A good preacher is (along with other things) a good story teller. Statistics can be interesting, and all of us want to somehow verify the truth with various facts, but what really speaks to people is a good story. There’s a reason for this – it’s because of the sort of being you are. All of God’s creatures are good in their own way; a mountain manifests God’s strength and majesty by its rugged contours, animals in their complexity and uniqueness have something of adventure and the creativity of God’s unique genius. Men and women however are unique in that wonderful, complex and mysterious gift we have of choice and free will. Each of us knows that somehow the choices we make are what make us who we are. There is nothing quite like that in creation, and our freedom is both our greatest gift, and the source of responsibility.
Preachers are however not the only ones who tell stories. J.K. Rowling and Clint Eastwood along with Taylor Swift, Stephen Hawking and your disgruntled co-workers are all story tellers. This summer I was hooked on the Netflix series Stranger Things. The series did a wonderful job of capturing something of the world of suburban boys in the 1980’s; that world provided the backdrop the whole drama however surrounds choices – will the boys and “11” choose to trust each other? Will Hopper face his own inner darkness? Will Steve change his insane hair style; and does anyone even care about Barb? I have to admit that Hopper provided one of my now favorite lines: “Flo, I told you, mornings are for coffee and contemplation.” Amen Hopper – I knew you understood me.
Stories are the chief product of worldviews. A worldview is something everyone has, it is a set of assumptions about the world, about God, about human beings and indeed reality that form the foundation of our thinking. World views are the framework by which we make sense of our day to day lives. Stories are the key vehicle of worldviews – they help us to interpret reality and the experiences we go through each day. If we have told ourselves a story about being the misunderstood middle child who is always the victim (hypothetically of course), then we interpret reality accordingly; every unfortunate incident becomes a reinforcement to the story we have told ourselves. My car broke down because I am a victim who no one understands, and perhaps the world is fundamentally a place of injustice and suffering. A Christian martyr understands his or her suffering according to a rather different narrative; perhaps as an opportunity to love, and perhaps because Christ loved them so much that he invited him to suffer with him for the redemption of others. N.T. Wright comments:
"The reason why stories come into conflict with each other is that worldviews, and the stories which characterize them, are in principle normative: that is, they claim to make sense of the whole of reality. Even the relativist, who believes that everybody’s point of view on everything is equally valid even though apparently incompatible, is obedient to an underlying story about reality which comes into explicit conflict with most other stories…" [ii]
The reason why all of this is important is that worldviews and stories not only help us understand our lives, they shape the way we live them. If you have a brilliant, gifted young woman whose worldview is postmodern, she might end up becoming a professor at CU, teaching 20 year olds that Polynesian culture is every bit as important (probably more) as western European, and garnering the satisfaction that she has done the right thing. If however her worldview is predominately modern or enlightenment based, she is more likely to become an engineer or doctor, believing that one can both save the world though rational and scientific advancement, and enjoying the pleasure and security of a contemporary society who has embraced a scientific worldview. What so many of us are unaware of is that the world we were born into has far more influence over us than we would care to acknowledge. All of us encounter the world God has created, but the way we understand our experiences is mostly sorted and understood by the worldview we operate out of.
Worldviews operate most strongly when they go unnoticed. Debate and thought about society, politics, religion etc. are all well and good, my simple point is that those discussions are already colored by whatever shade of blue or green or pink the participants have in their frames, and all too frequently no one stops to look at their glasses.
As I preached about a couple weeks ago, there are two dominant worldviews which shape our culture today, Modernism and Postmodernism. Modernism is the philosophical and cultural movement which gave birth to the United States in its political ideals; it is also the movement which created the French revolution which was one of the bloodiest and ugly revolutions in history. As with most things, modernism (a.k.a. The Enlightenment) is complex and has both great good and tremendous flaws within it. The enlightenment was all about rationality, it told stories and it continues to today. Enlightenment thinkers were always trying to kick God out of earth and back into heaven, it believed that modern men could only believe in purely rational religion; the famous example being Thomas Jefferson, who took his scissors to the Bible and cut out everything he considered irrational. The problem with the world was irrationality and those things associated with it like superstition. The moderns’ key catchword was always “progress”. As long as we let scientists and smart people run things, we are on the inevitable path forward. This has been a powerful story indeed. Modernism also believed that human beings could be purely “objective” and to this day modernism drives us to be objective about everything from math to art. Subjectivity tends to be seen as negative, as a blurring of facts, and the modern man is only concerned with facts.
