A Differing View of Worldview Criticism, Part 2: What's Wrong

In my first post, I considered the concept of worldview criticism and its popularity. Citing an article on the Focus on the Family website I gave the following definition for worldview:

A worldview is the framework from which we view reality and make sense of life and the world. “[It’s] any ideology, philosophy, theology, movement or religion that provides an overarching approach to understanding God, the world and man’s relations to God and the world,” says David Noebel, author of Understanding the Times.

As I mentioned in that first post, in this definition, what defines “worldview” is primarily the conscious ideologies that people affirm. Now we shall see how this understanding of worldview is flawed and dangerous to the intellectual and spiritual health of the church. There are three primary flaws with this understanding of worldviews which lead to several serious dangers.

First, worldview criticism reduces belief systems to mere caricatures. Whenever we try to describe a belief system, we will always reduce it in some way. This is not necessarily a bad thing — if we didn’t reduce them, we could never have encyclopedia, I mean, Wikipedia entries. We can ask two questions to try to sort out when a reduction is or is not productive:

  1. Is this reduction so great that it no longer usefully describes the belief system?
  2. Is this reduction appropriate for its use?

For example, the “postmodern worldview,” as it is often described by Christian worldview critics, is defined primarily (or exclusively) by relativism. A postmodernist is said to reject the idea of truth and universal morality. However, if you have studied any of the important postmodern thinkers, you will know that their beliefs are far more nuanced than this and that they even share some important concepts with Reformed Christianity. There are also many different postmodernist beliefs; there really is no “capital P” Postmodernism, no single, official, doctrine of this “worldview” — just as there is no single form of Marxism, Capitalism, New Ageism, or Christianity. Although we can talk about the general ideas of Christianity or Postmodernism, any attempt at describing them as singular worldviews will require us to misrepresent them.

So, to describe postmodernism as relativism is really to reduce it to such an extent that you are no longer talking about postmodernism. More important, this reduction is so great that what we’re left with is no longer useful for criticism or evangelism; we will have nothing productive to say to someone who actually subscribes to a particular brand of postmodernism if we believe that all postmodernists are moral and epistemological relativists. In fact, we might spend most of our conversation trying to persuade them that they are moral relativists; and it is rarely ever productive to try to tell someone what they “actually” believe contrary to what they confess.

Second, worldview criticism does not accurately represent what and how people believe. Adopting a kind of Enlightenment, cognitive view of belief, worldview criticism often assumes that we can accurately describe the discrete philosophies that define a person’s views. In this model, our beliefs are primarily or exclusively determined by the ideas that we give assent to.

Thus, if you asked me what I believed on how the world began, what happens to us after we die, whether there is objective morality, whether we can know the truth, the moral nature of humans, and a few other such questions, you should be able to diagram my worldview with a kind of mathematical precision: creationism + Christian afterlife + Biblical morality + incarnational truth + total depravity = Reformed Christian. In reality, however, our beliefs are formed by an infinitely complex web of bodily experiences and knowledge: our history, our culture, our gender, our age, etc.

My own Christian faith is inextricably tied to my embodied experience of the churches I grew up in, of a felt-storyboard Bible lesson about Jonah I heard as a child, of the experience of losing my grandparents, of the wisdom I gained from reading Franny and Zooey, of a comment my grandmother once made that the scarlet thread of Christ can be traced from Genesis through Revelation. My faith simply cannot be reduced to the Westminster Confession of Faith, my denomination, or even Evangelicalism, although these are all useful for helping someone understand my faith. And if someone’s faith is so complex, how much more complex must their worldview be (as it has been shaped by that faith)?

A true worldview is simply that: a perception of the entirety of one’s experience of the world which is so complex and mutable that its dimensions are nearly infinite and certainly indefinable by human comprehension. And this is true by design. God has made us creatures of incredible complexity. So whenever we claim to definitively describe a person’s worldview by categorizing them according to a certain set of predetermined worldviews (Atheist, Existentialist, Postmodernist, etc), we simply do not tell the truth about them as beings made in the image of God.

