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Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity

Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity

A Review by David Limbaugh

I want to tell you about Nancy Pearcey's new best-selling and groundbreaking book, "Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity," because it calls for something we really need: It calls for a revolutionary reorientation of the way we approach life's basic questions, how we live in the world, and even how we approach Truth itself.

Christians, for example -- especially Christians -- should not allow their faith to become locked away inside some kind of ACLU-approved spiritual prayer closet. Or to become even just one aspect, albeit a very important aspect, of their lives. Why? Because Christianity is reality-oriented -- and isn't simply "a truth" or a body of subjective beliefs unrelated to life in the real world. In other words, Nancy Pearcey says, and I agree, that Christianity does not give us merely "religious" truth, but rather truth about total reality. In this sense, "It is total truth." And that's revolutionary.

Pearcey is a scholar, an intellectual, a brilliant writer, and she has an uncanny ability to explain profound ideas in a way that is accessible – and helpful -- to regular people. She appeared recently at the Heritage Foundation to talk about her book to a standing-room-only crowd. And just last Saturday C-SPAN filmed her in a bookstore near Atlanta as she spoke on "Total Truth: The 2004 Presidential Election." This event is particularly timely, given how the "values" question figured so prominently in the way the election turned out. As we go to press with this email, the latest we hear from C-SPAN is that the network may air the program next weekend -- so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I want to share the transcript of her Heritage remarks with you, because she explains the principles in her book much better than I could ever hope to. What follows below is, first, the press release for the event, and then the transcript of her remarks. If you want to contact her, just email her at npearcey@worldji.com . The book's website is www.totaltruthbook.com



Best-selling author and worldview thinker Nancy Pearcey blasted a cultural-political home-run out of the ballpark in her presentation at the Heritage Foundation last week (Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2004).
Pearcey explained how her new top-selling book, "TOTAL TRUTH: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity" (Crossway 2004), is key to decoding the campaign rhetoric of the current presidential election. She offered a woman's voice for a rational spirituality that is objective, verifiable, and well-suited to take its case into the public arena of government, law, politics, and science.

Pearcey's remarks on Islamic terror, homosexual "marriage," stem-cell research, abortion, and why the principles of the Judeo-Christian worldview have a proper political application kept the standing-room-only audience riveted throughout the speech. "This is the best talk I've ever heard," said one audience member. "Brilliant," said a couple from Northern Virginia -- moreover, the "later question and answer session showed a gifted author and lecturer at her best."

"I am personally delighted today to welcome a friend and colleague to the Heritage podium," said Becky Norton Dunlop, VP of External Relations at Heritage, as she introduced Pearcey. "I have said - and I believe because I have read the book - that once you have read it, you will live your life differently." With touching personal candor, Dunlop revealed that, "as I read the manuscript of this book, which Nancy supplied me, I found myself on more than one occasion crying because she had written things that I believe, and I had never seen them written and expressed so clearly."

The Associated Press interviewed the author afterward and reported on Pearcey's critique of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry's subjective view of faith - namely, that Kerry says he is a Catholic but that he "cannot apply his personal faith to public policy." In her talk, Pearcey pointed out that Kerry's (and others') approach is inadequate because it pits "fact" against "value," and stems from a worldview that fails to explain human beings in how they actually live their lives.

Ryan Zempel, News and Political Editor for Townhall's Conservative Web Log, said, "Nancy Pearcey's book event [was] great" and that he highly recommends "checking out the archived video of the event and then ordering a book." Note also that the message of TOTAL TRUTH is laden with strategic cultural and political implications that stretch beyond the November 2 presidential election.

"TOTAL TRUTH: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity" is available at Amazon.com and local bookstores. For more information about

"TOTAL TRUTH," including book reviews, media interviews, excerpts, endorsements, and blog comments, or to listen to radio ads by David Limbaugh, Phillip Johnson, and Becky Norton Dunlop, see the official website at www.totaltruthbook.com . Crossway Books can be reached at630-682-4300.!@RELEASE: OCT. 26, 2004 EMAILTHE AUTHOR: npearcey@worldji.com

The Fact/Value Split:
Individual Preferences
Binding on Everyone

The assumption is that reliable knowledge comes only from the realm of scientific "facts," which are objective, rational, and value-free. Then there's realm of "values," which may be personally meaningful, may be part of our cultural tradition--but have no intellectual content. That is, they do not give us knowledge or information about the world as it really is. In mainstream culture today, the term "values" has been redefined to mean literally whatever I value, my personal preferences.

