December 2, 2020

World-Phooey?

worldview.jpgHas the whole Christian worldview thing gotten out of hand?

I teach “worldviews” as part of my high school Bible classes, and in my Advanced Bible class, I spend a good bit of time giving my kids James Sire’s “Seven Questions Every Worldview Must Answer.” I frequently use the term “worldview” in preaching, and I do so without apology or embarrassment.

Worldviews are shorthand descriptions of belief systems, usually involving a standard set of questions or a “grid” that breaks down a belief system into examinable areas. Generally, Christians use the “worldview” concept as a way to understand, evaluate and respond to other belief options.

In the business of teaching evangelism, missions, communication and comparative religions, worldview thinking is useful. It provides a way that Christians can become more aware of the beliefs that exist behind statements and behavior. Getting to the “Worldview” level is a useful way to see the strengths, weaknesses, unique aspects and deficiencies of a belief system.

But like all kinds of shorthand, worldviews are too abbreviated for full understanding. The person teaching worldview analysis needs to be upfront about the limitations of reducing a complex religion like Islam to a grid of seven questions. Without primary sources, first person testimony and some level of experience, we cannot say we understand Islam, and it is arrogant to say so.

We can speak about Christianity in relation to Islam using worldview comparisons, but we should be aware that a skilled Muslim apologist will likely not be impressed with the worldview approach designed by Christians to show the superiority of our beliefs.

Further, I see much being said in the name of Christian worldview thinking that is, well….ridiculous. I am particularly thinking about the claims that various political and cultural questions are resolved by appeal to the Christian worldview.

You may, like me, have been shocked to discover what your politics had to include if it were derived from the “Christian Worldview” as seen by some political advocates. I’m not quite sure the Christian worldview extends quite as far as compelling me to support specific forms of the flat tax and the invasion of various countries.

In these instances, it appears that the Christian worldview is being used as a label to launder various conservative social and political opinions. I see many implications of worldview thinking in the worlds of culture and politics, but these implications are on the level of options, not matters all Christians are compelled to support.

For example, what does the Christian worldview teach on capital punishment? We should hear vastly different things if we ask a GOP supporting evangelical or a Democrat voting Roman Catholic. The concept of worldview can yield to defensible, discussable and differing options.

Some versions of worldview thinking take a modest (and quite flawed) approach like Francis Schaefer and turn it into the “Total Truth” approach of Nancy Pearcy, complete with chapters on “Christian Biology.” I suspect this is going too far with worldview as the primary rationale, and other more nuanced and complex ways of sustaining the value of an approach ought to be used.

The limitations and misuses of worldview thinking don’t disqualify them from usefulness to Christians. Read James Sire’s The Universe Next Door, but also read Naming the Elephant, his discussion of worldview as a concept. Use worldviews, but don’t overuse them, abuse them or over-apply them. Be fair to other points of view and represent all the options that are available to Christians on issues under discussion. Most of all, don’t use “the Christian Worldview” as a way to say you alone “get it.”

Comments

  1. J. Mark Bertrand has a book coming out on this subject. From what I hear, he takes a pretty analytical approach to figuring out how your worldview affects everything you do and think. Personally, I think at least understanding how your own worldview affects your thinking is more important than if you can do the checklist of approved and not-approved worldview items.

    http://jmarkbertrand.typepad.com/rethinkingworldview/

    Can we even really say what a “Christian” worldview would *really* look like? There’s so many Godly people out there that hold views so divergent than other Godly people that they can’t both be right. Yet they both seem to know Christ by their actions as well as their words. Who do you believe?

  2. I appreciate your recognition that worldview is a shorthand, and limited, technique. Nothing irritates me more than to hear Christians speak of worldview as the all-defining thing. Um, no, Christ would be, not your “schematization” of the faith, I’d like to say to them. It is important to understand the starting points that we all bring to issues, but it is a huge error when we mistake worldviews as the answer versus a tool. It is so easy to adopt them in lieu of the hard work of living that comes from facing reality in its fullness or trying to understand another truly. At the end of the day, our loyalty is to the truth (or the Truth) and not some heuristic.

  3. Back in 2000 I read Charles Colson’s book (really Nancy Pearcey’s book) How Now Shall We Live? in which they attempted to explain worldviews and how the Christian worldview was different from the others. I found it disturbing, mainly because as Pearcey described the postmodern worldview, I realized she honestly had no clue as to how postmoderns actually think. I grew up among them, still live among them, largely have that mindset, and feel comfortable preaching the Gospel within it, and here she was telling me that I was horribly wrong.

