Engaging with Culture

Engaging with Culture

As we hold to our God-given assumptions in a dark world, we can speak calmly and lovingly to people desperate for the two foundational desires of human beings: to be completely known and completely loved. Failing to have dialogue would preclude knowing others deeply; failing to stand on our assumptions would preclude loving them truly.

I’m a Matthew 5:9 child. Were my heart a forest, peace would be the log cabin deep in the woods, with a spindling smoke trail winding above the evergreen. Still. Settled. Quiet. And longing to stay that way.

But my heart isn’t a forest. Peace isn’t tucked away in the woods. The world is loud and broken. There is so much shouting, and sarcasm, and caricatures, and reductionism. In the loud world, my heart might as well be in Times Square—shaken by the decibels of discontent. Today’s controversies and disagreements literally make my stomach turn. Awkward pauses reeking with judgment swell my throat. Heart palpitations thunder when I watch people cut each other off. So, when I finished watching a recent documentary on identity, you can imagine how I felt.

But what struck me by the end of watching was how many unspoken assumptions weren’t voiced—assumptions that would’ve explained so much not just about what people thought but why. If we don’t know why someone thinks something, conversation is bound to get hijacked by misunderstanding, and offense isn’t far behind. Assumptions—our own—is where we need to start before we engage with anyone who differs from us. And in a culture where Christianity is continually marginalized, we’re going to meet a lot of people who differ from us.

Three Types of Assumptions

Assumptions are the countries we live in, the things we walk on. They are the patterns of thought and underlying conditions our feet always find. We live on our assumptions in order to function in the world. And there’s no one on the planet who doesn’t have the three main types of assumptions I’ll discuss in this article. The academic labels for these are metaphysicsepistemology, and ethics. But we’re simply talking about what existshow we know things, and what makes something right or wrong.

If we want to engage peaceably with people who differ from us, we need to know what our assumptions are in these areas, and then we can use conversation to discover where others stand in the same areas. This doesn’t mean we’ll then be more likely to agree with others in the broader culture. In fact, for Christians, what we assume about metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics will ensure we’ll likely disagree with most people. But at least we’ll know why. And we’ll also establish a clear means for our conversation partners to express their own views. This can at least provide civility in a world where polarization and the demonization of dissenters reigns.


What exists and where did it come from? The first part of that question seems simple enough, but you’d be surprised (or maybe not) how much variation there is in today’s world of what Charles Taylor called expressive individualism. For now, let’s break up Christian assumptions about metaphysics into two points. And then we’ll need to draw a conclusion about our identity, which is the screaming topic of our culture and an important facet of public theology.

First, as Christians, our basic assumption is that this world isn’t all there is. There is God, who made and governs all things, and then there is the world, creation. Theologians call this the Creator-creature distinction, and Cornelius Van Til was adamant about its centrality. He said we must “begin our interpretation of reality upon the presupposition of theCreator-creature distinction as basic to everything else.”[1] As Christopher Watkin wrote recently,

This creator-creature distinction sets the biblical account apart from the dominant picture of reality in our own culture, which holds that there is only one sort of existence, often with conflict at its heart. This view is summed up in the words of Carl Sagan, ‘The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or evil will be.’ It is a monism, or what Van Til called a ‘one-circle’ view.[2]

There are two circles of reality, not one. And because of how God created all things—the Father voicing the Son in power of the Spirit—what exists in our world is dependent on and derivative of his character. Everything, including humans, reflects God—though humans do this in a special way. In short, we are not here on our own. The world is not a neutral playground. God is present and uses everything to point us to our eternal home in himself.

Second, everything we see around us came from and is sustained by the speech of God. This highlights not only the deeply personal nature of our world but also the centrality of Scripture, as God’s personal word to us. As Vern Poythress wrote, “Scripture is our natural instructor as to the metaphysics of the world, since the metaphysics of the world is completely determined and specified by God’s speech governing the world, and his speech takes place in Christ the Word (John1:1).”[3] The speech of the Trinity has shaped and stewarded every fleck of the material universe—from the silent stars to your cereal spoon. We exist because he spoke. We find our identity, purpose, and meaning in that speech. As Christians, we cannot account for what exists or even who we are apart from God speaking.

Now, third, what does this mean about our identity, about who we are? In looking to the speech of God for our answer, Christians must say image bearers, one of the earlier teachings of Scripture (Gen. 1:26–28). But we can go further, since many people (even Christians) don’t really know what this means. To be an image bearer of God means that we holistically resemble him on a creaturely level. We are, as Carl Trueman restated recently, mimetic creatures.[4] We imitate. We look at God’s hand in history and in our own lives. And then, by the power of God’s own Spirit, we do what he does as little reflectors of his eternal light, a light of truth, love, and beauty. The image of God covers everything that we think, say, or do.

But this holistic imitation always has a relational goal. Put in the words of the Dutch theologian Geerhardus Vos,

That man bears God’s image means much more than that he is spirit and possesses understanding, will, etc. It means above all that he is disposed for communion with God, that all the capacities of his soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God…According to the deeper Protestant conception, the image does not exist only in correspondence with God but in being disposed toward God. God’s nature is, as it were, the stamp; our nature is the impression made by this stamp. Both fit together.[5]

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