The Question of Worldview

The concept of a worldview is unfamiliar to many, both inside and outside of Christian circles, but an understanding of it is vital in order to interact fruitfully with those outside the Christian faith. In order to do so, you must comprehend both your own worldview and that of the one to whom you are speaking.

What is a Worldview?

A worldview is, in simple terms, the spectacles through which a person understands and interprets reality. Someone who wears glasses or contact lenses sees everything around him through those curved pieces of glass or plastic; nothing enters his range of vision that is not filtered through the lenses in front of his eyes.

Our understanding of the world around us is like that. The spectacles through which we view the world consist of a set of presuppositions or assumptions about the outside world, ourselves, and God (if we believe in God). These presuppositions then determine how we interpret and interact with everything else. While these spectacles can be changed (think of getting a new prescription for your glasses), they can never be removed; you wear these glasses all the time.

Does Everyone Have a Worldview?

Unlike daily life, where some people have 20-20 vision and some need glasses, everyone wears worldview spectacles. Each individual has a basic set of assumptions by which he evaluates the ideas and information with which he comes in contact. The important thing to remember here is that there is no such thing as presuppositionless thought.

One of the problems that arises here is that most people are not aware of the worldview that colors their understanding of reality. They are used to looking at the world in a certain way and cannot imagine doing otherwise. If you were to ask such a person what his presuppositions are, he would be hard-pressed to answer because he doesn’t realize that he has any.

Worse yet, many people will vehemently insist that they operate without presuppositions. Such people believe that they look at the world in a neutral or objective fashion while insisting that Christians, because they believe in God, live by faith, and seek to follow the Bible, are biased. They thus assume the high ground intellectually while dismissing the credibility of believers. Such facile rejection of Christianity without even considering its claims cannot be allowed to stand.

Where Do Worldviews Come From?

Though in the final analysis all non-Christian worldviews come from man’s rebellion against God (see Romans 1:18-22), most people acquire their worldviews from their parents and other influences early in life. Because they have grown up in an environment where people look at the world in a certain way, they think it normal or natural to do so. Education also plays a major role in shaping worldviews; in fact, the American educational system has been in the business of altering the worldviews of students ever since the early part of the twentieth century when socialization became a big part of the educational process. Today, children in public schools are taught in an environment that conveys, either subtly or directly, that religion isn’t important and that truth and morality are relative. College campuses are even worse, with rampant political correctness enforcing certain accepted modes of thought while stifling the expression of Christian ideas and values.

Worldviews can change gradually as people learn to look at reality differently from the way in which they were raised. They can also change quickly and radically. For example, teenagers and college students rebelling against their parents and everything they stand for will sometimes profess ideas that are diametrically opposed to what they have been taught at home. The greatest means of drastic worldview change, of course, is conversion, where the Holy Spirit transforms the heart and mind (see Paul’s conversion experience in Acts 9).

Can a Worldview Be Proved?

By the very nature of the case, worldviews are not subject to proof, either rational or empirical. The simple reason for this is that a person’s worldview determines what he is or is not willing to accept as proof. Like Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), all thought must start somewhere; for him, the starting point was the assumption of his own existence, though other worldviews take other starting points.

For example, an Empiricist begins with the assumption that only what is discernible by the senses and their man-made extensions (microscopes, telescopes, etc.) is worthy of belief. He therefore dismisses out of hand any aspect of the supernatural (God, angels, demons) or non-material (the human soul or spirit). But can he prove that only what is detectable by the senses exists? Of course not, but he has ruled out any arguments concerning suprasensory phenomena because they do not fall within his presuppositions.

Can a Worldview Be Tested?

Does this then mean that we are lost in a morass of hopeless relativism? Because worldviews cannot be proved, must we conclude that one worldview is as valid as any other? Does this therefore rule out intelligent discussion, since talking with someone who does not share our basic assumptions about the nature of things is an exercise in futility? Not at all. Though worldviews are not susceptible to proof, they can be tested and compared on the basis of how well they meet the following tests.

The first test of the validity of any worldview is internal consistency. If someone professes to believe in a system of thought that contradicts itself, he is no better off than the inhabitants of Airstrip One in George Orwell’s novel 1984, who were taught to practice doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Secondly, a valid worldview must be consistent with human experience. For instance, if your worldview includes the belief that matter doesn’t exist, you should as a result be able to walk through walls, abstain from eating and drinking indefinitely, and get run over by a bus without harm. These, of course, along with an enormous variety of similar tests, simply do not work out very well in practice. Note, however, that this does not imply that tests of this sort are limited to sensory experience (or we would have to concede the game to the Empiricists). Consistency with human experience would also include such things as the reality of emotions and relationships, which certainly extend beyond the realm of the material.

The third test of a valid worldview is that one must be able to live it out in practice. If a set of presuppositions is no more than theory, it means nothing at all. For instance, one may profess to believe that right and wrong do not exist, yet such a person cannot go through a single day without making value judgments about his own ideas and behavior and those of others. Being able to practice what you preach is of the utmost importance here, though we must acknowledge that no one achieves perfection in living out his or her beliefs.

[Excerpt from chapter one of Defending Your Sword]