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What is Worldview and Why is it Important? © 2007 Freddy Davis Why Should I Even Be Interested in Worldview? When the average person hears the word “worldview,” it probably doesn’t register as anything particularly important for a Christian to be concerned with. In fact, it is a good possibility that you, yourself, fit into this category. Even the word itself sounds rather academic and philosophical. Admittedly, at first blush, it doesn’t seem to have much relationship to the everyday life of real people at all. But in our modern world, that perception is dead wrong. It certainly used to be that this topic didn’t have much relevance to everyday Christians. But our culture has radically changed. And if we want to avoid having society cast our faith into the dustbin of irrelevance, we need some new tools to help us understand and deal with this new reality. It is true that the idea of worldview was originally coined and used among academics who wanted to study the interaction between various cultures and belief systems. But what began as an academic pursuit has become a practical necessity. In a world that is rapidly shrinking because of the incredible advances in transportation and communication technology, the practical implications which emerge from an understanding of worldview are enormous. In the Christian realm, it used to be that overseas missionaries were pretty much the only people who had a reason for wanting to know about worldview. After all, they were the ones who had to deal with people from other cultures and with other belief systems. But that is simply not the case any more. Other cultures and belief systems are everywhere, having filtered into the very fabric of modern American society. Initially, these influences were limited to people who were born in foreign lands. But in our day, even native born Americans are so diverse that we are forced to work cross-culturally in virtually every area of life. Diverse subcultures and belief systems have become a part of the very framework of the country. For Christians, this brings us to a choice. We can stick our heads in the sand and pretend that this kind of pluralism doesn’t exist, or we can take Christ’s commission to be witnesses seriously and learn the things that are necessary to be effective in this new environment. Sure the idea of worldview is a newcomer on the scene. But the fact is, the face of modern society is also new. If we don’t adapt and learn how to effectively share a witness within it, we might as well give up on the idea of participating in the work Christ has called us to do.
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What Has Gone Wrong? There is no doubt about it, things are different. As recently as two or three generations ago it used to be that America was considered by nearly everyone to be a Christian nation. But that is hardly true any more. That seems rather strange in some ways because there are still a lot of churches around, and a very large percentage of people identify themselves as Christians. On the other hand, relatively few seem to have any confidence at all in asserting their faith as the Truth that everyone ought to follow. Instead of being the front line in the spiritual war between good and evil, our churches have degenerated into spiritual bomb shelters where we can retreat from the barrage of non-Christian rhetoric that we face out in the world. George Barna is a Christian pollster who researches the attitudes of Americans concerning spiritual matters. One of his recent studies indicated that "most Americans do not have strong and clear beliefs, largely because they do not possess a coherent Biblical worldview. That is, they lack a consistent and holistic understanding of their faith.” Even if that is true, is it really that serious? Well, let’s put it this way, it is only serious if we consider confidence in our own personal faith to be important. Barna concludes in his study, “To give purpose to the spiritual lifestyle of Americans, there are few tasks more important than helping Americans develop a Biblical view of life. Otherwise, millions of people, including many within the youngest generations, will conclude the Christian faith does not represent deep, consistent truths about the spiritual and natural world" (You can read the full article, called Barna's Annual Tracking Study Shows Americans Stay Spiritually Active, But Biblical Views Wane, at www.barna.org). In other words, if we do not learn how to articulate our faith as THE TRUTH in our current pluralistic world, then our beliefs will become increasingly unimportant to us and progressively more irrelevant to those who do not know Christ. At this point, we will assume that you are interested enough in the topic of worldview to want, at the very least, a basic grasp of the concepts. With that assumption in place, we will move forward with an introductory explanation.
