A Christian Worldview?
A paper presented to the Fall Religion Colloquium at
Our subject today invites
us to think of worldviews, particularly Christian worldviews and poses to us
the following matter: Is there one single Christian worldview all
Christians share in common—what might be called the Christian
worldview? Or are there several
worldviews that are different but all might be called “Christian?”—what we
might call a Christian worldview.
I wish to introduce our thinking to these issues by using a simple
question and response mechanism (with a tip of the hat to
1. So, what is a worldview?
A worldview is the particular bias in our presuppositions that influences how you look at the world and what we see or expect to see. This bias reveals itself in answering both the major and the minor questions of life. It is a predisposition, a slant, a bias in how we see things.
2. How does a worldview work in daily life?
A person's worldview influences what they expect to see and how they explain things. For instance, two people can observe the identical event and explain it differently based on the bias of their worldview. One might explain the event as a coincidence while the other labels the same event a miracle. Why? Because their worldview is a predisposition to seeing things as either the result of natural events or some god's hidden hand.
So, what is the purpose of life? What causes thunder? Who sends rain? Why did my child recover so fast from sickness? How did I receive a gift from my aunt totaling the exact dollars I needed for second semester? Why did this accident happen? Where did we come from? Are humans basically good or evil? How can I know what is true? Is there hidden truth we can't discover by testing? Your answers to these questions is largely influenced (maybe even determined) by your worldview.
3. So where do we get our worldview?
We would like to think we got it on our own. That we assembled and examined all the evidence and chose the worldview that was the most defensible or "right," then proceeded to use that worldview as our assumption for explaining things. Sorry. Most of us inherited our worldview. We got it from our family, friends, the media and the experiences of life. Even Christians who claim to have gotten their worldview directly from Scripture probably didn't. More likely, we learned to approach Scriptures with a worldview, thus even what we found in Scripture was influenced by what we expected to find, and "mediated" our study of Scripture.
4. Can worldviews change through life?
Most definitely—worldviews shift through life. Some people may live their entire life with a single worldview in tact. This may have been particularly true of ancient and tribal cultures. However, in modern times the worldview of a person is more likely to be in a state of flux. I suspect your own worldview as a university student may have already seen a few subtle shifts since you were in high school.
5. If they can change, then how do they change?
Our worldviews change the same way they are acquired: through experience and relationships. First experiences: if we repeatedly have experiences that our worldview cannot explain, we are likely to seek other explanations found in other worldviews. For instance consider Susan who has a hyper-miraculous worldview. She expects God to intervene on behalf of her comfort and happiness on a regular basis--even credits God with supplying her parking places when she is late for class. Then Susan gets bad news: she has a severe form of a debilitating disease that “has no cure” and she will likely have to drop out of college within a year or at the most, two. What does Susan do? She prays--prays for healing. Certainly if God is concerned enough about supplying her a parking place so she can be on time to class, He would intervene to heal her of this disease, wouldn't He? Yet nothing happens, and Susan gets worse. Finally she drops out of school, unable to even stand up without help, let alone attend class. Susan is facing life experience that her worldview doesn't accommodate. Over the following months Susan changed her worldview on miracles, first to a worldview that expected miracles but allowed for exceptions like hers when God didn't act, then later on she adopted a worldview that expected miracles only occasionally--as exceptions, not the rule. Susan's worldview shifted based on her experience and the evidence of life.
But worldviews sometimes shift based on relationships too. Most of us resist this notion. We imagine ourselves collecting all the data then making up our minds based on the facts alone. Admittedly some folk may actually do this. They shift their world view based on the evidence they've examined from others. But I think there is another factor, one few of us want to admit: the relational factor. When we encounter people with a different worldview than us, it forces us to examine and test our own worldview. But when these people are admirable people, fulfilled people, committed, passionate, and happy people, their worldview is even more attractive to us. And if these people take us under their wings, believe in us, spend time with us, mentor us and take us into a community with their worldview, we are likely to adopt their worldview in the process. We probably won't admit it, of course. We'll act like we examined all the evidence and shifted our worldview on the basis of the "facts alone." But I doubt the facts were alone--they were likely accompanied by the relational factor as well. We can catch and adopt a worldview from a community of people in which we are accepted and into which we are assimilated. Sometimes a worldview is "caught, not taught." (This factor may say much about how the church evangelizes, but that is another subject.)
