Christian Truth and Knowledge, not Christian “Values”

I just finished reading Nancy Pearcey’s excellent book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2005). This book is aimed a non-scholarly audience, although it is lengthy as far as popular books go (450 pages including endnotes). Likewise, some of the chapters delve into scientific and philosophical details that may tax readers who do not ordinarily read books on apologetics or worldview. Nevertheless, I was thoroughly impressed with Pearcey’s work and believe it is worth the time and effort it takes for ordinary Christians to read it.

In chapter 5, entitled “Darwin Meets the Bernstein Bears,” Pearcey introduces the belief system of Darwinism/naturalism and explains its philosophical presuppositions. She notes that the biggest import of Darwinism/naturalism is that it staked out an exclusive claim to the domain of “fact” and relegated religious truths to the domain of “value.” Listen to how she describes this

As one historian explains, Darwinism caused a shift “from religion as
knowledge to religion as faith.” Since there was no longer any function for God to carry out in the world, “He was, at best, a gratuitous philosophical concept derived from a personal need.” If you still wanted to believe in God, that was fine, so long as you realized that your belief was “private, subjective, and artificial.”

Next, she shows how this applies to a concrete example of “science vs. religion” rhetoric from a School teachers association in Arkansas:

Unless we understand this shift, we will not be able to decipher the debates going on all around us. For example, see if you can detect the two-story divide in these words from a position paper put out by the Arkansas Science Teachers Association (ASTA) in 2001: “Science strives to explain the nature of the cosmos while religion seeks to give the cosmos and the life within it a purpose.” Notice that, in this definition, religion doesn’t give any actual knowledge about the cosmos; it addresses only questions of “purpose.” Even then, it doesn’t reveal the purpose of the cosmos but instead “gives” it one—language implying that purpose is not objectively real but only a human construction that we impose upon the material world.

Logically enough, the ASTA paper concludes that religion-based views are relativistic, and should be restricted to the private realm within “the home or within the context of religious institutions.” By contrast, naturalistic evolution is universally true and should be taught to everyone in the public schools: “The goal of science is to discover and investigate universally accepted natural explanations. This process of discovery and description of natural phenomena should be taught in public schools.”

How should we respond to this? Throughout the book, Pearcey shows how Christians have often bought into the very “fact” vs. “value” divide being proposed by Darwinism/naturalism. Thus those students who find themselves unable to harmonize the Darwinism/naturalism that has been accepted as “fact” with the claims of Scripture are often told to pray more, read their Bibles more, or ramp up their devotional and piety efforts in general. But Pearcey describes how destructive this dichotomy is to the Christian religion and how destructive it has been to many people who have headed off into atheism or agnosticism with no sense that there are alternative options for them as Christians. She continues:

Thus the first hurdle for Christians is simply reintroducing the very concept that religion can be genuine knowledge…. We must find a way to talk about Christianity as objective knowledge, not our personal values. We must stake out a cognitive territory and be prepared to defend it.

To aid these efforts, we as Christians need to steer clear of using the term “values” as it relates to our commitment to the truth of Christianity:

It is unwise for Christians even to use the terminology of values in referring to our beliefs. Many evangelicals have become active in the public arena today, proclaiming the need to defend “Christian values”…. [O]ne historian explains, “Values are for the modern mind subjective preferences, personal and social, over against the objective realities provided by scientific knowledge”….

When we use the term values, we are broadcasting to the secular world a message that says we are talking only about our own group’s idiosyncracies, which the rest of society should tolerate as long as it doesn’t upset any important public agendas. After all, everyone knows that ethnic subcultures often hold irrational beliefs and quaint customs, and these can be accommodated as long as we all understand that no one really believes that stuff anymore—rather like humoring an eccentric old aunt.

Total Truth, pgs. 176-77.

Total Truth was an excellent read. I recommend it highly!

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R. Andrew Compton
Mid-America Reformed Seminary
Dyer, IN