On Worldview

The term “worldview” has a simple dictionary definition: “the way that a person views the world.” The way that we view the world is made up of a variety of factors, including spiritual, cultural, emotional, and intellectual ones.

Usually people who talk about worldviews focus primarily on the intellectual factors, or the things that we think. In this sense, when people talk about a worldview they mean the things that we think about God, ourselves, the world, and other people. It is important, however, to understand that worldviews have non-intellectual elements and practical consequences. Worldviews are not just thoughts rattling around in people’s heads. Thoughts in our minds come from our hearts and reflect what is in them (Mt. 9:4; Rom. 1:21).

As well, the things that we think about God, ourselves, the world, other people, and so forth substantially influence our behavior. Ideas give birth to actions. Someone who thinks that there is no God will act differently than someone who does think there is a God. Someone who thinks that humans evolved from lower life forms will act differently than someone who thinks humans were created by God. Someone who thinks that life does not mean anything will act differently than someone who thinks life does mean something.

Interestingly, sometimes things that we do can generate thoughts, thus actually altering parts of our worldview. For instance, what parent has not become painfully aware in recent years how the tsunami of devices and the digital life they create has altered the way their children – and perhaps even they themselves – view the world? Finding oneself a bit more impatient with the way life is than one used to be? Unconsciously wishing one could just “swipe” the unpleasantness away and have much more congenial items in one’s mental and emotional “feed”? Devices have generated new and altered worldview thoughts – which is both interesting and horrifying.

One easy way to get hold of the concept of a worldview is to think of it as answering certain basic questions. Different people give different lists of the basic questions that a worldview answers. A simple list is this one:

  • Who am I? what kind of creatures are human beings (what is the nature of a human being)? What is the task of human beings in the world? What significance or meaning do human beings have?
  • Where am I? what is the origin and nature of the reality in which human beings find themselves?
  • What’s wrong? In many ways, the world seems to be broken, or at least, somehow “sick.” What is the reason for this brokenness, this “sickness”?
  • What’s the remedy?Can the brokenness and “sickness” of the world be alleviated?If so, how?

These are basic questions, questions that you can use to get a “feel” for what a person’s worldview is. However, you must take care not to “put people in a box” based on the answers they give to these questions. It is important to understand that within a particular worldview there can be disagreement about the proper answers to the basic questions.

For instance, all Christians believe that the answer to the third question, “What’s wrong?” is that “Mankind sinned against God and must be saved by God.” But not all Christians agree with each other on “sub-questions” that come under this one, such as “What were the effects of man’s Fall on the human mind?”, “Do human beings after the Fall have free will?”, and so forth. All Christians believe as a basic answer to this part of the Christian worldview that man has fallen into sin, but not all Christians believe the same things about particular parts of the answer to the question.

Likewise, all Christians practice baptism because Jesus said to baptize people in his name. But not all Christians believe exactly the same thing about baptism. Some think that baptism can be given to infants, while others think it can only be given to people who have first made a public statement of their personal belief in Christ. Some believe baptism is only properly done via immersion. Others believe in sprinkling, and still others in pouring.

All Christians believe that Jesus is coming back to this world at the end of time, but not all Christians believe the same thing about when the end of time will be and how the events described in the Bible’s passages about the end times will all work out.

All Muslims share certain beliefs about the inspiration of the Koran and the character of Allah, but this has not stopped diverse views (such as Shi’a, Sufi, and Sunni) from developing due to different takes on “sub-questions” within the worldview. All Hindus believe in a nebulous entity they call “Brahman,” but great differences have arisen amongst them about the precise role of Brahman in their religion.

More examples could be given, but these show that outlining the basic questions of a worldview and its basic answers to those questions is only a start at understanding a belief system. Worldviews can help us to clearly organize beliefs and analyze their consequences. But worldviews are less like encyclopedia articles and more like the superstructures of skyscrapers upon which different exteriors and within which different arrangements of rooms can be built.

This means that part of good worldview thinking is to be able to discern essential questions from secondary questions. When it comes to the Christian worldview, for instance, are we bound to say that a particular economic system – the one we ourselves think is best! – just is what the Bible teaches as normative for everyone? What would an assertion like that mean for dedicated, godly followers of Christ in other places than our own and other times than our own? Does the Christian worldview demand that everyone dress a certain way, have certain settled attitudes about tattoos and beer and smoking cigars, or is all of that kind of stuff just local cultural practices that can legitimately vary for Christians not in our own circumstances?

Another part of good worldview thinking is to be charitable toward others. People are not just minds. and their lives are not reducible to systems of propositional statements of ideas. People do not always think and act in ways fully consistent with their espoused worldview – or even with a worldview that we attribute to them because we’re trying to conveniently categorize them so as to more easily refute them. And importantly, imperfect consistency between a purported system of beliefs and the ways in which a person lives from day to day turns out to be a feature not only of unbelievers, but of Christians, too.

Thus, worldview thinking is not a bludgeon with which to hit people who disagree with you. Nor is it a mental straitjacket, preventing the movement of the mind outside its narrow confines. It is just a tool to help you learn to systematically think about beliefs, both your own and those of others who, like you, are made in the image of God but need the redemption from sin and all its effects on life and culture that only comes through Jesus Christ.