Thus, worldviews can change. They change when our cumulative experience and other evidence challenges our worldview, and they may also change more gradually as we are assimilated into a community with another worldview.
6. Is there such a thing as THE Christian Worldview--a single worldview that all Christians share?
Let me answer this question with another question, "Is there such a thing as THE Christian Theology?"--one theology that pretty much all Christians at all times in all places agree upon? Well, yes there is, but it is a pretty short list. On how many things has the church at all times and places agreed? Precious few. (Indeed they may be precious because they are few.) Some use the term "Dogma" to describe these core doctrines that are the non-negotiables of Christian faith. Others use the rubric "written in blood" (as compared to "written in ink" and "written in pencil"). But there are a few theological matters that are universal—what Chris Bounds will call “orthodoxy.”
How is this core doctrine useful? One of the ways it is useful is for drawing lines—in determining who is in and who is out—who is one of us and who is against us. Thus, if a person claims to be a teacher of Christian Theology but denies the deity of Christ, His conception by the Holy Spirit, His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and his second coming may be teaching theology, but they are not teaching Christian theology. Most of us today don't like to draw lines, or exclude anyone, but that is one helpful use of "core theology"—it tells us who is with us, and who is not.
There are a thousand ways we can disagree in theology—as Calvinists, Arminians, Pre-millennial, Post millennial, Trans-substantiation, Consubstantiation, Memorial—but these are not core issues—they do not draw us in or out of the Christian community. Believe the core theology does. So, "Is there such a thing as a Christian Theology?" Yes, but the list is a short list.
Same for worldview. Is there such a thing as THE Christian worldview? My answer is the same: Yes, but the list is a short list. Such a list should be so small that we are willing to say, "You don't buy this list, your worldview isn’t Christian. Now be careful here, I am not saying the person might not be a saved person—they might be, just that they do not (yet) have the Christian worldview.
7. Then what is this short list that comprises the Christian worldview?
Ronald Nash in his book Worldviews in Conflict has offered a satisfying "short list." He says our worldview is our predilection to answer questions about life a certain way—questions about God, humanity, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Here is my adaptation and reordering of his list:
1. Concerning God, Christians say God does exists and natural explanations fall short of explaining our world.
2. Concerning Humanity, Christians believe that humans are more than the sum of their visible material substance—that humans are created in the image of God and has a soul or spirit that is eternal and we humans have a destiny in the afterlife.
3. Concerning Metaphysics, Christians respond in one accord: Our world is not a self-enclosed machine that can be totally described by mechanistic explanations—there can be supernatural explanations for things we see and experiences we have that move beyond scientific evidence.
4. Concerning Epistemology, Christians say there are others ways of perceiving reality besides our senses. We accept the scientific method is a useful way of knowing but is not the exclusive way of knowing truth, for some truth is found outside the realm of our natural senses.
5. Concerning Ethics, Christians say there is an external standard of right and wrong and God is that standard as revealed in Jesus Christ and recorded in the Bible. Christians believe the Bible is a source of truth along with the tools of science.
I believe Nash's short list can be called the Christian worldview. It is useful in drawing lines—if you answer these questions oppositely, you might be a part of the family of God, but you do not have the Christian worldview. While we may discuss the wording here (and I am sure my colleagues will either wish to add or subtract from the wording) but if we take something like this list as the core it would be the Christian worldview. For instance can you imagine answering his five questions this way?
