What is Christianity? Part 12

What is Christianity? Part 12 May 7, 2016

Sire’s First Two Objections

Shortly after the turn of the century, the Christian apologist James Sire revised his understanding of the concept of a “worldview” and wrote a book advocating this revised understanding: Naming the Elephant (hereafter: NTE).  Some of the the key changes that Sire makes to his conception of a “worldview” are defended in Chapter 5 of NTE.  In Chapter 1 of NTE, Sire summarizes the issues covered in Chapter 5 of NTE:

Is a worldview primarily an intellectual system, a way of life, or a story? (NTE, p.22)

One of his key conclusions from Chapter 5 is clearly stated in Chapter 7:

First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions or a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)

In a previous post in this series,  I defended Sire’s earlier concept of a worldview against the objection that it unrealistically requires that a worldview consist of a carefully thought out complete and systematic philosophy of life.   I agree that this would be an unrealistic requirement or definition of “worldview”.   However, neither his previous definition of “worldview”, nor his previous description of the nature of worldviews had this implication, so there is no need to modify his previous definition or account based on this concern.

The second objection raised by Sire against his older conception of a worldview (covered in the previous post), is presented in a subsection of Chapter 5 called “The Right Questions” on pages 94 to 97 of NTE:

What is missing from my seven questions is not content but existential relevance.  (NTE, p.97, emphasis added)

Based on the comparisons Sire makes between his seven worldview questions and similar sets of questions proposed by Dilthey, Orr, Walsh & Middleton, this objection can be re-stated in terms of practical concerns:

Sire’s seven worldview questions lack a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.

If this is a good interpretation of the objection, then I would concede that there is some truth to this objection.  Sire’s intention behind his seven basic worldview questions was to capture the basic and most important issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  However, it seems to me that Sire’s seven questions do not do a great job of capturing the basic questions of ethics, so there is room for improvement by adding one or two basic questions of ethics and/or by revising one or two of his questions to make them more clearly questions of ethics or more clearly questions about practical concerns.

Question (6) attempts to get at the heart of ethics but fails to do so:

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

This question is too narrow in two different ways.  First, it is focused on epistemology (“How do we know…”).  Other questions in Sire’s list deal with epistemology, so this one ought to be more about ethics.   Second, this question focuses on morality, but ethics is broader than just morality.  Here is my suggested alternative:

(6A)  How should I live my life?  (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?)

If we revise his question (6) to (6A), and if we understand that there are ethical aspects to questions (3) and (7), then Sire’s set of worldview questions would provide a proper emphasis on practical and ethical concerns.  Thus, the second objection represents only a minor problem that can be corrected with a minor change (or two) to Sire’s questions.

Worldview as a Way of Life?

The third objection that Sire raises against his older conception of worldviews, is that it makes more sense to understand a worldview as being “a way of life” (NTE, p.97) rather than to understand a worldview as being “a system of thought” (NTE, p.98) because of “the practical, lived reality of worldviews…” (NTE, p.100).

The sub-section of Chapter 5 where Sire presents this third objection is called “Worldview as a Way of Life” (NTE, p.98-100).  The first sentence in this sub-section is worth careful examination:

While worldviews have been overwhelmingly detected and expounded using intellectual categories, from the first there has been a recognition that they are inextricably tied to lived experience and behavior.   (NTE, p.98, emphasis added)

Recall a key conclusion of Chapter 5, which Sire states in Chapter 7:

First, a worldview is not fundamentally a set of propositions of a web of beliefs. That is, it is not first and foremost a matter of the intellect.  (NTE, p.123)

So, clearly Sire thinks it was a mistake to understand worldviews primarily in terms of “intellectual categories”, categories such as “beliefs” and “propositions”.  This is a mistake, according to Sire, because worldviews are “tied to lived experience and behavior.”

Sire appears to believe that there is a conflict between understanding worldviews in terms of “intellectual categories” and recognizing that worldviews are “tied to lived experience and behavior.”  Let’s consider a strong version of this view, namely the view that these are mutually exclusive claims:

(MEC) If X is best understood in terms of “intellectual categories” (such as “beliefs” or “propositions”), then X cannot be tied to lived experience and behavior.

It seems fairly obvious that (MEC) is false.  Consider the following belief:

(AIM)  Having an abortion is an instance of murdering an innocent child.

Some people hold this belief.  If someone holds this belief, they are likely to be reluctant to have an abortion, and are unlikely to encourage someone else to have an abortion, and will be reluctant to vote for a political candidate who is strongly pro-choice.

If someone frequently has abortions (and has no regrets about having them) or frequently encourages others to have abortions (and has no regrets about doing this) and has no reluctance about voting for a political candidate who is strongly pro-choice, then we would rightly doubt the claim that this person believed (AIM) to be true.  That is because beliefs have implications for choices and actions, and beliefs have an influence on a person’s choices and actions.

