If You Want a “Christian Worldview,” Read Chesterton and Become a Catholic

As a Protestant evangelical, I heard a lot about the importance of developing a “Christian worldview.”  Exactly what this meant, however, was always a bit of a mystery to me.  In its most general sense, of course, it meant that I should look at all aspects of life–personal morality, family relationships, work, politics, law, economics, etc.–through the lens of my faith.  The trouble is, if you really take this concept seriously, I think you’ll find that becoming a Catholic is unavoidable.  Indeed, “having a Christian worldview” (in the best sense of the phrase) and “being a Catholic” are, to a certain extent, almost synonymous.  I’ll try to explain why with the help of my friend Mr. Chesterton, who first introduced me to what it means to truly view everything in the light of Christian truth.

For those not familiar with the phrase “Christian worldview” as used within Protestant evangelicalism, a simple Google search will bring up several sites that are representative of what I always understood this phrase to mean, including a whole section of the Focus on the Family website devoted to the topic.  Check out any of these sites, and I think you’ll agree that it’s fair to say at least a couple of things about what Protestant evangelicals mean by this term, which are consistent with how I myself used it when I was a Protestant. 

First, Protestant evangelicals do not use “Christian worldview” simply as shorthand for “how a Christian views the world.”  Rather, it has definite substantive content, which can differ depending on who’s giving their take on what a “Christian worldview” precisely is.  That said, though, most folks using this term in my experience (and this is how I myself used it) take it as something of a code word to cover certain “conservative” doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural positions, including:  (1) the infallibility/inerrancy of the Bible; (2) a pro-life stance on the abortion issue; (3) a generally pro-free market/pro-capitalist position on economic issues (sometimes even an overtly pro-Republican Party approach to such issues); and (4) a concern that American culture is becoming increasingly consumerist and over-sexualized.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever hearing of a Protestant, who takes a “liberal” position on these issues, talking about “Christian worldview.”[1]

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, the “Christian worldview” discussion within Protestantism is presented as something different than the discussion of “Christian doctrine,” and I always thought of the two topics as somehow separate.  I think there were at least two reasons for this:  (1) by talking about “worldview” instead of “doctrine,” I felt I could duck the various doctrinal issues that divided me from other “conservative” Protestants so that we could present a united “worldview” front to combat a culture that increasingly disturbed us; and (2) the “worldview” conversation explicitly allowed for the use of reason to draw implications from the Bible and/or certain “key” doctrines, whereas pure “doctrinal” debate within the Protestant “Bible alone” context (which I have discussed more fully here and here) had a tendency to degenerate into who could quote the most proof texts without appearing to resort to reason. 

Both of these reasons for separating “worldview” from “doctrine” ultimately fell apart for me.  If the whole point of developing a “worldview” is to view all of life through the lens of Christian faith, and if a critical part of that faith is its “doctrinal” content, then how could I decide that all of the doctrinal differences among the various Protestant denominations weren’t important to the question of deciding what it means to have a “Christian worldview”?[2]  Wouldn’t that be admitting that what we believed as a matter of theology didn’t really matter to how we lived and viewed the world?  That kind of an admission would negate the very concept of “worldview,” which was premised upon the idea that what we believe does make such a difference.  Also, how could I possibly decide that it was more important (for the purpose of a “united front” against the “culture”) to believe that a Christian should be pro-free-market in his “worldview” than that he should (or shouldn’t) be premillennial dispensationalist in his “doctrine”? 

The explicit place given to reason in discussions of “worldview” also, from where I am now, seems utterly inconsistent with the general Protestant position on how “doctrinal” truth is determined.  In this regard, if it’s OK to use reason to determine “worldview,” how could it be improper to use it to determine “doctrine”?  And, yet, at the heart of the Protestant objection to many Catholic doctrines and practices (such as the Assumption of Mary and praying to the Saints (to name a couple)) is the charge that they “aren’t found explicitly in Scripture.”  But being “pro-free-market” or “pro-limited-government” isn’t found explicitly in Scripture, either.  And, yet, as a “conservative” Protestant, I didn’t seem to have any trouble saying that those were fair implications of the teaching of Scripture.

By trying to separate “worldview” from “doctrine,” I was engaged in a doomed enterprise.  So what was the answer?  Well, as with all of the other issues I’ve discussed in my posts, the answer was Catholicism, and my reading of Chesterton helped me to understand why. 

