Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Psalms — The prevailing Western worldview is no more "modern" than the worldview of the first Christians.

We're going to take a brief break from covering the Psalms themselves to consider Biblical worldview versus modern Western worldviews. This is long but was really eye-opening for me. 

N.T. Wright, in his book The Case for the Psalms, put forth the idea that we're not looking at the clash of an ancient worldview versus a new one, but of two ancient ideas. Praying the Psalms, he asserts, helps us live in the mindset of one, while helping to combat the other.

The Romans in their Decadence, Thomas Couture

At this point it is important to head off a regular misunderstanding. People have often supposed that the main difference between the worldview held by the early Christians and the worldview most of us grew up with is that the first is "ancient" and the second is "modern." It is then often assumed that because we "live in the modern world" we are bound to dismiss the "ancient" worldview as out-of-date, prescientific, and based on ignorance and superstition and accept the "modern" one as, supposedly, up-to-date and based on science, technology and all the wisdom of a modern "free" society. This, however, is radically misleading.

The main difference between the worldview of the first Christians and the worldview of most modern Western persons has nothing to do with "ancient" and "modern." It has almost nothing to do, except at a tangent, with the development of modern science. The main difference is that the first Christians, being first-century Jews who believed that Israel's God had fulfilled his ancient promises in Jesus of Nazareth, were what I and others call "creational monotheists": that is, they believed that the one creator God, having made the world, remained in active and dynamic relation with it. What's more they believed that this God had promised to return to his people at the end of their long, sad years of desolation and misery to dwell in their midst and to set up his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven. And they believed that in Jesus of Nazareth, and in the power of his Spirit at work in their lives, this God had done exactly that.

The ancient Jews who shaped this belief in creational monotheism, and the early Christians who developed it in this startling new way, were doing so in a world of many philosophies and worldviews. One of these, every bit as "ancient" as that of the first century Jews, was the philosophy known after the name of its founder, Epicurus. The philosophy of Epicurus, particularly in its developed exposition by the great Roman poet Lucretius (who lived about a century before Jesus), proposed that the world was not created by a god or the gods and that if such beings existed, they were remote from the world of humans. Our own world and our own lives were simply part of an ongoing self-developing cosmos in which change, development, decay, and death itself operated entirely under their own steam.

At a stroke, this philosophy offered liberation from any fear of the gods or of what terrors might be in store for people after their deaths. But by the same stroke, it cut off any long-term or ultimate hope. At a popular level, the message was this: shrug your shoulders and enjoy life as best you can. Sounds familiar? This is the philosophy that our modern Western world has largely adopted as the norm.

The problem we face when we read, pray, or sing parts of the Bible is not that it is "old" and our current philosophy is "new" (and therefore somehow better). The problem is that, out of many ancient worldviews, the Bible resolutely inhabits one, and much of the modern Western world has resolutely inhabited a different one. Our prevailing modern Western worldview is no more "modern" than the worldview of the first Christians. All that has happened is that many leading scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who were attracted to Epicureanism for quite other reasons (not least social, cultural, and political), have interpreted their perfectly proper scientific observations (for instance, concerning the origin and development of specific species of plants and animals) within an Epicurean framework. It has then been assumed that "science" actually supports this view of a detached "god" and a world simply doing its own thing. But this is profoundly mistaken.

Epicureanism, then, is of course an ancient worldview, but it has been retrieved in Western modernity as though it were a new thing. Creational and covenental monotheism is likewise both ancient and modern, rooted in God's covenant with Abraham as described in the book of Genesis, elaborated in the great covenental writings of the first five books of the Bible, developed in the traditions we find throughout the Old Testament, and still thriving where the followers of Jesus learn to pray and live his Psalm-soaked gospel. Part of my reflection in this book is that when the Psalms do their work in us and through us, they should equip us the better to live by and promote that alternative worldview. The biblical worldview, I will suggest is both far more ancient than Epicureanism and also far more up-to-date.

Sources are here and an index of psalm posts is here.

No comments:

Post a Comment