Putting Worldview in Its Place
Worldview has been Christian education's byword, codeword, password, keyword, and—for some students—swearword for the past 30 years. Amid the modern cacophony, it has provided a rhetorical and philosophic unifying point for academic communities badly in need of the singularity and depth of vision their mission statements proclaim. So why in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic) does philosopher James K. A. Smith call for a "temporary moratorium" on this hallowed notion?
This turn is especially shocking given Smith's ecclesial home. The prolific Smith is a polymath who has emerged over the past decade as a force in the world of religious studies, with a reach extending well beyond. And he has done so with Calvin College as his home base and the Dutch Reformed tradition as his inspiration. It was the Dutch whose compelling championing of the "world-and-life view" concept in the mid-20th century so influenced American evangelical intellectuals like Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, Arthur Holmes, and Francis Schaeffer, which in turn led to its rapid embrace within the burgeoning evangelical academy in the 1970s.
Now, from the very fountainhead of the Dutch Calvinist stream, Smith intends to disrupt what has become business as usual and push the evangelical academy hard on its fundamental sense of identity. Rather than affirming worldview as a pathway to sophistication and solidity, Smith contends that it is a symbol of capitulation: capitulation to the very enlightened, rationalist conception of human beings that earlier Christian educators had (ostensibly) sought to unmask and defeat with worldview thinking. How does he make this move?
For Smith, worldview-centered education reflects a continued understanding of human beings as primarily rational creatures, moved and animated mainly by ideas. From this assumption has come a particular form of education—very much in line with the secular academy—that elevates the classroom and privileges fact, argument, and belief. To those who espouse this view, Smith poses one fundamental question in the form of a thought experiment: "What if education wasn't first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?"
If educating is indeed about properly ordering our loves, as Smith (following Augustine) believes, then formation rather than information should become the primary end of our institutions. This presents a colossal problem for a professorate that's had its formation in the modern academy, and the modern world at large. Today's academic disciplines weren't exactly designed to get to the heart—quite the opposite, in fact. The very notion of "research," whether done by chemists or anthropologists, centers on cultivating detachment and "objectivity"; "thought," of course, requires freedom from emotion: this was the modern confidence, indeed, the modern creed.
But what has it turned out? Several generations of students-turned-professionals who have learned to love success and excellence, who climb corporate ladders with ease, and who are very good at shopping (in all forms). These are the kinds of loves that direct us away from our deepest ends; this is mis-education—missed education. And Christian institutions, Smith charges, have been complicit in this destructive, demonic project. "Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn't actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?"