Chesterton, as I mentioned in my last post, wrote about everything:  political theory, economic theory, family life, theology, apologetics, war, peace, the Titanic, Dickens, the contents of his pockets—you name it, he wrote about it.  And he wrote about all of it through the lens of his faith—his faith that Christ was Who He claimed to be and that the Catholic Church was what she claimed to be.  It was simply impossible for me to separate out one of his purely theological beliefs, such as his belief that Christ is the Son of God and was born of the Immaculately Conceived Virgin Mary, from any of his other conclusions, such as his belief that it is wrong to use artificial contraception, his belief that it is wrong for a factory owner not to pay his employees a fair wage, or his belief that to say of a man “he believes in himself” is to charge him with superstition. 

Every belief, every doctrine, of Chesterton’s is inextricably linked to every single other one, and he rejects modern attempts to divide up life and the faith into hermetically-sealed little boxes: 

There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect the fragments.  There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about.  They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips . . . , and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness.  They have parted His garments among them, and for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.

This tie between everything and everything else isn’t just a Chestertonian quirk or pretty piece of rhetoric.  Rather, it is at the heart of what it means to be “Catholic.”  It is no accident of history that the very word “catholic” means “universal,” and it is a mistake to think that the word only refers to the global reach of the Church.  Yes, it does refer to the fact that the Church covers the physical earth.  In addition to this, though, “Catholicism” refers to viewing and living the totality of life—in the Church, in the home, in the workplace, in society, in politics—in such a way that every aspect of life is connected to and in harmony with every other aspect, thereby encompassing the goals and aspirations of all those (myself included) seeking a “Christian worldview.”  For this reason, I am persuaded that living the Catholic life is the highest and best way we can witness to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is himself the divine Logos and in whom “all things hold together.”


[1]               I’m using the terms “conservative” and “liberal” here as they’re typically used within Protestant churches, although I normally try to avoid using both words.  At least in my experience, these words tend to be used only as relatively unhelpful epithets that actually discourage clear thinking on whatever the topic of discussion might be.

[2]               Even more basically, how would I decide if a particular issue fell into the “worldview” bucket or the “doctrine” bucket?  As a matter of practice, as I’ve indicated, I put the more controversial issues within Protestant evangelicalism in the “doctrine” bucket, and this seems consistent with what other proponents of “worldview” discussions do.  Take, for example, the issue of artificial contraception.  That issue is highly relevant to how a Christian views and lives out life, but (at least in my experience) it wasn’t treated as a “worldview” issue.  My hunch is that this is because Protestants are all over the map on this subject so to treat it as a “worldview” topic would stir up a lot of debate within the “worldview” crowd—which would be at odds with one of the reasons for trying to separate out “doctrine” from “worldview” in the first place. 

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16 Responses to If You Want a “Christian Worldview,” Read Chesterton and Become a Catholic

  1. Tex says:

    I think you’re making some good points here (especially in your 4th and 5th paragraphs) and I think the conclusion you draw about the ‘catholic scope’ are very interesting as well. Yet, if all this is true, why is it that so many Catholics don’t have this universal view of life? It seems to me, admittedly a Reformed Protestant with lots of worldview training, that the Catholic position would be much stronger if the majority of Catholics followed through on this (rather than something like 90% who use artificial birth control).
    Peter Kreeft in How to Win the Culture War seems to think that worldview language is useful in rallying Christians of many stripes to defend the Culture of Life against the Culture of Death.
    Full disclosure: I’m a Reformed PCA guy who loves Chesterton, is intrigued by the Catholic church, and thinks the Theology of the Body is incredible (I’m currently teaching a course on it at our church). I say this just so you know where I’m coming from. I really enjoy your blog and think you hit on a bunch of good issues.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the comment and the kind words, Tex! I struggled with the “bad Catholic” issue quite a bit myself in my journey. On that issue, I ultimately came to the conclusion that what was really driving the boat on this was that to say someone was a “bad Catholic” actually had some definite meaning (including the one you mention–not following through on the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception–as well as openly defying Church teaching on issues like abortion or even a more purely “theological” doctrine like the Real Presence). At the same time, I really struggled with what it would mean to be a “bad Protestant.” Does a “bad Protestant” use artificial contraception or not? Is he a free-market guy or a socialist? Does he believe in free will or not?, etc. Also, the “look at all those bad Catholics” argument can just as easily be used against all of Christianity (and often is). The charge of hypocrisy is, of course, a serious one, but (if anything) the charge only bolsters the truth of the position the hypocrite preaches (even if it means his practice doesn’t live up to that preaching).