What is a Worldview? Let’s start with a simple definition. A worldview is the set of assumptions that people make about the nature of reality. Now this probably does seem a little philosophical and esoteric, but let’s take a moment to break the definition down and you will see that it is not nearly as abstract a topic as it might appear on the surface. Let’s begin with the word “assumptions.” In general, what is an assumption? An assumption is nothing more than a belief that a person takes for granted. There is typically no attempt to try and justify an assumption because, at the most fundamental level, it appears to be true and obvious. What happens is, as people organize their lives, they do it around a set of beliefs that seem so obvious that they don’t even need to be questioned. In fact, they seem so obvious that those holding them are sure that everyone else must understand life the same way they do. So, when they see other people acting in ways that contradict those beliefs, they don’t even perceive that the other person might be operating off of an entirely different set of beliefs. Rather, they perceive the person to be simply acting contrary to what “everyone knows is right.” But, why is it an assumption? Why can’t our beliefs be said to rest on “fact.” We will deal more fully with how to get at worldview beliefs in a few moments, but let’s make one quick clarification. Every worldview is a faith position. It is impossible to answer the kinds of questions that worldview asks based on scientific observation or direct human experience. There is evidence that can be brought to bear to support a given point of view, and we can evaluate the evidence to see whether or not any particular faith position is reasonable. But every worldview, by definition, is based on a set of faith assumptions. (Note: It is outside the scope of
this primer to explore the particular evidence related to the various worldviews. However, let it be noted that the evidence for the Christian faith is very strong and the evidence against every other belief system is equally compelling.) The second part of the definition relates to the phrase “nature of reality.” Now this phrase, too, probably sounds a bit philosophical. But once again the meaning is quite practical and down to earth. Here is the idea. The entirety of reality is structured in some objective way and is not structured in any other way. This actual structure is what we refer to as reality. We can also refer to it as Truth (with a capital T). Truth, in its most fundamental form, relates to the set of beliefs that most closely lines up with how reality is actually structured. The further any set of beliefs moves away from that actual structure, the further its adherents are from living a life that is lined up with reality. (Just as a quick aside, it is absolutely possible for people to live their entire lives based on an understanding of reality that is not the Truth – and billions of people around the globe do just that.) Now, as we put the whole definition together, we can see the big picture relating to worldview. It is a faith position which is the organizing principle for an individual’s understanding of how the real world operates. As we live life, we think and act based on this set of beliefs without ever questioning whether or not we are right – and perhaps without even realizing what our own basic beliefs are.
Why Is Worldview Important? Before we go any further, we need to ask the question, “Why is worldview important?” The answer is, “It sets the boundaries within which people live their lives.” In a way it is like an athletic field. Our worldview draws a line around our lives and we live within those boundaries. We recognize that there are places outside of the boundaries, and that some people do operate there. But that space is understood to be out of bounds and anyone operating there is believed to be living illegitimately. Perhaps a couple of examples will help clarify this. 1. If a person believes, at a worldview level, that there is a God and that there is such a thing as an eternal heaven and hell, that person will, typically, do all they can to figure out what they need to do to go to heaven. They will, then, live their lives in a way that will help them get there and avoid things which would lead them to an eternity in hell. 2. If a person believes that human beings are simply a product of natural evolutionary forces and are nothing more than the animal species with the most highly developed brain, then abortion becomes nothing more than the elimination of a blob of unwanted tissue. It would not, then, be considered “outside of the lines” for a person with this belief to terminate a pregnancy or advocate it for someone else. Obviously, these are only two examples. There are probably hundreds of others we could give. The point is, though, people will think and act based on what they believe at a worldview level. This principle not only plays out in the life of an individual, it plays out in society, as well. On an individual level, if a person’s worldview does not match up with the way reality is actually structured, that person’s life will have a lot of inconsistencies and the person will not live as fulfilling a life as is possible. On a societal level, the laws and values of the dominant worldview will be outwardly expressed in society. For instance, if militant Islamic beliefs are dominant, the society’s children will be encouraged, even through the educational system, to hate Jews and Americans. If Christian beliefs are dominant, the children will be taught to love one another.
How Do You Get at People’s Worldviews? This, now, brings us to an important question. Since these worldview beliefs are so foundational and below the radar, how do we bring them to the surface so that we can understand them? To do this, all that is necessary is to ask seven simple questions. As you will see, these questions do not have answers which can be scientifically measured. No matter how much we wish it were so, no one can claim that their belief system is based on scientific fact. They are faith positions based on a set of assumptions, as we saw earlier. We must gather evidence for the Truth of any worldview system from some other place. As we look at the questions, it should be noted that each worldview will answer the seven questions differently. The set of answers that a particular worldview gives defines specifically the faith assumptions of the worldview. A little further along we will look at the ultimate outcomes of each worldview. But for now, let’s just look at the questions they must answer. 1. What is the nature of ultimate reality? This question deals with a worldview’s teaching of how reality is structured. It describes whether or not there is a supernatural part of reality and, if there is, how it is structured and populated. 2. What is the nature of material reality? Question two explores the nature of the material universe. It answers questions related to its structure, as well as how it came into being and how it is sustained. 3. What is a human being? Every worldview sees humans to be a certain kind of creature with particular characteristics. This question delves into the particulars of the nature of humanity. 4. What happens to a person at death? This question elicits a worldview’s belief about whether or not there is an afterlife and, if so, what it is like. 5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Question five deals with the question of human knowledge. Specifically, what is it that gives human beings the ability to self-consciously acquire and use knowledge (an ability that is unique among all creatures on earth) . 6. How do we know what is right and wrong? Every worldview has some means of understanding and establishing standards of morality. Different worldviews have entirely different ways of approaching this issue. 7. What is the meaning of human history? This final question asks whether or not there is any meaning associated with the existence of mankind on the earth and, if so, what that might be.
