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A World is not a Worldview

October 7, 2013
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I have just finished writing a series on inerrancy and, as such large projects often do, it has left some loose ends hanging. One of these is about worldview. Now Christian worldviews have become very popular and are often discussed in the context of Christian education – instead of teaching just some doctrine we should teach a Christian worldview. Unfortunately while worldviews are popular almost no one who claims to embrace them does them even marginally competently.

The standard approach to a Christian worldview is to assemble a large mass of facts and refer to it as a worldview. A Christian worldview might be said to consist of respect for the authority of the Bible, a dislike of particular sorts of sexual conduct, an emphasis on care for the poor, and so on. The issue with this is that it isn’t a worldview. It’s a world – a universe of facts – but there’s no change in how one actually views these facts. I could invent a universe where tea was poison and everyone owned a jetpack, but this fictional universe would hardly involve a new worldview. If you read a story set in this universe then you would apply your usual approach to facts to this world and simply add in two new facts: in this world tea is poison and everyone owns a jetpack. Inventing a new world for the purposes of a story is not inventing a worldview. Similarly, asserting that one has misunderstood the bare facts of the world we are currently in does not require a new worldview but merely a reassessment given new data.

A worldview should really involve a more fundamental change in the way one views the world (hence worldview). Imagine watching a soccer game with another person who favors a different team than you. While you disagree about who should win the game you still understand the game in basically the same way. Now imagine that your friend who is watching the game with you believes that the rules of soccer are totally different than the rules you know – instead of getting points by kicking the ball into the goal one gets points by successfully passing the ball and running it up and down the field and one loses points if the ball gets kicked off the field. At this point the two of you have diverged in a really noticeable way. You are no longer merely having opposite reactions to a goal based on who scored the point, but you are actually expecting entirely different sorts of actions and interpreting what happens in entirely different ways.

Take, for instance, the worldview we’ve all grown up with in which there are objects that are real and then mostly-constructed subjective things that are based on what is real (feelings, mental states, literature, art, goals, attempts to derive meanings and morals from the world). One of our most common counters to this is to assert that some of these non-physical things are also real. However, we rarely invert the world so that objects are dependent upon unifying themes and abstractions. I’ve never met anyone who insists that what is real is what you feel but that your arm, say, is not real in that sense. (Although the Bible may come pretty close – in some ways I think a Biblical worldview would see things like love as being “more real” than many physical things. This is complicated turf, though, loaded with heresies.) But why not? Many of these worldview choices are somewhat arbitrary and yet we are generally locked in to a small selection of worldviews and argue only over the data concerning what the world contains.

I think it is rather obvious that Christianity is about an entirely new worldview. Christianity scores the world differently – much of what counts as “winning” in the world around us is losing in Christianity and vice versa. We hold up as examples people who were poor and unmarried their entire lives and often ended up being killed, sometimes horribly. The world around us asks how much stuff you have, whether your romantic dreams are fulfilled, and wants to avoid anything that looks like death at all costs. Now, some of this could just be arguing about the details – is charity a plus or a minus? Often Christians do argue in ways that appeal to the worldview around us. Statements like, “If you are nice to other people they will be nice to you,” argue for Christian ethics by stating that they will benefit you. Statements like, “Be nice to other people even when it does not benefit you,” are more reflective of a Christian worldview and sound fairly stupid to much of the world around us. (This is, incidentally, why I don’t much care for theology in which heaven is a bribe to behave well. The goal isn’t to coerce you into acting nice when you aren’t actually nice but rather to see you transformed into someone different and so mere bribery is insufficient except, perhaps, to get you started down the path.) At the core of it, Christianity should be an entirely new way to understand the world – not so much new data but a new way to comprehend that data. This will inevitably make Christianity hard to understand from the outside.

I think this means two things for us. First, Christianity will always challenge us because we will always be having to rework the way we think in order to approach the mind of Christ. The “obvious” mental tools of our world – the ones we use to read, to measure success, to solve problems, and relate to others – are all probably critically flawed. Many interesting mistakes in Christian life, from bizarre “plain readings” of Scripture to marketing churches like the latest smartphone, all grow from these obvious-but-wrong approaches to the Christian life.

Second, Christianity should probably be odd from the outside. Much of what we do to appeal to the outside world (and defend ourselves against its criticisms) involves using the world’s thought patterns and worldviews. We might get a lot further by challenging the correctness of these things on a fundamental level. Instead of arguing about the data (do couples that live together before marriage really have a higher divorce rate?) we could and probably should argue about whether that data is what is most relevant to the discussion. Many bad things produce good results if the way you measure good results is also messed up.

Christianity needs to be more than an alternative pathway to a “successful” life in a modern sense. It needs to redefine success and redefine what it is to be human. The danger of doing worldviews wrong is to make the radical challenge of Christ nothing more than an extension of what we are already doing. Are we already hostile towards others? Then Christianity can become a standard to differentiate us from them. Do we already believe that there is an innate social order to the world? Then Christianity becomes a way to tell people that it really isn’t so bad that they are materially, physically, and mentally oppressed. Christianity is bent to the whims of a hundred philosophies from jingoist nationalism to hippie philosophies that find it impossible to condemn anything except the act of condemnation. All of us seek to bend Christ’s way to our own program and all of us despise and reject at least one other way in which Christ’s way has been watered down to fit someone else’s agenda. Christianity must stand as a radical alternative, one so radical that we are always discomfited by its alien beauty and always surprised by what is around the next bend. When we say that there is a Christian worldview we must really embrace a new way to see the world and not just tell ourselves a new story in which the old views affirm the way we think things should be.

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