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]

No Man-Made Heaven on Earth

For hundreds of years, people have sought to devise utopian schemes to create a heaven on earth.  They have soon discovered, however, that society cannot be changed without changing the human heart, which only God can do through the saving work of the Holy Spirit.  As a young man, Nathaniel Hawthorne spent a few months at Brook Farm, one of the many socialist communes that sprang up all over America in the first half of the twentieth century.  He used his experiences in that failed experiment as the setting for the most recent addition to the literature website, The Blithedale Romance.  More a study of the four main characters, including the unreliable narrator, than an analysis of the commune, the novel uses many layers of symbolism to discuss the changes occurring in American society in the middle of the nineteenth century as well as the unchanging characteristics of human nature that undermine any attempts to create a perfect world.

Should Christians Read Non-Christian Literature?

Some Christians have argued that reading literature is essentially a waste of time that might be much better spent in reading the Bible or devotional books. We should note, however, that, given the need for critical engagement with the surrounding culture, literature can have great value for the Christian in several ways.

The greatest value of literature is to give insight into the human experience. In this regard, much can be learned from non-Christian writers. By common grace, unbelievers often understand the world in which they live in profound ways, though for the most part they perceive the human dilemma of endemic evil and hopelessness without being able to provide any solutions. Thus the literature of the modern age, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century, tends to be depressing. From the novels of Thomas Hardy to the works of Faulkner and Hemingway to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Christians gain a better understanding of how modern man views the apparent absurdity of his own predicament – with a hopelessness that is hard for us to imagine.

Christians can also gain insight into how the world views us. It doesn’t take much exposure to literature and the popular media to figure out that they do a bad job of portraying the reality of Christianity, despite occasional astonishing exceptions like the portrayal of Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire. This should not be surprising, since “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (I Corinthians 1:18). Two major tendencies appear in literature that attempts to portray Christianity.

Such works as Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and John Osborne’s Luther give very unflattering pictures of Christianity. Such critical pictures are painful, but make it easier for Christians to understand the low regard in which we are held by the world around us. Even this can have value, since it equips the believer to respond to the caricatures and misperceptions that dominate the surrounding world.

On the other hand, when Christianity is pictured in a positive way in secular works, it is often the Social Gospel kind of religion. After all, unbelievers think that religion ought to be more concerned with this world than the next, and think the best Christians are those who care little about what people believe, are non-judgmental about their actions, and are willing to accept everyone. This is the kind of pastor that tends to appear favorably in movies as well as in well-known works of literature. For example, Jane Austen, who was a Christian, and George Eliot, who was not, both show this tendency among the clergymen who are pictured positively in their novels. The ones who are really religious are hypocrites and fools, while the “good” clergymen are much more liberal and tolerant.

Reading good literature can also help a Christian’s witness, since it enables him to understand how unbelievers think and to gain a window into their world that can be useful in preaching the Gospel. The common ground that good literature creates can often open the door for discussing the serious ideas found in that literature, and thus to a conversation about the answer the Gospel provides for the big questions being addressed.

Reading good literature can also cause us to praise God for the reality of the common grace that He gives, enabling even those who hate Him to create works of great power and beauty. We can thank God for these things even if the authors themselves refuse to acknowledge the source of their talents. Take note, however, of the frequent references in this article to good literature. Bad art, whether created by Christians or non-Christians, can elicit little praise to God, and is not generally helpful common ground for serious discussions with unbelievers.

[Excerpted from my Thinking Inside the Box, this essay is also found on my Facebook page]

Bob Walton Now on Facebook

I recently set up a Facebook account, which includes a personal page as well as separate pages for Planters Press, the Faith Reformed Baptist Church Sunday School Curriculum Project, and Christian Notes on Classic Literature. I would encourage any of you who have found these materials helpful to visit those Facebook pages and “like” them, as well as making any comments you may think appropriate. Thanks for your use of the website.

The Downside of the Pursuit of Happiness

“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). This verse provided the title for Edith Wharton’s first successful novel, The House of Mirth, which is the most recent addition to the literature website. Wharton portrays turn-of-the-century upper-class New York society as a house of fools seeking pleasure and caring nothing about whom they might trample underfoot in the process. The central character in the novel, Lily Bart, longs to be part of that society while at the same time recognizing its essential ugliness. Her inability to turn away from these frauds and poseurs ultimately ruins her life; she winds up in the house of mourning, not by choosing a sober approach to life, but as a result of her inability to reject worthless frivolity. The novel provides a clear example of how “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10).

More Repairs

I should have caught it earlier, but I discovered yesterday that the hacker had wiped out both literature pages. They are now repaired and fully functioning. Sorry for the inconvenience for those of you who were trying to access those pages.

The Russians Are Coming?

What does my tiny website have in common with those of major corporations and powerful political entities?  It was recently hacked!  I’m not blaming the Russians – I don’t know who did it – but it is now back in fully functioning order after being out of commission for a few days.  I want to give credit to the tech who fixed it.  His name is Jim Walker, and he can be reached at https://hackrepair.com/.  He resolved the problem quickly and efficiently, and I would recommend him should you ever encounter Russian attempts to influence the operation of your website.

A Whale of a Tale

When people refer to something as a “fish story,” they normally mean that it is clearly exaggerated or simply a figment of the teller’s imagination.  The most recent entry on the literature page, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, however, is based on an actual event on which the author wrote a newspaper article sixteen years before the publication of the book.  The tale he has told goes far beyond the experience of one individual, tapping into universal truths about courage, perseverance, and the relationship between man and nature.  The novelette is full of Christian imagery, highlighting suffering and sacrifice, though sadly its tale of triumph in the face of hardship and failure yields no sense of ultimate redemption.  The book won a Pulitzer Prize and was a major factor in Hemingway receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature two years after its publication.

The Life and Ministry of the Apostle Paul

The most recent addition to the adult Sunday School courses offered on the website is a series on the second part of the book of Acts, which focuses on the ministry of the greatest missionary in the history of Christianity, the Apostle Paul.  From his conversion on the road to Damascus through the early years when the Lord was preparing him, revealing new aspects of the Gospel to him, and he was learning by experience how best to preach the Gospel through his three missionary journeys, his arrest in Jerusalem, imprisonment in Caesarea, and finally his journey to Rome, Luke traces the work accomplished by God through the former persecutor of the church.  The central part of Paul’s evangelistic ministry was his task of spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles, and by the time the book of Acts ends, Christ’s commission to His disciples to be witnesses throughout the known world is well on the way to being fulfilled.

A Sinner in Need of Grace

How is one to find forgiveness for a sin that he has no intention of renouncing?  Henry Scobie, a policeman in a British colony in West Africa during World War II and a devout Catholic, is stuck in an unhappy marriage.  In an attempt to please his wife, he sends her to South Africa, where she has always wanted to live.  While she is gone, he gets involved in an affair.  Much to his surprise, she decides to return.  What is he to do now?  If he confesses his sin to the priest and does the assigned penance, he will have to leave his mistress and make her miserable.  If he refuses to leave the mistress, he will not receive absolution, but when he declines to accompany his wife to Mass, she will know something is wrong, and he will make her miserable.  If he goes to Mass unconfessed, he will be in a state of mortal sin and will condemn himself to everlasting punishment.  How can he love God if obeying Him makes someone he loves unhappy?  The trap in which Scobie finds himself is the central dilemma of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.  Few books illustrate more clearly the ineffectiveness of Roman Catholic traditions and dogma in dealing with human sin and providing real forgiveness and a way to grace, thus reminding us of the blessing to be found in the free grace of Christ that is obtained only by faith.