What Is a Worldview?
Abortion. Euthanasia. Pornography. Same-sex marriage. Transgender rights. Embryonic research. Genetic enhancement. Christians surveying the cultural landscape in the West have a clear sense that things are headed in a destructive direction. While most believers can easily identify the symptoms of decline, few feel competent to diagnose and address the root causes. There are many complex factors behind these developments, but one invaluable tool for better understanding and engaging with our culture is the concept of worldview. The sociological quakes and moral fissures we observe in our day are largely due to what we might call “cultural plate tectonics”: shifts in underlying worldviews and the collisions between them.
What is a worldview? As the word itself suggests, a worldview is an overall view of the world. It’s not a physical view of the world, but rather a philosophical view, an all-encompassing perspective on everything that exists and matters to us.
A person’s worldview represents his most fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the universe he inhabits. It reflects how he would answer all the “big questions” of human existence: fundamental questions about who and what we are, where we came from, why we’re here, where (if anywhere) we’re headed, the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of the afterlife, and what counts as a good life here and now. Few people think through these issues in any depth, and fewer still have firm answers to such questions, but a person’s worldview will at least incline him toward certain kinds of answers and away from others.
Worldviews shape and inform our experiences of the world around us. Like spectacles with colored lenses, they affect what we see and how we see it. Depending on the “color” of the lenses, some things may be seen more easily, or conversely, they may be de-emphasized or distorted—indeed, some things may not be seen at all.
Worldviews also largely determine people’s opinions on matters of ethics and politics. What a person thinks about abortion, euthanasia, same-sex relationships, environmental ethics, economic policy, public education, and so on will depend on his underlying worldview more than anything else.
As such, worldviews play a central and defining role in our lives. They shape what we believe and what we’re willing to believe, how we interpret our experiences, how we behave in response to those experiences, and how we relate to others. Our thoughts and our actions are conditioned by our worldviews.
Worldviews operate at both the individual level and the societal level. Rarely will two people have exactly the same worldview, but they may share the same basic type of worldview. Moreover, within any society, certain worldview types will be represented more prominently than others, and will therefore exert greater influence on the culture of that society. Western civilization since around the fourth century has been dominated by a Christian worldview, even though there have been individuals and groups who have challenged it. But in the last couple of centuries, for reasons ranging from the technological to the theological, the Christian worldview has lost its dominance, and competing worldviews have become far more prominent. These non-Christian worldviews include:
- Naturalism: there is no God; humans are just highly evolved animals; the universe is a closed physical system.
- Postmodernism: there are no objective truths and moral standards; “reality” is ultimately a human social construction.
- Pantheism: God is the totality of reality; thus, we are all divine by nature.
- Pluralism: the different world religions represent equally valid perspectives on the ultimate reality; there are many valid paths to salvation.
- Islam: there is only one God, and He has no son; God has revealed His will for all people through His final prophet, Muhammad, and His eternal word, the Qur’an.
- Moralistic therapeutic deism: God just wants us to be happy and nice to other people; He intervenes in our affairs only when we call on Him to help us out.
Each of these worldviews has profound implications for how people think about themselves, what behaviors they consider right or wrong, and how they orient their lives. It is therefore crucial that Christians be able to engage with unbelief at the worldview level. Christians need to understand not only what it means to have a biblical worldview, but also why they should hold fast to that worldview and apply it to all of life. They should be able to identify the major non-Christian worldviews that vie for dominance in our society, to understand where they fundamentally differ from the Christian worldview, and to make a well-reasoned case that the Christian worldview alone is true, good, and beautiful.
The challenge is greater than ever. But we shouldn’t be discouraged, because the opportunities and resources available to us are also greater now than they have ever been. In the last half-century or so there has been a remarkable renaissance in Christian philosophy and apologetics, much of which has focused on developing and defending a biblical worldview. Whatever God calls His people to do, He equips them to do (see Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 13:20-21). The problem is not that the church is under-equipped, but that she has yet to make full use of what Christ has provided for her.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.