1988 ICS Niagara Conference
Perspective Report by Carol Ann Veenkamp

Conferees challenged to make worldview livable

“The most radical subversive thing you must do is pray and praise” ICS’s senior member in world view studies Dr. Brian Walsh told over 900 conferees gathered for the 30th annual Niagara conference held July 29 through August 1 near Fort Erie, Ont.

Prayer breaks through the state of numbness which many Christians find themselves in by opening their eyes to what God is doing and praise opens the imagination to the possibility of a re-creation of our world, Walsh explained.

In his two-part address on the topic, “Challenge: Beyond worldview to a way of life” Walsh suggested both a diagnosis and a prognosis for the disease of modernity affecting Christians and Western culture alike.

Endings are beginnings

On Saturday Walsh invited the conferees to a funeral for Western culture, but paradoxically the message was not pessimistic. Rather, as Walsh pointed out, in the Bible all endings are beginnings as symbolized by Christ’s death on the cross leading to

In laying the groundwork for his diagnosis, Walsh pointed out that as depicted in Spectrum Productions’s multi-image slide and sound track show, “In Search of a Sun,” profiled the previous night, people in today’s society live for material things, sensual pleasure, entertainment, friendship, real love, and the pursuit of science and technology. Each of these integration points gives rise to a certain way of life, which one would expect to be radically different from a lifestyle lived out of a Christian worldview, he said. Yet, Christians can identify with many of the same tensions non-Christians face.

“l feel a gap in my life,” Walsh admitted. “There is often a gap between our worldview and way of life, between our conscious commitment to Jesus Christ and our walk through life.”

Gap creates tension

In addition to creating an often unbearable tension in the life of a Christian, this gap creates a crisis of credibility for those outside of Christ, who then legitimately ask if following Christ makes any difference in our lives, Walsh pointed out.

If Canadian Christians really do construct reality in much the same way as anyone else as Reginald Bibby suggests in his book, Fragmented Gods, then we are faced with a spiritual crisis of mammoth proportions, he said.

“Does our well-articulated, comprehensive, transforming vision, reformational worldview give rise to a restorative, healing, redemptive, and therefore culturally radical and subversive way of life?” Walsh asked.

“Is Theodore Roszak right when he says that the piety of North American Christians is personally engaging, through culturally irrelevant or was Martin Luther King Jr. right when he surmised that most Christians are thermometers rather than thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society?”

If Christians are culture-followers rather than culture-formers, then we are faced with a spiritual catastrophe, Walsh stated. “The Western Church has been thoroughly enculturated,” he pointed out, explaining that enculturation takes place when one’s lifestyle and imagination is so captured by the spirit of the dominant culture that one no longer has the freedom to imagine what real Christian culture would look like.

The “sandman” effect

“While we were fighting about women in office, evolution, the infallibility of the Bible, and various other hot issues, we were falling into a deeper sleep…. We bought into the secularization of our lives without ever noticing that this was going on,” he said.

In The Gravedigger File, Os Guinness calls the phenomena where the Church falls into a deeper sleep instead of becoming more alert as cultural danger approaches, the “sandman effect.” And even those who hold dear the reformational vision have found themselves visited by the sandman, Walsh said.

The reformational worldview, even though it espouses the lordship of Christ over all of life, is no simple immunization against the enculturation process experienced by the rest of the Church, he warned. Dualism, a worldview which limits the gospel to a narrow dimension of life called religion and leaves the rest of life to follow the spirit of the age, affects us too.

Even though many followers of the reformational tradition have been self-consciously anti-dualistic, they still experience the gap between their Christian worldview and lifestyle. Walsh attributed this to two causes. First, reformational Christians share a dilemma facing all Christians; overwhelmed by the sovereign Lord’s encompassing and radical claims, they naturally try to domesticate God and limit his claim. Second, reformational Christians fall prey to a particular form of dualism which Walsh coined as “soft.” This soft dualism arises when a reformational worldview is conceived of primarily as a set of ideas about the world. This emphasis easily succumbs to intellectualism, which Walsh characterized as a tendency to assume that having the right ideas about the world will necessarily result in faithful living. But life isn’t like that, Walsh suggested, intellectualism lacks the power to transform life deep down.

Open to enculturation?

“Could it be that while our thought categories are self-consciously Christian, our way of life has left us open to enculturation?” he asked.

Having examined the gap between worldview and way of life among reformational Christians, Walsh went on to take a closer look at the culture in which Christians seek to overcome the gap. For the crisis of credibility and integrity identified in the Church occurs also within the context of broader issues in Western civilization. There is something terribly wrong at the root of our culture; and a diagnosis shows that the patient is terminal.

