A Few Thoughts on Jason Josephson Storm’s Metamodernism: The Life and Death of the Christian Use of “Worldview”

Metamodernism, the most recent book by the increasingly prolific Jason Josephson Storm, has an uphill battle in front of it. Not only is the book, in his own words, difficult to summarize, Storm has decided to take on a rather sizable chunk of current modern and postmodern theory, and the result is intricate, inspiring, infuriating, and absolutely worthwhile. Once again—much as in his prior books, The Invention of Religion in Japan as well as The Myth of Disenchantment—Storm has proven himself one of the best-read scholars working in the humanities today. Nor is he simply a capable scholar—he has something to say.

It is difficult for me, a historical theologian by trade, to know exactly where and what to say about a book so capacious and deep and outside of many of my disciplinary specialties. So, I will turn to one topic: what is a takeaway for a Christian theologian? The choices will be vast, not all of an accord with one another, and certainly not all of an agreeable sort for the Christian. Yet I think one of the most valuable—though perhaps understated—aspects of what Storm has given us with Metamodernism is a sense of the urgent need to reevaluate the idea of Christianity (and its “competitors”) as worldviews (as he says, “the concept of worldview is itself incoherent” [17; cf. 88, 166, 309-310]). To be clear: this reckoning is not explicitly Storm’s intention, but I think he provides us as excellent an opportunity as any to start analyzing what has been taken for granted—especially in an environment where sides appear so vocal, so clear-cut, so militantly uncrossable as they do in our conflicted world.

The conflict surrounding competing worldviews is not new. In 1933, Americans heard a sinister voice—that was even by then becoming all too familiar—assure the German people that “a new philosophy has impressed itself upon this [German] nation; a new philosophy [Weltanschauung] has saved the nation from lethargy, resignation, and despair. … there is no denying that this movement stands for ideas which must be better than the ideas of our opponents.”[1] This word, weltanschauung—that is, worldview—set off alarms among American theologians, not just because it came from Adolf Hitler’s lips. It struck a chord because to them it signaled that they had been right: a consensus had been slowly emerging since the late nineteenth century, especially from the vitalized front of Dutch Reformed theologians familiar with works of German Idealism and neo-Kantianism, that “worldview” was the philosophical map describing where the battles for future hearts, souls, and minds would be fought.[2] In other words, what would be needed in the coming days was not just a battle to take back Europe, and by extension the world—what was also needed was the production of a coherent and consistent intellectual front. What was needed was a Christian worldview.

The intended universality of the Christian message is not new, of course. As the theologian Robert Jenson once put it, Christian theologians claim to know the one God, and hence know the one basic “fact” of all of reality—in some sense merely restating the august modus operandi of someone like Thomas Aquinas’ admonition that one must understand everything sub ratione Dei, or under its relationship to God. But Protestant—and then Catholic and Orthodox—thinking in terms of “worldview” changed the nature that this universality took. To be sure, as many scholars have told us—Storm included—the rise of the category “religion” as it is often understood today involved a move toward heavily favoring the conceptual,[3] a move toward belief[4] (and toward beliefs as systematically oppositional and zero sum), toward externalized propositions and encyclopedic ordering very often alien to what is being categorized,[5] and a variety of other changes that began to conceive of the world as a tableau of necessarily interconnected ideas.[6] “Deciphering an opponent’s worldview meant unlocking their unifying theory of everything … exposing … the semiconscious and unverifiable assumptions that shape a person’s perception of reality.”[7] While one could still plunder the Egyptians to use their gold for Christian thought, as the metaphor goes, worldview thinking loaded ideas with an oppositional intensity that demanded certain necessary outcomes, associations, intentions, and borders in ways that may not have been evident or even extant previously.[8]

Interestingly enough, while evangelicals are often behind the curve in terms of interacting—let alone embodying—currents in academia, in this case with worldview oriented thinking neo-evangelicals “were not intellectual outliers or drowsy fundamentalists playing cultural catch-up. They were members of the conservative ideological vanguard.”[9] Ironically, though, this meant they embodied much of the vanguard’s weaknesses as well. Emerging movements against “worldview”-first thinking among Christians in turn also embodied the dialectic of which Storm speaks regarding modernism and postmodernism. To decry worldview was in some sense to continue to embody its ideals, to move between Storm’s well-chosen representative categorical dualisms: realism and antirealism, meaning and nihilism, fact and value, and so forth, while merely turning these things upon themselves. Worldviews became relative, or context-sensitive, deconstructing themselves—and yet in many ways, this attempted deconstruction maintained the same priorities as the older worldview paradigm—only now in the mode of critique.[10]

