One cannot live without developing opinions about the nature of reality, so every well-defined culture and faith naturally introduces its members to a way of seeing the world. While we can easily name many different worldviews, perhaps the five most important ones are: 1) Chinese, 2) Indian, 3) Muslim, 4) secular humanist, and 5) Christian. These views are usually shared by many nation-states and are civilizational in nature.
Standing Apart: China and India
The classical Chinese view is that the Middle Kingdom, by its dignified, virtuous ways, draws all the nations to itself. Human life is confined to this world. Man should be about the ethical ordering of this life. Careful, even meticulous, attention is paid to scholarship, work, family, customs, and, today, technology and social control that best satisfy man’s earthly lot. Man’s dignity relates to where he and his ancestors are located in the ethical and social order. Generations and dynasties come and go—even imposed Marxist ones—but the ordered way of life remains much the same.
The Indian view, informed by Hinduism, is that man is a spiritual being. He tries to control himself in order to attain spiritual knowledge and union with God through the cycle of death and rebirth. By seeking “liberation” or total self-knowledge, each individual is ultimately subsumed into unity within the cosmos. All beliefs can be absorbed into this system because there are many paths to “salvation.” While India’s caste system of designating one’s place in the social hierarchy has been formally abolished, much of the customary attitudes remain.
Neither in China nor in India, however, does a personal God who transcends the world have a place. India has many names for God who is understood as an abstract supreme “Reality.” China has practically no gods; it has ancestors. Neither of these worldviews actively seeks to convert others, however. Their cultural power rests in their enormous membership.
The Shade of the Koran
The Muslim view, held by approximately one-fifth of the world’s population, maintains that the purpose of the world is that all human beings, including non-believers, are, by force if necessary, to submit to Allah. He is one and alone to be praised. Man can know nothing of his ways. Man is to submit to the will of Allah, whatever it is, peace or war. The central task of Muslim believers over time is to convert or submit all non-believers, by jihad if necessary, to the will of Allah as set down in the Koran, the Hadith, and Sharia.
Allah is will, not reason. His commands are found in the sacred book, the Koran; they cannot change. The Koran contains the literal words and mind of Allah. Life is organized around dutiful attention to prayer, law, and custom as found in the Book, and it is lived in the tradition that in time flowed out of its commands. The world cannot be at peace until the entire human race is subject to the law of Allah. Muslim missions and armies are the instruments of Allah’s universal rule on earth. Islam’s adherents are commanded to probe for opportunities to grow the faithful peacefully or, more usually in its history, with arms.
The 46 Muslim-majority countries are consistently among the least developed in the world, except where they find oil. But the discovery, usage, and value of oil have little to do with the mission of Islam itself other than financing it. Indeed, one of Islam’s great challenges for markets flows from the way it discourages risk-taking and entrepreneurship. When a Muslim says “Insh’Allah”—God willing—they are not simply expressing hope; they are pointing to their view of reality itself: all events rest on God’s will, and man’s role is to submit. Alertness and initiative suffer.
Saudi Arabia, in recent years, has financed the building of thousands of mosques throughout the world, including Europe and the United States, but it allows only Sunni mosques within its own borders. Oil is valuable, however, only because other societies have found ways to use it on a large scale. In effect, most of the wealth in oil-rich Islamic states comes from a modern-day political sovereignty, itself not of Muslim origin. It enables Islam’s rulers to control, often on a personal basis, their underground wealth. In effect, their wealth is derived not from their economies but from taxes levied on the actual producers and users of their petroleum.
Islam is not primarily concerned with economic growth but with its religious mission to subject the world to the rule of Allah. Few outside the Muslim world fully comprehend the on-going Islamic expansionism, even now with the problem of terrorism. These so-called “terrorists,” in fact, consider themselves to be faithfully following religious—not economic, political, or personal—ends.
The Loss of Transcendence
Secularist and humanist views are not simply a return to paganism. Chesterton said that modern thought is itself indelibly marked with the Judeo-Christian background from which it seeks to shake itself. Whether they intend it or not, leaving behind Jewish and Christian teaching tends to force secular humanists into denying all forms of transcendence.
Humanism relocates its fundamental tenets into the ideas of individualism and progress, which are now under the control of man rather than God. This relocation, courtesy of the Cartesian dubito or doubt, borrows modern thought from Mill and Comte. They elevate man to take the place of God.
This transformation means that they also must refashion man’s beginnings and development on a non-theistic basis. The cosmos has gradually evolved by various chance encounters to become what we have today. Within this cosmic evolution, man shares this same chance origin. He comes forth finally able to take control of the evolution himself, once he has developed science enough to see how this can be done.