      I’d agree with Kreeft that the “worldview” concept may be useful in helping folks come together to fight the Culture of Death. I just found that, as I personally dug into the concept more deeply, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that Catholicism more fully and completely satisfied my yearning for an integrated life.

      I will be praying for you as you present Theology of the Body. That teaching also had a profound impact on Nikki and me. I’d never read anything like it before.

      God bless!!

      • Tex says:

        Jason,
        You’re right about the “bad Catholic” idea at least demonstrating that there is such a thing as Catholic that you can be good or bad relative to. Within Protestantism that is largely at the individuals decision, as we see daily played out in the media (a good Christian is pro-capitalist! No, a good Christian is pro-workers rights!, etc.).
        Honestly that is one of the reasons for my interest in the Catholic church because it makes sense in its own presentation of itself. That is, the PCA doesn’t have any pretensions to being the Church that Christ founded and thus exists in something of a relative position to all the other plethora of denominations out there in the Protestant scope (closer to some than others, but with no real North Star to guide it by, other than Scripture) whereas the Catholic Church at least claims to be the Church and as a result can more clearly pronounce on who truly is Christian and how close they come to the truth (there is a sliding scale, just like with holiness).
        I’ve been listening to Catholic radio for a while now primarily because I enjoy the universal take it has on things, viewing issues through the lens of the Church rather than through the lens of politics as so often happens on other radio shows. It’s certainly broadened my understanding of issues both politically and theologically.
        I’ve read just about everything y’all’ve written and I’m curious: did you both begin to move in the same direction around the same time, or did one of you kind of drag the other along?
        Thanks!

      • Jason says:

        We were VERY blessed to be moving in the same direction at roughly the same speed. While Nikki’s seminary experience was drawing her towards the Church over the last several years, my experience as an adult Sunday school teacher at the Baptist church we attended was having the same effect on me (along with my reading of Chesterton). Working through the teaching of Theology of the Body was also very influential for both of us, and that was something we did together. A trip to Rome in 2006 to celebrate our 10th anniversary had a big impact on both of us, too. In addition to the way being in Rome and at the Vatican felt to both of us, it was on that trip as well that we first read Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, given to us by one of my then-co-workers (who eventually was my son’s and my sponsor when we came into the Church).

        All that said, it was still hard at times. I started RCIA before Nikki did, and, for several months, our family was straddling two worlds–attending both Mass and the Baptist church. We really struggled with how to handle the transition, both for ourselves and for our kids. Our best friends were all at our Baptist church and our kids couldn’t remember going to church anywhere else, and it was terribly painful to leave. Nikki, though, soon started RCIA as well, and we had a lot of conversations with our kids, too–especially the two oldest (who are 12 and 10). So, by August of this year, we were all on-board to be received into the Church together, at a Mass on the Feast of the Assumption. We were blessed that many of our Baptist friends came to support us that night, which meant more than we can say. God is good, and we are so thankful He has brought us safely to this side of the Tiber.

    • wineinthewater says:

      Tex,

      I think one of the big issues here is a fundamentally different ecclesiology. A Catholic is a Catholic because he or she has been joined to the Body of Christ through the Grace of Baptism. The sacrament is the basis for membership. A Catholic can sin, be non-observant, fall into all kinds of errors and fail spectacularly and still be Catholic. Only outright apostasy makes a person no longer Catholic.

      However, in post-Protestant Christianity, most churches have a membership determined by assent to doctrine and/or attendance. A person’s membership in a church is determined by attendance. A person’s membership in a ideological division is determined by what they believe. A person doesn’t continue to call himself a Crossroadian once he stops attending Crossroads Bible Church. A person doesn’t continue to call herself a Calvinist when she ceases to accept Reformed theology.

      I think that is what is confusing for so many non-Catholic Christians. They are accustomed to doctrinal assent and attendance determining membership, so it is odd to see so many people who reject Catholic doctrine or don’t actually attend mass being counted as members.

      This is often seen as a weakness of Catholicism, but I think it is a strength. It evidences a Church built upon Grace and not upon the ability of her members to get it right. It is a foundation building on God rather than on the individual Christian.