Third, worldview criticism does not accurately represent how people act on their beliefs. Often, worldview critics assume that if someone self identifies as a follower of a philosophy or religion, then he or she must act out the logical conclusions of his or her beliefs when, in the real world, there is often a stark contrast between what we claim to believe in and what we do, and sometimes there are even glaring contradictions within what we claim to believe.

Someone who is an atheist can live a quite moral life, although we might believe that the atheist’s ground for morality is vacuous. Someone who believes in evolution might continue to believe and act as if humans are not mere animals. Someone who is a Christian might regularly respond with hatred in political discussions. Simply because we believe that a worldview should logically result in a particular action or belief does not mean that it actually will.

Worldview criticism, at least in its most popular and simplistic form, offers a reductive account of ideologies, how we believe, what we believe, and how we act on fully. If we hope to charitably, lovingly, intelligently, truthfully, and productively live in the world and share the Gospel with our culturally embodied neighbors, we need to communicate and live with them in a way that faithfully accounts for who they are and who we are in all our complexity. When worldview criticism fails to do this, the results can be serious spiritual doubts, an inability to effectively communicate to the world, arrogance, and a naïve understanding of the messy details of the fallen world — points which I’ll explore in my next post.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.

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  • http://alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams


    I think your article may do to ‘worldview critics’ what you are bemoaning that they do to others. After what you have written, how can you possibly escape that charge?

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams


    My comment above is meant to provoke discussion only, not hostility. As I read it, it seems a bit antagonistic, though I admit a fondness for Francis Schaeffer, it has as much to do with the awesome goatee he rocked and his winsomeness as it does his reducing things to ‘worldview’.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Brad, I hope you’ll clarify how Alan’s article can be guilty of the three things he criticizing in popular worldview crit. Because it’s not immediately apparent how Alan:

    a) reduced belief systems to mere caricatures
    b) did not accurately represent what and how people believe
    c) did not accurately represent how people act on their beliefs

    I’m not even sure how these criticisms can relevantly be leveled at his article. Which doesn’t mean they can’t, just that I would like to see a bit of elucidation on your part. Sell me on your case.

    Alan, as I mentioned last time (I think), I definitely find worldview crit to be problematic and for the same reasons you mention here. Worldview crit is ungainly and leaves no room for nuance. Just an example:

    I am a Christian. That means that there are whole hosts of people who are ready to critique my beliefs and do so inaccurately because they probably aren’t aiming at my particular version of Christianity (one that is unique to me as yours is to you). Further down, I also can be labelled Reformed and that means there are whole hosts of Christian people who are ready to critique my beliefs and do so inaccurately because they probably aren’t aiming at my particular version of Reformed Christianity. Further down again, I can be labelled Reformed Presbyterian etc.

    Each of these is a fine starting point for discussion but a terrible place to begin criticism. While I might for one reason or another fit into each of these worldview categories, if you feel those categorizations make you able to know what I believe on one issue or another, you’ll be wrong as often as you are right (depending on how specific you get in your critique, your stats will lean one way or another).

    If that’s the case with me, it’s quite possibly the case with your common atheist or Mormon or Buddhist or communist. Politically, I’m probably a monarchist, but if you imagine you know how I’ll fall on any particular issue because of that, you’re wearing the silly pants.

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams


    My initial reaction was that I felt that he caricatured what people who use the “worldview critique.” Schaeffer and others were certainly aware of nuances in post-modern thought and other beliefs. Further, part of the point of worldview critique is to point out the inconsistencies in action verses belief. Alan seems to be unaware of this as he includes this as a criticism against folks who use this method. He writes:

    Often, worldview critics assume that if someone self identifies as a follower of a philosophy or religion, then he or she must act out the logical conclusions of his or her beliefs when, in the real world, there is often a stark contrast between what we claim to believe in and what we do, and sometimes there are even glaring contradictions within what we claim to believe.

    That is how, it seems to me, worldview critique works most effectively, and it certainly isn’t a negative. If I meet a “moral” atheist, and he confesses not to believe in any sort of absolute, it is legitimate for me to ask him, according to his ‘worldview’, why he must object if I take his wallet.