What Are the Basic Worldviews? Now that we have identified how it is possible to find out what each worldview believes, we can move on to identifying the worldviews and their basic assumptions. By way of introduction, there are four basic worldviews. And even though there are hundreds of different belief systems in existence, every one of them emerges out of these four worldviews. The four are Naturalism, Animism, Far Eastern Thought and Theism.
Each worldview answers the seven questions in completely different ways. By finding out how a person answers the questions, it is possible to get a handle on his or her worldview, no matter what it is. We won’t take the time, here, to specifically spell out the answers that each worldview gives to all seven questions. That would take too long. But we will lay out a summary of each one which emerges from answering the questions. Let’s take a quick look at how each of the four worldviews understands reality. Naturalism Basic Assumption: There is no supernatural existence. The only thing that exists is matter which is eternal and evolving. Associated Belief Systems: Secular Humanism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Skepticism, Existentialism, Marxism, Positivism/Scientism, Postmodernism Animism Basic Assumption: The universe contains both material and immaterial parts. Spirits exist in a separate place from physical beings, but they interact with each other in a symbiotic relationship. Humans on earth offer sacrifices and perform ceremonies which benefit the spirits, and they, in turn, take care of the needs of humans on earth. Associated Belief Systems: Japanese Shinto, Witchcraft/Wicca, Astrology, Native American Religions, Fortunetelling, Spiritism, Voodoo Far Eastern Thought Basic Assumption: The essence of all existence is the impersonal life force. There are pieces of that life force which are not merged with the central core, but which are constantly working their way toward it with the ultimate goal being to merge with it. All of life in the physical universe is nothing more than pieces of that life force which are working their way, through successive material incarnations, toward unity with the main body. The lower the life form, the further it has to go. The process is for the life form, at whatever stage, to live its life the best is can. If it does well, it will move up to a higher form in its next incarnation. When it makes it to the highest level and does well, the material reincarnations will cease and the life force merges with the impersonal main body. The essence of this worldview is pantheistic and monistic. Associated Belief Systems: Hinduism, Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Sikhism Theism Basic Assumption: There is an infinite and transcendent (supernatural) God who is the Creator and Sustainer of the material universe. Associated Belief Systems: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, The Way International, The Unity School of Christianity, Children of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism Hybrids There are some belief systems which are a little harder to categorize. That is because they have taken elements from two or more worldviews and attempted to combine them. The big problem with this is that every worldview literally contradicts every other worldview. As a result, every hybrid belief system creates irreconcilable contradictions within itself. To deal with this problem, they simply ignore the contradictions. There are a number of groups which have managed to grow large enough to become recognizable hybrid belief systems. Associated Belief Systems: New Age, Satanism, Scientology, Bahai, Confucianism, Christian Science, Unitarian Universalists, Unification Church/Moonies Relational Revelation Let me state up front that Relational Revelation is not actually a worldview, in and of itself. Rather, it is the form of Theism which represents Biblical Christianity, and which Christians understand to be the Truth. It is
included here simply as a means of giving a reference point. It is easy to see where our Christian faith differs from other completely different worldviews, but we need to make a couple of important distinctions to separate it from other forms of Theism. Basic Assumption: There is a personal, infinite, transcendent God who is the Creator and Sustainer of the material universe and who is revealed in the Bible.
