Worldviews: What They Are and Why They Matter
Worldviews are like navels. We all have one, but we don’t often think about it. There is no shortage of talk or books these days about “worldviews,” whether the worldview in question is the Christian worldview, the naturalist worldview, the enlightenment worldview, the Muslim worldview, the New Age worldview or whatever the worldview flavor of the month is.
But what exactly do we mean when we use the term worldview? To a degree that depends on who is speaking (just as what is understood depends on who is listening). Apparently worldviews are also like pornography—we all think we know a worldview when we see one but nobody can produce a definition that satisfies everyone. Simply put, there doesn’t appear to be much agreement on the answer to this question. For this reason, it seems best to me to begin by laying out what I mean when I talk about worldviews, especially what I mean when I talk about the Christian worldview.
A worldview is a set of basic beliefs through which we view reality. Simple enough; but what does this mean? Among other things it means that a worldview is not simply a single belief but a group of beliefs that shape and influence how we look at life and the world, not only about how the world is but also about how the world should be—and particularly how we should be in the world.
It also means that one must understand that worldviews begin at a precognitive level—they are reasoned from not reasoned to. In other words they function as fundamental truths upon which we base secondary beliefs. “A worldview is a set of basic beliefs through which we view reality…”Think of the relationship between worldviews and beliefs like you would that of a computer operating system to a software program. A software program will not run without an operating system. This is because an operating system is more fundamental than a software program. In the same way a worldview is more fundamental than an individual belief or doctrine, even a very important single belief.
Worldviews function as statements of faith, ethical guides, and linguistic referees. As statements of faith, worldviews are inherently religious. For this reason even an atheist’s denial of God’s existence is itself a religious assertion. As religious statements they are inherently biased, they conflict and compete with other worldviews. A worldview tells one how the world really is, not simply how one might wish it to be. It is for this reason that postmodern pluralism is not—and cannot be—the neutral sort of non-worldview position that it makes itself out to be. Two examples will serve to illustrate what I am getting at here. One is taken from a comment by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on a December 2002 episode of Donahue.
I am absolutely against any religion that says that one faith is superior to another. I don’t see how that is anything different than spiritual racism. It’s a way of saying that we are closer to God than you, and that’s what leads to hatred.
What Rabbi Boteach has apparently failed to see is that when he says he is opposed to religions that insist that they are superior to other religions, he is in fact saying that religions that don’t say they are superior to other religions are superior to those that do. Clearly this is a self-defeating position.
Ted Peters makes this point quite well in his book God—The World’s Future when he critiques the pluralism of the late John Hick:
How do we get out of this confusion? We need to clear the smoke and fully accept the reality of pluralism. This means we must recognize Hick’s proposal for what it is, namely, one confessional position within the plurality of positions regarding the nature of revelation and salvation. It is not a precondition that all must accept in order for dialogue to take place. . . . The acceptance of pluralism means, among other things, that if a given religious tradition teaches double or multiple ultimate destinies, then it should be permitted to express that position without an attack on its integrity at the outset. This should include all major religions, Christianity included. There is no reason to discriminate against Christianity just because it may teach double destiny. Many other religions do too.
Regardless of whether or not we want to believe it we are engaged today in a war of worldviews. Western culture is confronted by the challenge of a radical Islamic worldview that insists that all must bow down to Allah and that those who do not do so willingly must be made to do so by any means necessary. We are also challenged by a radical, enthusiastic sort of atheism, often called the New Atheism, championed by writers like Richard Dawkins in his bestselling book The God Delusion or by the late Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In a very real sense then we are in a World War—a war of worldviews! Given the nature of worldviews this shouldn’t surprise anyone. It cannot be otherwise. Different worldviews tell competing stories that are contrary to one another. One or the other must go—they cannot both be maintained. Simply put, every worldview calls for allegiance—and that allegiance must be exclusive.
As ethical statements worldviews are visions for life not simply visions of life. Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton forthrightly declare: “A vision of life or any world view that does not actually lead a person or a people in a particular way of life is no world view at all.” For this reason we are called by God to do more than simply understand the Christian worldview—we must live it. If we do not live out the Christian worldview, do we really have any right to claim to be Christians?
An example will help us to see how worldviews guide behavior. Last year a Muslim teen in Sweden murdered his teenage sister by stabbing her 107 times in an honor killing for shaming her family by breaking off a marriage that she said was forced into after being kidnapped. Her brother received a sentence of 8 years for his crime. His attorney said of the sentence: “I thought the sentence was very strong, it was a very tough punishment. I do not share at all the district court’s perception of the seriousness of the offense, . . . This is an incredibly harsh sentence. My client is in shock.” Most Christians would think the sentence a slap on the wrist. The importance of worldviews as ethical guides should be apparent.
As linguistic referees worldviews impact communication. As the old saw goes, “Words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” If we fail to grasp the worldview of those with whom we interact we may, indeed, we almost certainly will, fail to understand their meaning. We also can have no certainty that they will understand ours. As Larry Norman once sang, “They quote me perfectly and misstate everything I say.”
Any literary work—of any age or culture—is only understood when we consciously grasp the worldview it reflects. This is of utmost importance for Christians, who want to understand what God is saying in his word, the Bible.
For instance, I have a Mormon friend who is an English professor. He and I both believe in God, but do not mean the same thing when we say “God.” The god he believes in is an exalted man—he used to be a human being. The God I believe in has always been God and could never be greater than he has always been. My God is, in Anselm’s words, that than which nothing greater can be conceived. His god is married to an exalted wife, a heavenly mother, with whom he has spirit children. Not only is my God not married, he isn’t even dating anybody. My friend is a kind, gracious, and sincere man. I do not wish to disparage his beliefs but I think they are false. (Where our beliefs differ he thinks mine are false, too!) My point is that we don’t mean the same thing when we make statements like “I believe in God,” or “Jesus is the Son of God,” or “Christ is my Savior.” The reason is that we hold to different worldviews and worldviews function as linguistic referees.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t understand what each other is saying. It does mean, however, that in order for us to do so we have to understand the other’s worldview. Understanding another’s worldview helps us to understand the other’s position correctly, encode our message appropriately, and speak relevantly to each other’s concerns.
Worldviews are vital for Christian ministry. This is particularly true in missions and evangelism. But this raises the question: How can I understand a worldview? In my next article I will show you how to do just that.