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Thinking Worldviewishly, pt. 3: Theism
Closing out day one.
I’ve been drafting this post all week, and while I am publishing it today, the tone of the writing is an uneasy fit with the context in which it’s going out into the world. The Uvalde school shooting took place yesterday. Whether you read this on its publish day or years later, my request is that you take a moment to read and sit with this post from Rusty at Today in Tabs: What Are You Willing To Do?
Well, I seem to only be able to get through one Worldview Category per post – it turns out the task of unfolding some of these sentences to the fullest intent of their subtext is actually fairly daunting! I’m having a good time, though. I’ll be honest – I know this about myself, that it’s far more comfortable for me to simply explain what these terms, phrases, and concepts meant to me back then than it is to chip away at this through accessing my feelings about all that. I’m a very analysis-first type of person. But I’m sure there will be moments where I will find it valuable to talk about feelings instead.
But for now, let’s wrap up
the second talk of the first day of camp [Ed: I’ve doublechecked the schedule, and this was actually the end of the first day, didn’t want to leave this here uncorrected.]. We’ve successfully carved away the no-God and the not-individual-God swaths, and we’re ready to talk about systems that believe in one god: Theism.
Much of our Theism section is going to be pretty straightforward at a glance, but there’s nuance to unpack. For one, in a surprise twist, our little box illustration – which you may recall had previously been a full rectangle – is now open, with “God” on the outside and “nature” readily accessible within. Like we discussed last post, it’s important for Evangelicalism to characterize God as a completely separate entity – safely apart from the created universe, which is fallen and sinful, under a different reign (we’ll get into that later).
Naturalism was portrayed as having “nothing” outside and “nature” inside, and Transcendentalism featured “nothing” outside and “nature = ‘god’” within. The “god” there was in quotes on purpose: we also talked last post about how the characterization of God as an individual is key to Evangelicalism’s structure of guilt & absolution, so there’s really no serious credence given to a god-concept that doesn’t fit that definition.
The Key Methods here are buzzword-heavy. Reason, revelation, and experience are given here as the key methods to Truth; if you’ve been reading my other posts in this series, you might notice this is the first appearance of the term “Reason” in any form. Naturalism featured “Scientific method” as its sole key to truth, and Transcendentalism was called “irrational” right in this same slot. Theism, however, owns Reason, as we come upon another key underpinning to a lot of Evangelical rhetoric: that it’s simply the most reasonable. Drop a mental bookmark here, because this tone will appear again, and louder next time.
Revelation, our second Key Method, also requires explanation for the lay-reader. This isn’t referring to “revelation” to gesture at the book of Revelations, nor is it “revelation” in the form of prophecy or vision. This is shorthand for the dual theological concepts of Special Revelation and General Revelation. (I’ve now Googled this, and have learned it’s originally a concept created by St. Thomas Aquinas back in the 13th century.) Bullet point time:
I was taught that Special Revelation is the concept of God directly affecting the world. Biblical phenomena such as miracles, angles, visions, prophecy, salvation (Jesus dying on the cross to save us), and so forth.
General Revelation, on the other hand, was the rest – that if people truly, say, gaze at a mountain range, they’d recognize that Creation had a Creator.
Once when I was young, I asked my grandfather about whether remote tribes went to Hell if they just couldn’t have heard about Jesus for logistical reasons – people who lived in North America in 200 A.D., that sort of thing. His answer was that perhaps some of them had looked at Creation and realized that there must be a Creator, and that if they chose to worship that Creator instead of their gods, then yes, those individuals might avoid eternal damnation solely through recognizing General Revelation.
So, that’s our second Key Method to truth; within the context of Evangelicalism’s heaven/hell dichotomy, “revelation” pulls double duty as a reinforcement of that dichotomy and a vague, slippery exit strategy to keep this inherently cruel mindset from weighing too heavily on one’s conscience.
Our third Key Method is Experience. Note that this could be, but is intentionally not, “the scientific method”. I don’t think the intent here is to represent the rigor of provable causality – it’s instead here to build psychological connection between your experience & the concept of God’s intent. This isn’t a unique concept to Evangelicalism, but deployed here in the context of the Evangelical god – who holds your eternal fate in his hands – it’s very useful. Are things going poorly? That could be proof of God testing you. Are things going well? That could be proof of blessings. This third Key Method to Truth is extremely malleable, and ultimately represents nothing concrete.
Finally, our Key Method to Morality is “determined by the character and will of God”. This is fancy-Evangelical-speak for “in the Bible”. Remember that it’s very important for Evangelicalism to characterize God’s intent & personhood. It’s important that the focus here is on Morality as a direct judgement of a situation or individual by God, rather than as a static holy book of rules. This allows for more slipperiness of definition.
