Saving Leonardo: An Interview with Nancy Pearcey

Nancy Pearcey is perhaps the most famous heir of Francis Schaeffer’s legacy.  Her book Total Truth was both a bestseller and award-winner, which can be a rare combination.  

I was delighted to sit down with her to discuss her latest offering, Saving Leonardo, which is just as unique, thoughtful, and important as her last.

The book is Saving Leonardo. Is he in danger?

I wrote the book to be a survival guide to the varieties of secularism that are undercutting freedom and dignity within our culture today.  The reference to Leonardo functions as a metaphor for the way the arts and popular culture channel worldviews deeply into people’s minds and emotions.

The substance of the book is an exploration of the two major “brands” of secularism today.  It’s a little like Ford and Chevy.  We often think of secularism as a single phenomenon, but there are really two strands:  modernism and postmodernism.

Modernism still reigns in the natural sciences, in fields like biology, chemistry, physics, where the dominant worldview is scientific materialism, which treats humans as little more than biochemical machines.  At the same time, postmodernism is rampant in literature, theology, the arts, and similar disciplines.  It is just as dehumanizing because it tends to treat humans as simply the product of social forces, such as race, gender, and ethnic group.  These two streams have created a pincer movement that is crushing human dignity and liberty.

Is there an intellectual connection between modernism and postmodernism, or is it simply historical?

Modernism has its roots in the Enlightenment, and worldviews that aspire to be scientific all cluster under that brand—empiricism, rationalism, logical positivism, analytic philosophy and so on.  These all lead to forms of reductionism that suggest the only world that is real is the world we can see, touch, taste, or measure.  These worldviews deny the spiritual, the moral, and even the emotional, which they reduce to chemical reactions in the brain.

This is where the subtitle of my book comes from.  Modernism assaults “Mind, Morals, and Meaning” by reducing the mind to the brain, reducing morals to our personal preferences, and reducing the universe to a product of blind, material forces, which implies that it has no ultimate purpose or meaning,

This assault lead to a counter-reaction in the Romantic movement.  The Romantics wanted to preserve a sense of the spiritual, but they moved away from orthodox Christianity and toward pantheism.  This stream of thought has given rise to philosophies like existentialism, postmodernism, and deconstructionism.  Saving Leonardo traces the trajectory of these two strands of modern thought.

How does Saving Leonardo relate to Total Truth?

Total Truth is about how truth itself was divided between facts and values.  As I probed this, though, I realized that the division between facts and values was just the tip of the iceberg.  The Enlightenment tradition focuses on the fact realm: what is empirically verifiable and rationally justifiable.  The Romantic stream tended to care about the values realm:  about morality, justice, and the human spirit.  The fact-value dichotomy functions as a sort of hermeneutical key to nearly all of western thought since the Enlightenment.

A lot of people think that modernism came first and postmodernism came later—that the two are sequential.  But in reality they are two types of thinking that exist side-by-side.  People tend to be modernist in many realms of their lives, like in their finances or their business lives, or in dealing with doctors and their health.  But they are postmodern in their theology, ethics, and the arts.  So we’re really dealing with a split mind.

What makes Saving Leonard unique?

Saving Leonardo asks, Who’s writing the script to your life?  Most people are not reading philosophy books; they’re picking up ideas about life from the books they read, the movies they watch, art, literature, and other cultural forms.  That’s where we are most likely to pick up secular ideas—often without realizing it.  So the second half of the book is filled with illustrations and pictures as a way of helping people understand how ideas are communicated through culture.

Let me give you an example.  During the last presidential campaign, ABC news interviewed several teens at a Christian youth rally.  Many of the teens held biblical convictions on current issues—for example most were pro-life.   But the same teens also supported candidates who are in favor abortion.  To the reporter, that sounded like a contradiction.  So he asked the teens, doesn’t that bother you?

Well, one of them said, “it’s all a matter of personal preference.”

Where did they pick up such a relativistic concept of morality?  These teens are channeling David Hume, the arch-empiricist who said that if all knowledge is a matter of sensation, then even moral truths are really just sensations—what feels good to you.  Personal preference.

