In his book, A Brief History of Time, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking relates a story about a well-known scientist who gave a public lecture on astronomy:
He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”
Like the old lady in this tale, most people haven’t given much thought to what their “tortoise” is “standing on.” When pressed for an answer they tend to be uncomfortable and defensive. Francis Schaeffer called this intellectual exercise of pushing people toward the logical conclusions of their presuppositions “taking the roof off,” and warned that it often causes people psychological pain.
In apologetic discussions we often expect people to “name their turtles” by explaining how their presuppositions provide the scaffolding for their worldview. Yet too often we examine other people’s worldviews in extensive detail while choosing to provide only the most basic framework for our own. In doing so we hide any inconsistencies that might be exposed and avoid shedding light on areas we would rather not have to defend. Such an approach is not fair to those we criticize nor is it conducive to honest and open dialogue.
But it also causes us to miss a prime opportunity for self-analysis. As James Sire writes in Naming the Elephant:
One of the most important uses of worldview analysis is self-analysis. To become conscious of your fundamental nature of reality, to be able to tell yourself just what you believe about God, the universe, yourself, and the world around you—what else could be more important? You would be able to live the proverbial examined life. Naming your elephant does not guarantee that you are right, but it does mean that you know where you stand.
Some Christians may say that such an exercise is unnecessary since they already have the Westminster Confession or the Book of Concord or the Baptist Faith and Standard. While these documents are useful (I would even say necessary) for clarifying doctrinal positions, establishing confessional boundaries, and should even serve as the basis for one’s self-analysis, it can still be helpful to write out one’s beliefs in order to examine them more consciously.
Many writers will attest there is something unique and profound in having to write out what you believe. As Tim Challies said in a recent interview, “I don’t really know what I believe until I write it down and work it through in my word processor, and in that way writing has been a critical part of my spiritual development.” Writing out what you believe can be an important aspect of worldview self-analysis.
A worldview is not, of course, merely a list of beliefs. But beliefs—particularly religious beliefs—are foundational to a person’s worldview and thus should be made explicit in order that they may be examined and criticized more completely.
Your basic beliefs should, at a minimum, answer these seven questions that Sire claims are foundational to worldview analysis:
1. What is prime reality – the really real?
To this we might answer: God, the gods, or the material universe.
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
Do we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit? Do we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us?
3. What is a human being?
Are we highly complex machines, sleeping gods, people made in the image of God, or “naked apes”?
4. What happens to a person at death?
Is it personal extinction, transformation to a higher state, or departure to a shadowy existence on “the other side”?
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
Sample answers include the idea that we are made in the image of an all-knowing God or that consciousness and intelligence have developed under the pressures of survival in a long process of evolution.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
Is it because we are made in the image of God whose character is good? Are right and wrong determined by human choice alone? Or have the notions simply developed under the pressures of cultural and physical survival?
7. What is the meaning of human history?
Is it to realize the purposes of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, or something else?
This list of questions is not exhaustive but should be used as prompts to help you name your own giant tortoise and many of the turtles that stand on its back; the “turtles” that comprise the basic set of presuppositions which constitute your worldview.
Write out your answers to these questions in as much detail as you feel is necessary. But be sure to write them down. Don’t just tell yourself that you know what you believe. Write it out so that you can see (and maybe share with others) what you believe in order that you may examine your beliefs with greater scrutiny.
(As an example, I’ve included below my own rather extreme outline of my “turtles.” Feel free to skim or skip that section. While my list neither exhaust the totality of my presuppositions nor explains them in sufficient detail, I do believe it provides a useful starting point for me to discuss them with others. You probably won’t feel the need to be as verbose and as detailed — and it’s certainly not necessary. In general, two to three sentences per point is usually sufficient to explain what you believe.)
I believe that God is the eternal, independent, and self-existent Being; the Being whose purposes and actions spring from himself, without foreign motive or influence; he who is absolute in dominion; the most pure, the most simple, the most spiritual of all essences; infinitely perfect; and eternally self-sufficient, needing nothing that he has made; illimitable in his immensity, inconceivable in his mode of existence, and indescribable in his essence; known fully only by himself, because an infinite mind can only be fully comprehended by itself. In a word, a Being who, from his infinite wisdom, cannot err or be deceived, and from his infinite goodness, can do nothing but what is eternally just, and right, and kind.
I believe there is but one God, revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit each with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence or being. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.
I believe that the Son came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
I believe that the only sufficient philosophical answers to questions of existence must be predicated on a self-existent Creator.
I believe that God created, out of nothing, all things that exist and that he was intimately and inextricably involved in the process from the beginning to the end state of all created beings.
I believe that the cosmos, the summum bonum of creation, would cease to exist without God’s providence acting as the sufficient cause of its existence. The universe is so radically contingent on God that it would exnihilate—be replaced by nothingness—without his continuous sustainment. God’s daily work of preserving and governing the world cannot be separated from the act of calling the world into existence.
I believe that God not only creates and sustains his creation but rules it by divine fiat and that we understand this action as creational (i.e., natural) laws.
I believe that creation before and apart from sin is wholly and unambiguously good.
I believe that God imposes his will through the laws on the cosmos in two ways: directly, without mediation, or indirectly, through the involvement of human responsibility. God’s rule of law is immediate in the nonhuman realm (e.g., the laws of nature) but mediate in culture and society (e.g., creational norms for marriage and government).
