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Understanding the significance of worldviews

What is a worldview?

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September 23, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis.

Whatever happened to “worldview”?

There was once a time when the term was ubiquitous within American evangelicalism. After the Second World War, the term was popularized by thinkers such as Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer and rapidly spread throughout the movement. Hundreds of resources—from conferences and classes, to articles and books—were produced to explain why thinking in terms of worldview and analyzing worldviews was necessary for apologetics and missions. Philosopher David K. Naugle even claimed that, “Conceiving of Christianity as a worldview has been one of the most significant developments in the history of the church.”

Sometime around the early-to-mid 2000s, though, the concept fell out of favor. Part of the reason may have been that worldview analysis wasn’t as effective as a tool against unbelief as we had assumed (for reasons we’ll consider in a future article). “If you are already a Christian, then worldview is a revelation,” wrote J. Mark Betrand in his 2007 book Rethinking Worldview, “but if you aren’t, the concept alone will not move you. In fact, it might do the opposite, driving you to the other extreme where everyone has a worldview and all worldviews are equally valid.”

The ineffectiveness of worldview analysis for apologetics has likely only grown worse since society has become even more accepting of relativism. But for evangelicals, there is a reason the concepts of worldview and worldview analysis are worth recovering: they help us understand what is going on today in our own churches and communities. 

The purpose of this series

Recent surveys have uncovered attitudes and beliefs among Christians that are concening and inexplicable. For example, almost 1 in 4 Americans who say they are Christian believe in reincarnation. Many who attend church regularly also believe in astrology, psychics, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects. Worldview analysis can help us to understand why ideas incompatible with biblical Christianity are increasingly accepted by people who sit beside us in the pews. 

In this series, we’ll consider a number of concepts related to worldviews and worldview analysis and explain how they can be of use to you. The goal is to help you develop a framework for identifying, clarifying, and communicating aspects of worldview that are becoming increasingly common in our era.

While you should be able to gain a better understanding of the key concepts by reading this series of articles, you should also keep in mind that every explanation is a simplification necessitated by the limitation of brevity. The explanations of the concepts are more like simple line drawings, which can show the contours and outlines, than like a high-definition photograph, which can reveal more nuance and detail.   

What is a worldview?

Let’s start with the concept of “worldview.” Despite ​​the term being used for more than 150 years, there is no single agreed upon definition of what the word means. A common thread that connects the uses of the term is that a worldview is a particular perspective on reality that affects how one forms beliefs and behaviors that affect how a person lives. 

In The Universe Next Door, James Sire defines worldview as “a commitment, 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.” 

Sire’s definition is the way we’ll be using the term “worldview” throughout this series.

Worldview as a way of life

A worldview includes the “head, heart, and hands”—what we think and believe, what we feel and desire, and how we act and react. Too often, though, evangelicals have focused on the cognitive aspects of worldview without giving due consideration to how it forms a way of life, or a Christian ethic. 

As Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton have said, “A world view is never merely a vision of life. It is always a vision for life as well. Indeed, a vision of life, or world view, that does not actually lead a person or a people in a particular way of life is no world view at all. Our world view determines our values. It helps us interpret the world around us. It sorts out what is important from what is not, what is of highest value from what is least.”

In future articles we’ll consider how worldviews function in a way that give meaning, purpose, and clarity to our lives.

The categories of worldviews

Between 1960 and 2000, evangelicals tended to think of worldviews as competing systems of belief. For example, in his influential book The Universe Next Door, Sire identified nine common worldviews: 

This type of categorization is still useful as a general framework. But a 10th worldview needs to be added to the list, which we’ll call syncretism

Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs and various schools of thought. While evangelicals have not typically considered it a separate worldview, it is helpful for our purposes to think of it as a unique entity. Sycrestic views have become so prevalent that it should be considered a separate category.

Thinking of it this way will help us better understand and discuss what is occurring in  the modern world. For instance, if they were asked to choose from the above list, many Americans would say their worldview is Christian theism. But included in their Christian faith may be a deistic view of morality, a naturalistic view of science, a nihilistic and/or existential view of culture, a pantheistic view of reincarnation, a New Age view of astrology, and a postmodern view of truth.

In this series, we’ll consider a broad range of worldviews but focus primarily on syncretism and how it affects the American church. For example, rather than examining Eastern pantheistic monism in its totality, we’ll consider how the samsara paradigm has been adopted by Christians. We’ll also consider such aspects as the functions of worldviews, how seemingly obscure concepts such as coherentism and plausibility structures are necessary for understanding modern life, and how we can develop a more biblical worldview.