Bad Breath?

Michael Metzger

Occupational hazard
One way to learn if you have halitosis is to get hitched. I was blissfully unaware of my morning mouth until I got married. Scientists say we don’t smell our own breath odor due to a biological process called habituation – we become comfy with our bad breath but can’t bear bad breath in others. The occupational hazard of habituation is desensitization – a warning to faith communities teaching “worldviews,” since all worldviews are habits. In learning to detect bad breath in others, we might no longer smell our own.

Habituation is an unconscious sensory accommodation helping us sift through new stimuli while keeping the background systems operating. For example, a short time after you got dressed, the stimulus that clothing created disappeared from your nervous system and you became unaware of it. Habituation keeps us sane by desensitizing us – which is the occupational hazard of teaching “worldviews.”

Over the last twenty years, a cottage industry has sprung up in “worldview training.” Faith communities promote worldview summits and worldview seminars and worldview summer camps and worldview institutes and worldview t-shirts, and… okay, I made up that last one. Some of these initiatives, like The Truth Project, conflate “worldviews” with Bible beliefs – and that’s a problem.1 “Worldviews,” as Richard Weaver wrote, are “an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality.”2 Beliefs, on the other hand, are less about feeling and more about facts. “Worldviews” are operating systems, like Windows XP or Vista – platforms for programs. Beliefs are programs like Word or Excel. Most of us are familiar with programs but unfamiliar with operating systems. This presents a problem, since Protestantism’s operating system differs from the Bible’s.

Protestantism was born 500 years ago with a fraternal twin – the Enlightenment. “Christian missions were, in fact, among the main carriers of the ideas of the Enlightenment. The churches of Europe and their cultural offshoots in the Americas had largely come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment,” observed Lesslie Newbigin.3 The Enlightenment’s assumption is change the mind to change the world, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”4 But the Bible says the Enlightenment got it backwards.

The first “enlightened” person was Adam – “Adam knew Eve.” This wasn’t a heady seminar; it was hands-on sexual discovery – knowing by doing. The Bible says enlisting the body enlightens the mind. But the Enlightenment reversed the poles, saying enlightening the mind will enlist the body – you can know something for certain even if you don’t do much about it. As a result, our “worldview training” is a heady classroom experience rather than a hands-on exchange with people of differing faiths – friends who might help us learn that we too have halitosis.

This is the occupational hazard of “worldview training” based on Enlightenment assumptions. Distance learning breeds desensitization that breeds arrogance – we become experts on others faults while oblivious to ours. In a world of increasing polarity, this only widens the religious chasm. “A faith primarily associated with Europe somehow has to adapt to this wider world, adjusting many assumptions drawn from European culture. Some will even ask whether this new global or world Christianity will remain fully authentic,” writes Philip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity.5

Jenkins notes that, long before the European church was born, an earlier Asian church thrived and embraced the ancient notion that the best knowing is by doing. Unfortunately, the Asian churches disappeared and the Enlightenment took hold with ideas that “are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been,” writes Jenkins.6 If reading this is like learning we have halitosis, Jenkins acknowledges “such questions are ironic when we realize how unnatural the Euro-American emphasis is when seen against the broader background of Christian history. The particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm, another, earlier global Christianity once existed.”7 It sounds like we too have bad breath.

We can fix this, but it won’t be easy. I don’t enjoy being told that I have bad breath. The “we’re right, they’re wrong” combative tone in much of our “worldview training” is offenive and arrogant. It implies our breath is minty fresh while every other faith system suffers from halitosis. “I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true,” C.S. Lewis wrote. “In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted at in all the religions at their best.”8

The good news is that God makes breathalyzers for faith communities – called prophets. The bad news is that many faith communities are non-prophet institutions. The good news, as we turn the corner into 2009, is that prophets can help us promote “worldviews” better. Who knows? We might see more hands-on exchanges with people of differing faiths and become a bit more charitable.

1 For example, “Jesus Christ lived a sinless life” is labeled “worldview.”
2 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 18.
3 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in christian discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.
4 As cited in Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1991), p. 266.
5 Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008), p. 3.
6 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, pp. 18-20.
7 Jenkins, Lost History, p. 3.
8 C. S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 54.


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  1. Another great essay, Mike. Thanks. When it comes to “enlightening the body to enlist the mind,” or to “enlighten the mind to enlist the mind,” I’m not sure that it’s an either/or question. The traits of human nature–mind, body, spirit, emotions–are in most ways inseparable, constantly influencing one another. Paul said: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .” (Romans 12:2) But right before that he says: “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” Perhaps another “halitosis” we have adopted from the Enlightenment is our tendency to compartmentalize the elements of human nature, rather than to see them as a whole. Ultimately, we’re called to love God with all our mind, body, soul and strength.

