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Being a World Citizen
A World Citizen is one who lives in the world, engages the world, reflects on the world, and acts in the world, but does not become enslaved to the world. He will be able to take the best of what he sees around him, use it for his own and others’ edification, and recognize the hand of God in all the world, not just in the “Christian” parts.
The ability to do this well is called “discernment.” Discernment, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “the power of the mind by which it distinguishes one thing from another; the power of perceiving differences of things or ideas.” In the parlance of Ransom Fellowship, a ministry whose mission it is to promote discernment among Christians, discernment refers to the ability to recognize what is being said (in a book, movie, etc.), apply God’s word to it, and then winsomely discuss the implications with believers and unbelievers.
These three elements of discernment could be labeled “engaging the world,” “reflecting Christianly about the world,” and “acting Christianly in the world.” These ideas can be further explored by examining Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Os Guinness’s Fit Bodies Fat Minds, and Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto, as well as relevant Biblical passages.
Engaging the World with Allan Bloom
Allan Bloom is not a Christian, but he recognizes the importance of engaging the ideas of great thinkers not only present, but past. In The Closing of the American Mind, he particularly addresses issues in American education which center around the loss of true openness. His belief is that this true openness, which mean engaging new ideas, asking the big questions, and examining one’s own life by these questions and ideas, has been replaced by a homogenized mediocrity which is open to everything, but not discerning enough to distinguish anything.
Bloom’s goal for education is human completeness, involving a fully functional and practiced mind as well as a well-cared-for body. He uses the term “soul,” but does not mean it in a Christian sense, although he does recognize the importance of religion in the shaping of culture and education.
Bloom’s classic openness focuses on community, rather than individuality. By engaging the world and asking the big questions in life, we are joining a larger community of people and interacting with them. Modern openness takes the position that every idea is equally valid, therefore eliminating the need of questioning and thinking them through. In a way, modern openness keeps anyone from truly impacting the world, because the idea of changing the world is totally foreign to someone with the viewpoint that all ideas are basically the same. Why change the world, if that were true? Bloom touches on this with his statements on the replacement of heroes, who work for the common good of the community, and role models, who try to be the best that they themselves can be individually.
Engaging the world is the first step in discernment. If we do not read any books or magazines, watch any movies or television, or talk with people in the world, we have nothing to discern. Discernment requires an object. We must get outside ourselves and interact with ideas and opinions that may differ from our own.
But if we simply jump out there and begin receiving ideas, with no guide for what is right and wrong, it will be very easy to be led astray from the truth. So we must go on to the next step in Christian discernment.
Reflecting Christianly About the World with Os Guinness
Just engaging the world is not enough. We must have some basis by which to judge the things we see. This basis must be the Word of God, the “only rule of faith and life,” according to the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Os Guinness likes the term “thinking Christianly,” which he has defined as “thinking about anything at all in a distinctively Christian way. Where our minds are so informed by the truth of God’s Word in terms of our assumptions and presuppositions that we increasingly see as God sees, though it will be in an imperfect way.” Our minds are to be so inundated with the Word of God that everything we see will be seen through Word-colored glasses, as it were.
However, this should not make us dismissive toward everything that is not Biblical or spiritual. Rather, it should make us able to embrace many other works and ideas, for we will be able to discern the truth that is in them. Nearly every philosophy or work of art has some truth in it. Reflecting about it Christianly, subjecting to the scrutiny of the Word, will allow us to see that truth and separate it from the non-truth.
Guinness strongly encourages Christians, especially American evangelicals (that is, non-Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) to think and exercise their intellect. After all, he claims, God gave us a mind for a reason, and what is more, He commands us to use it. We are to love God with all our minds, as well as our hearts, souls, and strength. We cannot love properly with something too weak to be of any value, and minds must be exercised, just like bodies, to be strong and useful. Denying the importance of the intellectual life is a sin, Guinness says.
And besides being a sin, it is also a scandal. It is a sin because it offends against God’s Word and God’s law. It is a scandal because it diminishes Christianity, and thence God, in the face of the rest of the world. Because Christians are seen as not able to discern or able to carry on a congenial and well-informed debate, and unwilling to learn to do so, our impact in the world is lessened.
In fact, anti-intellectualism is downright dangerous to the Christian, because an unthinking, unwary person is more likely to be taken in by false ideas than one who critically engages ideas. We must think about ideas coming at us from our world and our culture and see what they look like through our Word-colored glasses. Without the glasses, it’s impossible to discern the truth from the falsehood, and we are either taken in by false ideas, or become reactionary against even true ones that come from a non-Christian source. Both are dangerous, and both work against our witness in the world.
Both Bloom and Guinness have at least touched on the importance of thinking in one’s ability to influence the world, Bloom through his emphasis on community rather than individuality, Guinness in his concern for the image that Christians as a whole presents before the world. Clearly, discernment is useful for formulating our own ideas, but it also invaluable in our interactions with the people of the world, and the effect which we have on them.
Acting in the World with Francis Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer offers A Christian Manifesto, which is not so much a call to think as a call to act. For the next step in Christian discernment, after engaging and reflecting, is applying what we have learned in our lives.
