Sunday, March 11, 2007

Do You Believe in Truth? Totally.

I recently read Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth and have decided to post a sort of review in a series of reflections on the book.

Adding to a recent treasury of books aiming to reinvigorate the evangelical mind[1] is Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Whereas other treatments of evangelical mental laxity and compromise have focused on particular issues, most recently politics[2], Pearcey stakes out a task both more admirable and difficult; the critique and construction of an entire worldview. A bevy of books have been published in this area to be sure, but what distinguishes Total Truth is its concern for broad application of a Christian worldview. In just under 400 pages the lay reader is initiated into topics ranging from analytic philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science), political philosophy, cosmology, cosmogony, biology, early American religious nationalism and the intellectual history of the Western world (replete with sociological implications for the church and the world). Were it not for the pedagogical dexterity of the author, this could have been a much larger book! But in the spirit of her mentor, Francis Schaeffer (from whom the title of the book hails), Nancy Pearcey accomplishes something just as difficult as any specialized treatment of these subjects – a conceptual analysis that is actually recognizable in real life. Indeed, the only thing more breathtaking than the breakneck pace with which these topics are covered is just how easily her assessments can be seen in American culture.

The dominating critique saturating the book is the devastating impact of naturalism (specifically metaphysical materialism/physicalism) on ethics – Aquinas’ moral argument on the offense. The consequences are both philosophical and practical. The philosophical consequence of physicalism is a sharp divide between fact and value that relegates ethics to the ghetto of private opinion[3]. The ambivalence created by dividing the world into two stories is said to create a schizophrenic polarity in the uneasy minds secularists. On the one hand they acknowledge the verifiable and certain results of science as the only public truth (public facts, or “the bottom story” of modernity), but on the other hand they retain deeply held beliefs in the significance and value of humanity which don’t fit into this category (private values, or the “top story” of postmodernity).

The cleavage introduced by the strict “scientific” standards for public truth places the top story in the relativistic flux of private opinion and personal perspective. Since public truth says that humans are essentially bags of meat deterministically driven by natural law, beliefs about the “human spirit” turn out to be a universally held necessary fiction requiring voluntary self-deception. As chief Wiggum of the Simpsons has eloquently put it, “[the secularist’s] mouth is writing checks his butt can’t cash”.

There's much to like about this approach, which we'll take up in the next few posts. As with any attempt at integration (and that's really the key word for understanding the agenda behind this book) it also involves some reductionistic homogenization. But at the outset I must say that I really enjoyed Total Truth, if for no other reason than Pearcey's deep understanding of evangelicalism's inner contradictions, instinctive dualism and populist anti-intellectualism.

[1] See Mark Noll, George Marsden, Ronald J. Sider, etc.

[2] Two recent examples are David Kuo's Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction and Gregory Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church.

[3] See Alasdair McIntyre's comments about emotivism in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory