But now I see (part I)
But now I see (part I)

But now I see (part I)

A crash course on worldview, and why it's important.

March 1 st 2008
Appears in Spring 2008

The furnace repair man who came by my house, today, chatted politely about my family, asking about their work and studies. He complained about taxes and about the limits of the medical coverage provided by his employer and the state. Mostly he enjoyed describing his cottage on Lake Canadoda, the place that was for him the reward of a life of hard work.

Now, these things don't seem strange to us, but place this repair man in some other cultural setting and his personal inquiries might be invasive, his expectations of government and his employer absurd, and his hope for the future extravagant beyond imagination. The repair man's life and dreams make sense under our cultural heritage of beliefs: that humans have rights and freedoms and should be treated with dignity, that the government should keep its hand out of my purse but provide for my basic needs, and that the good life is marked by comfort if not by prosperity.

Individual beliefs vary, but in a particular cultural context people share many beliefs, values, and ways of thinking and living in common. Questioning such beliefs and patterns generally doesn't occur to the people who hold them because these cultural beliefs are so deeply integrated with their perceptions and expectations. Such culture-shaping constellations of belief are sometimes called worldviews.

For some time, now, the term "worldview" has shown up in almost every discipline in the academy, and has been widely used in discussions about faith, philosophy, culture, and education. The word migrated into English from the German, weltanschauung. The history and development of the notion are discussed in other places, most thoroughly by David Naugle in Worldview: The History of a Concept (2002). I want to offer a working definition of worldview, and to highlight the role that particular worldviews play in shaping everything from art to zoology. (In "Part II," my emphasis will be on work and leadership.)

"Worldview" is variously defined as:

  • "a set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world" —James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog (1997);

  • "a comprehensive framework of one's beliefs about things which function as a guide to life" —Albert R. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (1985); and

  • "a vision of life and for life" —Brian J. Walsh and Richard J. Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview (1984).

A worldview is a set of eyeglasses through which we see everything. It is the perspective or perceptual framework that frames our thoughts and actions. A worldview opens up ways of seeing, and it points our attention toward certain things. Our worldview also blinds us and limits our understanding and appreciation of certain things. It sketches the contours of what is real and what really matters, and it provides instructions about how to go about living in that reality. Worldviews describe for us the reality that we will experience, and they prescribe to us how we ought to live in that reality.

Most of us haven't been critically attentive to our worldview. Instead, we live relatively unreflectively. Because worldviews are generally lived unreflectively, it is misleading to make them sound too academic or philosophical. They are everyday patterns of shared thought and behaviour.

The wekend routine

It is five o'clock on Friday, and everything on my desk at least appears to be in order. My attention turns to the weekend, and I begin to anticipate time with some good friends, my daughter's softball game, and the Sunday school lesson I still have to prepare. Could I fit in a round of golf if I got up early on Saturday? As usual on a Friday afternoon, traffic is tight, I curse (under my breath) a pushy driver who is nudging into the lane ahead of me to save ten seconds of commuting time, and I sing along with the radio—cautiously so nobody can see my lips move. I pass bars and fast food joints crowded with people. I remember to stop to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home. What a good Dad I am!

Just one half hour, and so many assumptions, most of them unconscious. Why does work go until five, and why do I make this distinction between the forty or sixty hours of work (which belongs to someone else) and the "discretionary" rest of my time? Why are my satisfactions and delights so weekend-focused? Apparently I have beliefs about the nature of work and leisure, though I don't often think very clearly about what these beliefs are. I value my friends, my family, and my church, but I also value my own freedom to recreate. A sense of the urgency of my own life is revealed by my impatience in traffic. Why am I always in such a hurry? I muffle the curse and the song, desiring to appear both civil and macho. I don't even think about stopping by the bars anymore, but a Starbucks would be nice. I value time with my family, and I think we are still on for dinner together. My girls must drink a gallon of milk a day. I don't need to milk a cow or even think about dairy farmers or pasteurization. "Pull in, two dollars and change, out with the milk." That took about four minutes, so I'll be home by 5:44 p.m.

I imagine that many of these rituals and the thoughts that accompany them are similar to your own. We think in similar terms because our lives are similar in many ways. Our lives are similar because we share deeply culture-shaping assumptions.

More "caught" than "taught"

There are several ways to begin the process of identifying and clarifying fundamental beliefs and worldviews. I have found the basic worldview questions listed by James W. Sire in his Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think (1990) to be helpful. Questions like these help get at the beliefs, the deep convictions, upon which people build their lives:

  • Who am I? What does it mean to be a human being?

  • Where am I? What is the nature and purpose of the cosmos, this earth, my community?

  • What's wrong? What is causing all the problems in my life and world?

  • How can it be fixed? How should these problems be addressed or resolved?

  • How should I act? Are there any standards, guidelines, principles for behaviour?

  • What lies ahead? What does the future hold for me, and for everything?

Most of us haven't "journaled" answers to these questions or struggled to develop responses that are consistent and coherent. Responses to such questions that are carefully and consistently bundled together are sometimes called ideologies—Marxism, scientism, economism, Darwinism, feminism, for example. Those that have developed broad culture-shaping influence are also called worldviews. Marxism, for example, was far more than a theory about human nature, history, and revolutionary redemption. It was a way of life, shaping every institution and everyday life for millions of people.