      • Tex says:

        WITW,
        I’ve dialogued with several Catholics over the last few years and I think there are just a few key issues where Protestants and Catholics aren’t even speaking the same language that makes fruitful dialogue difficult without a real desire to engage and understand. I think the nature of the Church and anthropology (i.e. what is grace in the human context, why do we need it, and how does it apply to us) are the two, foundational issues. Just about every other point of contention can be wrapped up in one of these two.
        I agree with you that it is a strength of the Catholic church this continual idea of being Catholic even if not actually devout or practicing, but at the same time I have seen it turn into a sort of complacency. Like you said, Protestants pretty much have to choose the church they belong to and this leads I think to a higher percentage of more committed people in Protestant denominations than in the Catholic church, but the Catholic church is also much larger and that leads to another issue. When a Protestant talks about the Church, they either mean their local congregation or denomination, or they mean the invisible church of all who truly believe (which I understand opens up a big can of worms and, I think, leads to much of the parachurch ideas and broad worldview/mere christianity type of thinking that is prevalent in most Protestant circles.
        Anyways, all that is to say that I think you’ve hit on an increasingly serious problem within Protestantism (if that term is even useful).

    • Fr. Bryan says:

      Tex,

      Wow! I’m so thrilled that Non-Catholics are finally being exposed to the Theology of the Body! I would love to know more about how your congregation is responding to JPII’s teaching, and how you present it to them Perhaps Jason and/or Nikki could pass along my email address to you so I could hear more about it without us hijacking their comment thread?

      • Tex says:

        Fr. Bryan,
        So far so good actually. I’m teaching it in a men’s group and have emailed out a workbook I put together for high school students to several others who have found that really helpful. I think for many Protestants, myself included, we were always just told no, don’t have sex, but were never really given any positive reason for why not (other than to avoid disease, which while practical, is not a great theological reason). I think the great thing about the TOB is that it provides a biblical framework for understanding ourselves, our bodies, marriage, and how it all ultimately points us to the Trinity and Christ’s work on our behalf. I inquired about it with a very devout Catholic acquaintance of mine after hearing about TOB on the radio and she gave me about 7 books on the topic (I’ve found Catholics to be very generous with their books actually on several occasions, which probably says something about their confidence in the reasonableness of their faith) which I’ve read, digested, and tried to put into a form that is palatable to Protestants who wouldn’t even pick up a book that was connected with the Catholic church or a pope.
        Anyways, thanks for asking, and I’d be happy to email with you about it if Jason or Nikki will pass it along.

  2. Ed says:

    Great post. Your journey is similar to mine. Protestantism couldn’t show me how to live a life which was Christian in its essence, as opposed to a life which obeyed certain rules which were labelled as such. Protestantism has a tendency to separate doctrine from everything else. It has very little to say about a Christian view of art, music, architecture, economics, law, education, or beauty, and why it matters so much. Many Protestants see these things as entirely separate from the gospel, or even as an unwelcome distraction, and will openly say so. (They might see them as a useful precursor for sharing the gospel with people, but of course that’s entirely different.)

    Anyway, just one of about 279 reasons I’m becoming Catholic!

  3. Brydon says:

    Does Catholic doctrine lead one to be pro-free market / pro-capitalist? Do all “good Catholics” vote the same way?

    It’s safe to say all Protestant churches emphasize the Ten Commandments and the idea of loving your neighbor. Obviously, there are different interpreations of how those concepts are implemented when forming a Christian worldview, but doesn’t a Catholic face the same issue when applying Catholic doctrine?

    • Jason says:

      On your first question, I think there’s a fair amount of room within Catholicism regarding economic theory. Personally, I subscribe to “distributism” and am a big fan of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclial Rerum Novarum and Chesterton and Belloc’s development of the teaching set out there. No Protestant work I’m aware of gives a Protestant similar direction, from a reliable source, in considering modern economic issues.

      As to voting, the Church clearly teaches that the life issues are paramount, particularly in our current political climate. Take a look at the USCCB voting guide at this link. I can’t recall ever seeing such helpful, comprehensive guidance to help me make my voting decision at any Protestant church I attended. Of course, the voting responsibility is an individual responsibility, and the individual must make his or her own choices–so it’s tough to say there’s always one “right” way for a good Catholic to vote. There is one comprehensive set of principles, however, that clearly set forth the primacy of the life issues, and I’d say a “good Catholic” tries to vote in accordance with these principles. I don’t think the same can be said for Protestantism. I’ve had too many debates with “good Protestants” who think the life issues take, at best, a back seat to other issues (if they’re even pro-life at all).

