I have been giving a talk at homeschool conventions this year called, “What IS the Christian Worldview?” based on an article that recently ran in Memoria Press’ Classical Teacher magazine.

There are basically four parts to the talk:

1. How a lot of people use the term “Christian Worldview,” but few can define it
2. Where the term “worldview” comes from in the first place
3. The definition of the term “worldview”
4. What makes a worldview “Christian”

Unfortunately for those wanting to get a quick grasp of what goes under the label of “worldview” in Christian education circles, the literature out there on this subject really leaves something to be desired. There is no one book in which you can get a competent discussion of the topic. I wrote the article (and modified it in my talk) as a step in that direction.

Worldview-chartThe problem with any literature on this subject is that there is a tendency is to give a list of beliefs Christians are supposed to adhere to. But if we’re going to do that, we might as well just memorize the Nicene Creed. Now, we should probably do that anyway, since it is the best summary of what Christians believe. But there are many people who claim to affirm the ecumenical creeds who still do not have what I would call a Christian worldview.

There is something deeper than just our surface beliefs that partly dictates what those beliefs will be. I think this is more reflective of what we mean by a worldview.

If you really want to get a grasp on what a Christian worldview is, you’re going to have to devote yourself to reading a little philosophy and literature, with an emphasis on the history of ideas. I will say, however, that there are some great writers and great resources out there to get you started on this endeavor. What follows are the books I have recommended to my youngest son, who is now a philosophy major at the University of Kentucky. I think he would tell you that they have benefited him a great deal. For the most part they are books that simplify a lot of the main issues involved in the question of why we think what we think. But, also for the most part, they avoid oversimplification.

I would suggest starting with several books by Mortimer Adler. Adler was the executive editor of Encyclopedia Britannica and the general editor of the Great Books of the Western World series that was published by Britannica Inc. He became a public figure through the many interviews he gave over his lifetime, and particularly through the “Great Ideas” series hosted by Bill Moyers which PBS ran for several years in the 1980s. There are Christians who do not have a Christian worldview, and there are people who have a Christian worldview even though they are not professed Christians. Adler was not a Christian until much later in life, but he was on his way for quite a long time and, although he was not a believer, he championed what amounted to a Christian philosophy. Adler has some definite limitations that you will discover as you gain more mastery over philosophy and the history of thought, but he is a great simplifier and it is a good idea to begin with him in learning about the great ideas. The books I would most highly recommend are the following:

1. Great Ideas from the Great Books. This may be the most helpful book in my literary arsenal. Long out of print but readily available used, it is a masterpiece of simplicity and clarity. I call it my “secret weapon.” The many short chapters it contains were culled from a newspaper column he wrote for many years that provided responses to readers asking about the great ideas. “What is Justice?” “How to Think about War and Peace,” “What is Morality?” In addition to being the answers he gave in what was essentially a great ideas version of Dear Abby, these articles are distillations of the longer, more involved articles he wrote for his great reference work to the Great Books called the Syntopicon (vols. 2 and 3 of the Great Books set). If you want to go in depth, read the Syntopicon articles, but if you want to cut to the chase, read these little gems, each of which gives you an outline of the issues involved in each facet of the great ideas, and a summary of what the great thinkers have thought about them. After a lifetime of reading philosophy and literature, I still consider this little book indispensable.

2. Six Great Ideas. This book, perhaps Adler’s most famous, is a discussion of six basic philosophical questions about truth goodness, beauty, and life. A great introduction to philosophy for the beginner.

3. Aristotle for Everybody. In this little book, Adler gives one of the best easy-to-read summaries of the thought of Aristotle, the “master of those who know.” A knowledge of Plato and Aristotle is essential for anyone who wants to say anything about “worldview.” These two figures addressed most of the most important questions in Western thought. They don’t always have the right answers, but they ask all the right questions, and you can’t fail to learn from them. This book gives you an incomparable simplification of the second of these figures.

The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnus. This may be the best one volume work on the history of ideas in print. A lot of people like Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and Paulette Moller for a starter book on philosophy and the history of ideas, and it may well be the best one for a beginner. But if you don’t read Tarnus’ book first, it should be next. His sort of New Agey secularism unmasks itself at the end of the book, but despite this he gives the reader an accurate and engaging tour of Western ideas from the Pre-Socratic philosophers to Plato and on into modern times. It’s a bigger book, but well worth the time.

