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 www.thetruthproject.org. 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.