Ideas are dangerous things. They disorient our way of looking at the world. Shoot, they topple worlds.

I’m building a table-top garden. Our backyard is just a slab of concrete enclosed by a wooden fence, so if Tiffany and I want to grow some herbs and vegetables we have to get creative. Enter Pinterest. I think I’ve found a design that’ll do—about 12 square feet of table space set on four legs with wheels. My current internal dialogue has to do with stability: What’s the absolute most I can get out of this table (weight, height, depth of soil) without comprising its structural integrity? This kind of question is usually code for: How many ways can I justify using my power drill without looking ridiculous to my wife?

I’ve come to an obvious conclusion: The stability of the legs will directly correspond with my little garden’s usefulness and longevity.

We construct our lives—our worldviews—as tables. The surface of the table, if you will, is our view of reality—how things work and why stuff matters. The tabletop is our way of organizing and explaining the massive amount of information that the human person encounters every single day. Probe below the surface, however, and you will find all sorts of beliefs and ideas that support our worldview; these, like legs on a table, are often hard to see.

As an example, a middle aged woman might identify deeply with her vocation as financial advisor; she’s worked hard to ascend to her position, providing for her family through her effort. Because she loves her job, she reads it into the relationships she has—it affects how she votes, who she trusts, and how she interacts with the law. Her table.

What are the ideas/beliefs that serve to buttress her perspective on the world? Perhaps she believes strongly in capitalism, the American Dream…  Maybe she was taught at an early age that debt was a bad thing… Or, perhaps her father instilled in her a sense of responsibility for her own destiny. The legs.

All good things, yes?

Ah, but there’s a catch. Worldviews are constantly subjected to outside pressures. They never exist as perfect models untouched by outside forces. Rather, our worldviews have their own plate tectonics; they must deal with city-wrecking earthquakes and the subtle aftershocks that precede or follow. These ‘shakers’ could be ideas. They could be experiences. Both can rock us to the ground.

Imagine a young man’s worldview built on the following statement about reality: God exists. Everything in his understanding of reality flows from this central feature. It’s a table top supported by a few important legs: 1) The Bible is reliable; 2) God is good, and I have witnessed such love and goodness in my life; 3) My parents are Christian, and they would not lie to me; and 4) all my friends are Christian.

Now imagine this same young man is a soldier sent off to war. In a faraway land, he is forced to confront the horrors of the battlefield, broken bodies and animalistic urges of aggression and self-preservation thrown into perpetual conflict. His scars, both physical and mental, are borne by truly painful experiences, experiences that nobody back home can really appreciate. Considering this hypothetical case, it is not difficult to see how the supporting legs of his above worldview are now under assault, particularly in leg 2. The honest and appropriate question, ‘How can a good God allow such evil to flourish?’ is asked for the first time and the table begins to wobble.

For any person—Christian, atheist, or other—the wobbling of the table leads to only two possible outcomes: Repair or Collapse.

Repair mode. The worldview in question has to find a way to shore up the legs that are serving as buttresses. In the above example, leg 2 is under attack because the young soldier can no longer say that he has a broad-based experience of goodness and love in his life. So, in repair mode, he looks for a new way to interpret this foundational belief in order to preserve the worldview, and so he might reformulate leg 2 to say: God is still good, and the presence of evil demonstrates how much the world needs his love. Crisis averted.

The worldview stays intact as long as each modification to the leg seems reasonable in the mind of the person. However, if some jumps are just too great, then we run into…

Collapse. I can imagine few things as terrifying as discarding a worldview. When a leg gets knocked out of a table the whole thing is going to come down. It’s just a matter of time. Again, to reference the above example, imagine leg 3 is under assault. The parents of the soldier announce their divorce. Now the parents have ceased to be a moral authority in his life, calling into question their statements about the existence of God and the reliability of the Gospel. No simple repair can save this soldier’s world from collapsing and thus his initial belief that God exists, at least not at first glance.

. . .

The dynamic nature of this metaphor has convinced me that adult conversion is an outright miracle. When an adult willingly gives up his/her fundamental understanding of the world as a godless place … well, this can only be considered an act of sheer grace by God and insane bravery by the individual. People will hold on to failed worldviews at almost any cost, regardless of the reality. They often bury moral and philosophical contradictions down to the depths of their being, hoping that the bug won’t cause the whole system to crash.

Worldviews are dictators. They have to be overthrown with overwhelming force. Otherwise the cost of introducing widespread instability is just too great.

Jesus pokes at the legs of the Jewish worldview throughout his ministry, but perhaps most strikingly in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘You have heard that …  …but I tell you …’ The threat of these statements must not be overlooked, as Jesus is implying that hundreds of years of Jewish thought and tradition may need significant overhaul. Jesus is an expert at reinterpreting, re-imagining, shaking down and building up.

Worldviews are dictators. They have to be overthrown with overwhelming force.

An open disposition toward the ongoing chastening of Jesus is a good start. Perhaps you and I could use a little disorientation, a move where God’s Word shifts the ground underneath us in order to conform us more to the likeness of the Son, rather than the opposite when we forcibly conform Jesus to the likeness of ourselves.

If Christianity is going to offer itself as a worldview that is intellectually honest, then we have to be willing to feel the aftershocks of alternative explanatory systems, both big and small. Let me be as clear as possible on this. I am not suggesting that every challenge that the scientific community directs at the Christian faith must be absorbed and polished into our understanding of the world as holy writ; this only transfers divinity from God to the laboratory and thus becomes a simple form of idolatry. However, I am offering that such challenges be afforded the respect of an attentive ear. The Great Conversation regarding origins, nature, humanity, sin, evil and governance can enjoy the contributions of a wide variety of fields.

When these alternate voices shake your table, don’t run for the hills. Instead, look for the fault lines. Seek out the places where faulty assumptions exist, both in the arguments of your conversation partner as well as your own. Gentle conversation can draw these flaws out; such inconsistencies are a force to be reckoned with. Christian apologist Greg Koukl refers to this disequilibrium as, ‘putting a stone in another person’s shoe.’

The most stable structures are not the most rigid. They are designed to withstand a little flex here, a little tilt there. When the Bible speaks loudly and clearly about something, then we have the responsibility to treat these doctrines as inflexible beams that make up the strong tabletop of Christian doctrine. However, a thoughtful Christian also recognizes when interpretative ambiguity is present. We have the responsibility to tread carefully when the Bible chooses silence over statement.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.