    Have you ever observed a worldview critic, I’m not talking about an internet apologist lobbing salvos from the basement, but do you think that those who use “worldview critique” like Nancy Pearcy, Schaeffer, and whoever else being guilty of the type of naive behavior that Alan describes. Doesn’t that necessarily make this a caricature?

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Thanks for clarifying, Brad.

    As to your example with the moral atheist, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask why he must object when you take his wallet. I’m sure he’ll have an answer for you. He may even have a good answer for you. What you cannot do is assume that because he’s an atheist, he must have an illogical reason for objecting to your theft. Worldview crit (and too much theology while we’re at it), as I’ve run into it, stipulates necessary conclusions based on ground premises—conclusions formed of nebulous arguments and presuppositions. Better to use worldview as a frame of reference only, allowing one’s arguments to develop in response to real and actuated arguments presented by individuals.

    So far as authors, I’ve read Schaeffer and Noebel, but never observed them in action. I haven’t read Pearcey because she came on the scene after my interests in that sort of thing had waned.

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams


    I hate it when my examples stink. Let me try it again. We’ll use you because you are more fun than a non-existent person.

    You say that you are probably a monarchist. Now, that indicates a certain set of necessary beliefs if words actually mean anything. So if I heard you say that, I might say, “So, do you think a King/Queen/Emperor ought to be a sort of Constitutional monarch? Do you think it should be by Divine Right alone? And do you think succession ought to be hereditary?”

    If you answered by saying that you think the King ought to be elected by the people every four years, and that his power ought to be balanced by two houses of Congress and a judiciary, and that Kings ought to get impeached by a vote of the houses, then I would either think you weren’t a monarchist at all, or you were living inconsistent with your confession. That’s all I think the worldview people are doing.

    Back to my bad example, the atheist may have a logical reason for objecting to my thievery, but I don’t think he can ground it in morality. He might just say, “Well, then I’d have to shoot you with my pistol here, and I find that to be unpleasantly messy. Just a personal feeling though.”

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Hey Alan: great post. My favorite point was the second one you make, which was summed up by this: “Adopting a kind of Enlightenment, cognitive view of belief, worldview criticism often assumes that we can accurately describe the discrete philosophies that define a person’s views. In this model, our beliefs are primarily or exclusively determined by the ideas that we give assent to.”

    This reminds me of JD Hunter and co. and the work they’ve done regarding the sociology of knowledge, the effects of “embodiment,” and the influence of various institutions. Your personal anecdotes wonderfully illustrate this point.

    Thanks for this.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Brad, see it’s all well and good for you to tell me what a particular atheist can and cannot respond to your question, but it’s always nicer to hear it from the individual who believes it. I could tell you why Baptists don’t drink, dance, or smoke (legalism), but you’d probably get a different and possibly more compelling reason from a particular Baptist.

    And yeah, I’ll agree with you that worldviews can be used to make note certain broad-base assumptions. If I lean toward monarchist in my political theory, you can say, at most, that I am in large part persuaded that governments are best ruled by a single figure who holds ultimate authority over those governed. You might be able to suggest some other possible corollaries (like term of office, passing of power, etc.), but until you hear me affirm or deny, they remain necessarily only possibilities. And you can’t know what I also think about democratic republics or social anarchies either.

  • http://alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams


    True, but I can tell you something of what you think of them. Namely, you think that they are worse than monarchies.

    Part of the reason for worldview critique is to listen to someone talk about their fundamental beliefs. Worldview critiquers, or whatever you call them, aren’t making up the idea that post-modernism and truth being relative out of the air. They’ve hopefully read enough source material and talked to enough post-modernists to figure out that this pops up rather frequently. I know it did in my post-modern, liberal arts department at college.

    The point, then, is to listen to people’s thoughts, and then try and push them to where they ought to logically go. If the person you are talking to doesn’t think that they are compelled to go there, then they can simply say so. But there is no problem whatever in making basic assumptions when folks wear a fairly well-defined label. If I knew that 85% of Baptists thought drinking, dancing, and blogging were sins, and I told you that I was a Baptist, I’d find it reasonable that you’d assume I thought they were as well.