      I certainly agree that Protestant churches would say Christians should keep the Ten Commandments and love their neighbors. The devil is, as they say, in the details, though. If you haven’t done so, I’d check out the “examination of conscience” link Nik included in her “My Sin Is Ever Before Me” post. It’s at this site. The questions listed there (in my opinion) come pretty close to covering the waterfront of the various ways I can mess up, and they help me to determine if I’m living in accordance with the teachings of Christ and His Church. The Catholic can turn to this sort of list of questions for help in knowing how to live out his faith–to help him know if he’s living out a “Christian worldview.” I’m not aware of any similar authoritative Protestant list that gives such practical guidance–and I’m quite positive that there are several items on the Catholic examination of conscience list with which many (if not most) Protestants would disagree. Heck, a good number of Catholics would likely disagree with several of them. But, of course, that’s irrelevant as to whether they should or shouldn’t be on the list.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you that there’s a lot of room for prudential decision-making by “good Catholics.” I would suggest, however, consistent with the above, that the “good Catholic” is given far more guidance on how to make moral decisions and what the outer bounds are for those decisions.

  4. Brydon says:

    Where are the boundaries of the RCC’s authority?

    I remember John Kerry being denied the Eucharist because of his pro-abortion position. I completely understand why a Catholic priest would do that.

    But what about other positions taken by the church? I took a quick glance at the voting guide. It says the United States should support beneficial United Nations programs. What if you are against supporting the United Nations? The 2011 guide also calls for an end to the war in Iraq. What if you think more lives will be saved by keeping our troops there?

    Where is the line drawn? Of course, abortion is about saving lives. But the church could claim that supporting the UN and pulling our troops from Iraq is about saving lives too.

    • Jason says:

      I think paragraphs 17-43 of the guide are relevant to your questions here and make clear that the bishops’ positions regarding the need for prudence and the difference between Christian principles (such as the sacredness of human life) and particular policy choices (such as exactly how we leave Iraq). In particular, I think the following statement from the guide is illuminating:

      31. Decisions about political life are complex and require the exercise of a wellformed conscience aided by prudence. This exercise of conscience begins with outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.

      33. Prudential judgment is also needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices in areas such as the war in Iraq, housing, health care, immigration, and others. This does not mean that all choices are equally valid, or that our guidance and that of other Church leaders is just another political opinion or policy preference among many others. Rather, we urge Catholics to listen carefully to the Church’s teachers when we apply Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations. The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings. Nevertheless, the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.

      Specifically on the UN, I think the guide just says the bishops are in favor of “beneficial” programs sponsored by the UN. The bishops (as I read it) aren’t saying there’s any particular program that falls in that category. On the Iraq war, the guide says the bishops favor a “responsible transition.” Seems to me that’s a pretty non-controversial position at this point.

      On your broader question, I think the guide is clear that the bishops aren’t saying the Church has the authority to dictate individual policy choices. They’re just providing guidance–which is very different from the Christian Coalition voter guides I saw in my Protestant churches–which pretty much tried to tell me exactly who to vote for.

  5. Brydon says:

    Comparing the Christian Coalition voters guide to the USCCB guide is comparing apples and oranges. The Christian Coalition is a political entity.

    Back to the point I was originally trying to make, I think you are overstating Protestant doctrinal differences and their impact on forming a Christian worldview. Christian churches have many doctrinal differences but also have substantial similarities. Protestants and Catholics are really not that far apart in the grand scheme of things. How does one’s stance on premillennial dispensationalism, for example, impact one’s view of popular culture or healthcare reform?

    • wineinthewater says:

      Well, I’ve seen a theological position on dispensationalism lead to very pronounced political views on things like Middle East policy and Israel (I’d say that *one* of the major drivers of American Middle East policy is Protestant end-times theology). I’ve seen positions on predestination have significant impact on opinions on economic policies. I’ve seen soteriology lead to interesting political opinions on abortion.

      There is a lot of agreement, but like Chesterton said, “Every argument is a theological argument.” Politics is no different.

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