Okay, there’s a lot to swallow in this next section. We have three examples of Theism: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. (Note that Christianity is not broken down into subgroups – as I explained in my first post, this camp is not concerned with theological nuance.) Plus, at this point on the page, we’re not really talking about Judaism or Islam anymore, anyway – we’ve fully shifted into Evangelicalism’s key challenges. “Holding to absolute truth in a pluralistic world” might not be top-of-mind to all branches of those religions, but for Evangelicalism, “pluralistic” (a buzzword we’ll se a lot of) is a useful blanket term for any nonbelievers in Absolute Truth.
I personally think it’s pretty funny that “the existence of evil” is listed as a Key Challenge. Hell of a Key Challenge we have there.
As for the “The Existence of God: PROVE IT!!!!” section, remember that this camp is explicitly set up to prep high-schoolers for life in a Liberal College. Throughout these weeks, we heard over and over about how many students lose their faith before they graduate, and how we’d be challenged and debated, how our teachers would single us out, how we’d be persecuted and demeaned … we’ll get to those notebook sections, but here’s our first little crash course in “prove there’s a god” response techniques.
As you can see from my chicken-scratch on the right, we then covered some standard defenses of the belief in a god; let’s dig into the last one (“there is a sense of right and wrong in all of us”) for a second.
It is core to Evangelical beliefs that morality is God-given, Biblically defined, and inherent in all of us. We have sinful nature, but we were created in the image of God; we exist as walking contradictions, as children of God who are fundamentally broken and can only be fixed through salvation in Christ. Saying “there is a sense of right and wrong in all of us” here is not a statement of shared moral validity between all human experiences – it’s a claim to Christianity as the only source of morality.
I can’t stress this enough, and we’ll revisit this topic again and again: recognition of the validity of any other system of morality is a direct threat to the Evangelical conception of God, absolute truth, and reality itself. Pluralism, tolerance, relativism: these are all threats.
Last line for this section: “Belief in the existence of God is a valid assumption for any thinking person.” Remember your mental bookmark from earlier? Here’s a very heavy version of “Evangelicalism Is Reasonable”. The conclusion here isn’t even particularly assertive – it merely states that belief in the existence of God is a “valid assumption” for any “thinking person” – but its purpose is not to be conclusive; it’s just here to establish an intellectual-seeming case for Evangelicalism. This is extremely useful because this is an ideology which holds stances directly against a lot of scientists and thinkers throughout history. It’s shoring up defenses against claims of “anti-intellectualism”, and establishing a stated baseline of intellectual legitimacy.
As we wrap up our Theism page, non-Evangelical theistic beliefs make one last appearance: “Does God Exist?” is followed by three columns – the first is unlabeled, but it’s Christianity. “Yes” for Christianity, “Yes” for Theism (i.e. all other theistic religions other than this one), and “no” for naturalism. Straightforward.
However, next “Can I Know Him?”, I’ve written “yes” for Christianity, contrasted with “no” for Theism, and of course, “no” for naturalism. “Can I Know Him” is Christian-ese for “when I am praying to this god, I am praying to the One True God”. The “no” under “theism” is incredibly important: you may believe in one God; you may even incidentally believe in the true God, but you can not communicate with him. But also, that isn’t spelled out in detail: this table doesn’t have to be particularly specific. It’s just a simple method to help you mentally separate yourself (and your ability to truly communicate with god) from whatever theistic belief systems you might consider to be false.
Evangelicalism is extremely flexible in this way; when access to god is so ill-defined, there’s room in the tent for others based on ideological alignment. Growing up, I was told the Methodists were really fringe because they accepted gay people and allowed women in positions of leadership. Are they on the in-group? No, they were considered too liberal; did that mean individual people going to a Methodist church were saved? Potentially, sure. This approach, crucially, separates systems from individuals – the former can be welcomed or discarded based on ideological grounds, without having to reconcile whether all of the Methodists out there are going to hell.
Our final two points here center the entire belief system on two items: The Bible, which for these purposes must be taken very literally (we’ll get there in future posts), and crucially, the characterization of Christ (which is revealed in the Bible). Evangelicals aren’t idiots; they knew by the 90’s that “fundamentalism” was a bad look, and that appearing legalistic and overly strict invited negative stereotypes and derision. This uber-simplification is core to Evangelicalism’s distancing of itself from its fundamentalist aesthetics, and presenting itself as not a capital-R Religion so much as a belief system simply centered around a personal relationship with Christ.
Next time, we’ll move into hour 3 of camp – a talk entitled “Is Christianity a Worldview?” – where we leave behind the religious aspect of Christianity altogether and start explicitly building an ideology.