Or, to give another example, the realism-anti-realism dialectic has analogies in the struggles of post-liberalism (as articulated in the works of George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas), where doctrinal and theological ideas shifted from a sense of world-referentiality to church-community referentiality.[11] The problem of God became the problem of the church, its language, its world-absorbing capabilities.[12] Post-liberal theory and its non-foundational epistemology, in other words, is worldview theory sans reference, whereby the world quite literally has become coextensive with the grammatical strictures of the church.[13] This worldview approach not only shapes contemporary Christianity but is also very often the mode in which the Christian tradition is approached and resourced.[14]

Storm has provided for us a book that is difficult to summarize, but I believe it provides an opportunity for Christians to seriously reconsider the structures of our presuppositions, to retrieve things we have lost or neglected, and soldier forward. Books such as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s recent series of books including You Are What You Love have begun to retrieve aspects neglected under worldview-oriented thinking, like bodily reasoning, the “gut-feeling” level of “social imaginaries” or the long tradition of Christian explorations in the affective dimension of cultural liturgies.

Unfortunately, much of the interaction with the world of work outside Christianity very often remained at superficial—or, at the very least, extremely predictable—levels in works concentrated on using the optics of worldview.[15] Neither “superficial” nor “predictable” are meant as name-calling. Rather what I mean is that worldview orientations tend to absolutize certain given categories—say, epistemology, ethics, or ideas of progress, rights, etc.—and then locate how certain thinkers or movements or texts contribute to these typical philosophical categories that cumulatively form a worldview. Unfortunately, this can lead to treating works abstractly, as mere grist for the mill of worldview generation and completion. Further, it can seriously hamper our ability to detect transitions and alterations where, for example, it is not evident that something like “theodicy” constitutes a perennial category of “Christian worldview” that is equivalent to “the problem of evil,” but in fact locates a contextually bound mutation in which the very nature, standards, and goals of inquiry have changed.[16]

The negation of negation that Storm provides here has given us an initial set of tools that demand exploration. Not only might they allow us to dissolve some of the more stubborn and recalcitrant aspects of what are thought to be demanded by Christianity as “worldview.” Many of these tools also may allow us to keep the best aspects of what has been gained through generations of wisdom but position them in less explicitly adversarial ways.[17] Worldview has a tendency to absolutize and systematize in ways that escalate problems unhelpfully because nearly everything is elevated to necessary consequences or deductive starting points in a semi-timeless manner as if we are calling for the realms of Platonic forms to do battle. If, rather, we utilize some of the more mobile categories suggested by Storm (without necessarily agreeing or adopting wholesale), theology can be done (to steal a title from Steven Shapin) more as if  “it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority”[18] or, that is, to once again attend to the more sapiential focus of the wisdom tradition of Christian thought and practice.[19]


Derrick Peterson is a Ph.D candidate in history, and author of Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes: The Strange Tale of How The Conflict of Science and Christianity Was Written Into History (Cascade 2021).