I believe humans are responsible for discerning these creational norms and for applying them in all areas within our domain, our “rule.” I believe this is the first task of what Christians often refer to as the “cultural mandate.”
I believe a distinction exist between creational norms that are general (applicable at all times and in all places) and those which are particular (exclusive to a particular time and place).
Human Beings and Human Nature
I believe that God created mankind in his image and that our dignity (literally our “worth) is based on this imago Dei.
I believe that a historical event known as “the Fall” occurred when two actual, individual humans (Adam and Eve) disobeyed God, and that their action had a catastrophic consequence for all of creation.
I believe that this action brought about an entirely new dimension—known as “sin”—into the created order, corrupting and distorting (though not abolishing or replacing) God’s good handiwork.
I believe that sin is parasitical and cannot exist apart from God’s good creation.
I believe that just as the distortion of creation was allowed to enter the world through one man, Adam, that the redemption of creation entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
I believe that the essence or essential being of creation is constantly moving in a particular direction, either becoming more distorted by sin or being restored through the work of Christ.
I believe that God retrains, through “common grace”, the effects of sin on his creation.
I believe that the redemption of Christ is cosmic, that if affects all of creation.
I believe that restoration does not mean repristination and that creation will not be restored to the Garden of Eden but to the Heavenly City spoken of in the Book of Revelation.
I believe that while the ultimate redemption of creation will only be completed at the time when Christ returns, that we have a responsibility to restore the parts of creation under our sphere of influence by discerning and applying God’s creational norms.
General and Special Revelation
I believe that God has provided us with knowledge about himself and his creation in two forms of revelation: general revelation—which is provided through nature and through quasi-universal human experiences; and special revelation—knowledge given to us by God through specific individuals in history.
I believe that general revelation can be either mediate (transmitted through something such as nature) or immediate (does not pass through an intermediate agent).
I believe that knowledge of God is both mediate (revealed through nature) and immediate (a properly basic belief).
I believe that because humans are part of creation, all mankind has been provided with limited intuitive knowledge of the laws of the cosmos, whether the laws of nature or of creational norms, through general revelation.
I believe that all humans clearly see and understand that God exist and that he is eternally powerful yet we often twist, distort, and suppress this knowledge.
I believe that because humans are part of creation, all mankind has an intuitive sense of God’s normative standards for conduct and that we refer to this sense as “conscience.”
I believe that God has revealed himself to us through specific individuals in history and that this special revelation is passed on to us in the form of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.
I believe that while the Canon of Scripture was written down and collected by human men throughout history, I also believe that certain knowledge about this text was revealed to me, through the immediate revelation of the Holy Spirit. This knowledge includes the following: that Scripture is God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit; wholly and verbally God-given, it is without fault in all its teaching.
I believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant, authoritative word of God.
I believe that the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
I believe that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.
I believe that all doctrine must be rooted in Scripture.
I believe that all men have sinned and are rightly deserving of God’s eternal wrath and infinitely just punishment.
I believe that while God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse it brought, that he has shown us mercy by sending his only begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
I believe that this message of redemption is found in the Gospels and that God mercifully sends his servants to share this “good news” with all of humanity.
I believe that God’s anger remains on those who do not believe this gospel but those who do accept it and embrace Jesus the Savior with a true and living faith are delivered through him from God’s anger and from destruction, and receive the gift of eternal life.
I believe that the cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man and that man, being provided with both Creation and the Gospel as testaments to the Creator’s divine nature, is completely without excuse.
I believe that the fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision and that in accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen.
I believe that God has chosen a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin, and has grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of his Son, to glorify them.
I believe that just as God himself is most wise, unchangeable, all-knowing, and almighty, so the election made by him can neither be suspended nor altered, revoked, or annulled; neither can his chosen ones be cast off, nor their number reduced.
I believe the human will is free to choose whatever it desires.
I believe that as fallen human beings we have retained our natural freedom to act according to our desire but have lost our moral freedom—the disposition, inclination, and desire of the soul toward righteousness.
I believe that our “rule” (re: #10), our sphere of authority, or “kingdom”, is simply the range of our effective will.
I believe that God’s “kingdom” is the range of his effective will and that the only place in creation where he does not completely subject his rule is on the human heart.
I believe that we were meant to exercise our rule only in union with God, as he acts with us.
I believe that our ethical mandate is to align our “kingdom” both with God’s rule (the 1st commandment) and with the kingdom’s of our fellow man (the 2nd commandment).
I believe that to accomplish this requires “wisdom”—ethical conformity to God’s creational norms—and that wisdom is a prerequisite for true freedom.
I believe that the best system of ethics for conforming to God’s creational norms is virtue ethics, and for the Christian, a form of a pneumatological approach to virtue ethics
I believe that the best system of ethics for conforming to God’s creational norms is virtue ethics, and for the Christian, that the Holy Spirit plays a role in developing the virtues by mediating them through the community of faith (the church), the Word of God (the Bible), and the individual self (the believer’s conscience). The Spirit works through these three means to both develop our ethical understanding (i.e., illuminating the moral requirements outlined in Scripture) and to help us live and act virtuously.
I believe that the Gospel—the “good news” of Scripture—is that the kingdom of God is now presently available to us through Jesus and that we may enter into this new life, allowing us to glorify and enjoy God for all eternity.
(Note: While some of the exact wording comes from specific sources, I have not cited them since this is a personal statement and I have adopted the particular formulation as my own.)