1. Concerning God: There is no god at all, or at least we cannot know if there is one, thus we are left explaining everything as the effect of natural causes.
2. Concerning Humanity. Humans are merely sum of our substance—we are a biological life form on planet earth and nothing more.
3. Concerning Metaphysics: The world and everything in it can be described by mechanistic explanations—any explanation including “miracles” or spiritual forces is out of bounds.
4. Concerning Epistemology: Using our senses and the scientific method is the only way of knowing truth—there is no other source for truth..
5. Concerning Ethics: There is no external standard of right and wrong and we are left to our own devices to try to determine what is good and bad.
You may not be able to answer these questions like this, but plenty of people do. Nash and others remind us that Christians come to the world with a slant, a bias, a “tilt” toward how they explain things. Thus, we can agree on "the Christian answer" to these questions. I am suggesting today that the Christian worldview is a short list. If there are other elements of the Christian worldview beyond Nash’s, there are not many.
8. But here's the crunch: our worldview actually includes numerous elements beyond the core elements of the Christian Worldview."
There are a
multitude of issues the core essentials do not address. That’s the crunch. For instance, even in the implementation of
these core issues, there is wide variance.
True, most all Christians would agree that there can be supernatural
explanations for things, we still disagree on how
often to expect such miracles in daily life. A Christian from
1. God frequently intervenes in the world with miracles.
2. God occasionally intervenes with miracles.
3. God seldom intervenes in a miraculous way.
All three of these views are within the scope of the Christian worldview, but obviously in the trenches of life the difference between the first and third worldviews is so dramatic the distance between the third worldview and the non-Christian worldview is probably less than the distance between the third Christian worldview and the first. And this example is only about the matter of implementing one of one of the core elements—it is not about the secondary matters that comprise a worldview. What about all the other matters not listed as a core in the Christian Worldview? Which is the Christian view on them?
Consider the continuum created between pessimism and optimism. When you look at the world around you are you basically optimistic or pessimistic? Which way do you “tilt?”
o Do you tilt toward pessimism? Do you suspect that most of history, especially recent history, is a sad story of falling away from greatness and sinking downward into decline? Do you think the world is getting worse and worse and when it gets bad enough certainly the “end times” will be near? Not that you believe all this, but when you approach the question of the state of the world, do you “tilt” toward this more pessimistic outlook?
o Or do you tilt the other way—toward optimism? Is your inner propensity optimistic and, while you agree there have been setbacks in progress, you generally believe that things are getting better and better and headed somewhere good. Do you believe that there is hope in the future, and that God’s kingdom is something like a mustard seed, or yeast—it started small but it is steadily growing and spreading?
Both of these views can claim to be a Christian worldview with roots in the Bible. And your tilt will have significant impact on how you live. If you tilt toward the pessimistic side you probably liked the Left behind series and have an inclination toward withdrawal from the world and toward protecting truth as the world “goes to hell in a hand basket.” On the other hand if you tilt toward optimism you are likely to practice a policy of engagement and redemption: engaging the world with the hope of redeeming and transforming it toward godly values. Such a worldview not only affects individuals, it affects institutions—which are but the lengthened shadows of the individuals leading them. For instance, an institution with a worldview tilting toward pessimism is likely to say something in their mission statement about “preserving truth” or “standing for truth” or “preserving our tradition.” However, an institution tilting toward the optimistic end of the continuum would be likely to craft their mission statement to say something about, “changing the world.”
My point here is that both of these worldviews can be considered acceptable Christ worldviews because they are related to the secondary issues included in a Christian worldview and not the core issues of the Christian worldview. The core Christian worldview does not address the optimism/pessimism issue. Optimism or pessimism about the future of the world is part of our secondary worldview, but not the Christian worldview we are required to accept or cut ourselves out of the Christian circle. On the core issues we agree, on these secondary issues good Christians can disagree and wind up with two very different—almost “opposing” worldviews, yet both claim to have “a Christian worldview.”
