In determining what shapes our authority (see my previous article), whether it’s Scripture or some other perspective, it’s helpful to better understand the common alternatives.
I recommend James Sire’s The Universe Next Door for a much more thorough treatment of different worldviews. I also recommend Roger Olsen’s The Essentials of Christian Thought for how our beliefs shape our understanding of the world, and what it looks like to interpret life accordingly. Lastly, Craig Gay considers the implications of how this influences Christian living in The Way of the Modern World.
Multiple non-Christian viewpoints lay claim to authority in determining reality and the human condition. Many of these are overlapping. For example, Naturalism claims the power to define the world and is regularly combined with Humanism to determine ethics. They are generally not competitors.
The list below represents what I believe to be some of the most common in our modern world:
- Naturalism is the assumption that nothing exists beyond the natural world (or least it cannot be taken seriously and is instead demoted to the realm of individual meaning). This leads to Scientism which assumes only science can make definitive claims for society. Ironically, these theories contradict the basic tenets of actual science, which by definition cannot make such broad sweeping and unprovable claims.
- Humanism is the belief that humanity holds the solution for its problems, and generally references an ethical system based on doing good to others and living true to self.
- Universalism or Pantheism is the belief that the universe is God or one with God (all roads lead to God, etc). This concept allows someone to maintain personal spirituality, while removing God from the place of authority. If all roads lead to God, then no particular road can claim the authority to speak for God.
Each of these views is prominent in our society today. Despite the claims of post-modernity, I believe Naturalism and Scientism are still seen as the ultimate authority in modern America. In other words, science is considered the court of highest appeal when someone seeks to prove an assumption, regardless of whether or not science is equipped to pronounce such a verdict.
Meanwhile, Humanism is the prominent ethical authority and is frequently combined with various forms of Neo-Marxism to provide a secular Great Commandment and Great Commission: Be true to yourselves, be good to others, and work for justice by eliminating forms of traditional hierarchy through direct political action. This is especially relevant in much of the political discourse in modern America. Substitute Nationalism instead of Neo-Marxism to get about the same net result on the other side of the political aisle.
Spirituality is still prevalent, but is generally viewed through a personalized, universalist lens—often deceptively adopting Christian language and practice. A person may be profoundly spiritual, but their spiritual life is never subjected to a higher authority than themselves.
Most Christians are influenced by everything listed above. They may formally align with the historic Christian perspective but are nonetheless profoundly also influenced by the competing viewpoints.
Agreement on an outcome is only possible when we discover an “overlapping consensus”, a place in which both sources of authority agree. It is a deceptive treaty in many ways; the issue at hand is sufficiently addressed, but the much larger question of underlying authority remains unresolved.
In order to combat the variety of claims to authority, we must understand the authority of God. It’s helpful to learn the competing perspectives, but this alone is insufficient. We need a far greater awareness of the Gospel. This is complex but is not new. The Holy Spirit has guided His Church for two millennia through the midst of a myriad of competing claims and He will do the same for our generation.