The World is a Battleground—Both Literally and Figuratively – An Excerpt from The Essentials of Christian Thought
In today’s excerpt from The Essentials of Christian Thought, eminent theologian and church historian Roger Olson explains what leads to confusion and accommodation to nonbiblical, non-Christian life and world perspectives.
The Biblical-Christian Perspective on the World
The world is a battleground—both literally and figuratively. Here both senses are in view. First, conflicting worldviews and metaphysical belief systems see the world as radically different things. And that can make a great difference in ethics. How we should treat nature, and all that is in it, for example, can depend very much on what we believe it is. One theory about the environmental crisis lays the blame for the rape of nature by human industry at the feet of Judeo-Christian religion; another theory lays the blame at the feet of Enlightenment secularism. Both may be to blame, but our concern here will be what the biblical-Christian view of the natural world is, not what Judeo-Christian religion has believed. Our concern is also with modern secularism, rooted in a naturalistic metaphysic, and what it implies about the natural world, as well as with other worldviews and the place of nature, the physical universe, in their perspectives.
The second sense of the world being a battleground is literal. The earth is literally littered with the debris of war, terrorism, ecological disasters, and murders. Everyone knows this, many to their great harm. But some people believe, on the basis of the biblical narrative, that there is also an invisible war raging on and around earth—not with guns and tanks and bombs but with weapons of spiritual warfare and that among the forces locked in combat are “powers of this dark world” and “spiritual forces,” and that it all began and continues “in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Naturally, in a world increasingly dominated by secular, naturalistic thought, such talk raises suspicions of superstition, but the biblical narrative is filled with spiritual warfare as background to much of the battlefield on earth—both figurative and literal—that everyone knows about.
Biblical-Christian Metaphysics and Creation
Traditionally, metaphysics deals mainly with issues of ultimate reality such as “the absolute,” if such exists, or such as whatever one connects the many. Up to here we have been exploring what the biblical story implies about that—namely, ultimate reality, the connection connecting all things, as the supernatural and personal (but not human) God, the creator of all things on which all things outside of him are dependent. But metaphysics can also include the study of penultimate reality, that which is not absolute but dependent on the absolute, especially as it really is behind appearances. Everyone experiences trees, for example, but what is a tree? Is it only what a botanist says it is? Certainly botany sheds much helpful light on trees. Anyone who has one in her yard knows this when a disease infects it. But is a tree only what botany says it is? Or is there something more to the tree than matter? What is life and meaning—purpose— even
in a tree?
Some years ago I read a syndicated question and answer column in a local newspaper. It was written by a woman who many claimed to be the smartest person in the world, the person with the world’s highest known IQ. An interlocutor asked her what is the most basic science of all? Her answer was physics. According to the world’s smartest person, biology reduces to chemistry and chemistry to physics. Apparently (and this was borne out by her answers to other questions about reality) she did not believe metaphysics is a science. She has lots of company. Another interlocutor asked her, in a separate column, what makes a life worthwhile? Her answer was that a life is worthwhile if it produces more than it consumes. That is completely consistent with a worldview that believes physics has all the answers that really matter.
One purpose of this book is to equip Christians with discernment about reality, including ideas, based on the Bible absorbing the world. That is, as explained earlier, the Bible’s perspective—often more implied than explicitly stated, at least in philosophical terms—should be the Christian’s lens for seeing the world as God’s good but corrupted creation, dependent but real. The Christian for whom the Bible absorbs the world reads answers like those given by the world’s smartest person, quoted above, and knows immediately that something is wrong. Unfortunately, however, too many Christians, especially in modern, Western society, read them and think, “Oh, that’s interesting; that makes sense.” But that can only be because their lenses are not clear. They have adopted nonbiblical, non-Christian plausibility structures, often alongside their Christian beliefs, leaving the two unintegrated. That leads to confusion and accommodation to nonbiblical, non-Christian life and world perspectives.