The pessimism/optimism worldview is just one of many issues that make up our “comprehensive worldview.” On these non-core issues Christians often disagree. Take the following issues as an example:
Shall we vigorously pursue the death penalty as a reflection of God’s holiness and justice, or should we attempt to end capital punishment as a reflection of God’s mercy?
Are we biased against war-making as a reflection of our savior who was the Prince of Peace or should we engage in military actions to establish justice for all as a reflection of God’s care for freedom of the individual?
Shall we shrink or withdraw welfare from the poor because God values responsibility and individual effort because “he who does not work should not eat” or should we redouble our efforts to end poverty because God values compassion and instructs us to give alms and “remember the poor.”
Do we tilt toward collectivism because God cares for groups of people, not just individuals and we really believe “no man is an island” and “it takes a village” or should we tilt toward individualism because we believe God values individualism and individual freedom more?
There are scores—no, hundreds—maybe even thousands—of matters we might address here. My point is that Christians do not agree on many of these matters even though they agree on the Christian worldview. Thus, I am suggesting it would be helpful for us to realize when we toss the term “worldview” about, we ought to actually picture two concentric circles: an inner circle of the Christian worldview, and an outer circle including many other elements of our worldview that are secondary. Together they might be termed a “comprehensive worldview.” Can we have a “Christian comprehensive worldview?” That is can Christian agree on all the small print not just the headlines? I doubt it. We can, however, agree on the core issues and argue about the rest.
9. We have a tendency to move the secondary elements from our Comprehensive worldview into the Core elements and call them the Christian worldview.
Face it, we all tend toward this. It is perhaps a human tendency. We try to cram our own longer list into the smaller core list of essentials and thus require all Christians to line up with my secondary issues as if they are primary ones. Thus, one who is basically pessimistic in worldview tends to pronounce this point of view as more then their own view—but the Christian worldview, implying that anyone with any mind at all would realize this as the Christian point of view. Like the Pharisees our tendency is to be dissatisfied with lists of essentials until we have included all things we personally hold dear. (Is this why denominations tend toward long lists?)
On the face of it we might think that conservatives do this more than liberals. After all, conservatives by nature like long lists that cut people out. But I have not found this to be true. Both conservative and liberals tend to this behavior and both groups tend to unchristianize the other worldview on secondary issues by implying that the approach is unchristian. My point is this: humans are always trying to make secondary issues primary ones, and thus label their own personal worldview on scores of issues as The Christian worldview or “The Biblical worldview” thus turning an elective position into a required one.
10. So what am I calling for? I am calling for is this: We need narrow-minded insistence on the Christian worldview along with broad-minded, humble, openness on the secondary issues that comprise the many other Christian worldviews.
We must be guardians of the Christian worldview—and be bold enough to draw lines and define what is clearly out of bounds as the Christian worldview. (In this we must, of course, sort between what is truly Christian in the Bible’s worldview and what is the merely the ancient worldview of the day, but that is a topic for another session). We are clear on the essentials of the Christian worldview—and we should fight to protect this view of life.
But on the manifold secondary issues that comprise other worldviews—all of the within the larger circle of “Christian worldviews” we should heartily open dialogue and debate each other. There are answers to many of these questions. We are not left with a foggy subjectivism where no one answer is any better than another. Good Bible interpretation and a sound study of Church history along with the examination of our experience and the evidence at hand can sway us one way or the other on questions outlined above. One of the sides of these continuums is indeed a better Christian worldview.
I, of course, think it is my side. You think it is yours. So where does that leave us? It tells us to stay open. Stay humble. Keep form getting cocky and assuming that we have all the answers on every issue—and these answers will fit on bumper stickers or radio talk show quips. And most of all, I am asking us to keep our list of what is the Christian worldview—very short. I’d suggest not to much more than 100 words—about the length of The Apostle’s Creed. Or, at least not much longer than the Nicene Creed.
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