    About a month later, for a wholly unrelated reason (curiosity, really) I read C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image. Fascinating book: It was about the worldview of the medievals. These folks perceived themselves as living within a closed universe, not infinite, with fixed stars dotting the back wall of space; as links in the Great Chain of Being, with God on top and vermin beneath; seven heavens above, seven hells below; Earth in the center; and it all fit together within Aristotelean philosophy and Christian theology. It was neat, orderly, logical, and explained everything. And, Lewis pointed out, it was completely wrong.

    The folks who are so ga-ga about comparative worldviews never discuss the possibility that there might be more than one Christian worldview. Possibly they’ve considered it; after all, what are Arminian/Reform theological disagreements, or the Pentecostal/Cessationist conflicts, if not a clash of Christian worldviews? Indeed, the way you perceive the world is greatly different if you believe miracles stopped, or if you believe in monergism over synergism. Different Christians believe in a God who acts in significantly different ways; how can the way one perceives the entire universe not be affected by that belief?

    Ultimately I believe that God is love; and since I don’t see a lot of compassion among the conservatives I gotta wonder about any worldview that argues conservatism over all else. There’s something funny about their logic. (It’s probably another case of someone using logic to defend an emotionally-derived proposition anyway.)

  4. It is interesting that you mention how the “Christian Worldview” movement tends to be used to promote various “conservative” political positions. I think most of this is due to the influence of Chuck Colson. Much of the Christian worldview analysis pioneered by the neo-calvinists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has gone in more progressive directions. The heirs of this tradition tend to be much more careful and nuanced in their approach. In fact having attended a Kuyperian college, I can testify to the relative distaste most of the professors had for Colson and Pearcy (mainly because they believed the two oversimplified everything to make the ideas palatable for modern evangelicals). Having said that, the tendency within the neo-calvinist tradition has been to baptize progressive views with the Christian Worldview label (i.e. all capitalists are evil, etc.).

    In any event, your point is well put. No matter what one’s political leanings, it is all too easy to play the worldview card and seize the moral high ground without giving one’s opponents opportunity for dialogue.

  5. I have searched earnestly in the Christian worldview for guidance on what to name my cat, but have been unsuccessful. I KNOW God has an opinion on this. I must not be praying hard enough…

  6. Bob Sacamento says

    Was in a church service a while back and the fundamentalist pastor announced a sermon series on “Thinking Christianly.” I perked up, since this sounded alot more intellectually meaty than what I had come to expect out of the man. — sigh — He just spent two weeks reading off a laundry list of “Christian” positions. I found out that since I don’t believe in a literal six day creation, I don’t “think Christianly.”

    In these instances, it appears that the Christian worldview is being used as a label to launder various conservative social and political opinions.

    Honestly, I think alot of these opinions are, in all honesty, what the proponents really consider to be part and parcel of the Christian worldview. Evidence: the findamentalist preacher I just mentioned.

    Re: K.W. Leslie:

    I found [the Colson/Pearcy book] disturbing, mainly because as Pearcey described the postmodern worldview, I realized she honestly had no clue as to how postmoderns actually think.

    I am no fan of post-modernism, mainly because I have yet to be convinced that it actually exists. But pretty much every single time I read or hear (this blog excluded, of course :)) about it from a well-known evangelical, I get mortified at the ignorance displayed. It really is embarrassing.

    But,
    since I don’t see a lot of compassion among the conservatives I gotta wonder about any worldview that argues conservatism over all else.

    Sorry, K.W. I’m sure you are a nice person, but you hit one of my hot buttons here. Not that conservatives don’t have their own problems, but I have seen waaaay more compassion among the Red State conservatives I grew up with than I have among the limousine liberals I have had to put up with for most of my adult life. I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you. Hope you don’t mind me “showing the flag” for a second.

  7. Bob Sacamento says

    I am no fan of post-modernism, mainly because I have yet to be convinced that it actually exists. But pretty much every single time I read or hear (this blog excluded, of course ) about it from a well-known evangelical, I get mortified at the ignorance displayed. It really is embarrassing.

    Just to be clear, I get mortified at the ignorance shown by the well-known evangelical in question. And, now that I think about it, this doesn’t happen pretty much every time, but every time, period.

  8. I think we would be better off if we stopped talking about world views altogether. At the more low key level, it’s not clear to me that world view talk really adds anything. If by world view we mean a grid that breaks down a belief system into examinable areas, why not just focus on the examinable areas? What does calling these areas a ‘world view’ add? On the more extreme end, world view talk emphasizes the very things that I think we would do better to deemphasize. It emphasizes and even enthrones barriers to communication. We end up shouting the gospel across a divide, comforted by the assurance that those who differ with us do so not because their observations and arguments have merit but because they are from a different world view. I believe we live at a time where we should openly confess that we all live in the same world, a world whose complexity should humble us. Did God send his Son into some universes and not others?

