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Two Questions

Written by Douglas Wilson

As Christian students learn to interact with the world around them, they need to be equipped by their education to ask and answer the two following fundamental questions, which are: what is being said? And, is it true?

In the world of Christian education, the two most common ways of missing the point of worldview thinking is to teach the students to ask only one of the questions.

Those who ask the first question only are drifting toward a very common form of academic relativism. “What is true for you?” is a common relativistic question. In the world of education, the way this problem comes out is by teaching the students to step into the world of Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Plato, Sophocles, or Chaucer and grapple with what they are saying. Grapple is a favorite verb with these folks, along with wrestle. Students endlessly grapple or wrestle with the problem of this or the issue of that, and it usually revolves some form of the first question only. What is this artist saying? What was this poet’s message? At some point, if somebody is doing his job, it may occur to one or more of the students to ask the question, “Why do we always have to wrestle with these issues? When do we get to beat them up?”

The worldview of each writer or thinker is thought of as a self-contained wilderness area, which the author, deceased or not, has a right to preserve intact. We may visit on one of our field trips, but we have to treat their sentiments like a wilderness preserve, intended to be kept in the same pristine condition always. Pack it in, pack it out. The aggressive Christian visitor (or colonizer) must put out of his mind, if he comes across a glorious mountain lake, all thoughts of building a cabin and dock, and bringing up the jet skis. All this is a fancy way of saying that every writer is treated on his own terms, and those terms are never brought to an outside standard which might show them to be wanting or glorious.

Endless seminars discussing what Sartre thought, or Nietzsche, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or Hume, or Melville, or all of them together, without coming to some sort of closure or satisfying conclusion is as good a definition of torment in Hades as anything else I might imagine. Sisyphus could never get the rock to the top of the hill, Tantalus could never eat the fruit just above him or drink the water just below him. And poor tormented Academicus fusses with endless premises that never get to a conclusion.

Chesterton once said that the purpose of an open mind is the same purpose as that of an open mouth—to close on something. To keep your mouth perpetually open is not eating; it is catching flies. The same goes for the minds of our students. To have them learn how to ask (and answer) the first question only—“what are they saying”—is discipline in academic relativism. It is discipleship in intellectual frustration.

But to ask the second question all by itself is little better. This is the option that lazy fundamentalism wants. Get to the bottom line. Cut to the chase. Is it true? And if it is not true, then why should we bother with studying any of the reasons why it is not true? Why should we care about anything they are saying if it is not true? This approach is not far away from rejecting Buddhism because it begins with a B instead of with a C like Christianity does.

Rushing to the right conclusions without being able to justify any of it is just as educationally worthless as getting stuck in the justifications. We study the works of great pagans and unbelievers, not because we are swayed by them, or are tempted to give their idolatries the time of day. We study them carefully, wanting to discover what they are actually saying, because we do not want to violate the ninth commandment concerning them. If we say, for example, that Islam is a false worldview, a false religion, we are speaking the truth. If we say that it is false because of its rampant polytheism, we are bearing false witness. Islam is monotheistic, not polytheistic.

To use another illustration, those who insist upon asking the first question are like infantrymen, who are fighting in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. They know the enemy’s tactics first-hand, and they have to fight for every square foot. Of course, because they are so close, a temptation sometimes arises to fraternize with the enemy, or in extreme cases to go over to the enemy. Those who ask only the second question are like bomber pilots who conduct their warfare from 30,000 feet. There is no likelihood that they will start fraternizing with the enemy, but there is a danger of engaging in a little friendly fire. You might bomb the Baptists because their group starts with a B too.

So when both questions are asked together, what does it look like? Meticulous care is taken to hear a writer or thinker out. The student has read what he has written, and has let him speak for himself. The student is capable of expressing the writer’s views in a manner that he himself would own and recognize. As students study the work, they get to the point where they could summarize that worldview accurately and objectively. If their teacher has done well, and if they are flourishing in their work, if that author, writer, or thinker were to pay the class a visit, and ask them, “What was I saying in this work?’ the students would be able to answer the question in such a way that would make him say, “Yes, that is my view.” But if that is all that happens, the Christian faith is bleeding from the school or home. The students should also be able to engage, and say, “And because you are committed to this, which you have acknowledged, how does this contradiction not follow? And doesn’t this mean that your conclusions are false?”

And at that point, an honest debate begins. In the classical and Christian education movement, it is our desire to be engaged in training young Christians to be fully equipped for that engagement.