As we look back to my half-hour commute, a consistent ideology is difficult to detect. Indeed, we live under a quilted worldview, a little piece of this sewn to a little piece of that. Snatches of the Christian faith, though often generalized into a friendly humanism, are stitched to various patches of hyper-rationality ("scientism, economism, consumerism, and technicism"). These patches of hyper-rationality (the "isms") develop when the breadth of life is viewed through the lens of one of its particular dimensions. The pieces are stitched onto the quilt-backing of individualism. Each individual's interests and needs become rights that take priority over the common good. Utilitarianism (if it works, let's try it) stitches all of these different pieces of fabric together. This analysis—that our North American worldview is best described as utilitarian individualism—is argued by Robert Bellah and his co-authors in Habits of the Heart (1985) and The Good Society (1991).

Most of us live according to this culture-shaping cluster of beliefs and values. And we live according to these beliefs and values, not so much because we have chosen them, but because we have grown into them. Worldviews are more caught than taught. We inherit them, absorbing them by osmosis through the experiences of everyday life. In youth, our primary "others" and language were key "carriers." Later, the institutions and rituals of life, peers, the media, and just about everything in culture communicated the dominant, cultural worldview to us. Our North American worldview has been programmed into our brains by family, friends, school, TV, and other worldview "carriers" since we were babes.

This does not mean that we are powerless to change our beliefs or lifestyle. We are largely programmed, but not entirely so. Human beings are remarkable creatures with both the freedom and the responsibility to make choices and to change. The worldview we have grown up in may be adapted as we encounter other perspectives. Let's employ a little theoretical jargon and refer to these adjustments as alteration. For example, many of us have been convinced that we must change our answer to the question, Where am I? We know we cannot treat the world as an unlimited source of resources or as a dump for our discarded waste. North Americans continue to consume more natural resources and create more waste per person than any other continent on the globe, and our environmental efforts have not gone far in changing this pattern of consumption. But at least we are beginning to believe differently. Changing the patterns of life woven throughout the institutions of our culture will take far more time, and it will require vigilance and sacrifice to change. Changing beliefs that run deep in a culture, and in each of us, is an extremely difficult process.

More thoroughgoing change is also possible, though it is experienced rarely if at all. Let's call the more radical switch from one set of foundational beliefs to another alternation. In religious parlance this is called "conversion." Alternation is a fascinating social, psychological, and, sometimes, spiritual transformation. On occasion corporate executives really do get fed up and leave it all behind to till the earth. Hindus become Christians, and long-time church-goers become Muslims. Curiously, changes in belief often don't translate into comprehensive changes in behaviour. In the context of North American culture, religious beliefs are so privatized, so discrete from the rest of life, that they often have only a marginal life-shaping influence. In my town Baptists and Buddhists talk, spend and play pretty much like Anglicans and atheists. This is because they share a number of beliefs in common that go further in shaping their lives than the distinctive religious beliefs that they hold. Religious conversion is no guarantee that an individual's worldview and way of life will be radically transformed.

Influencing North America

Transforming one's values, habits, hopes, and culture is a difficult and generally painful—and life-long—process. If all of the institutions and carriers of our culture's dominant worldview have been shaping us from early on and throughout each day, the possibility of "alternation" is slim and even "alteration" becomes a struggle. Reflective Christians experience this conflict. Many recognize that their own lives and their culture are not consistent with the desires of God and the message set forth in the Bible. Most of our churches have not helped us develop our Christian beliefs into a worldview, a way of thinking about, living in, and challenging the world in which we live. Change is not easy, and deep faithfulness will require that we pursue it in the company and with the encouragement of others.

A biblical worldview is a basic way of looking at all of reality from the perspective of the biblical story. It involves recognizing the structural goodness of creation, that creation itself is not the problem—that it was designed to honour God. Human beings were designed to honour and obey God in this creational context, to develop creation in ways that display God's good intentions. Because of sin, however, our lives have become full of confusion, pain, and self-interest, and all creation bears the marks of our disobedience. Nothing is as it should be, and all institutions are in need of the redemptive and restorative attention of Jesus and His followers. The Bible provides us with the big picture (creation, fall, redemption, consummation), and with basic principles for obedience, but it does not detail all of our responsibilities for the various areas of responsible cultural activity.

We need to work together to apply what we do know through Spirit and the Word, and to seek faithfully to wrestle with what God might desire in politics, sports, education, economics, business ethics, corporate structures, and management theory. We know that we will not purge all evil and redeem the creation by our own efforts. The glory of a renewed creation will finally be revealed when God judges and cleanses all things. Until that time, however, we participate in the "now, but not yet" work in Christ.

Our North American worldview has been influenced deeply by Christianity, and it has also been shaped by beliefs that are alien to the testimony of Scripture. Our task is to recognize and to defeat the dualism of the Greeks (inherited as the sacredsecular divide), the individualism of the Enlightenment, and the spirit of domination and exploitation from our American experience that have been woven into our own worldview. Our culture's view of work and leadership is also in need of some reform. The resources of the Christian faith can point us in the right direction. That is where we will turn in "Part II" (in the June 2008 issue of Comment).

Topics: Religion Vocation
Don Opitz
Don Opitz

Don Opitz is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the M.A. Higher Education program at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.


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