Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Wrong Way to Teach Worldview

The following is my article in the upcoming summer issue of the Classical Teacher magazine:

In recent years, the word "worldview" has become increasingly popular among Christian educators. Indeed, not only has the word become common parlance, but there has now arisen a veritable worldview industry. There are books, programs, and curricula based on articulating and defending a Christian "worldview" and there are retreats and blogs and sermons devoted to furthering its study.

The term "worldview" has now gained official status as a Christian buzzword.

The origin of the word is itself interesting. The term "worldview' can be traced to the German word "weltanshauung," which means "world perception" or simply "world view." The first occurrence of the word "weltanshauung" was in the writings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In 1790, he used the word in his Critique of Judgment to mean the contemplation of the world as it appears to our senses. Later, with another German philosopher, Friedrich Schelling, its meaning was transformed into something closer to our modern, more philosophical sense: the implicit and mostly unconscious presuppositions through which we view reality. This is the sense in which Friedrich Nietzsche used it--and he used it often.

By the late 19th century, the word had become all the rage among German intellectuals and, after the turn of the century, among their colleagues in the rest of Europe. Britain got it late, and America a little later.

The word's origins betray a troubling subjectivity. It seems to suggest a sort of metaphysical pluralism: you have your worldview and I have mine, and who is to say which is better? But it seems we are stuck with it, since no other word can be found that adequately expresses what we mean when we say it.

To most people, the expression "Christian worldview" means simply a knowledge of the basic truths of Christianity and how to defend them against Christianity's cultural competitors. The best way to defend the Christian worldview--we learn as we make our way through many of these programs--is to learn the propositional truths of the historic faith and to use logic to defend them. Once we defeat our opponents on the intellectual battleground of argument, they will come weeping across the barricades, dressed and ready for Sunday School.

We get it in our heads too that the Christian worldview is best taught in a class: a "worldview" class. Worldview, we are tempted to think, is its own subject, like mathematics, English, and history. By segregating it from the rest of the curriculum, we can study it in abstract, as a thing disconnected from other things.

But is this an accurate picture of what we are to do in fully contending for the faith? Does logic alone have this kind of irresistible power? And can we usefully separate out "worldview" from the rest of the liberal arts curriculum?

Part of the problem is that, when teaching it, we often assume a narrow view of logic--and an even narrower view of rhetoric. Modern systems of logic--the kind you find in college textbooks as well as private school curricula--emphasize a sort of dry formalism. By the use of symbols and variables, we put together complex mathematical statements and "solve" them--like we solve a mathematical equation.

It is instructive to discover that the older, classical system of traditional logic does not operate this way. Not only does traditional logic stick with words and avoid abstract symbolism; it recognizes that there are more aspects to reasoning than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

There is no geometry of the heart. We do not live our lives by proof, nor do we make the important decisions in our lives by solving some sort of moral equation. Life is full of mystery, and mysteries are not amenable to the kind of calculus so many of us would like to impose upon them.

Traditional logic recognizes four kinds of reasoning. Demonstrative reasoning involves ironclad logic and self-evident premises that together lead to a certain conclusion. It is the type of reasoning we use in geometry. Mathematical reasoning has a similar deductive structure:
All triangles have three sides.
An isosceles triangle is a triangle.
Therefore, isosceles triangles have three sides
In Dialectical reasoning too the conclusion follows deductively and necessarily. But it employs premises that are only probable or require some kind of practical verification and hence its conclusions are not certain. It is the kind of reasoning used in the so-called social sciences:
Conservatives are for limited government.
The Republican Party is conservative.
Therefore, the Republican Party is for limited government.
Rhetorical reasoning involves reasoning that is not strictly deductive, but can be persuasive nevertheless. This kind of reasoning is employed in all sorts of debate, including political and social controversies, as well as everyday argumentation:
If your younger brother can chop wood, then you can too.
In fact, classical rhetoric teaches that there are three modes of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. Only one of these is strictly logical. Ethos has to do with the audience's confidence in the personal character of the speaker. If someone tries to convince you of something, you are most likely to believe him if you trust him--if you know he is a person who would not mislead you. Pathos has to do with the emotions of the audience. Does the speaker make the audience want to believe him? Does he inspire? Does he capture the audience's imagination? Only logos has to do with the rational strength of an argument.

The human soul is made up of more than just the intellect: it also includes the will and the imagination. The intellect is indeed swayed by rational argumentation. But if, in our attempts to persuade, we ignore the other parts of the soul, we render ourselves less effective in winning others to our own beliefs.

If the will is that part of the soul by which we make decisions--decisions, say, to accept one view of the world and reject another--the intellect is certainly one avenue to it. But more often, the most direct avenue to the will is the imagination: the highway of the heart.