    Yep. So….what were we talking about again?

  • Steve Schuler

    As a young teenager, my first exposure to philosophy and debate was through what you might call Worldview Criticism (my dad is a big Schaeffer fan), and for me it turned out to be a pretty good introduction to the concept of logic, specifically the syllogism. I wouldn’t study formal logic until later, but at the very least, Worldview Criticism helped me articulate the difference between a premise and a conclusion. “If I believed X, then wouldn’t I also have to believe Y?” or “I would like to believe Y, but on what possible grounds could I do so?” It also taught me the importance of defining terms precisely, and it helped me begin to detect logical fallacies.

    Eventually I progressed from that introductory level to a bit of formal logic, and eventually to some real philosophy and theology, in which I invariably found that the “worldviews” that had been represented by that Worldview Criticism” had been oversimplified for the sake of analysis and critique. But I also found that many of the theological ideas I had been taught were far more nuanced and complex than I had assumed. So in the end, I’m grateful for my early experience with Worldview Criticism, but I’m also glad that I’ve been able to build on that foundation.

    Additionally, you’re quite right that many of the critiques generated by Worldview Criticism are straw-man arguments. The facile attacks on “postmodernism” would hardly be applicable to Lyotard, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, et al., and what is often billed as “relativism” is not a worldview at all, unless sheer intellectual laziness counts as a worldview. But all too often, average people really do believe, or at least profess, those simplistic caricatures of real philosophies. Even within Christianity, there is quite a difference between predestination as articulated by St. Augustine and predestination as articulated by a Victorian Scots Calvinist preacher. It’s hard to find a really pure Marxist, or a really committed pagan. G. K. Chesterton began his book Orthodoxy by observing that most really worldly people do not actually understand the world, but only rely on a few cynical maxims which are not true. I’m afraid that’s just as true of average church-goers as it is of average coffeehouse-goers.

  • http://business.baylor.edu/scott_cunningham/home.html scott cunningham

    Like Seth, I came to this place as a Christian where I made an observation:

    1. I don’t think people around me psychologically have “world views”.

    But then I drew a conclusion from it, that I think is unwarranted:

    2a. If people don’t have world views, then world view as a concept is wrong.
    2b. If people don’t have world views, then world view analysis (WVA) is wrong.

    I wonder if you can hold 2a, but not 2b.

    2a is a complex syllogism, and I think as it stands the conclusion does not follow from 1 because we need to know more about what is means for something to be “wrong”. If we think that something is correct only if it is a perfect description of something outside of us, then I suspect no mental imaging within us is every correct. Even a high resolution digital photograph is not exhaustively describing the object being photographed – at some level of detail, there are pixel units blurring over the more microscopic details. There are choices made on the best approximated color scheme that the human eye can even transform into images. And so on. None of these are exactly what we see. So world view may in fact not be psychologically “correct”, but a lot of things we use regularly are not and yet we do not conclude they are “wrong”.

    Take for example a map. Maps are never confused to be the thing itself. And when someone leaves details out of a map – such as the exact scale, or physical buildings, or the brush and vegetation one can encounter en route – it does not necessarily count against the quality of the map. In fact, it may count in favor of the quality of the map if including those details actually decreased the clarity of the map. You judge maps based on what their objectives are, and rarely are maps created to describe exhaustively the outside world. They are aids which we use to categorize information for some other purpose, such as travel.

    In the same way, I wonder if part of some’s dissatisfaction with worldview as a concept and worldview analysis (WA) as a kind of scholarly analysis is that we at some point did not understand that world views aren’t descriptions of people. They aren’t competing with ethnographic descriptive work, because they are not trying to help scientists engage in a careful taxonomy of diverse cultures and people. Worldview was created it seems like to help with apologetic argumentation, and secondly, to provide Christians with a way of becoming more involved with “secular life”. And it did this by providing road maps to very common intellectual beliefs at those times – secular humanism, marxism, postmodernism, etc. being somewhat common topics at that time. The audiences for WA were very often undergraduates, and the writers of WA material were often pastors or at least theologically trained people. This was pastoral theology, in a way, for particular kinds of emerging Christian scholars wanting to engage in scholarly pursuits in what was the first post-christendom age of thought. Though occasionally you’d get WA on science, they were usually just fodder for people debating about the existence of God and to provide some temporary stop gaps for thinking about evolution. WA writings were rarely serious efforts at science, though – I say that if only because I don’t know of any WA writing that was actually talking about doing experiments, labs, measurement, etc. It was almost always just philosophy about methodology, if that.

