique.

See pp. 61-62.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Library of the Liberal Arts (Bobbs-Merrill), p. 198.

The Barbarian Within and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 84. Ong touches on these matters in a number of his works (Naugle cites only one essay of his). See The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981, first published in 1967), pp. 34, 219-220, 222-223; and Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 80; and Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, p. 138.

Rhetoric, Romance and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 331.

I have dealt with the problem of anachronism in How Memory Shapes Narratives: A Philosophical Essay on Redeeming the Past (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), see especially Chapter 4.

See The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (New York: Perigree Books, 1980, first published in 1929), p. 23; see also Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 130-131, 164).

On Hearing and Doing, see NOTE 9 above. Life Is Religion: Essays in Honor of H. Evan Runner, ed. Henry Vander Goot (St. Catharines: Paideia Press, 1981).

Hume observed: "For all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past .... If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion." [Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section IV, Part II, Open Court Edition, p. 39]

The Progress of Dogma (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company, no date), p. 9.

See pp. 3 and 5 of Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961).

See pp. 38, 36, and 35-6 of Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958).

"Philosophy's Place in the Reformed Undergraduate Curriculum," in Philosophy in the Reformed Undergraduate Curriculum, ed. John W. Roose and George N. Pierson (Palos Heights, Illinois: Trinity Christian College, 1990), pp. 29-55; see especially pp. 43-46.

Christian Philosophy Within Biblical Bounds (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1991), see especially pp. 33ff and 89ff.

See the abridged English translation, called Principles of Sacred Theology, pp. 19-20.

The Idea of a Christian College, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 58-59.

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