This is especially the case with ethical beliefs, and it is clearly the case with beliefs that people have concerning the most basic questions of ethics:

(6A)  How should I live my life?  (What are the main criteria for judging that a life is/was a good life, a well-lived life? What are the main obstacles to acheiving such a life?)

It is difficult, if not impossible, for a sane adult person to have no beliefs about these questions. If a person has some beliefs about these basic questions of ethics, then those beliefs will influence the choices that person makes and the behavior of that person.

In Sire’s older book The Universe Next Door, he describes the view of morality that is part of the worldview of Christian Theism:

7. Ethics is transcendent and is based on the character of God as good (holy and loving).

This proposition has already been considered as an implication of proposition 1 [i.e. 1. God is infinite and personal (triune), transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good.] .  God is the source of the moral world as well as the physical world.  God is the good and expresses this in the laws and moral principles he has revealed in Scripture.  (TUND, p.35)

Theism…teaches that not only is there a moral universe, but there is an absolute standard by which all moral judgments are measured.  God himself–his character of goodness (holiness and love)–is the standard.  Furthermore, Christians and Jews hold that God has revealed his standard in the various laws and principles expressed in the Bible.  The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the apostle Paul’s ethical teaching–in these and many other ways God has expressed his character to us.  There is thus a standard of right and wrong, and people who want to know it can know it.  (TUND, p. 36)

If someone holds these various beliefs about right and wrong, then such a person is likely to consult the Bible when they are struggling with a moral issue or question, and such a person is likely to take seriously arguments based on the Bible concerning that and other moral issues.  If some person has no interest or concern about what the Bible teaches about various moral issues, and if that person never takes seriously any arguments about moral issues that are based on the Bible, then it would be perfectly reasonable to doubt the claim that this person holds the above beliefs about right and wrong.

Furthermore, if a person is firmly convinced that the Bible teaches that it is morally wrong to do X, and if that person holds the above BELIEFS about right and wrong, then we would expect that person to be reluctant to do X (or at least to feel bad about doing X), and we would expect that person to be reluctant to encourage others to do X (or at least to feel bad about doing so).

If some person has no reluctance about doing X and never appears to feel bad about doing X, and if that person often encourages others to do X and never appears to feel bad about encouraging others to do X, then it is quite reasonable to doubt the claim that this person firmly BELIEVES that the Bible teaches that it is morally wrong to do X and that this person holds the worldview-related BELIEFS about right and wrong found in Sire’s description of Christian theism.

Beliefs have implications, and a person’s beliefs influence how that person thinks and how that person feels, and how that person acts.  That is why worldview-related beliefs are important and significant, because they influence our thinking, our feelings, the choices we make, and the actions we take.

Richard Swinburne, one of the world’s leading defenders of the Christian faith, argues that there is a logical or conceptual tie between beliefs and actions:

Belief has consequences for action, for it is in part a matter of the way in which one seeks to achieve one’s purposes, the goals or ends one seeks to achieve.

Suppose that I seek to get to London, and I come to a junction in the road.  Then clearly if I believe that it is more probable that the road on my right leads to London than that the road on the left does, I shall take the road on the right.  (Faith and Reason, 2nd edition, p.9)

Clearly, the choices and actions that a person makes or takes are indications of the beliefs held by that person, and Sire appears to acknowledge this point:

…we can assess whether we ourselves (or anyone else) hold a particular worldview by observing how we or others act.  (NTE, p.98)

How we view life affects the life we live; it governs both the unconscious actions we engage in and the actions we ponder before acting.  (NTE, p.99)

In Chapter 6 of NTE, Sire explicitly ties worldview-related assumptions to actions and behavior:

Everyone has a worldview.  Whether we know it or not, we all operate from a set of assumptions about the world that remain to a large measure hidden in the unconscious recesses of our mind. …

I wake up in the morning, not asking myself who I am or where I am.  I am immediately aware of a whole host of perceptions that my mind orders into the recognition that it’s morning:  I’m home, I’m crawling out of bed.  In this immediate awareness I do not consciously ask or answer, What is the really real?  How do I know I am home?  or, How can I tell the difference between right and wrong?  Rather, my unconscious mind is using a network of presumptions about how to interpret for the conscious mind what is going on.  In some way all of the basic worldview questions are being answered by the way I am acting and behaving.  (NTE, p.107-108)

The “assumptions about the world”  and the “network of presumptions” that Sire speaks of here are BELIEFS held by the person in question.  So, in this passage Sire clearly implies that a person’s worldview-related BELIEFS guide their choices and actions.  Therefore, Sire agrees with Swinburne’s view that our beliefs are closely connected to, and influence, our choices and actions.

Therefore, since beliefs are an “intellectual category” and since our beliefs–especially our worldview-related beliefs–clearly impact and influence our choices and actions, it is clear that (MEC) is false.  Worldviews can be understood in terms of “intellectual categories” such as “beliefs” and “assumptions” and “propositions” and “presuppositions”, and this does NOT imply that worldviews are disconnected from “lived experience and behavior”.

To be continued…

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