  2. Love the ‘non-prophet’ pun.

    Is it too Enlightment of me to hope that future essays explain more of the proper role and use of the prophesy function?

  3. Glenn makes a great point – and Ray, I’m sure we’ll tackle the topics of the Enlightenment and the role of prophecy in future blogs. If I forget – hold my feet to the fire.

  4. Thought provoking to say the least. I have been struggling with the evangelical worldview that comes across as “offensive and arrogant”. Now you’ve changed the whole paradigm. I’ll have to reflect on this.

    I appreciate the C.S. Lewis quote. I find most evangelicals are selective in their Lewis quotes and this is one that is not popular with much of the evangelical community.

    Also, I remember the “habituation” sermon example from way back at Broadneck Senior High.

  5. Hi Mike: Helpful thoughts and also you hit on the reason why I defined worldview in Worldview: The History of a Concept (chp 9) as a perception/vision of the embodied heart in its combination of intellect, affection, and will, all enfleshed in the physical body (= imago Dei).

  6. Mike-

    Thanks for the insights. It reminds me of how we train leaders: put them in a classroom/seminary/college and fill their minds with things that may be useful but will likely never get put into practice. A lot of people read books like Good to Great for example, and never implement a single thing that it says into their organization. I struggle with the same issue. We need to get out of the classroom and get into the lab…


  7. Mike – Thanks for another thought-provoking essay. I’ve been reading your work for over a year now and look forward to it. Although I appreciate your head nod toward considering the plank in our own eye before removing the splinter from the eye of someone else, I’m curious to know what aspects of other religions you think we should be more accepting of? Lewis found great comfort in the fact that several early myths contained reference to “the dying God.” Are there aspects of Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, or Hinduism that you think Christians should be more accepting of? Thanks

  8. “Protestantism was born 500 years ago with a fraternal twin – the Enlightenment.”

    Actually, if one takes Luther as the starting point (not his antecedents), Protestantism appears to date from the first quarter of the 1500s, whereas the Enlightenment, if I am not mistaken, is generally considered to date from the 1730s or 1740s, with Diderot and the French Encyclopédistes, then Voltaire, etc. If one accepts these definitions, that means that Protestantism existed for a full two centuries before the European “Enlightenment” movement. Various historical writings and artifacts exist that point to this.

    This is an important transition in the piece, and I would be in favor of re-working it to create a more nuanced version (perhaps relying more on Newbigin than Jenkins, but that’s up to you) to grant Protestantism some pre- and post- Enlightenment validity.

    I love what you write and am, I think, in favor of what you’re trying to achieve, but I also submit that in this Great Enterprise, we shouldn’t be sloppy.

    That said, your main points are well taken.

  9. When it comes to evangelism/dialogue/debate with those from other faith backgronds such as Hindusim, Islam or Buddhism for example where most people are born into it rather than converted to it ot os key to not come across as arrogant. One can’t help where the Lord chose to place them in the world to begin with but we can impact their destination if done with the right approach.
    In many of the modern missionary journeys since Columbus to America & Cook to Australia a cultural imperialism was often included by default. The Spanish & British would view the indigenous people of these new worlds as primitive & lacking self respect for their lack of clothing whilst not understanding the difference in local climate variations in these countries led to that choice.
    I’m in Australia & when Governor Phillip arrived in Botany Bay, Sydney on 26th January, 1988 it was most likely an overcast, humid mid summer day of around 30C, perfect beach weather. The local Aborigines were dressed for it whilst the British were still in their Northern Hemisphere winter clothes sweating buckets. Now thses conditions shouldn’t have taken them by surprise due to other voyages such as Cook’s in 1770 & the Dutch voyages in the 1600’s that the seasons are reversed in different hemispheres. However, it seems to have done so.

  10. I’d like to see a Biblical reference(s) to the assertion the Bible teaches that “enlisting the body enlightens the mind.”

    When does looking for God in other religions cross over some line of truth? A friend argues Jesus is not the only way to God. Has he crossed that line?

  11. You write of a pervasive phenomenon present in education at so many levels, not limited to “Worldview Seminars”. While Newbigin and others have articulated the limitations of Enlightenment approaches to adequately accounting for reality, Enlightenment premises continue to be the basis on which we structure learning institutions, instruct and assess students, and view the nature and purposes of knowledge. Now that we are “enlightened” about the limitations of Enlightenment thought, we need to get on with the work of overhauling the practices that perpetuate it.

  12. To Rob and the Irreverent Reverent’s Wife – I agree. The next two blogs – January 12 and 19 – take up Newbigin et al. Tell me what you think… and thanks for the critiques.

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