A worldview is the framework from which we view reality and make sense of life and the world. “[It’s] any ideology, philosophy, theology, movement or religion that provides an overarching approach to understanding God, the world and man’s relations to God and the world,” says David Noebel, author of Understanding the Times.
As I mentioned in that first post, in this definition, what defines “worldview” is primarily the conscious ideologies that people affirm. Now we shall see how this understanding of worldview is flawed and dangerous to the intellectual and spiritual health of the church. There are three primary flaws with this understanding of worldviews which lead to several serious dangers.
First, worldview criticism reduces belief systems to mere caricatures. Whenever we try to describe a belief system, we will always reduce it in some way. This is not necessarily a bad thing — if we didn’t reduce them, we could never have encyclopedia, I mean, Wikipedia entries. We can ask two questions to try to sort out when a reduction is or is not productive:
- Is this reduction so great that it no longer usefully describes the belief system?
- Is this reduction appropriate for its use?
For example, the “postmodern worldview,” as it is often described by Christian worldview critics, is defined primarily (or exclusively) by relativism. A postmodernist is said to reject the idea of truth and universal morality. However, if you have studied any of the important postmodern thinkers, you will know that their beliefs are far more nuanced than this and that they even share some important concepts with Reformed Christianity. There are also many different postmodernist beliefs; there really is no “capital P” Postmodernism, no single, official, doctrine of this “worldview” — just as there is no single form of Marxism, Capitalism, New Ageism, or Christianity. Although we can talk about the general ideas of Christianity or Postmodernism, any attempt at describing them as singular worldviews will require us to misrepresent them.
So, to describe postmodernism as relativism is really to reduce it to such an extent that you are no longer talking about postmodernism. More important, this reduction is so great that what we’re left with is no longer useful for criticism or evangelism; we will have nothing productive to say to someone who actually subscribes to a particular brand of postmodernism if we believe that all postmodernists are moral and epistemological relativists. In fact, we might spend most of our conversation trying to persuade them that they are moral relativists; and it is rarely ever productive to try to tell someone what they “actually” believe contrary to what they confess.
Second, worldview criticism does not accurately represent what and how people believe. Adopting a kind of Enlightenment, cognitive view of belief, worldview criticism often assumes that we can accurately describe the discrete philosophies that define a person’s views. In this model, our beliefs are primarily or exclusively determined by the ideas that we give assent to.
Thus, if you asked me what I believed on how the world began, what happens to us after we die, whether there is objective morality, whether we can know the truth, the moral nature of humans, and a few other such questions, you should be able to diagram my worldview with a kind of mathematical precision: creationism + Christian afterlife + Biblical morality + incarnational truth + total depravity = Reformed Christian. In reality, however, our beliefs are formed by an infinitely complex web of bodily experiences and knowledge: our history, our culture, our gender, our age, etc.
My own Christian faith is inextricably tied to my embodied experience of the churches I grew up in, of a felt-storyboard Bible lesson about Jonah I heard as a child, of the experience of losing my grandparents, of the wisdom I gained from reading Franny and Zooey, of a comment my grandmother once made that the scarlet thread of Christ can be traced from Genesis through Revelation. My faith simply cannot be reduced to the Westminster Confession of Faith, my denomination, or even Evangelicalism, although these are all useful for helping someone understand my faith. And if someone’s faith is so complex, how much more complex must their worldview be (as it has been shaped by that faith)?
A true worldview is simply that: a perception of the entirety of one’s experience of the world which is so complex and mutable that its dimensions are nearly infinite and certainly indefinable by human comprehension. And this is true by design. God has made us creatures of incredible complexity. So whenever we claim to definitively describe a person’s worldview by categorizing them according to a certain set of predetermined worldviews (Atheist, Existentialist, Postmodernist, etc), we simply do not tell the truth about them as beings made in the image of God.
Third, worldview criticism does not accurately represent how people act on their beliefs. Often, worldview critics assume that if someone self identifies as a follower of a philosophy or religion, then he or she must act out the logical conclusions of his or her beliefs when, in the real world, there is often a stark contrast between what we claim to believe in and what we do, and sometimes there are even glaring contradictions within what we claim to believe.
Someone who is an atheist can live a quite moral life, although we might believe that the atheist’s ground for morality is vacuous. Someone who believes in evolution might continue to believe and act as if humans are not mere animals. Someone who is a Christian might regularly respond with hatred in political discussions. Simply because we believe that a worldview should logically result in a particular action or belief does not mean that it actually will.
Worldview criticism, at least in its most popular and simplistic form, offers a reductive account of ideologies, how we believe, what we believe, and how we act on fully. If we hope to charitably, lovingly, intelligently, truthfully, and productively live in the world and share the Gospel with our culturally embodied neighbors, we need to communicate and live with them in a way that faithfully accounts for who they are and who we are in all our complexity. When worldview criticism fails to do this, the results can be serious spiritual doubts, an inability to effectively communicate to the world, arrogance, and a naïve understanding of the messy details of the fallen world — points which I’ll explore in my next post.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.