Plato said philosophers should rule the world, and they do—hundreds of years after they die.  Eventually their ideas filter down into the culture, and a major conduit is the arts.

You’re pretty critical of the Enlightenment.  Do you think there’s anything in the period that is worth holding on to?

Certainly.  The best parts of the Enlightenment were rooted in a Christian worldview.  The Enlightenment was based on the scientific revolution, but that came out of a Christian understanding of nature and the world. Historians of science have pointed out that no other culture, east or west, ancient or modern, ever talked about law in relation to nature.  The Enlightenment understanding of the “laws of nature” came from the medieval notion that if God is both Creator and Lawgiver, then the creation must be lawful.

These were deeply Christian themes that the Enlightenment took and ran with.  They wanted God’s good gifts, but didn’t want God.  If you go back and read some of the founders of the scientific revolution, most were devout Christians.

Sociologist Rodney Stark did a wonderful study of the scientific revolution and identified the 52 most significant scientists who were not just theorists but did ground-breaking work at the origin of modern science—the “stars” of science. Then he examined their biographical information, and all but two were clearly Christians (and historians actually disagree about one of them).  The only clear skeptic was Edmund Halley.  Most of the founders of modern science held a Christian worldview, and it inspired their scientific work.

How should Christians respond to living in an increasingly post-Christian world?

In any culture, Christians have an obligation to live out a Biblical worldview in every area of life.  This is not a Christian problem, it’s a human problem—because everyone aspires to live an integrated, consistent life.  The universe as a whole is an integrated unity, and that means truth must also be an integrated unity, and should be expressed in everything we do.

How that is fleshed out politically is primarily in being faithful in your own sphere of influence.  It’s like happiness—you don’t find happiness by pursuing it directly.  You find happiness indirectly through building relationships, meeting your obligations, engaging in meaningful work, and so on.  For Christians who aspire to have an impact on their society, the same principle holds.  It’s often the byproduct of simply having a Christian mindset in whatever your calling is, living and acting consistently with your convictions.

There have been a lot of popular critiques of worldview-centered approaches to culture, most notably James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. How would you respond?

I had written nearly all of Saving Leonardo before Hunter’s book came out, but in the first chapter I actually quote Hunter saying that the reason Christians have failed to have the social impact they hoped for was that they put all their eggs into the basket of politics.  They overlooked the fact that America’s secular elites had already reached an intellectual consensus on contentious social issues like abortion long before any kind of legal or political measures were taken.  In other words, Hunter himself notes that what came first was shift in worldview.  Ideas are born, nurtured, and developed in the universities long before they step out onto the political stage.

The way I put it in Total Truth is that politics is “downstream” from culture.  And the implication is that it’s time to go “upstream” in order to get a handle on the forces that are shaping politics.

In Saving Leonardo I give the famous quote from Todd Gitlin, former president of the radical SDS.  After the student unrest of the 1960s, he said, the Left “marched on the English department, while the Right took the White House.”  Today we must ask:  Which was the more effective strategy?  The English department is now in the White House.

The implication is that the university is the main shaper of culture today.  The intelligentsia holds the reins of power.  This has not always been the case.  America has historically had a reputation for being non-ideological and pragmatic.  As Calvin Coolidge put it, “The business of America is business.”  And what is America’s only home-grown philosophy?  Philosophical pragmatism.  But we are increasingly a knowledge-based society, and that means whoever is in a position to define what counts as “knowledge” will wield social and political power.

Nancy R. Pearcey is professor of worldview studies at Philadelphia Biblical University. Previously she was the Francis A. Schaeffer Scholar at the World Journal-ism Institute, where she taught a worldview course based on her book Total Truth, winner of the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best book on Christianity and Society.

Saving Leonardo is available in bookstores everywhere and online today.

Published by

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Anderson is a Perpetual Member of the Torrey Honors Institute. He graduated with honors from Biola University in 2004, and works as a financial planner, writer, and editor. His intellectual interests include questions of embodiment, the relationship between revelation and philosophy, and intellectual and philosophical history.