What Effects Do the Different Worldview Approaches Have on Society? Since each worldview is expressed concretely in life through the individuals who follow them, it is important to understand the implications of the various worldviews on society. Let’s look at each worldview and explore the implications. Naturalism Since there is no supernatural being (no God), the only way life could come into existence is by natural evolutionary means. And, since there is no personal supernatural being, all of morality is strictly determined by humans – who are the only beings capable of comprehending a need for it, and the only ones with the ability to set up rules for society to live by. Individuals and societies determine their own moral values. If the condition or situation changes, there is no compelling reason why the values and rules can’t also be changed. As a result, people who hold a Naturalistic worldview promote an “anything goes as long as it doesn’t destroy the species” kind of approach to life. Just to give a few examples: there is no such thing as sexual immorality, there is no particular family organizational pattern which is better than any other, and a fetus is nothing more than an impersonal blob of tissue. Under this worldview, “the ends justifies the means” and those with the power make the rules (the law of the jungle). Animism The world, and life in general, are not moving toward a higher destination, so the tendency is simply to live life one day at a time and accept things the way they are. Whenever something goes wrong, the assumption is made that some god is displeased. The important thing, then, is to figure that out and try and appease the offended god. It doesn’t occur to anyone to use some other means to try and improve life. Left to themselves, Animistic cultures tend to remain living in primitive circumstances with very little societal advancement. Far Eastern Thought The primary impact of Far Eastern Religions on culture is to promote a type of passivism. Since every incarnation places a person in their proper place on the wheel of reincarnation, it is not proper to try and put oneself into a different place in life. The ultimate result, then, is some form of a caste system where everyone knows their own place in life and accepts it. The main effort in life is to live good enough to move to a higher level in the next incarnation. Theism Theism basically lends itself to an impact on culture that is both moral and positive. However, most forms result in a legalistic approach to living life and developing one’s culture. The moral order ought to be a certain way because it has been revealed in the law or put forth by the prophet. The way things ought to be are specifically prescribed. As a result, individual life and society tend to become very rigid and legalistic. Individuals strive to do the right thing in life because it is considered their duty. Relational Revelation As with most other forms of Theism, Relational Revelation lends itself to an impact on culture that is both moral and positive. It does all of this, however, in a way that puts a priority on a personal relationship with God as the motivation for fulfilling his purposes. It is not just the end result that matters, but the means by
which the outcome is brought about is also vital. The means are conveyed through God’s revelation (the Bible) and by personal instruction from God as he interacts with individual human beings by his Spirit.
Why Is an Understanding of Worldview Important for the Individual Christian? At the beginning of this worldview explanation, it was noted that even though the idea of worldview seems very philosophical, it actually has very profound practical implications as it relates to our Christian lives. These implications play out most obviously in two distinct areas – (1) our personal faith life and (2) our witness. Let’s take a moment and spell this out. Our Personal Faith Life While virtually all Christians believe and profess that we can know God in a personal relationship, all too often our actual life experience does not reflect what we confess. Our tendency is to get all wrapped up in ourselves and our own life activities so that God becomes more of an abstract idea rather than a person with whom we concretely and personally interact. An understanding of worldview principles, as it relates to our own personal faith, has the potential to change that. It helps us not only to understand who God is, based on what the Bible teaches, but gives us a specific means by which we can profoundly tap into a real and personal relationship with God. This will cause our faith to become personal and vibrant, as opposed to impersonal and dutiful. Our Witness For most people, the very idea of giving a witness brings forth images of an uncomfortable confrontation with a non-believer in which a person shares a gospel message and forces a decision. First, let’s be honest. Knowing how to do this is an essential tool for every Christian. After all, we are commissioned by Christ, himself, to share the gospel message. The main problem, though, is not in sharing the message. Rather, it is in the approach we take when we do it. For the most part, Christians are not equipped with the knowledge they need to help them deal with the many situations they confront as they try to share a witness. The main problem Christians run into is that people who have a different worldview from their own will probably not clearly understand the witness if the message is not put into a context that the listener understands. Understanding worldview completely solves this problem. There is not a belief system in the world that is outside of the understanding of individual Christians if they have a little bit of background in worldview. While every bit of knowledge we can gain is helpful, it is not necessary to become an expert in apologetics and world religions. The fact is, we are commissioned to share the gospel and we live in a society where non-Christian belief systems abound. Worldview Witness Training gives us the tools to share our faith with virtually anyone with complete confidence.
Conclusion Obviously, this primer only touches the surface. But it at least points us in the right direction as we confront a world which is lost without Christ, and as we face a society which is being shaped by forces which work against God’s ways and purposes. It is our prayer that this introduction will help you refocus your life to become more effective in living out your faith in the world, and in sharing Christ with those who need him.
If you would like to delve deeper into understanding worldview, let me make a few simple recommendations for you. 1. Check out the MarketFaith Ministries website at www.marketfaith.org. It is full of free resources which discuss the various issues related to worldview. 2. Sign up for Worldview Made Practical – the MarketFaith Ministries free e-letter. This newsletter is published twice per month and contains fantastic articles which relate to the practical implications of worldview. You can sign up free at the MarketFaith Ministries website. 3. Consider the possibility of having Freddy Davis, Executive Director of MarketFaith Ministries, come to your location and present a training seminar. There are several different seminars which deal with the various worldview issues discussed in this primer. You can find out more details about these seminars at the MarketFaith Ministries website. 4. Finally, feel free to contact us directly. We can be contacted at: MarketFaith Ministries 321 Anton Dr. Tallahassee, FL 32312 Phone: 850-383-9756 Fax: 850-514-4571 E-mail:email@example.com Website www.marketfaith.org We look forward to hearing from you.
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