In fact, in the classical view of logic, there is also a fourth kind of reasoning--in addition to the three discussed above--demonstrative, dialectical and rhetorical. It is called poetic reasoning: persuasion by way of poetry and literature.

What role does poetry and literature play in defending a Christian worldview?

Most people don't associate poetry with religion--or at least they don't see the two as intertwined in any essential way. Poetry is a fanciful form of expression that can be used for many purposes, religious and nonreligious, and it is opposed to rational prose expression, which is a more direct form of expression better fitted to articulating truth and describing reality. Poetry--and literature in general--is an inferior means of communicating truth.

At least that is how many of us think about it.

And that is why, when classical Christian educators place an emphasis on poetry and literature in their schools, they are often challenged to justify the emphasis the school places on it. "Why," teachers are asked, "is literature important?" And too often, we don't have a good answer. Of course, if schools simply changed the names of these classes to "worldview," there would be no questions asked.

Simple poetry itself has fallen on hard times and has become increasingly inaccessible to contemporary people--religious and otherwise. Modern Bible translations increasingly eliminate the metaphorical expressions employed in the original languages in favor of more sterile prose expressions. Literature in general has taken a back seat in even Christian educational institutions in favor of more "practical" subjects like business, engineering, and the sciences.
But there is a school of thought that views poetic expression--which would encompass all literary expression--as not only an acceptable way of communicating religious truth, but as essential to it. Indeed, some would argue that the Christian worldview is inherently poetic.

In C. S. Lewis' essay, "Meditation in a Toolshed," the author discusses standing inside a toolshed on a sunny day, with the two doors just slightly cracked open. Through the small opening in the door, a beam of light shines through. From where he stands, says Lewis, he can see the beam with tiny specks of dust floating through it. But then he moves from where he is standing, until his eye is actually in the beam of light. Suddenly, he says, his vision is completely changed. He no longer sees the beam and the flecks of dust. He sees instead the leaves of the trees outside and the sun itself.

The two visions, Lewis points out, are completely different. Both visions are true, but each sees a different aspect of things. Looking at the beam, says Lewis, is like what we call viewing things "objectively": we see them dispassionately and from the outside. We see them in the abstract. This is what we usually call the "logical" way of viewing something. But looking through the beam, on the other hand, is like viewing a thing subjectively--from the inside, so to speak.

Someone can, for example, give the definition of marriage and all sorts of statistics about it, but if you are not married, just this abstract information will never give you a true picture of what marriage really is. Only by the actual experience of being married--by looking through the beam--will you ever really know what marriage is. It is the same for most other things in life: fatherhood, friendship, faith.

John Henry Newman was right when he said that we make decisions about philosophical issues and religious truth questions the same way we make decisions about anything else: we note, among the welter of worldly things and events, certain patterns and pointers until we see clearly a set of converging probabilities. There, although there is seldom a clear deductive path, we tend to find the truth. We go, in other words, by untutored intuition, a more direct road.

In one of his autobiographical stories, Ralph Moody talks about spending a summer with his grandfather, who in the course of the story teaches him many things. One day, his grandfather takes him out to show him how to find a beehive. He has Ralph capture a bee visiting a blossom in a nearby field. Smearing the bee with a dab of glue and attaching some angel hair to it to make it visible in flight, he lets the bee go, and it heads for a nearby wood. They mark its trajectory. Then they capture another bee in a different spot and do the same thing, marking its trajectory as well. By following the paths of these two bees, they find the place where the paths of these two bees converge, and there they find the beehive.

Newman's theory of converging probabilities, which he calls the "illative sense," operates the same way, by a sort of conspiracy of events. Facts too, thinks Newman, make a beeline for the truth, and they gain in persuasive force not only by their quantity, but by their variety. You can prove to a person the existence of God with a philosophical argument, and he still may not believe. But if he were to see the same pointers to God in other things, particularly the common concrete experiences of everyday life--of the kind presented to the mind in literature and poetry--how much more would he be prone to believe?

"I am less convinced of a philosophy from four books," said G. K. Chesterton, "than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend."

Mortimer Adler, the editor of The Great Books of the Western World series, once told the story of teaching a class for aspiring law students in which he presented and discussed St. Thomas Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God. One by one they submitted to the logical force of the arguments. But one student remained unmoved. Then Adler decided to employ another strategy. He told his students the story of St. Thomas himself, who, having sequestered himself in a monastery with only the Bible and a few other books at his disposal, proceeded to write the Summa Theologica and the other stunning and magisterial works in which he brought together all of knowledge under the Christian view of the world. When he finished the story, the student who had been resisting spoke up, and rebuked Adler for not telling the story before. "Why?" asked Adler. "Because if you had told us all this about Aquinas, you would not have had to bother our minds with arguments about God's existence. Aquinas could not have done what he did without God's help."