  9. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I think Schaeffer overplayed the hand of “worldview” to begin with but was still, as you say Michael, modest about it. For instance, as a stalwart fan of 20th century music I actually enjoy a lot of music he couldn’t stand (I suspect we’d both agree Mahler is long-winded, though). But Schaeffer used the shorthand as just that, a shorthand for basic approach, not application (at least not in the sense of holding the view that given one’s worldview one MUST apply it in X ways every time). But the tendency was still there and subsequent disciples of Schaeffer’s approach had a tendency to simplify what was already taken as a broad approach. Instead of following Schaeffer’s actual example of attempting to grasp what the culture around him had and seeing how his understanding of the Gospel could be brought to bear in interpreting that Christians have lazily supposed that since Schaeffer did all the real work for them they either don’t have to correct his conclusions or they object to the whole method (which though flawed in execution still has some value) and go the other way. It’s starting to make sense to me how, as Ecclesiastes puts it on another topic, it’s good to hold on to one and not let go of the other for the person who fears God will avoid both extremes.

  10. I agree on both counts: worldview talk has often gotten out of hand, but if we can set aside those excesses, it still has a lot to offer. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that as the idea grew in popularity, it was unmoored from its theological underpinnings. Everybody was talking about worldviews, but because the emphasis was on articulating a simplified “buffet line” of alternative viewpoints, all that chatter instilled a lot more confidence than knowledge. And we were left with the Christian worldview perspective on a variety of subjects the Bible leaves very much open to interpretation.

    For me, “rethinking” worldview has involved lifting it out of the sphere of apologetics and trying to situate it within the context of sanctification, so it’s more about the mind of Christ and a life of faithfulness, less about the false assumptions underlying other people’s perspectives and more about the often shaky footings of my own.

  11. Bob Sacamento: Sorry; I don’t mean to poke at conservatives. (Well, this time anyway.) I live in a blue state, and notice that conservatives here are obnoxious, whereas in red states they’re much nicer. I think they’re just a lot happier when they know they’re in the majority. Liberals appear to work the same way.

    But about your comments on whether postmodernism exists: It actually doesn’t, not as a worldview. It’s too inconsistent to be a coherent worldview. But that’s where the worldivew idea falls apart. The assumption Colson/Pearcey makes is that everyone has a worldview, and shape it to be internally consistent so that they can use it as a lens to interpret the world around them. “Pomos” don’t think that way. They embrace whatever philosophies sound good to them at the time. If it’s a behavior they approve of (like recycling) everyone should do it, and they’re very intolerant of those who don’t. If it’s a behavior they could take or leave, they suddenly believe in freedom of choice — and ironically are very intolerant of those who aren’t so open-minded as they are. It’s a very open-ended belief system, with weird little combinations of subjective truth (“Whatever works for you, dude”) and objective truth (“Meat is murder, dude”) and appeals to logic or emotion depending on which is more convenient for the occasion.

    Moderns (which include a lot of Christians) find it maddening because worldview studies are shorthand for how to categorize and thus deal with people in generalities. They demand some level of consistency. “Pomos” are inconsistent by nature. They’re too complex and have to be figured out and evangelized on a case-by-case basis. You can’t use traditional evangelism and apologetics tactics on them. You have to get to know them, and share Jesus with them through your personal lifestyle. This sounds to me exactly like the sort of thing Jesus would do, so I often wonder why the worldview fans see postmoderns as such a concerning, even frightening, problem. The same Holy Spirit who cut through all my horse-manure still cuts through theirs.

  12. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I agree that worldview comparisons can be very useful. Worldview distinctions can be especially useful in examining how two different story-tellers handle the same concept. eXistenZ and Urasei Yastura 2: Beautiful Dreamer are both films in which the nature of reality is questioned but whereas the Cronenberg film seems to focus only on the question of whether or not anything is realy the Oshii film dumps the question as irrelevant and explores the question of how one’s character can condition one’s destiny whether in a “real” world or a fantasy world.

    At another level, the use of violence by film-makers like John Woo and Paul Verhoeven is instructive, especially when we consider that the first considers himself Protestant and the second is an atheist. Only one of those two directors decided it was necessary to make an action movie where the man who lived by the sword should actually die by the sword instead of riding off into the sunset with the hooker with a heart of gold. I don’t think worldview comparisons are at all wrong at that point, of course I wonder how many Christians hammering the worldview approach would watch Total Recall and The Killer these days.

  13. I still don’t see how ‘worldview’ as a concept adds anything. If we look at a film and say that aspects of the film follow from the director’s ‘worldview’ how does that help us to better understand what the director is trying to create? At worst, it serves as an excuse for not trying to understand the film. At best, it seems to me, it simply provides background to our understanding that could be stated without reference to a ‘worldview’. A violent scene occurs in a film. We learn that the director is a Buddhist. The violence, we conclude, shows the futility of desire. We find that we were mistaken and that the director is actually a Christian. We conclude the violence shows that our world is fallen. Are we making progress?