To use a technical term, there has been a shift in epistemology, the definition of what constitutes genuine knowledge. The concept of truth itself has been divided into two separate and contradictory categories. And once religion is taken out of the knowledge realm, and put into the value realm, then arguments on the detail level simply have no traction. In principle they do not belong at the table of public discourse. Thus the late Christopher Reeve, talking about embryonic stem cells, said: "When matters of public policy are debated, no religions should have a seat at the table." Notice he was not weighing whether particular religious viewpoints are right or wrong; he was saying they don't belong at the table in the first place.

Of course, most secularists and liberals are not quite so blunt. In America it can still be politically risky to attack religion directly or debunk it as false. That's why the language of values is so useful--because it takes religion out of the realm of true and false altogether. That way critics can assure the public that of course they "respect" religious belief--while at the same time denying that it has any relevance to the public realm, where we talk about what we're really going to do.

There were several striking examples in the presidential debates. John Kerry responded to a question about stem cell research by saying, "I really respect your- the feeling that's in your question . . . I respect it enormously." On abortion: "I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins . . . I truly respect it." Then the inevitable repudiation: "But I can't legislate . . . my article of faith."
Do you recognize the strategy? First you placate religious conservatives by telling them how much you "respect" their faith and feelings--but then you say that of course mere feelings are not something we can impose on others in terms of public policy.

To get a handle on this, imagine that you present your position on some issue and the other person responds, That's just science, that's just facts, don't impose it on me. Of course, no one says that. But they do say, That's just your religion, don't impose it on me. Why the difference? Because science is thought to be public truth, binding on everyone, but religion is defined as private feelings relevant only to those who believe it.

The fact/value split provides a key conceptual tool to decode much of the campaign rhetoric. In a recent Newsweek article Eleanor Clift criticized President Bush for allowing religious principles to inform public policy on things like stem cells and abortion, while she praised Kerry: "Kerry thinks abortion is wrong, but he's not going to impose his religious beliefs on the country. . . . [Thus] voters have the choice between a president who governs by belief and a challenger who puts his faith in rational decision-making."

What's the implication here? That religion is not rational. In fact, the article is titled "Faith versus Reason." Notice that, at the same time, Clift is claiming that a secular position is merely the outcome of rational thinking, a result of sheer reason. The problem with this is that reason is not in itself a source of truth. It's just a human ability--the ability to draw inferences from prior assumptions. So appeals like this to "rationality" always mask some prior philosophical assumption, typically some form of materialism or naturalism.

This is especially obvious when someone like Ralph Nader says, "Bush is an unsuitable officeholder. We want him to make decisions as a secular president." Does anyone think that "secular" here means simply "rational"?

What we see in these examples is that the challenge to religious conservatism is much more radical today than it was in the past. Secularists used to argue that religion is false--and one could at least engage them in discussions about what is true and false. But today secularists are more likely to argue that religion does not have the status of a truth claim at all. It doesn't even belong at the table.
Among scientists, there's a story of a famous physicist who once told a colleague, your theory is so bad, it's not even wrong. It's not even in the ballpark of possible answers. That's how religious claims are treated today. They are not even in the category of things that can be rationally discussed.

Two-Story Truth

We've seen how the fact/value split functions as a gatekeeper, by determining what is allowed into the public debate in the first place. What can people do about it? How do they get past the gatekeeper? Let's examine where it comes from, how it functions, and then how it gives us a handle on various campaign issues, from abortion to homosexual marriage to Islamic terror.

To grasp the significance of the divided concept of truth, we have to start by realizing how deeply it is ingrained in the American mind today. Alan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, once said, "Every school child knows that values are relative. . . . [They] are not based on facts but are mere individual subjective preferences." How does "every school child" know this? Because it's something they pick up every day in the typical public school. On one hand, subjects like social studies and the humanities have been taken over by postmodernism. In English classes, for example, teachers have tossed out their red pencils, and act as though things like correct spelling or grammar were forms of oppression imposed by those in power.

