Should We Do Away With Talk of Worldview?

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A few weeks ago, I recorded a podcast at Beeson Divinity School with Timothy George and David Dockery. We discussed The Worldview Study Biblea new CSB resource for which Dockery and I served as general editors. During the podcast, George asked about the meaning of the word “worldview” and whether or not this concept is helpful for Christians today.

This is a good question, and it’s one that I address in Eschatological Discipleship. In recent days, some scholars have questioned the helpfulness of the concept of “worldview.” Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew note several objections and then offer a response.

Does the Worldview Approach Intellectualize the Gospel?

The first objection is that the worldview approach intellectualizes the gospel. While recognizing the dangers of modernism’s overemphasis on reason, Goheen and Bartholomew reaffirm the importance of “thinking Christianly,” and they believe they overcome this objection by showing how the Christian worldview is connected to one’s experience of Jesus Christ. The affective elements of relationship are at the heart of a worldview, and because the starting point is God’s revelation, not human reason, we cannot accept this criticism that a worldview is too dependent on human thought to be valid.

This charge of over-intellectualism is leveled against worldview thinking in another way. It is at the heart of James K. A. Smith’s concern that worldview terminology focuses primarily on education as something one knows rather than something one loves. Smith sees much Protestant discipleship as being overly fixated on doctrines and ideas, leading to “an overly intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian,” which in turn leads to “a stunted pedagogy that is fixated on the mind.” Appealing to Augustine, Smith believes,

“The way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it.”

How does this criticism influence an understanding of a Christian worldview? For Smith a worldview is no longer about distinctly Christian “knowledge” but rather about a Christian “social imaginary.” It is “a distinctly Christian understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship.”

The difference between a “social imaginary” and a “theory” is that the former emphasizes the way people’s stories, narratives, myths, and icons capture their hearts and imaginations and thus form their view of the world. Instead of a trickle-down approach that begins with beliefs and then moves toward desires and actions, Smith sees the reverse taking place; human practices contribute to their imaginations, which then lead to the formation of knowledge of doctrines. He adds,

“What we do (practices) is intimately linked to what we desire (love), so what we do determines whether, how, and what we can know.”

Smith’s criticism of an approach to spiritual formation that is overly intellectualized is a helpful caution against focusing only on the cognitive aspect of worldview formation. However, as long as we remain fully aware of the “affective” and “moral” dimensions of a worldview, as noted by Paul Hiebert and as affirmed by N. T. Wright in his consideration of cultural symbols as expressions of practice, then we should be able to avoid many of the dangers Smith mentions. (I agree with Wright, who says we should “expand the notion of worldview to incorporate these and other elements rather than abandon it and launch out with a different term.”)

The best way to incorporate Smith’s critique of the worldview approach is not to dismiss or downplay the cognitive element but to see how beliefs and practices work in a dialectic manner, with our social imaginary influencing what we can know and how we know it and our beliefs simultaneously impinging on our social imaginary and how we interpret the world around them. The reality is neither a trickle-down approach, like a river that rushes from knowledge to beliefs to practices; neither is it a trickle-up approach leading from practices to imagination to knowledge. Instead, we should view the relationship between the imagination and knowledge more like ocean waves, where the ocean thrusts water onto the shore (our practices) and the water that returns is taken up into the sea (our beliefs) and becomes part of the next wave (knowledge that now encompasses beliefs and practices).

Does the Worldview Approach Relativize the Gospel?

Goheen and Bartholomew mention a second objection made by critics of the worldview approach: it might lead to relativizing the gospel.

Confronted with a perplexing diversity of worldviews, we might begin to see truth as relative, since it seems impossible to adjudicate between competing worldview claims. On a similar note, does not the diversity of worldviews (and the specific nature of individual belief and practice) lead to incoherence when speaking of worldviews in general terms? If everyone has a worldview, and every worldview is different, then how can one avoid reductionism when speaking of worldviews in general terms?

Goheen and Bartholomew answer the first aspect of this objection in two ways. First, they see the gospel as the true story of the world despite the plurality of perspectives. Second, they believe one’s articulation of worldview should not be confused with the gospel itself, but it is always open to critique from Scripture. These responses help answer the objection of relativism.

James Sire responds to the second aspect of this objection, the idea that pluralism makes any general discussion of worldviews incoherent. Sire sees discussion of worldviews as “ideal types” that may not be held in the same way by every individual and yet still hold value in describing the general characteristics of that society. For example, within a Christian worldview, distinctions may be present between denominations—more or less consistent or coherent versions of seeing the world through a biblical lens, despite the differences that still exist. However, recognizing these differences do exist does not negate the helpfulness of generalizing worldview discussion as “ideal types,” just as one would not find it problematic to speak generally of a Hindu worldview, a naturalist worldview, and so forth.

Is the Worldview Approach Vulnerable to the Spirit of the Age?

A third objection is that “the worldview approach may become disconnected from Scripture and thus vulnerable to the spirits of the age.” This objection is not a criticism per se but a warning against an ever-present danger.

Perhaps in an attempt to ward off this danger, Oliver O’Donovan recommends the language of testimony and witness rather than a “worldview.” He describes “a message about the order of God’s works which we may both receive and give, a testimony to receive and amplify as it is passed through the thought and experience that is given to us to live with.” Furthermore, O’Donovan sees the language of “faithful repetition” as less vulnerable to the perils of idolatry, the idea of “extending or amplifying the testimony we have received.” The goal is for Christians to “in our time” take up the confession of those who have gone before them and then learn “to think and say for ourselves what has been thought and said before us on our behalf.”

Although O’Donovan’s cautions are helpful in reminding of the necessity of faithful witness to the apostolic testimony, as revealed in Scripture, they need not lead us to dispense with worldview terminology altogether. The answer to this warning is to heed it! If we are to embrace a worldview formed by the drama of Scripture, we must return again and again to the true story of our world in order to have our own blind spots exposed and mistaken ways corrected.

Learning from These Cautions

Some criticisms of the use of worldview terminology are well founded, and we benefit from incorporating these warnings and concerns into our overall project. As long as we are clear on the affective and imaginative elements of worldview formation (as opposed to what is primarily a cognitive approach), the biblical drama as the true story of the world (as opposed to the relativizing tendencies of a pluralistic diversity of worldviews), and the need to be constantly immersed in Scripture (as opposed to extrabiblical or antibiblical visions of the world), then we can continue to use the idea of worldview as a way of helping to understand the interpretive framework from which people know, believe, and act in the world.

(This article is adapted from my book Eschatological Discipleship: Leading Christians to Understand Their Historical and Cultural Context.)

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