    I suppose my real objection is based on the philosophical underpinnings of worldview talk. To over simplify a bit, worldview talk leaves us with competing systems. Each worldview is a fortress. It can’t be criticized because it’s within the worldview that the rules for criticism are defined. The benefit is that Christianity, as a worldview, is unassailable. That benefit comes at a cost. We can’t get outside of the fortress and speak with those in the world as fellow human beings.

  14. Is there a distinction between Christian Worldviews, Christian Philosophy, and Christian Systematic Theology? Aren’t they all similar systems to make sense of the world and God and an attempt to explain our part in it? It seems to me that a committed Christian who is a Biologist might find helpful a discussion on how he might think about and approach his work in a Christ centered and honoring way–whatever that way may be. As a Christian artist and businessman, I’ve found discussions on the philosophical, theological, and ethical frameworks involved to be very helpful in making sense of my role in the Kingdom of God.

  15. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Craig V, far as that goes I don’t think I should stop calling the Church the Church because a bunch of churches suck. I agree we don’t have to use “worldview” but the idea of examining how different beliefs about the universe impact story-telling, art, ethics, and philosophy has to be discussed in some way. Whatever his limitations, we can at least give Schaeffer credit for actually attempting to wrestle with the different views expressed in different works of art across different eras. Even if he got things wrong (and he did) he was at least doing the work of engaging the artworks themselves, which is not what I’ve seen most subsequent “worldview” types doing. Culture warrior/worldview types wouldn’t even listen to Messiaen’s music, let alone do more than argue that it’s proof of a low-point in musical modernism. The idea that syncretizing musical languages across the world and its historical periods could be symbolically employed in liturgical music to show that in Christ all things are brought under His authority wouldn’t occur to these types of people. They wouldn’t admit that the “Christian worldview” could encompass such a thing and might insist on something “robustly Trinitarian” like a major/minor key system that has only existed for three centuries.

    But, still, “worldview” CAN be used in simple, modest, but effective ways.

  16. Jeremiah,

    I hold Schaeffer in high regard. I had the privilege of being at L’Abri in the 70s and Schaeffer not only called me back to Christ but opened up many doors to appreciating art and culture. For this I will always be grateful. That being said, I do think there is a systemic problem (not just a matter of words) with a worldview approach. When I got back from L’Abri, I would sometimes sit down with friends and tell them what various artists were trying to say through their art from their worldview. As you can imagine, I was quickly corrected. It became clear to me that I really knew very little about art. It seems to me that a worldview approach has this powerful seduction, and hence we should abandon it. It seduces us into believing we can understand without listening. I wouldn’t go so far as to say worldview talk never had any good use. At this time, however, when we (at least Evangelicals) are seen as being either arrogant or defensive and seem to have real difficulty in talking to the world around us, worldview talk creates more problems than it solves.

  17. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Schaeffer’s strength and weakness was a sweeping big picture approach. What flowed from Schaeffer’s pen was a useful, broadly drawn map that showed where the continents were and not much more than that. Use it to know where the continents are, maybe some bigger countries, and that’s about it.

    The trouble is that now been this map has been handed down and altered through successive generations of evangelicals and now has been shrunk down into a postage stamp map. This postage stamp is then presented as an effective road map to get you from Portland, Oregon to Mukilteo, Washington.

    There’s a sense in which Schaeffer should not necessarily bear the blame of lazy sods who weren’t willing to do what he did. Schaeffer’s example should have been the starting point, not the end point of an evangelicals actual engagement of the arts as a whole.

    Or, to put it another way, South Park still has it right in the episode “Christian Rock Hard”.

  18. KW Leslie,
    Moderns (which include a lot of Christians) find it maddening because worldview studies are shorthand for how to categorize and thus deal with people in generalities. They demand some level of consistency. “Pomos” are inconsistent by nature. They’re too complex and have to be figured out and evangelized on a case-by-case basis.

    Some good thoughts but I am struck by how people frequently chastise “moderns” for coming up with neat little categories and then use the same kind of labels and categories themselves. Some people who refer to themselves as postmodern (I am not assuming you are, KW Leslie) don’t seem to be aware that they do the same kind of sizing up others with labels. It sounds like we are all agreeing that the worldview concept can become an excuse for oversimplification but I still think it can be helpful for defining broad parameters of questions and beliefs. If the worldview concept is not useful then I doubt whether the criticisms offered of worldviews are anthing more than individuals or groups misunderstanding other individuals and groups. By the way, I heard David Naugle say that your view of worldviews is also part of your worldview.