While I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s new book, Finding Truth, a professor at the state university where I teach circulated a news item about a politician seeking to alter the university’s goals. Instead of facilitating “the search for truth,” the university under this plan would commit itself to meeting “the state’s work-force needs.” I remarked to this professor and other colleagues that many academics had already eliminated “the search for truth.” In the ensuing e-mail conversation, several professors rejected the idea that there is any universal truth, and one professor even described the whole concept of a “search for truth” as incoherent.
Such is the uphill struggle we Christians face today when confronting various secular ideologies. However, out of love for people deceived by these false worldviews, we need to find ways to convince them of the truth of Christianity. As Pearcey (author of the 2005 classic Total Truth) so ably points out, both explicitly and through poignant real-life stories, “finding truth” is not a dry intellectual exercise. Indeed, it can help determine a person’s spiritual destiny.
Contending for the truth is not a sideshow in the life of the church (or of individual disciples). Jesus put it at the center of his ministry. He explained, “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).
Step by Step
In Finding Truth Pearcey explains, with remarkable clarity, methods any Christian can use to evaluate and challenge non-Christian worldviews. She bases her project on insights from Romans 1, which tells us that those who reject God “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18).
Pearcey outlines five principles: 1) Identify the idol; 2) Identify the idol’s reductionism; 3) Test the idol against what we know about the world; 4) Test the idol for self-contradictions; and 5) Replace the idol by making a case for Christianity. This may sound complicated at first, especially if you’re not accustomed to terms like “reductionism.” However, Pearcey leads the reader step-by-step through these principles in an accessible way.
First, she shows how these five principles relate to Romans 1. Then she devotes a chapter to each principle, providing concrete examples. “The goal,” she writes, “is to master the skills that will enable you to cut to the heart of any set of ideas.”
The first principle—identify the idol—is based on the idea from Romans 1 that everyone who rejects God turns to some form of idolatry, because their worldviews replace God with some other ultimate reality (Rom. 1:23). Pearcey examines four major secular ideologies to illustrate this kind of idolatry: materialism, empiricism, rationalism, and Romanticism.
Identifying the idol’s reductionism (principle two) means trying to discover how the worldview in question reduces humanity to a lower value than God intended. For Christians, human life has value, because we understand humans as personal beings possessing the ability “to think, feel, choose, and act.” But worldviews that reject a personal God inevitably demote humanity, since they see humans as impersonal beings enslaved by the forces of nature.
As Pearcey puts it, if we see our fellow humans as nothing more than computers, we will treat them as such, throwing them in the trash when they no longer function properly. In other words, “When we define God as a something instead of a Someone, we will tend to treat humans as somethings too.”
Principle three is to test the worldview against reality. Does it correspond with what we know about the world and about humanity? In this chapter Pearcey explains that materialist worldviews necessarily preach that human behavior is completely determined by natural causes, because they deny that we have free will. However, materialists are unable to live consistently with their beliefs, because they consistently treat themselves and others as if we do have free will.
Some materialists are candid about this. In a book arguing that humans are machines, an emeritus professor at MIT, Rodney Brooks, admitted that he does not apply this insight to his children, stating, “I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs.” Pearcey suggests that this cognitive dissonance is something God can use to get their attention, alerting them that their worldview clashes with reality.
The fourth principle involves examining the worldview for internal inconsistencies. According to Pearcey, worldviews commit suicide when they subject other philosophies to a critique that they cannot withstand themselves. Marxism attacks opposing ideas as nothing but the byproduct of economic conditions, but somehow Marxist philosophers (miraculously) float free of the forces that allegedly constrain their opponents. Darwinism self-destructs when evolutionists argue that ideas gain currency not because they are true, but because they help us survive and reproduce. In this case, how can Darwinism claim to be true? Postmodernism is self-defeating, too, because it makes truth claims while simultaneously denying the very possibility of objective truth. Everyone wants to exempt a favored worldview from the debunking directed toward others.
Finally, Pearcey encourages us to present secularists with a better alternative: Christianity. In developing this fifth principle Pearcey does not rehearse the full range of apologetics arguments. Rather she concentrates on points where secularists violate their own worldviews by appropriating elements of Christianity that they find appealing. The postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty, for instance, admitted that he was a “freeloading atheist,” because he embraces the idea of human rights, which only makes sense if humans are created in the image of God. Many other secularists smuggle Christian ideas into their worldviews to stop them from lurching off in dehumanizing directions.
Show a Better Way
I hope Pearcey’s work will provide Christians with the resources to recognize and resist secular viewpoints, whether they encounter them in university classrooms or in the media. (This book would make a fantastic graduation gift for high school seniors, especially those on their way to college).
Further, I hope that Christians might pass on copies of Finding Truth to non-Christians, who might find Pearcey’s analysis of secular worldviews convincing and her presentation of Christianity appealing.
Of course, not everyone will be convinced. Pearcey tell us about the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who recently wrote a book explaining why Darwinism is almost certainly not true. In the book, he acknowledges that Christianity can provide answers that Darwinism cannot, but he refuses to accept Christianity, because “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” He admits that he has a “cosmic authority problem.”
This reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago at a conference at Oxford University, with a leading philosopher of science. He was raised in a Christian family, but he told me he had always had a problem with God. He explained, “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do in this life, and I sure don’t want anyone telling me what to do in the next one.” Then I shared my view of God as a benevolent authority, and he replied, “I’ve never been good with authority.”
Many persist in their idolatrous worldviews, no matter how effectively we dismantle them. However, we should not cease trying to show a better way. After discussing how God gives sinners over to their depravity in Romans 1, Paul reminds us in Romans 2:4 that God is patient and that his goodness leads to repentance. Carefully and prayerfully, we need to keep helping others in the difficult task of finding truth.
Richard Weikart is professor of modern European history at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan) and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (Palgrave Macmillan).