When I learned I had a worldview, my world didn’t change, but my understanding of myself, other human beings, society, and where I am in history and what that means changed enormously. I learned something very useful and important about the way I perceive things and gain knowledge; I learned about things I didn’t know I knew.
Knowing about worldviews has nothing essential to do with whether I am a child of God, a true believer or not. Understanding what a worldview is, however, can bring vital clarity, not only to what I believe, but how I believe what I believe. And what difference does that make? I think of it this way: God created me to be a creature who knows, learns, makes important life-determining choices. I am a creature whom God will hold accountable for how I interpret the world and myself in it. The more believers understand the intellectual and psychological apparatus with which we believe and what difference it makes, the better off we are, because understanding confirms what we believe, our perspectives on life and human experience. When I understand how a worldview functions in the process of people making sense of their worlds and making choices for living their lives, I realize how people can come to a seemingly straightforward issue such as abortion and end with opposite opinions. The beliefs embedded in one’s worldview about when a truly human existence begins will have determined one’s perspective.
So what is a worldview? It is one way of naming the “grid” for thinking and believing that God built into every human being. It is a set of basic beliefs–about God, the world, human beings, history, death, knowing, as well as much more mundane things–that make up what a person assumes to be true. Out of one’s worldview, a person evaluates, makes decisions, and makes meaning and sense of his or her life. James Sire, whose book The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976) is one of the most helpful on the subject of worldviews, defines a worldview as a basic set of beliefs and “concepts that work together to provide a more or less coherent frame of reference for all thought and action.” (p. 16) Another definition of the concept of a worldview comes from James Olthuis, a professor at the Toronto Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada:
A worldview (or vision of life) is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world and our calling and future in it. The vision may be so internalized that it goes largely unquestioned; it may be greatly refined through cultural-historical development; it may not be explicitly developed into a systematic conception of life; it may not be theoretically deepened into a philosophy; it may not even be codified into credal form. Nevertheless, this vision is a channel for the ultimate beliefs which give direction and meaning to life. It is the integrative and interpretive framework by which order and disorder are judged, the standard by which reality is managed and pursued. It is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns. Although a [worldview] is held only by individuals, it is communal in scope and structure. Since a worldview gives the terms of reference by which the world and our place in it can be structured and illumined, a worldview binds it adherents together into a community.
When Jesus told his followers to reflect on the “lilies of the field”–was he not calling them to ponder his metaphor in order to glean the truth he was giving them? If believers in Christ are called to think about themselves, the world, God, and what the true nature of God’s promises are in the Gospel, then understanding the concept of a worldview and how a worldview operates in our thinking and believing is an extremely useful bit of understanding. At certain points, knowledge of worldviews can help me not only understand the world and how others think about the world, it can help me understand and be more objective about my own ways of looking at things–to discern the “taken-for-granteds” in my own way of looking at myself and the world which often come from my culture, not the Bible.
There are people who like to think and people who don’t–with lots of folks somewhere between. Learning about what a worldview is and how it works will undoubtedly be more interesting to some than others. But having a worldview is not open to choice. Every person has one–acknowledged or not. The question might be posed, then, Do I want to understand my own worldview and how it works? Consider a fictitious scenario (one which resembles hundreds of true incidents on university campuses) where knowledge of worldviews and how they work help a young Christian university student:
Sally, a freshman majoring in English literature, sits in class the first week only to discover that her professor is aggressively hostile to Christianity and anyone who takes the Bible seriously. She has come from a good Christian family with a solid pre-college public education. She loves literature and writing and is excited about being able to study great English literature. Though frightened, confused, and intimidated by her professor’s hostility to her faith, she decides to persevere, hoping that she will find a way to survive the class.
Wishing to find help in her academic dilemma, some friends advise her to attend a short course being offered to help Christian students in the secular university. Sally learns about the difficulties of being Christian in a secular university, but she also is given the opportunity to learn about the concept of a worldview and how worldviews work, even in the perspectives of her hostile professor! A new framework for thinking opens for her. She learns in what ways her professor’s worldview differs from her own. She learns how to identify the basic beliefs (presuppositions) underlying her professor’s way of looking at and thinking about the world and reality.
This knowledge of how a worldview works, along with basic information about how to identify people’s worldview beliefs, assures Sally of the validity and explanatory power of her own Christian worldview. She feels less intimidated by her professor and the secular university environment because she understands the assumptions “hidden” in his worldview. She can see now how poorly her professor’s worldview explains the way the world really works and how human beings really live in that world. In other words, Sally can see and understand much more clearly how her professor’s secular “theories-of-choice” emerge from his worldview beliefs.
In worldview training, one learns that everyone has a worldview structured around a few basic questions about reality. Every worldview will attempt at some level to answer the following basic questions that I have paraphrased from James Sire’s list in The Universe Next Door (p. 18):
- What is the source and nature of “primary” reality? In some worldviews primary reality is God or spirit. In others it is matter and energy.
- What is a human being? How do we define the true nature, meaning, and destiny of humankind?
- On what basis do we establish morality and ethics? How does a person or society decide what is right and wrong, and on what grounds is ethics determined?
- On what basis do we believe what we know is true? How does a person know? How do we justify or verify our knowledge and our process of knowing what we think we know?
- What is death? What is the meaning and significance of death? Is there an afterlife of any kind or does man merely return to the basic material elements of which he is obviously made?
The answers to these and many other worldview questions indicate what basic worldview or parts of different worldviews a person holds. In The Universe Next Door, James Sire walks the reader through several different worldviews: Theism (his term for historic, biblical Christianity), Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and The New Age.
Today’s “culture wars” are, in fact, “worldview wars.” Whether in the student’s classroom, the neighborhood school board meeting, or the office hallway, dialogues and debates over abortion, gay and lesbian issues, or how the federal budget should be balanced are ultimately grounded in a person’s worldview. And because we get our worldviews mostly by absorbing them from our parents, family, and larger surrounding culture, today’s generation, unfortunately, is being grounded in whatever worldview dominates the arts and media of popular culture. Television’s sitcoms and MTV are doing much of our worldview construction.
The believer’s task in believing the gospel involves striving to discern good from evil. But in a complex, sophisticated, visually mediated culture barraging its receivers with intimidating and seductive worldly perspectives, this task can be difficult indeed. The believer’s challenge is to build a worldview based in the truth found in the Scriptures. But that project begins by first understanding that we all have worldviews, whether we realize it or not.