Schaeffer is speaking specifically of civil disobedience, and when we are free, or in fact called, to disobey the state. This certainly requires a great amount of discernment and wisdom, for civil disobedience is not to be undertaken lightly. Only for a truly unjust law can civil disobedience be justified. Schaeffer himself perhaps takes his willingness to use force a little far, never perfectly clarifying where the line between force and violence falls.
Overall, Schaeffer’s underlying ideas and desires are sound, wanting to reclaim Christianity’s right to freedom of religion that the First Amendment is being used to deny, rather than uphold, in today’s pluralistic and anti-Christian worldview. One only wishes that he’d been a little more clear on exactly when he felt it was all right to use force in the name of civil disobedience. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both classic examples of civil disobeyers, advocated strict non-violence, and never allowed their followers to respond with force or violence, or even to defend themselves against violence. With the success of their ventures, one wonders what Schaeffer hoped to gain by advocating force.
At least when Dietrich Bonhoeffer blessed a soldier who hoped to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he had already clearly made a distinction between doing evil (e.g., instituting an unjust law), and being evil, as he came to believe Hitler was.
But Schaeffer’s relevance to the topic of discernment extends further than this book on civil disobedience. Schaeffer’s ministry (l’Abri) in Switzerland focused on reaching students traveling across Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. These were very turbulent times intellectually, and Schaeffer’s method of interacting with these students was to talk with them, understand where they were coming from, and continue to ask them questions until they realized where their false philosophies would lead them, when followed to the logical conclusion.
Perhaps this is an even more helpful way of considering using discernment to affect the world around us, since we may not have the ability or surety to engage in civil disobedience, but we can all engage in meaningful discussion with non-Christians.
Much of what Ransom Fellowship has to say comes at this juncture. Their magazine, Critique, as well as their lectures around the country, attempt to instruct the Christian in how to use elements of the culture around them as “windows of insight” into popular culture, firstly to understand the culture, and secondly to use the common ground found in popular culture to address Christian themes and ideas with unbelievers.
Denis Haack, the head of Ransom Fellowship, focuses on using movies in this capacity, watching them with non-Christian friends and engaging them in discussion over the underlying themes and assumptions of the movie itself, and that each of them has brought to the movie, based on their different belief systems. Critique provides a series of discussion questions along with all of its articles (which cover all areas of life, not just media…the most current issue had an article with questions about how one would deal with a neighbor lesbian couple, clearly in a long-term committed relationship).
Ransom recognizes that disagreement will occur when Christians deal with the world, and gives guidelines for disagreeing respectfully on their website (www.ransomfellowship.org). These thoughts are extremely helpful, including such things as making sure that you first understand the other person’s perspective before disagreeing with them. Quoting Francis Schaeffer, “Christianity demands that we have enough compassion to learn the questions of our generation.” He took the time to do this. The other guidelines involve demeanor and ability to back up your truth claims while showing, reasonably, where the other person has made a mistake. The ability to do this presupposes having thought about the issues and subjected them to Biblical analysis before even entering the discussion.
So, what does the Bible have to say about all this? Quite a lot, actually. The two most common themes among Bible verses that talk about the life of the mind are guarding against false teachings and impacting the world. Exercising the intellect is necessary both on an individual and a communal level.
First, guarding oneself against false teachings. Romans 12.2: “Be no longer conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Colossians 2.8: “See that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceits.” The best way to do this is to study these philosophies through our Word-colored glasses, in order to see how empty and meaningless they really are.
Second, to impact the world. Paul is clearly familiar with the philosophies of Greece when he gets to Athens, and is willing to discuss them. Acts 17.18: “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.” He uses this knowledge in his sermon, even allowing that one of the Greek philosophers had made a true statement, though he was ignorant of the true God. Acts 17:28: “…as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Paul reasons with anyone willing to listen. Acts 17.17: “[Paul] reasoned in the synagogue…as well as in the marketplace…with those who happened to be there.” And not just using his own ability to think. He bases his thoughts on the Word. Acts 17.2: “Paul…reasoned with them from the scriptures.”
Paul clearly had no problem using the world’s own philosophy in his quest to persuade the world of the truth of the Gospel. We should not be afraid to engage the world, either, because we too have the truth of the Gospel, and with a good foundation in the Bible and the grace of God, the false philosophies and vain teaching of the world will not ensnare us, and we as Christians are free to take advantage of every opportunity for knowledge. For ultimately, all true knowledge comes from God, despite whose hands it may have gone through in the meantime.
To conclude with a few verses of Proverbs that sum up nicely what wisdom and discernment is all about: Proverbs 1.2-7 – “To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs states over and over that the foolish man refuses to learn wisdom and remains ignorant of truth, but the wise man seeks after knowledge, always recognizing that God is the source of knowledge.
Christian discernment is learning to engage the world, subject its ideas
to Biblical truth, and then acting on the knowledge gained from both,
giving back to the world something better than it offered. Doing this
well is what it means to be a World Citizen.
Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster: New York. 1987.
Guinness, Os. Fit Bodies, Fat Minds.
The Holy Bible. New English Standard version.
Ransom Fellowship. http://www.ransomfellowship.org
Schaeffer, Francis A. A Christian Manifesto.
This paper originated as a term paper for World Citizen, Missouri Baptist University, Spring, 2003.
©2003 by Jandy Stone