Eventually, man becomes the architect even of his own body and soul, embracing the idea that he can configure his body and entire life in defiance of any God. Medicine ceases to look for the cure of patients according to their given nature. It hopes to become a morally neutral art or science, not a prudential craft. It repudiates the direction of nature. It embraces the ideas of man dictated by man’s will. If a male decides he is a female, the doctor’s task is to make it so and not to inform him that it cannot be done. The given glory of the human body and person, once reserved for the transcendent order, is now a scientific project to lengthen the span of human life—even to a kind of transhumanist, worldly immortality. Such is the era in which we now live.
The individualist side of secular humanism elevates the individual into becoming his own god. His will, and not the ground of reality (i.e., what is), becomes the arbiter of truth. Individualism, like all these views, contains and presupposes a truth, namely, that of the autonomy or uniqueness of each person. What it lacks is any binding standard by which we can identify the limits of man’s freedom. Again, he becomes his own god.
A secondary aspect of this new humanism is analogous to God giving man dominion over the earth to subdue it and the mandate to increase and multiply. The various environmentalist movements want to establish their own temporal version of Eden. In practice, these efforts are largely based on the pseudo-scientific belief in man-made global warming. But, as Paul Johnson said, if established, it will soon become one of the greatest empowerments ever delegated to the state. Under its impulse, it will be able to control the lives and numbers of all citizens under the rubric of protecting the fragile planet.
Instead of seeing to the worship of the divine, the environmentalist orients man toward the planet’s well-being. The collective human mission is to keep the human race alive on this—or some other—planet for as long as possible. Ethics is no longer about personal sin and transcendent redemption. It becomes focused on caring for the planet—even if this “care” ultimately involves reducing, by whatever means, the earth’s population to a stable two or so billion people.
After this ethical transformation, it is thought that the remaining human race will be sustainable for many more eons (though the reduction in human labor and brainpower will also lead to an unintended rise in poverty). The earth’s fragile resources will be stretched out as long as possible; man’s highest end becomes the salvation of the Earth itself.
Humanity was classically said to have a given, normative nature. As a result, man’s finite life pointed to God as its origin. Man’s life was sealed and ultimately judged after death in the transcendent order according to what he individually had done in the family, the state, and society. Once man tries to take control and become the sole maker of his own nature, however, his abandonment of the good in himself will lead to a systematic unraveling of the creation of man and woman we read about in Genesis and again in the New Testament.
The path of spiritual decline, now called progress, is seen most graphically in the family and was portended by Plato in Book V of The Republic. We passed from no-fault divorce to contraception and from contraception to the acceptance of abortion. We moved from tolerance of homosexual acts to acceptance of gay “marriage” and now to the transgendered frontier. We took command of reproduction through in vitro fertilization in the laboratory, and now we imagine designer babies. As a people, we have totally separated sex from the responsibility for new life. Human life has become free of the burden of children. The genetic structure of each new human life may soon fall under the power and authority of the state.
Christianity and Nature
This background brings us to the Christian worldview, which has its roots in Israel. God and the world are separated. God had no need of a cosmos; creation itself was the result of a free plan to create something besides his Trinitarian life. Within this plan, God’s purpose was to associate in his inner, eternal life not with other created “gods” but with spiritual and intelligent corporeal beings. The physical cosmos was designed to support this intention. Man, as a race of rational, free beings, was given dominion over the earth.
Much of modern science and technology traces itself back to a secular form of individualism, but this contradicts the Christian view. God’s grant of dominion meant that man was to discover and use what nature had provided him over the ages. The world was not created perfectly so that everything would be provided for man without any human effort. Rather, he was given an imperfect world with abundant resources to see what, over time, he could do with them. Through the exercise of his reason and imagination man would reveal his own personal character.
Thus, in the process, each human person revealed his soul by what he did and how he responded with his craft as well as his political and contemplative powers while performing the ordinary tasks of mankind. Each person was also to be judged and assigned either heaven or hell based on the way he had lived. The Socratic principle—“It is never right to do wrong”—governed all human inter-relationships. Christianity affirmed and deepened this principle.
Human dignity and virtuous activity thus elevated the worth of each individual person. Now the ordinary activities of human beings in all phases and walks of life indicated before God and the world the real soul of that person. He is to love his neighbor by acting justly. The Christian tradition meant that both the transcendent world and the earthly city were joined in a non-contradictory interrelationship that gave ultimate meaning to the human person both in this and the next world.
The turmoil, suffering, and sins of mankind that permeate his entire earthly history are primarily due to each individual’s willful rejection of the order of nature and grace. This supernatural destiny was freely offered to him by God who desires each person, including the aborted, to gain eternal life. But because God respects the freedom given man to accept or reject the divine invitation, he allows each person to determine his own fate.
Here, I have traced briefly the five worldviews that contend with each other to guide human life and action. We do not often, perhaps, think of ourselves as locked in a struggle to define what we are. To see the alternatives is to understand what is open to us and to clarify how we see ourselves and our purpose in life.
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