References

References
1 Adolf Hitler, “Hitler as an Orator: Full Translation of an Electioneering Speech, ‘Vision of the Future German,’” Manchester Guardian (March 16, 1933), 12.
2 On this story of worldview and evangelicalism, David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002); Molly Worthen, The Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
3 Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: The Invention of a Modern Concept (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012); Guy Stroumsa, A Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003); David Chidester, Empire of Religion: Imperialism & Comparative Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Daniel Dubuisson, The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Peter Harrison, ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
4 Ethan H. Shagan, The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018).
5 Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994).
6 This approach is now a hallmark of a great majority of Christian apologetics. For example, the immensely popular work of James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2020), which has now gone through several editions due to its constant demand. The worldview approach has been the calling card especially of Dutch Reformed thought, so-called “Presuppositionalism” of the work of thinkers like Cornelius Van Till, Herman Dooyeweerd, and especially the popularizing literature of this movement by Francis Schaefer.
7 Worthen, Apostles of Reason, 28.
8 Of course, this is not necessarily part of worldview-oriented thinking. Much like criticism of Arthur Lovejoy’s “History of Ideas” approach, critiques of worldview can often tend toward caricature that do not credit what many intend to do (consistently or not) with worldview. However, given the unavoidable legacy of the concept’s birth in German idealism, it will tend to skew in the direction of ideal abstraction, especially when unaided. It also—ironically enough given its fervent use in apologetics—has not been proven that “worldview” is really a coherent or truly analytically useful concept, as like the concept religion, there does not seem to be an agreement on what it constitutes except in the broadest sense of “everything a person believes.”
9 Worthen, Apostles of Reason, 28. Of course in many ways this had been the case for good chunks of history, when, say, Baconianism—or more precisely what Scottish Common Sense Realism had made of Lord Bacon—had reigned supreme for so long, especially in America. See, e.g. Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), esp. 93-113.
10 For a good summary of some of these initial post-conservative, even “post-modern” Christian critiques, see: James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1-195. Cf. also Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012). Even in more thoroughgoing and considered critiques, like that of Stanley Hauerwas, in many ways such have still taken on the form of that which they critiqued—in this instance the modern secular state—but in the negative, as has been demonstrated by Nathan Kerr, Christ, History, and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008), 93-126.
11 Of course, it can be argued that at its best it was exactly this dialectic that was trying to be transcended, but in practice, the referentiality of Christian doctrine often took a hit in post-liberalism, which positioned itself in ways that could easily be mistaken for ecclesiological variations on anti-realism. Most curious of all, as Storm points out, following the recent scholarship of, for example, Michael Friedman, Reconsidering Logical Positivism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), much of what is taken as “post-modern” and overcoming positivism, was itself the brainchild of the much-misunderstood positivism itself. See also John H. Zammito, A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
12 Cf. for example John Allen Knight, Liberalism versus Postliberalism: The Great Divide in Twentieth Century Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
13 One might note the perceptive critique of Francesca Aran Murphy, God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) is, however observant, still moving within a realism-antirealism dialectic whereby she is trying to move the pointer firmly back into the realist camp rather than transcending the problematics in the first place.
14 For example, see John Inglis, Spheres of Philosophical Inquiry and the Historiography of Medieval Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 1998); and Leo Catana, The Historiographical Concept ‘System of Philosophy’: Its Origin, Nature, Influence, and Legitimacy (Leiden: Brill, 2008). One can also note again the similarities and differences of Christian precursors with, e.g. how scholasticism treated Greek philosophy in the opinion of Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2004).
15 One example of this is the often frantic attempt to overcome the apparent nihilism of “post-structuralism” or “deconstructionist” post-modern “worldviews.” This approach causes us to neglect the fact that such “worldviews” are themselves artificial constructs built by the American academy and foisted upon French thinkers (for example) who in no way identified with such groupings or with the characteristics supposedly demanded of their purported “postmodernity.” See for example Johannes Angermuller, Why There Is No Postructuralism In France (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).
16 This is argued in Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2004) and Terence W. Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2000). Moreover, the now standard textbook divisions of rationalists and empiricists tend likewise to cause us to ignore the fact that both “parties” are not part of different worldviews per se, but are rather manifestations of deeper theological and confessional commitments to understanding the Christian fall narrative, and unpacking what capacities were lost by our original parents. For example, see Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
17 As just one example, moving past “worldview” theory in historical inquiry has allowed us to see how Darwinism and evolutionary theory, far from settled atheistic worldviews, were actually quite often actively influenced by theology. See, as just a few examples: John Hedley Brooke, “The Relationship Between Darwin’s Science and His Religion,” in John Durant, ed. Darwinism and Divinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 40-75; Chris Cosans, “Was Darwin a Creationist?” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 48 (2005): 362-371; Robert J. Richards, “Theological Foundations of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” in P.H. Theerman and K.H. Parshall, eds., Experiencing Nature (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), 61-79; Stephen Dilley, “Charles Darwin’s Use of Theology in the Origin of Species,” British Society for the History of Science (2011), 1-28; Richard England, “Natural Selection, Teleology, and the Logos,” Osiris 16 (2001), 270-287; Momme von Sydow, “Charles Darwin: A Christian Undermining Christianity?” in David M. Knight and Matthew D. Eddy, eds., Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 1700-1900 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2005), 141-156; Paul Nelson, “The Role of Theology In Current Evolutionary Reasoning,” Biology and Philosophy 11 (1996): 493-517; Abigail Lustig, “Natural Atheology,” in Abigail Lustig, Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse, eds., Darwinian Heresies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 69-83.
18 Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority 2nd ed. (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
19 James W. Sire’s recent work, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept 2nd ed. (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), has begun to incorporate many of these insights into his use of worldview, which I am happy to say in my opinion has made some pleasing progress in the right direction.

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