Worldview October 29, 2003

Evangelicals these days are positively giddy about worldview. For many, developing a Christian worldview is the answer to all or most of the ills that plague the contemporary church. When I see a bandwagon, however, I tend to wonder why they are heading in that direction, and this contrarian bias set me to wondering about the genealogy and implications of the concept of “worldview.”

For starters, there are all the practical questions. Is this concept of “worldview” adequate to deal with something as richly chaotic as, say, medieval thought and culture. Whose worldview, after all, are we talking about? Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian categories to attempt to penetrate the nature of things, but did a Parisian merchant selling English woolens down the street from Thomas’s rooms at the University share his worldview? Would he have understood the first thing Thomas was saying?

Where, moreover, is the medieval worldview to be sought? Does the “medieval worldview” refer to a set of categories or a map of the universe in the heads of medieval people (and, again, which people?)? Or, is it found in texts, and if so what kinds of texts — philosophical, poetic, epistolary? Or, is it located in the assumptions made by writers of texts, in things everyone takes so much for granted he never needs to say them out loud? Or, is it embodied in practices, institutions, and artifacts, in the traceries of Gothic rose windows, in the pageantry of a feudal ceremony of vassalage, or in the theatrical celebrations that accompanied the Corpus Christi festival? In the latter case, is there any significant difference between the “worldview” and “culture.” On what basis, further, do we conclude that there is a single “worldview” shared by people in a particular historical epoch? Is this an assumption or a metaphysical or moral necessity? Or is there empirical evidence that this is the case?
Philosophers also have raised objections to the category of “worldview.” According to Gregory Clark, the notion of “worldview” came into prominence within post-Kantian philosophy, and was stimulated largely by the fact of religious and cultural pluralism: “Worldview thinking provides a metaperspective or a formal position that can mediate between competing ‘ways of seeing.’” It is hardly news that people do not all think about life or respond to its challenges in the same way. Pluralism in that sense is simply a fact, and always has been. Worldview thinking, however, attempts to establish a “metaperspective,” a perspective that transcends, frames, tests, and regulates every particular worldview. The problem is with a “theory of worldviews.”

Actually, there are at least four problems. First, such a theory suggests that the worldview thinker is capable of finding some place to stand outside all particular worldviews from which to view them. How else can he know that his worldview is a species of the same genus as his neighbor’s worldview? “Worldview” in this sense functions much as the term “religion” does in modern usage: “Religion” describes a generic category of human activity and experience that stands above and apart from all particular religions. But if “everyone has a worldview,” then the worldview thinker also has a specific worldview and is merely assessing other systems of thought from within his own particular system of thought. His claim to be able to survey all worldviews, encompass them in a theory, and compare them to each other is a ruse. He is doing nothing more than trying to enclose all other worldviews in his own. Clark’s warning that “worldview” has an inbuilt bias toward relativism seems on target. To put this point the other way round: Worldview thinkers recognize that all particular worldviews have their own histories, but often fail to recognize that the concept of “worldview” itself has a history and is itself an historically contingent way of organizing the complexity of culture (just as the modern concept of “religion” is historically specific, and would not be recognizable to Augustine or Aquinas). From this angle, worldview thinking is not nearly relativist or historicist enough.

Second, “worldview” tends to be highly intellectualist. Ideas, it is often assumed, have consequences, and cultural practices, institutions, and artifacts are secondary embodiments of prior ideas. In reality, ideas are formed within the context of and in response to practices, institutions, and artifacts that are always already there. No one forms ideas in an empty landscape. There is an aporia here, a chicken-and-egg relationship: Did the ideas of scholastic theology help to produce Gothic architecture, or did the scholastic theologians attempt to reproduce the soaring heights of a Gothic cathedral in their treatises? Did theology “cause” the Gothic, or the Gothic inspire theology? “Worldview” either obscures or attempts to circumvent this undecidable aporia. This point aside, Christians have good reason to distrust any approach to life and history that assumes the primacy of ideas. For Christians, as Clark insists, “truth” is not found in a system of ideas, but in a Person, Jesus Christ. Our calling is not to develop a complete perspective on the world, but to follow Jesus. To be sure, being a disciple involves loving Jesus with our whole minds, and seeking to conform our minds to the Word of God. But it also involves conforming our hands, feet, hearts, back, arms, legs, and ears to the Word of God, not to mention our relationships with the world and with others.

Underlying these criticisms is my third complaint, namely, that “worldview” is inherently Cartesian. Implicit in the very word “worldview” is the picture of an individual positioned so as to survey the entirety of creation (and perhaps the Creator as well) in a single gaze. That is precisely the position of the detached Cartesian ego, separated from the world and other humans, floating, as philosophers say, in “midair.” Christians, however, should not yearn for this panoptic vision, or to kick against the pricks of human limitations. To yearn for that is not merely an intellectual mistake. It is pride, a form of the original sin. Walking by faith and not by sight means trusting God precisely when we do not have a road map or a God’s-eye view of the landscape. In this sense, the Christian position seems closer to Heidegger than to Descartes, for our existence is always a limited and located “being-there” and a “being-in-the-world,” rather than a “being-nowhere” or a “being-above-the-world.”

Finally, Clark argues that “worldview” belongs to the “domain of philosophy,” and thus “when evangelicals articulate their faith in terms of worldviews, they make philosophy foundational to their theology.” Philosophy, specifically the philosophy of “worldview,” frames and controls the content and form of Christianity. Worldview thinking thus has an inherent bias toward what Heidegger called “onto-theology.” Many have taken Heidegger as an opponent of any theology that makes metaphysical claims about what really is the case with the world. For Heidegger, however, “onto-theology” refers to a style of theology subordinated to and constrained by philosophical commitments from outside theology. For onto-theology, god comes to the world “only insofar as philosophy, of its own accord and by its own nature, requires and determines how the deity enters into it.” Heidegger had nothing but scorn for a god who can be controlled by philosophy: We “can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can

he play music and dance before this god.” The Christian God, the Creator and Redeemer, the God of exodus and resurrection, is precisely the God who enters the scene wherever and whenever He pleases, the God who interrupts, the God who surprises, the God who is constrained by nothing, certainly nothing so feeble as human ideas. To the extent that “worldview” muzzles Scripture and tames the God revealed there, it is an enemy of genuine evangelical faith.

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