Everybody has a worldview. Whether we know it or not, we all have a fundamental perspective on the world that shapes the way we live.
By way of illustration, consider what the following everyday encounters tell us about the various ways that different people look at the world and how they interact with it as a result:
We are playing baseball at the park, and it’s Jack’s turn to bat. He’s only four, but he knows what he’s doing at the plate—better, as it turns out, than he knows what he’s doing on the base paths. He hits a sharp grounder back to the mound, which I field and throw to his sister at first for the out. Jack veers sharply away from the baseline and runs haphazardly around the infield before returning to home plate. “I get to choose my own bases,” he announces, in what sounds like a basic premise for postmodern ethics. Laughing, I say, “Okay, buddy. You can choose your own bases, but they’re not the real bases, so you’re still out.”
I am out shoveling sixteen inches of snow into huge piles by the street when a neighbor stops by to speculate as to when (or even if) the snow will ever disappear. “Well, God brought it here,” I say, “and only God can take it away.” Taking clear objection to my reasoning, my neighbor sniffs, “It was a low pressure system, you know.” I did know that, of course, yet I also happen to believe that even the weather system is under God’s control.
Before I move halfway across the country, a friend invites me to his art studio and generously invites me to choose a painting to take with me as a gift. We walk back and forth, admiring his artwork and discussing each piece—where it was painted, how it is composed, what thoughts and feelings it expresses. Finally, I choose a watercolor depicting a street of row houses from a local city neighborhood. Today the painting has a treasured place in my home, as the memory of a familiar place and a symbol of a valued friendship.
It is two minutes before tip-off in the first round of the playoffs for an intramural basketball league. “Where’s Eric?” I ask, referring to our star point guard. “He won’t be here tonight. He’s leading a high school Bible study.” When we lose by four points, we all know that missing our best player cost us a shot at the championship. But we also know that some things in life—such as honoring a ministry commitment—are even more important than basketball.
These everyday encounters all reveal the worldviews of the people involved. What I hang on my wall bears witness to the beauty and truth that Jesus Christ has put into the world. The way I shovel snow is a testimony to what I believe about God’s creation and providence. Even the way I play sports reflects the purpose of leisure in an ordered universe.
At the same time, the way other people respond reveals their worldview—their faithfulness in keeping a commitment, for example, or their unbelief in the existence and providence of God. Ideas have consequences. Even ordinary interactions reflect our commitments and convictions about the basic issues of art and science, work and play, family and society, life and death. Whenever we bump into the world, our worldview has a way of spilling out. It comes out in what we think and love, say and do, praise and choose.
Worldviews also have a way of bumping into one another. Some of the examples above deal with conflicting commitments at the level of daily life, but of course different views of the world also have culture-wide influence. Some of the major conflicts in today’s society—between naturalism and supernaturalism, for example, or between freedom and terrorism, or between purity and promiscuity in popular entertainment, or between abortion and the right to life—come at the intersections where worldviews collide, sometimes violently.
The conflict of worldviews calls Christians to thoughtful cultural engagement. In an increasingly secularized society, the followers of Christ often find their ideas under attack. How can we maintain a Christ-centered perspective on the contested issues of our day? How can we think Christianly in every area of intellectual life? And how can we live out a faithful Christian testimony at home, at school, at church, at work, in government, and in the marketplace of ideas? The answer begins with having a worldview like the one introduced in this book: a consistently Christian worldview that shapes our thoughts, forms our desires, guides our words, and motivates our actions.
A worldview—or “world-and-life view,” as some people call it—is the structure of understanding that we use to make sense of our world. Our worldview is what we presuppose. It is our way of looking at life, our interpretation of the universe, our orientation to reality. It is the “comprehensive framework of our basic belief about things,” or “the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns.” More complexly, a worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.
Ideally, a worldview is a well-reasoned framework of beliefs and convictions that helps us see the big picture, giving a true and unified perspective on the meaning of human existence. Alternatively, we could say that our worldview is the story we tell to answer questions like these: Why is there anything at all? How can we know for sure? How did we get here, and what are we here for, anyway? Why have things gone so badly wrong? Is there any hope of fixing them? What should I do with my life? And where will it all end?
Not all worldviews are equally systematic or equally comprehensive. Often there is a difference between the worldview that we think we have and the one we actually live—our functional as opposed to our theoretical worldview. Worldviews can also change according to circumstance. But whether we realize it or not, all of us have basic beliefs about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. This is unavoidable. Even people who never stop to think about their worldview in any self-reflective way nevertheless live on the basis of their tacit worldview. This is so basic to who we are that usually we hardly even notice our worldview but simply take it for granted. Sometimes a worldview is compared to a pair of spectacles, but, to use another optic metaphor, maybe our eyes themselves would be a better analogy. When was the last time you noticed that you were seeing? We rarely think about seeing; we just see, and we are seeing all the time. Similarly, even if we rarely, if ever, think about our worldview, we still view everything with it. Our worldview is what we think with and ultimately live by.
Many factors contribute to our worldview, not all of them the product of our own thoughtful reflection. In the words of a character from The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis, “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” Our family background, life experience, economic circumstances, educational pedigree, cultural context, national heritage, linguistic community, physiological characteristics, psychological makeup, and historical situation all have an influence on the way we see the world. Some of these factors are public, not private, which helps to explain why worldviews have so much culture-shaping influence. Worldviews are not merely private perspectives but typically are held in common with other people. This leads the missiologist G. Linwood Barney to compare the relationship between worldview and culture to an onion, with its concentric layers. At the core is a culture’s prevailing worldview—its normative beliefs about God, the world, and the people in it. Growing out from that core, there are other layers: values, institutions, customs, material artifacts. All of these cultural layers grow out from a society’s worldview or worldviews.
Worldviews are inherently religious. Because our worldview is at the core of who we are, it always reveals our fundamental convictions, including what we believe (or don’t believe) about God. There is no spiritual neutrality—no view from nowhere. Even atheists and agnostics direct their lives toward some greater purpose. The theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote: “Whether he wishes it or not, man as a free creature must pattern his life according to some chosen ultimate end, must center his life on some chosen ultimate loyalty, and must commit his security to some trusted power. Man . . . inevitably roots his life in something ultimate.” People who say they do not believe in God nevertheless have controlling commitments, which are reflected in how they approach their schoolwork, spend their money, cast their ballots, use their smartphones, and do everything else they do. Whatever is ultimate for us shapes our total identity. “As [a man] thinks in his heart,” the Scripture says, “so is he” (Prov. 23:7 NKJV).
Another way to say this is that everybody worships. Human beings are not merely homo sapiens—people who think—but also homo adorans—people who praise. In an extraordinary address given to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College, the novelist David Foster Wallace spoke with astonishing clarity about the centrality of worship (and its consequences):
There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. . . . Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. . . . Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is . . . they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
The novelist’s words carry special force when we read them in the context of his death by suicide just a few years later. What we choose to worship matters desperately and is always bound up with our entire perspective on the world. This is why a worldview can never be reduced to a set of rational propositions. It is a matter of the heart as well as the head—of what we love as well as what we think. And in the final analysis, the only life-giving worldview is one that leads to the everlasting worship of God.
Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition – Christian Worldview: A Student’s Guide.