Everything Peter Kreeft ever wrote. Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, wrote a book in 1989 called Socrates Meets Jesus. I had a copy of it on the back seat of my car when I went out to lunch with a friend of mine who was a radio ad salesman in the early 1990s. He saw the book and asked if I would mind if he borrowed it. Two weeks later, he called me back. “Martin,” he said, “this is the best book I’ve ever read.” It is truly an amazing little book of apologetics. And, in fact, Kreeft went on to write a number of other “Socrates Meets” books, all of which I would highly recommend. They are written in Platonic dialog form, rendering them easy to read, but at the same time they are entertaining and informative. I have met and talked with Kreeft a number of times. Once (after Socrates Meets Kant was published) I asked him who Socrates meets next. He said, “Next He meets Descartes, then Hume, and then Kierkegaard, at which point he converts to Christianity. Together, these books may constitute the best introduction for beginners to the thought of the major modern Western thinkers.

1. Socrates Meets Jesus
2. Socrates Meets Descartes
3. Socrates Meets Machiavelli
4. Socrates Meets Hume
5. Socrates Meets Kant
6. Socrates Meets Kierkegaard
7. Socrates Meets Marx
8. Socrates Meets Sartre

Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley, is also an excellent way to view the competing worldviews, and his Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, is an excellent introduction to Christian philosophy and theology.

Finally, there are four books written by William Barrett that I have gone back and read over the last couple of years and am astounded at how well they hold up for what are ostensibly popular works. Barrett was a professional philosopher, but one who could write. He became an editor at Partisan Review magazine in the 1950s and 60s when it was one of the nation’s leading intellectual journals. He later became the literary and culture critic for the Atlantic Monthly.

1. Irrational Man may be the best introduction to existentialist philosophy ever written. The existentialists are right in the diagnosis of the disease of modernist scientistic rationalism, although most of them are wrong about the prescription, which is often, but not always, a rejection of God in favor of human freedom. Barrett explains them not, in many cases, to agree with them. But the wisdom he culls from their writings and the focus on the questions they ask is amazing. Many existentialists were atheists, but not all. This book covers, for example, Pascal and Kierkegaard, two of the greatest of Christian thinkers who openly defied the rationalism that has become prevalent in modern times.

2. The Death of the Soul is a clear and readable history of modern philosophy and, in the process, an account of what Barrett calls the “Doctrine of Two Worlds,” the central modern philosophical doctrine which Descartes inaugurates and Kant takes to its culmination: the belief in the isolated subjective self that is pitted against the objective physical world. It is a doctrine referred to frequently as “Cartesian rationalism,” and it is at the core of the modern scientistic thought that still dominates the Western mind.

3. The Illusion of Technique is a fascinating and insightful analysis of the genesis and cultural consequences of technology rivaled only by Neil Postman’s Technopoly. It contains one of the best accounts of the rise of modern logic, its assumptions and implications.

4. Time of Need. I have read quite a few books of literary criticism. This one remains the best. Barrett takes you on a philosophical tour of the great literary modernist writers and helps you to see what even the nihilism of twentieth century writers like Beckett and Hemingway can tell us about how the world really is. It is just another example of how the Western classical Christian worldview can extract wisdom from unlikely places.

Barrett will teach you how you can find truth even in those writers you would least expect to find it, sometimes in a way that would not necessarily have pleased the writers themselves. This is how powerful and universal the Christian worldview is.

Finally, I’ll recommend the three books I used several years ago in an advanced Christian Studies class (for high school juniors and seniors):

1. Fundamentals of the Faith, by Peter Kreeft
2. Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis
3. Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton

All of these books address Christian theology, ethics, and apologetics, but in ascending levels of difficulty: Kreeft, the clearest and simplest of them, Lewis, whose book contains the talks he gave to a popular audience over BBC radio in the 1940s (an audience still far in advance of any comparable American audience today), and Chesterton, a much more literary writer whose prose borders on the poetic.

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One Response to What IS the Christian worldview? An introductory booklist

  1. Ioannes says:

    Great article, excellent recommendations.

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