Looking at things is the preferred method of modern thinkers. It is the whole basis, says Lewis, "of the specifically 'modern' type of thought." Modern thought is reductionist, scientistic, and narrow, and those who would pretend to articulate a Christian worldview would do well not to imitate it.

Looking through things is the poetic way of looking at the world. It does not spurn reason, but only puts it in its proper place. The great Shakespeare critic Harold Goddard observed, "Poetry, the elemental speech, is like the elements. Its primary function is not to convey thought, but to reflect life." Poetry, says Goddard, has what he calls a sort of "Delphic" quality: "The Lord at Delphi," said Heraclitus, "neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign." It is a quality looked down upon by modern thought, which is impatient with the intractable mysteries of life, says Goddard:
We want the definite. As certainly as ours is the time of the expert and the technician, we are living under a dynasty of the intellect, and the aim of the intellect is not to wonder and love and grow wise about life, but to control it ... We want the facts for the practical use we can make of them. We want the tree for its lumber, not, as Thoreau did, to make an appointment as with a friend. When the intellect speaks, its instrument is a rational prose. The more unmistakable its meaning, the better. "Two and two are four." Everybody understands what that means, and it means the same to everybody. But "Become what thou art"; "Know thyself"; "Ye must be born again"; "I should never have sought thee if I had not already found thee"; "The rest is silence"; what do they mean? Will any two men every exactly agree? Such sentences are poetry.
There is much in the truth of the world that is accessible purely through reason, but there is much that is not. There are mysteries which yield little to pure logical analysis, and many of them are among the most important things in life. "Articles of faith," said Adler, after he converted to Christianity late in life:
are beyond proof. But they are not beyond disproof. We have a logical, consistent faith. In fact, I believe Christianity is the only logical, consistent faith in the world. But there are elements to it that can only be described as mystery ... My chief reason for choosing Christianity was because the mysteries were incomprehensible. What’s the point of revelation if we could figure it out ourselves? If it were wholly comprehensible then it would be just another philosophy.
Lewis did not question the existence of objective truth or that reason was, as Samuel Johnson once put it, the "organ whereby truth is apprehended." He merely meant to point out that reason operated against a background of concrete experience:
It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.
With logic you can manipulate abstractions, but only with the imagination can you apprehend meaning. We tend not only to distinguish but to separate these two modes of thinking to the point where they conflict with one another:
This is our dilemma--either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste--or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it ... Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution.
By "myth," Lewis simply means the imaginative apprehension of reality. The imaginative approach to the world recommended by Lewis has the advantage that it recognizes its own limitations, unlike the rationalist abstract approach which takes no heed of man's inherent limitations. It is no mistake that modern systems of logic derived from the attempt to create a formal language by which man could resolve all scientific questions. This universal scientific language was the dream of the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz which modern philosophers like Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein actually tried to bring to fruition in the book Principia Mathematica in the early 20th century, a work which until recent years was required reading for many philosophy students and from which all modern logic descends. It was the intellectual equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

Rational prose, of the kind favored by modernism, said Lewis' close friend Charles Williams, hides from us the fact that human nature is inherently limited:
Prose, especially sweet and rational prose, conceals its human limitations. It may argue or instruct or exhort, but all that while it subdues or hides from us the pattern which is our reminder that its conclusions are what they are because of its own limitations--which are its writer's--which are in the nature of man.
Poetry, on the other hand, inoculates us from man's fatal conceit: his tendency to forget that his nature is limited, that he can't know everything. It limits its way of saying things to the limits of human nature itself:
Exquisitely leaning to an implied untruth, prose persuades us that we can trust our natures to know things as they are; ostentatiously faithful to its own nature, poetry assures us that we cannot--we know only as we can.
Chesterton, writing several decades earlier, anticipated William's point:
The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Poetry acknowledges that we have eaten of the Tree of Good and Evil. But it will not allow us the delusion that we have eaten also of the Tree of Life.

The Christian worldview is contained not only in the great confessions of faith of Christian divines and the philosophical disquisitions of Christian philosophers, it is housed in the great works of poetry and literature which have formed the literary tradition of the Christian West.

We can understand the truth through the abstract statements of the philosophers, but only by poetry can we see it. And seeing is believing. Jesus, who himself taught in stories, did not accuse the Pharisees of not understanding the truth; he accused them of something much more serious: He accused them of being blind.

"How can a man be born again when he is old?" "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" How indeed. Only through a reacquaintance with the poetic can we repair our sight and see truly once again.

1 comment:

Formans said...

Magnificient. What a worldview! Thanks for articulating it so.