    I have heard this kind of comment made about Francis Schaeffer by philosophers who had been influenced by Schaeffer as undergrads, and then after they did their own studies, basically poo-poo’d a bit on Schaeffer. But, often what they would say was that on his actual interaction with philosophers, Schaeffer might not provide very much for us. But pastorally, he helped a lot of us get there. WA seems to me a pastoral gift that God gave many of us who had maybe had deep desires to do creative or scholarly work, but were also devout and usually conservative Christians, and still possessed maybe some anxiety when it came to our beliefs.

    And I think that’s actually quite useful – I am grateful to the theonomist writers, like Gary North, and the contemporary reformed writers, like Doug Wilson and Doug Jones, who wrote so much about economics and postmodernism. I was an english major from 1994-1999. My department was, like every department, housed with faculty for whom the marxist hermeneutic was probably the most commonly employed method for interacting with texts. Jones, North and Wilson helped me writer more careful term papers, and to interact more critically with these material, and tied my scholarly work to my spiritual formation as a Christian. I think that’s actually a very important pastoral goal, and I’m grateful for it. I wouldn’t be an economist now if not for Gary North, even if today I don’t look anything like the kind of economist I thought I would be when I was reading North.

    Where I think WA is not so useful, though, is when it becomes the only map one uses for interacting with culture. I can only speak for myself, but when WA became a kind of spiritual discipline with a tendency to think of others as basically “bad guys” in some simplified child’s story is when I felt like it was outliving its usefulness. Ultimately, I do think we can never forget that we are called to be Christ to other people, which is primarily to love them in radical, genuine acts of kindness, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, and so on. WA when you believe in the strongest forms of it – particularly with strong forms of van tillian “antithesis” and if you believe anthropological these are descriptions of the human experience – tends to reinforce fears, anxieties, distrust, and suspicion for others. It tends to exaggerate people’s worst characteristics and downplay their positive ones. I’m not sure if psychologically it’s naive to believe people can engage in constant suspicion of other people to the point of completely disregarding the value that someone’s point of view has on some subject and still love them genuinely, but I suspect it is.

  • Jim

    Thanks for posting these articles, Alan. I think that you’re right: in practice, Christian worldview proponents take a reductive stance toward all worldviews, including the idea of a Christian worldview. A strictly Reformed Christian has a very different worldview than a Catholic Christian or an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so how can one suggest that there is “a” Christian worldview? Furthermore, theology is not a worldview, and more importantly, faith is not a worldview. Both faith and theology can be reduced to worldviews, but that is a reductive act. Worldview thinking was spread by Jaspers in the early 20th century as a way to create a taxonomy of philosophical thought about a series of important questions, so within the discipline of philosophy that may be fine. As a defining characteristic of the Christian faith, though? I don’t think so.

    As a means by which we understand the beliefs of others? Perhaps, so long as you start with the specific details of the individual work and move outward, rather than start with a label and think that you’ve done your work. Identifying Harry Potter as “pagan” is misguided and reductive: its view of evil is far more Christian than pagan, as evil is truly evil and good truly good. In much paganism, especially the pantheist variety — the kinds most closely associated with witchcraft — good and evil are illusions. Everything is part of the same fabric, just serving different purposes. On this point, Harry Potter films are more Christian than pagan. For that matter, “nature” doesn’t have the meaning in Harry Potter books/films that it should if it were truly pagan. There’s more paganism of this sort in Tolkein than in Potter.

    And to further complicate matters, what happens when pagan thought prefigures Christian thought?