Clue in market crash

A clue to the nature of the disease surfaced with the stock market crash of October 19, 1987, which the media labelled “Black Monday” or “Armageddon.” The use of apocalyptic language by journalists tells us that this event has religious significance in our culture, Walsh observed. If history ends with the crash, then the religious assumption is that economic growth is the driving force of history. If this is true, then this indicates that the kind of diagnosis necessary is that of a religious or worldview nature, which in tum requires spiritual discernment.

The myth of economic growth, the belief that human wellbeing requires ever increasing levels of consumption is contrary to what the Bible teaches and was at the crux of Walsh’s diagnosis. Instead of bringing salvation, economic growth has begun to threaten our lives as we search for the technology to clean up our environment, and gamble with the creation which our children and grandchildren will inherit. The ultimate irony of a progress-oriented society such as ours is that it, in fact, closes down the future.

In order to discern the spirits of our age, Christians need to be renewed by the Spirit of God, to grasp and be grasped by the biblical worldview, and to know intimately the Lord’s torah, his loving rule for our cultural life, Walsh said. And this in turn requires a prophetic vision which will evoke a worldview that is an alternative to the perception of the world around us.

Destroy to build

However, the prophetic task requires criticism of the dominant worldview in order to come up with alternatives which will energize the covenant worldview. That’s why God told the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah to destroy before building; only passion can wake the Church from enculturation, Walsh pointed out.

Prophets can come in various forms, Walsh said. There is the prophetic voice of Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn who creatively portrayed the experience of failed expectations that characterize our lives as a result of misplaced faith in a song entitled, “The Candy Man’s Gone.” Prophets spawned by the Reformed tradition include Bob Goudzwaard, author of Idols of Our Time, who has drawn attention to the results of worshipping the gods of scientism, technocism, and economism.

Walsh said he recognized that his own claim that Western culture is self-destructing is not verifiable by scientific methods. Rather, it is a feeling rooted in real experience or valid cultural observation. As American theologian Langdon Gilkey observed, there is an autumnal chill in the air similar to that of other periods of cultural decline.

Church in danger too

If the Church remains wedded to this culture, then it too will die, Walsh warned. He also said he believes that the future of the revival of Christianity is not in North America, but in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

“We should rejoice in that and humbly sit at the feet of our brothers and sisters from the Third World.”

A prophetic response shouldn’t take the form of angry denunciation or withdrawal from society. Rather, the response should be motivated by a compassion that will “cut through the emotional fat of a satiated numbness,” Walsh said.

“Our first question should never be, ‘Is our worldview implementable, but is it imaginable?”‘

An imaginable worldview

Specifically, Walsh asked if those taking the workshop with Citizen’s for Public Justice’s (CPJ) Gerald Vandezande could imagine a politics of justice and compassion instead of the present politics of oppression and economic idolatry; if those thinking about poverty with World Vision Canada’s Linda Tripp could imagine the economics of equality and care versus the economy of affluence and poverty; if those sitting in a workshop with Durham Christian High School teacher John Hull could imagine Christian schools which would take seriously Hull’s advice that schools must disciple the children with a prophetic vision; or if those talking sports with Redeemer College education lecturer John Byl could imagine a world where sports are fun rather than just big business; or those exploring the abortion dilemma with freelance book editor and writer Denyse O’Leary could imagine a society that affirms life at all stages, not just fetal, and breaks through the morbid preoccupation our society has with death; or if those who discuss the effects of the mass media with Toronto District Christian High School teacher Syd Hielema could imagine a media that could be an agent of awakened social/cultural renewal rather than something that further numbs us; or if those listening to ICS senior member in education Harry Femhout could imagine the story of a biblical worldview which would allow us to break through the intellectualism of our approach to the faith; or to imagine with Trojan Technologies president Hank Vanderlaan what it would be like to take spiritual, social, and financial risks in order to serve the one who made it his business to risk his life for us; or if teens could imagine alterative responses to the tough questions they face concerning drugs, sex, and technology in workshops with Judy Cook, Keith Martin, Barbara Rudd, and Christel Vonk-Zeyl.

Concrete ways to obey

Walsh also urged the conferees to take up concrete ways of trying to find new paths of obedience after the conference. He suggested that one sell that new car if it feels like an unstewardly purchase; write a letter to the government on the abortion legislation or form a local support chapter for CPJ; volunteer time to help out a single parent; start a worldview study group at your church; and simply make wiser choices when selecting consumer goods.

Walsh took his final apocalyptic prognosis from Revelation 21:1-4. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”‘

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our God and he will reign forever and ever,” Walsh concluded. “Leave this place with that hope passionately buming in your heart!”

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