Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.
As we are using the term in this series, a worldview is a fundamental orientation of the heart that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.
Almost all of our beliefs and values are built on the foundation of our worldview. But the worldview itself is supported by another foundation, what we could call a “faith commitment.”
Faith commitment as worldview foundation
All worldviews rely on a faith commitment. As Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton explain, the faith commitment is the way we answer four basic questions:
- Who am I? – What is the nature, task, and purpose of human beings?
- Where am I? – What is the nature of the world and universe I live in?
- What’s wrong? – What is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from finding fulfillment? (In other words, how do I understand evil?)
- What is the remedy? – How is it possible to overcome this hindrance to fulfillment? (In other words, how do I attain salvation?)
“When we’ve answered these questions, that is, when our faith is settled, then we begin to see reality in some sensible pattern,” says Walsh and Middleton, “Out of faith [emerges] a world view, without which human life simply can not go on.”
Consider, for example, the “sensible pattern” of reality that the early church experienced after the resurrection of Jesus. The early followers of Christ had to update their previous worldviews to incorporate this new information. In his book The New Testament and the People of God, theologian N.T. Wright summarizes the early Christian worldview using their answers to these four questions:
Who are we? We are a new group, a new movement, and yet not new, because we claim to be the true people of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator of the world. We are the people for whom the creator God was preparing the way through his dealings with Israel. . . .
Where are we? We are living in the world that was made by the God we worship, the world that does not yet acknowledge this true and only God. We are thus surrounded by neighbors who worship idols that are, at best, parodies of the truth, and who thus catch glimpses of reality but continually distort it. . . .
What is wrong? The powers of paganism still rule the world, and from time to time even find their way into the church. Persecutions arise from outside, heresies and schisms from within. These evils can sometimes be attributed to supernatural agency, whether ‘Satan’ or various demons. Even within the individual Christian there remain forces at work that need to be subdued, lusts which need to be put to death, party-spirit which needs to learn humility.
What is the solution? Israel’s hope has been realized; the true God has acted decisively to defeat the pagan gods, and to create a new people, through whom he is to rescue the world from evil. This he has done through the true King, Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, in particular through his death and resurrection. The process of implementing this victory, by means of the same God continuing to act through his own Spirit in his people, is not yet complete. One day the King will return to judge the world, and to set up a kingdom which is on a different level to the kingdoms of the present world order. When this happens those who have died as Christians will be raised to a new physical life. The present powers will be forced to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and justice and peace will triumph at last.
Eight basic worldview questions
The answers to those four questions are generally sufficient to reveal the contours of a worldview. How those questions would be answered by a Christian are sufficient to distinguish them, for instance, from the answers given by an atheist. But to uncover more nuanced differences between more similar worldviews—such as between biblical Christianity and Mormonism—we need a diagnostic tool that is more detailed.
In his book The Universe Next Door, James Sire provides such a tool in the form of “eight basic worldview questions”:
- What is prime reality–the really real? — Possible answers are God (theism), or the gods (paganism), or the material cosmos (naturalism).
- What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? — Here our answers point, as Sire notes, to whether we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit; or whether we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us.
- What is a human being? — We might say that a human is an illusion, a complex machine, a “naked ape,” or a person made in the image of God.
- What happens to a person at death? — We may answer that after death a person ceases to exist, is reincarnated and returned to life, or enters into another realm or state (such as Heaven).
- Why is it possible to know anything at all? — Our ability to think and reason may align with reality because it was designed by an all-knowing God or our cognitive processes may have developed accidentally through the process of evolution and have no certain claim to being able to determine truth.
- How do we know what is right and wrong? — What is morally right may be known because it is rooted in the character of a beneficent God or it may be mere agreement among humans that was necessary for cultural or physical survival.
- What is the meaning of human history? — To this we might answer, says Sire, that the meaning is to realize the purpose of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare a people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, and so forth.
- What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview? — We can provide abstract or purely intellectual answers to the previous seven questions. But answering this last one reveals whether we truly live out what we claim to believe. As we’ll see in future articles, the failure to properly consider this question leads to syncretism.
These questions are a helpful tool in analyzing and classifying specific worldviews. But what are the functions of worldviews? That is the question we’ll examine in our next article.