But, paradoxically, if you go down the hallway to the science classroom, there you discover that only one view is tolerated. For example, Darwinian evolution is not open to question, and students are not exposed to the evidence against it so they can decide for themselves. Science is treated as public knowledge that everyone is expected to accept, regardless of their private beliefs.

By the time students go to college, they've learned the lesson very well. Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College says the students coming into his classroom "are perfectly willing to believe in objective truth in science, or even in history sometimes, but certainly not in ethics or morality." Do you recognize the split mentality? The vast majority of students arrive in the classroom with the assumption that science is about objective facts, but morality is about subjective values.

Back in the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer, in books like Escape from Reason, explained the divided concept of truth using the imagery of two stories in a building. In the lower story is science and reason--the realm of "public truth," binding on everyone. Above it is an upper story of religion and morality, the arts and humanities. This is the realm of "private truth," where we hear people say, That may be true for you but it's not true for me.

Two-Storey Truth:
Private Beliefs
Public Knowledge

When Schaeffer was writing, the term postmodernism had not been coined yet, but clearly that's what he was talking about. Today we might say that in the lower story, we have modernism, while in the upper story is postmodernism.

The lesson for social and moral conservatives is that people are constantly filtering what you say through a mental fact/value grid. For example, when you state a position on an issue like abortion or stem cells or homosexuality, you intend to assert an objective moral truth--but they "hear" it as the subjective bias of a reactionary subgroup. If you say there's evidence for Intelligent Design in the universe over against Darwinian evolution, you intend to stake out a testable truth claim—but they say, "Uh oh, the Religious Right is making a political power grab. "People are constantly relegating what you say to the value realm, which strips it of any objective content.

Where did this split view of truth come from? Where did it originate? The historical roots go back to the Greeks, but in the modern age the key turning point was the rise of Darwinian evolution. You see, if natural causes acting on their own are capable of doing all the creating, then the Creator is out of a job. There's nothing left for Him to do. And if God's existence doesn't serve any explanatory or cognitive function, then the only function left is an emotional one. Religion is something that can be tolerated for people who need that kind of crutch.

Here's just one quotation from the academic literature on this: A historian notes that Darwinism caused a shift "from religion as knowledge to religion as faith." Since "there was no longer any function for God to carry out in the world, He was, at best, a gratuitous philosophical concept derived from personal need." Religion became "private, subjective, and artificial" (Neal Gillespie, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation). Those who are blunt about it, like the Darwinist philosopher Daniel Dennett, put religion on the same level as fairy tales. Writing in the New York Times, he said, "We don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny--or God."

A Secular Leap of Faith

The fact/value split is so widespread, however, that its impact goes far beyond religion. Let's look at a few examples from secular thinkers.
Steven Pinker, a leader in the field of cognitive science, is author of the bestselling book How the Mind Works. Pinker expresses a worldview that could be called scientific naturalism--i.e., nature is all that exists; there is nothing transcendent to nature, like spirit or soul or mind. He argues that our minds are nothing more than computers--complex data-processing machines.

At the same time, Pinker recognizes that morality depends on the idea that we are more than machines--that we are capable of making undetermined, free choices. So here's his dilemma: When working in the lab, he adopts what he calls "the mechanistic stance," treating humans as complex mechanisms. But then, he writes: "When those discussions wind down for the day, we go back to talking about each other as free and dignified human beings."

In other words, when he goes home to his family and friends, his scientific naturalism doesn't work. You can't treat your wife like a complex data processing machine. You can't treat your kids like computers. So in real life, Pinker admits that he has to switch to a completely contradictory paradigm. Here's how he puts it: "A human being is simultaneously a machine and a sentient free agent, depending on the purposes of the discussion."

Francis Schaeffer used a graphic image to describe what's happening here:

He said people are making a secular leap of faith. Intellectually they embrace scientific naturalism. That's their professional ideology. But it doesn't fit their real-life experience. So what do they do? They take a leap of faith to the upper story where they affirm a completely contradictory set of ideas like moral freedom and human dignity—even though these things have NO BASIS within their own intellectual system.

We can picture it like this:
Secular Leap of Faith:


Our philosophy gives no basis for human freedom,
but we affirm it anyway
Humans are complex machines

To show how common this is, let's consider a few more examples. John Searle, a philosopher at USC, says what we have are two pictures of the world that are "at war" with one another. Science gives us a picture of the universe as a vast machine, but in everyday experience we make decisions all the time, even in something as simple as choosing from a menu.

As Searle put it in an interview, "The conviction of freedom is built into our experiences; we can't just give it up, even though there's no ground for it. No ground within scientific naturalism, that is. What he's saying is that he has to take a leap into the upper story.
Marvin Minsky at MIT is famous for his punchy phrase that the human mind is nothing but "a three-pound computer made of meat." But he takes a secular leap of faith as well.

In The Society of Mind he writes: "The physical world provides no room for freedom of will." Yet "that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. [And so] We are virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it's false."

This is an astonishing statement. Because of their experience of their own human nature, people are forced to affirm certain things--like moral freedom--even when they "know" these ideas are false, based on their naturalistic philosophy.

This is the tragedy of the postmodern age. The things that matter most in life, the things that make us truly human--like freedom and dignity, meaning and significance--have been reduced to nothing but useful fictions. Necessary illusions. Convenient falsehoods.

Of course, the very fact that these thinkers have to make a leap of faith ought to tell them something. It means that scientific naturalism is not an adequate worldview. After all, the purpose of a worldview is to explain the world. And if it fails to explain some part of the world, then there's something wrong with that worldview.!@The Worldview that Drives Homosexual "Marriage".

We've talked about where the split view of truth comes from; now let's apply it to several campaign issues. For example, why is homosexual marriage on the front burner today? The answer is that the social sciences have been taken over by the same split that we just diagnosed--with philosophical naturalism in the lower story and postmodern relativism in the upper story.

After the scientific revolution, social theorists began talking about crafting a "science" of society as well. Newtonian physics pictured the material world as atoms bumping around in the void under the force of attraction and repulsion, and so this became the model for the social world as well. Civil society was pictured as so many human "atoms" who come together and "bond" in various social relationships.

Social Contract Theory:


Relationships are created by choice

Modeled on Newtonian Physics

This explains why the early political modern political philosophers, like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, defined the original human condition as a "state of nature," in which there is no civil society, no family, no marriage. We are just atomistic, disconnected, autonomous individuals.

But if this our natural state--if we are originally and inherently autonomous individuals--then where do social relationships like marriage come from? Answer: They are created by choice. And if we create marriage by choice, then clearly we can also recreate it by choice. We can redefine it any way we want. Thus Dick Cheney defended homosexuality recently by saying: "People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to."

To highlight how radical this concept of marriage is, contrast it for a moment with a more traditional one. For example, the biblical concept is that marriage is a pre-existing social institution built into our very nature. We don't create it so much as we enter into it. (Remember that wonderful older phrase: We "enter the holy estate of matrimony.")

However, most Americans today accept some form of social contract theory, even if they don't know it. Ethics professor Eric Springsted finds that, "Without ever having read a word of Locke, [students] can reproduce his notion of the social contract without a doubt in the world." This implicit worldview is a key force driving the movement for homosexual marriage, and unless we deal with it head-on, we will be treating symptoms instead of causes.!@The Autonomous Self and Ethics

Let's look at some issues in bioethics. It was Rene Descartes who first applied the division we've been talking about to the human person. He treated the physical body as nothing but a glorified machine (a view still very much with us today, as we saw earlier). But he treated the mind as an autonomous power that in a sense uses the body in an instrumental way, almost the way you use a car to take you where you want to go.

In the 1970s, ethicist Paul Ramsey noticed that this Cartesian dualism had become the underlying worldview in abortion, genetic engineering, and all the other life issues. Pro-life groups have typically thought the ethical battle was over getting people to agree that the fetus is human. But today abortion advocates are perfectly willing to say the fetus is physiologically human. However, that fact is regarded as irrelevant to its moral status, and does not warrant legal protection. The deciding factor is "personhood," however that concept is defined.

The Life Issues:

Warrants Legal Protection

Irrelevant to Moral Status

This is why Kerry agrees that "life begins at conception," and at the same time accept abortion. As he said in a Peter Jennings interview, the fetus is "not the form of life that takes personhood, in the terms that we have judged it to be."

Postmodern Sexuality

The same reasoning underlies the liberal approach to sexuality. The body is treated as simply an instrument that is used by the autonomous self forgiving and receiving pleasure. In a popular sex education video (“What Kids Want to Know about Sex and Growing Up”), sex is defined as "something done by two adults to give each other pleasure"--a definition that easily allows for homosexuality as well ("two people of the same gender giving each other pleasure.").

In fact, the cutting edge today is the idea that gender is a social construction--and thus it can be deconstructed. "This is seen as liberating, a way to take control of one's own identity, rather than accepting the one that has been culturally 'assigned'," writes Gene Edward Veith ("Identity Crisis," World, March 27, 2004). "At some colleges," Veith goes on, "students no longer have to check 'M' or 'F' on their health forms. Instead they are asked to 'describe your gender identity history'."

The body has become an instrumental tool that the autonomous self can use in a variety of different ways.

Contrast this to the Christian concept of the human person, in which human identity consists of self and body inextricably linked--a psychosomatic unity. The New Testament teaches the resurrection of the body, which implies that ultimate redemption is not to be saved out of the material world, as in Eastern religions, but to become whole and integrated persons inhabiting a new earth.

How Women Started the Culture War

One chapter of my book deals with women's issues, and is titled "How Women Started the Culture War." The dichotomy we've been talking about has been applied not only to the human person, but also to the organization of modern society. Here's how sociologist Peter Berger puts it: "Modernization brings about a novel dichotomization of social life. The dichotomy is between the huge and immensely powerful institutions of the public sphere [the state, large corporations, academia, and so on] and the private sphere" [the realm of family, church, and personal relationships].

This division took place after the Industrial Revolution. Think of it this way: In pre-modern times, work was not the father's job, it was the family industry. Husband and wife worked side by side, and raised the children together.

With the Industrial Revolution, however, work was moved out of the home into offices and factories, creating the competitive, secularized, amoral nineteenth-century world of business and industry. Men followed their work out of the home, of course, which meant they were the first to become secularized in their overall outlook as well. This is when the stereotype arose that religion is for women and children.

There developed what was called the doctrine of "separate spheres," where men would go forth to labor in the public world, while women would preside over the private realm of home and family. They would be the moral guardians of society. When the British novelist Francis Trollope visited America in 1832, she said she had never seen a country "where religion had so strong a hold upon the women or a slighter hold upon the men."

This also explains the rise of widespread reform movements in the nineteenth century, which historians refer to collectively as the Benevolent Empire--and which was largely staffed and supported by women. For example, the Temperance Movement was largely a matter of women trying to bring their hard-drinking men home from the taverns, back to the family hearth where they belonged. Abolitionists focused their most flaming rhetoric on male slave masters taking sexual advantage of slave women. Movements to outlaw prostitution and abortion in the nineteenth century cast fallen women as victims and men as cruel seducers. And so on.

In essence, women were seeking to re-moralize the public arena by drawing men back to what are now called traditional values. The public arena of business, industry and politics was becoming secularized, and women were fighting back. They were trying to bring family values into the public arena. The leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union urged women to "make the whole world Homelike." In that sense the culture war we're fighting today was started by women back in the nineteenth century reform movements.

Roots of Islamic Terrorism

What about Islam? How do we account for the rise of Islamic terror? In the wake of September 11, many commentators began lumping the various religions together, accusing all of them of being socially destructive. A book climbing the bestseller lists right now, called The End of Faith by Sam Harris, simply asserts, as if by definition, that religion is "irrational," it is belief "without evidence," it is a "conversation stopper." Once someone raises the subject of religion, you can't talk to them rationally any more.

Apparently, Harris is not familiar with books on apologetics; they're full of rational arguments for the existence of God. But the point is that this kind of misunderstanding is precisely that happens when you accept the fact/value split. If you put religion in the upper story of personal values, then the actual content doesn't matter. All that matters are the feelings of comfort and belonging that religion produces . . . or the flipside that worries us today about Islam--feelings of outrage against the infidel.

The mistake here is to put religion in the upper story in the first place. If you consider the actual content of various religions, you discover significant differences. Consider Muslim philosophy. During the Golden Age of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, Muhammad's armies annexed territory from Spain to Persia and parts of India. In the process, they absorbed the thinking of these places as well. A flow chart from an Islamic web site shows the various lines of influence—the influence of Hinduism, of ancient Greek philosophy, and perhaps most important, of Neo-Platonism, a third century synthesis that merged both of these together. Since "neo" means "new," you might think of this as the New Age movement of the ancient world. It taught the quasi-pantheistic doctrine that the world is an "emanation," or radiation of being, from a non-personal spiritual essence--the Absolute or The One--somewhat as light is a radiation from the sun. Even today, many Muslim philosophers are neo-Platonists, especially among the Shiites and Sufis, including the most prominent Muslim philosopher today, Sayyed Nasr.

The reason this is so important is that the ultimate origin of the world is either a someone or a something. It is either a personal Being who thinks, plans, chooses, and creates, like the God of Judaism and Christianity. Or it is a non-personal substance, like matter in Western materialism, or like the Eastern concept of a non-personal spiritual force or essence. What philosophers like Sayyed Nasr are saying is that Islam was influenced by Eastern concepts of a non-personal God. Martin Lings, a convert who has written several books on Islam, says: "A Vedantist [Hindu], a Taoist, or a Buddhist can find, in many aspects of Islamic mysticism, a 'home [away] from home.'"

These different conceptions of the divine have dramatically different social consequences. A non-personal beginning tends to lead to a low view of the human person: A cause, a movement, or a civilization is always greater than the individual--which means individuals can be sacrificed for the greater good of the whole. A disregard for human life. By contrast, if God is a personal being, then you have a basis for putting the highest priority on the rights and dignity of human persons.

The word assassins comes from a medieval group of Shiite Muslims who, according to Bernard Lewis, were the first to turn their method into "a system and an ideology." They called themselves fedayeen, a term that modern Islamic terrorists have intentionally revived and adopted.
Failure to grasp these ideas is the main reason secular commentators have had so much trouble interpreting the events of September 11. Those who accept the fact/value split and reduce religion to feelings simply do not have the conceptual tools to make sense of the world.

Total Truth

Why aren't religious conservatives out there making this case? Why have they been so slow to recognize the impact of the divided concept of truth? The answer is that it has seeped into their own thinking as well. They often call it the sacred/secular split. To give just one example, I recently read an article by a young writer who had just graduated from a Christian high school. On the first day of class, she said, my theology teacher drew a heart on one side of the blackboard and a brain on the other side. He told us that the two are as divided as the two sides of the blackboard--the "heart is what we use for religion and the brain is what we use for science."

Obviously, religious people have to start by cleaning their own house. To gain a public voice, they will have to recover a unified view of truth that asserts the objectivity of religious truth claims. They need to be willing to stake out a cognitive territory, and then be prepared to defend it.

Here in Washington, people often want to deal with politics on the level of mere tactics and policy. But to have real impact, we have dig deeper to the underlying patterns in the way people think. The culture war is driven by a cognitive war--a clash of worldviews. So I will end where I began by emphasizing that politics is downstream from culture (a phrase I borrowed from my friend Bill Wichterman, Policy Advisor to Senator Frist).To bring about political renewal, we must begin with cultural renewal. We have to directly address the divided concept of truth that functions as a gatekeeper to keep certain ideas out of the public debate altogether. We have to recover a sense that truth is a unity--that the universe is a single intelligible structure that includes both a physical order and amoral/spiritual order. On that basis, knowledge can once again become a unified whole, big enough to explain all of reality, all of human experience. As I put it in my book, we have recover the concept of Total Truth.

All pages copyright David Limbaugh 1994-2004

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