In an episode of “The Briefing,” yesterday Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Seminary reflected on the death of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. You can read a full transcript of the eight minute segment on Hawking using the link above.
Here is how the episode was summarized on Mohler’s Facebook page, which I think is broadly representative of what Dr. Mohler said on the show:
We believe that Stephen Hawking and all of his brilliance was simply evidence of the fact that he was a human being made in God’s image but a human being who died without God. That’s the great tragedy but that’s not what you’re likely to read in the obituaries.
Instead what you’re going to see is a secular world trying to find a secular reason to celebrate a secular thinker and to say something significant about the meaning of his life. At the end of the day, the secular worldview can provide no argument for why the life of Stephen Hawking was ever significant nor your life nor my life. Only the biblical worldview can answer that question and it does profoundly answer that question.
The thing that struck me when a friend showed the post to me is this: If you swapped “Oppenheimer” for “Hawking” and, on the Facebook post, changed the name and photo from Mohler to Francis Schaeffer you could show the entire post to someone, say that Schaeffer wrote it on the occasion of Oppenheimer’s death in 1967 and… it’d be believable.
I love Schaeffer so I don’t mean that purely as criticism of Dr. Mohler. If we must talk like an evangelical from the 1960s, Schaeffer is a very good one to choose. And yet when you read that take on Hawking’s death, the tedium of it still comes across.
Earlier this week we published an essay Susannah wrote interacting with the new film version of A Wrinkle in Time. In it, she talked about how the example of Madeleine L’Engle made it, somehow, “OK” for someone like her—a lifelong New Yorker with absolutely no Christian background—to become a Christian. The things that she did know, that the world is beautiful and seems to hint at something beyond, that people are remarkably talented and capable of great things, and that creation can delight us through the unexpected, unasked for surprise, were all there in L’Engle too and… L’Engle was a Christian. So she could be too.
This, of course, is very similar to the conversion accounts of two other writers I admire—Sheldon Vanauken and C. S. Lewis. For both of these men, the surprising brilliance of Christian writers helped them come to faith and then adjust to being, unexpectedly and somewhat reluctantly, Christian themselves. But even more important was the fact that the Christianity that both of these men encountered (at Oxford, in both cases) was not scared of the world nor was it concerned with somehow one-upping the world. It was, rather, deeply at home in it, fascinated by it, and convinced that the truth of Christianity did not negate the truths they came to prior to conversion, but somehow enriched them.
Incidentally, despite his reasonable appropriation by the worldview crowd, Schaeffer himself was much closer to the Christianity of Vanauken and Lewis than he was the Christianity of the culture warriors. Though he never fully emancipated himself from his generation’s version of culture war-ism, he worked, through L’Abri, to articulate this same sort of Christianity, not a Christianity that divided the world up into teams with rigidly defined worldviews that dictate how they see the world and relate to one another, but a Christianity that says with Capon that the road to salvation does not run from the world, but through it.
To put it as simply as I know how, the problem with the worldviewism on display in Mohler’s comments about Hawking is that they leave no room for the “yes, and” affirmation of faith that we find in Lewis and Vanauken: Yes, this intuition you have about the world is true and I can tell you why that is.
Instead, there is simply the rigid division of human beings into competing teams which subscribe to competing worldviews, such that the only way to move from one team to another is by rejecting wholesale your former worldview and taking on a new one. And for many people, Susannah among them, that move feels like a total erasure of the self, a loss of all the things you recognize as making you who you are, all the things you love and that give you joy—your family, your favorite books, your favorite memories spent with your friends (none of whom are Christian), the experience of hearing a beautiful symphony and knowing that the world is good.
It seems to say that the only way to come to Jesus is to set all that aside. And, of course, there’s a way in which that is true—he who does not love me more than father or mother is not worthy of me—but that call is never a call to reject creation in its entirety or to reject the gifts given to us in it. It is, rather, a call to understand those affections in relationship to the claims of Christ’s lordship which means, first of all, recognizing them as gifts given to us by a God who loves us and loves the world–after all, he’s the one who made the things we’re enjoying.
In short, my concern with this sort of worldviewism is that I think it leaves us with a much less interesting world and a savior who does not seem to love it nearly as much as the God of the Bible is said to love the world. And that picture is a real barrier to evangelism. But more than that it is a barrier to worship because it creates divisions within our minds that should not exist and deprives us of the chance to see the face of God in unexpected places.
Earlier this week I got coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. Like me, he grew up in an abusive fundamentalist church which left him with plenty of baggage to work through over a number of years. As we talked, the conversation turned to the work of Jordan Peterson and to a debate that my friend had seen in which Peterson and William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist, argued over the possibility of meaning in human life. I said to my friend that several Christian friends of mine watched the debate and were far more impressed by Peterson than they were Craig. My friend nodded. “Peterson doesn’t care about winning,” he said. “Craig wanted to a win a debate. Peterson wanted to pursue truth.”
If there is a defining problem with a certain brand of reformed evangelicalism, it is that we care more about winning—winning debates, winning political campaigns, winning institutional battles—than we do about simply pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful.