Nixon's Hatchet Man

Over at The Weblog Anthony Smith has written a post about Chuck Colson, Jacques Derrida, and Nietzsche (an odd triumvirate if there ever was one). He raises an interesting point, and I was typing up my characteristically long-winded response when I remembered something I learned the other day: apparently it is bad form to leave long responses after blog posts. Rather, one should put something on one’s own page and link to it.

So I am using my newfound powers as guest writer here at Coney Island to do just that. And I promise to avoid (for now) any mention of a certain word that begins with "a" and has caused a bit of strife in recent weeks.

Here is a selection from Anthony’s post:

I know we have an election that will decide the fate of the universe tomorrow, but I have found one more Derrida obituary. This one comes from none other than Charles "My WorldViewTM Can Beat-Up Your WorldViewTM" Colson. I must tell you that in comparison to Colson's the NYT's obituary is a work of staggering genius, and it makes me wonder further why anyone would ever have their students read Charles Colson as academic material.
Since I am a redneck fundamentalist, I am pretty familiar with Colson, and it surprises me to hear that he is used in college courses. His worldview stuff is simplistic and hardly worthy of a class on political philosophy. Anthony rightly suggests that

the worldview aspect of Dr. Van Heemst’s political theory courses were reductionist in their approach to everything non-Christian. Instead of approaching philosophical themes and issues rigorously, we did so with the same kind of faux emotion that we find in Evangelical healing services. . . . Surely when reading Nietzsche we should feel that something is at stake, but Nietzsche's philosophy is not a world-view that is competing with Christianity - it is a philosophical critique of the prevailing culture's morality and epistemology and should be dealt with as such. Not that Dr. Van Heemst is a poor teacher or lacking in intelligence, I don't want to suggest that is the case. Rather, it just really upsets me that this kind of emotionalism is what passes for knowing thyself for many American Christians.
It upsets me too. As Mark Noll has said, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

But I do think that Colson’s work has some value. For those who don’t know Colson, he was a big figure in the Nixon administration (often referred to as Nixon’s "hatchet man") and did some jail time after Watergate. He became a Christian and now directs Prison Fellowship Ministries. But he also writes a lot about "worldviews." His basic idea is that all philosophical or ideological systems (including Christianity) are simply competing ways of looking at the world.

Understanding these various systems as worldviews and then comparing them to "the" Christian worldview (I realize they are not all the same) is a helpful organizing metaphor, especially for non-intellectual types. Not everybody has the time or inclination to dig into Nietzsche, but his system of thought has penetrated our society in a number of ways--many of which have nothing to do with his initial intent. The same is true with Darwin, Derrida, and countless other writers who are constantly taken out of context and commandeered for causes they would never have championed. (Sorry for all the c’s.)

Colson’s project arms people who are not theologians or philosophers with a basic understanding of how these worldviews differ from the Christian worldview. I think it can be especially helpful for high school students before they head off to college.

But, as the saying goes, sometimes a little knowledge is more dangerous than none at all. I wonder if that’s the case here. It is reminiscent of the little "monkey wrenches" that are handed out to Christians to supposedly debunk evolutionary theory. If only the world was that simple.

In my line of work we frequently ask the question, "How much should the public know about science?" This question is the basis for the ill-conceived science literacy standards that get trotted out in the media whenever there is a concern about foreign scientists being better than American scientists. But it is still a good question. In a democracy, informed citizens should have a say in what science does with their tax dollars. But how much should they actually know about science before their opinions can be considered valid?

Likewise, it seems that every Christian (and every person, really) should have some understanding of the major systems of thought that have shaped our culture, even if it is not deep or nuanced. We are all one body, after all, and it’s not fair to ask the foot to act like a shoulder.