Postmodernism, as its name implies, is parasitic on modernism. Modernism had brought about tremendous technological and scientific advancements, but it had lied about humanity. A man with a car might get somewhere faster than a man with a horse, but he was no more likely to be a good man. After the two world-wars people began to realize that technology might be a nice thing, but that progress doesn’t seem to apply to humans that simply. Postmodernism is skeptical of just about anything that claims to be true or good. History for the postmodern is not about progress, but about power and oppression. It’s much like the last hunger games movie (spoiler alert). After the capture of the capital, the rebels have promised that everything will be different, but really there’s always a new tyrant ready to step in and oppress someone. When post-moderns encounter words like truth or right, what they hear is “agenda”. For the postmodern world, there is no truth, there is only perspective, and the solution to the world’s problems is for us to stop pretending that we know any better than anyone else. I remember in college I took a cultural geography class taught by a postmodern professor (which I didn’t know at the time). The entire class was his painstaking attempt to prove to us that western culture was no better than any other, and that western achievements essentially boiled down to Europe having the right livestock at the right time. Just about the only thing I learned that semester was that everything we took pride in as Americans was all a lie. Post-moderns don’t really believe in objectivity, anyone pretending to be objective is really trying to impose their subjectivity upon yours.
Of course, things are much more complex than this, but it is important for Christians to understand the basics of these worldviews, and to realize that no one sees all angles, even our secularist friends. Our lives are inevitably influenced by modernism and post-modernism, we cannot help but be products of the world we were born into, and much of that is very good. If, however, we are real Christians, we will examine our glasses and dive deeper than the usual categories of liberal – conservative, etc. We will seek to see the world the way Christ does. To that end, I want to use my remaining space to talk about a few key aspects of a Catholic worldview. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it makes you slow down and think a bit about God, the world and the glasses you’re looking through.
Aspects of a Catholic Worldview
1) We don’t create reality, we encounter it, and its laws are binding.
This is probably about the most basic, yet important principle I can give you. Moderns are a lot like the Jurassic park scientists who were so fascinated by whether they could create dinosaurs, they “never stopped to think about whether or not they should.” Post-moderns tend to simply deny that there is “reality” – for a postmodern, each of us has our own reality and all of them are equally valid. The common phrase this comes across in is: “that may be true for you but that’s not my truth”.
Catholics embrace that each of us is unique, but that God has made the world, and those who try to change it do so to their own peril. In other words, having subjectivity matters, but that doesn’t mean that there are not objective realities out there. Man is of course called to work in the world – to produce and artfully use creation, but only in accord with the nature God has written into reality. Part of that nature is the moral law, and Catholics simply believe that in its general outlines, God has written morality into every human heart – everyone knows that they are called to do good and to avoid evil.
If you really understand this principle you will understand why the church is opposed to homosexual activity, contraception and almost every other morally controversial issue you can think of.
2) The world is good, but has been tainted by sin.
Christians don’t view the world as “neutral”, rather we affirm what God says over and over again in Genesis 1: “it is good”. We affirm that the world has a basic goodness which can never be fully destroyed, even if it is twisted.
The problem with the world is not primarily bad laws, poor economics, lack of birth control or even disease (although these can have their effect) the problem with the world is sin. Physical evils, like tsunamis and cancer certainly cause tremendous suffering, and are not good, but the real problem is one of the heart, one of human character and not of circumstance.
3) The Answer to the problem belongs to God
Christians care about politics because the world is good, and God cares about it and the people in it. Politics and governments are good things because God is a God of order and not chaos, and He allows humans to have authority in creation (Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:4-8, Daniel 7:27, Romans 5:17 etc.) because they are created in His image.
Different people in history have thought they had the answer to humanity’s problems. Marx thought it was about class revolution and the worker state; Nietzsche’s solution involved uber-mensch alpha-humans creating meaning out of a meaningless world; Rousseau thought the key was in understanding man’s primal origins. Christians believe that the solution to the world came through the love of a tortured and humiliated man as he died on a cross.
You and I understand that the real solution always involves human beings becoming what they should be – faithful, hopeful and loving creatures who live in imitation of Jesus. The solution to the world is not great presidents or policymakers, it is saints like Mother Teresa and John Paul II.
4) “We’ll make heaven a place on earth” is a lie
The marriage of heaven and earth is a larger topic not meant for these pages. Men of every age have attempted to make earth perfect, and while the Christian cares for the earth and the time he inhabits, he knows that the heavenly Jerusalem enters our world not through human efforts, but comes from God (Revelation 21:10). Thus a Christian works for the good of the world, but knows that only God can fully redeem it.
There is of course much more to say, but my fingers grow weary for today, and the kingdom comes only from God. We have a new president, but the Lord of heaven and earth remains.
[ii] Much of this essay comes from an array of my own studies over the past 15 years, but predominantly the insights are stolen from N.T. Wright and Joseph Ratzinger – always good to learn from people way smarter than you.
[i] N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992 pg. 4