Is “worldview” too much with us?

Photo: A view of the devastation in Gulf Port, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina


 

The iconic American poet, William Wordsworth, began his versed commentary on Modern preoccupations with the lines…

 

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…

 

We who live in the post-modernity traverse the rubble of having “…given our hearts away.” Ironically one of those ruins is the hollow edifice of “worldview,” especially within Christianity of the Western kind. The construct of “Worldview” has taken upon itself the noble task of filling the void of ultimate meaning that our culture has vacated once in the Industrial Age and again in the age of technology. But can “worldview” fill this void?

 

It has tried and tried and by now, more than a century later, Worldview “is too much with us.” How so? The construct of Worldview has become our trimmed hedge, the artificial border markers that say this is the inside and that is outside, a distinction of supreme importance…so we think…but remains artificial no matter how much meaning we attempt to conjure with it or how much force of truth we keep injecting into our “worldview.” Can everything we want, we demand, we protect be true? It is if you’ve learn to everything – inside and outside – mostly from the inside. Worldview for Protestants has assumed the high office that dukes, bishops, and doctors of the church used to wield. Not that those powers assumed by them was a good thing all around, but neither is the power longed for by Worldview “just the thing we need.”

 

The conceit in our tables of “worldviews” is that we think we can explain everything (or nearly everything) in terms of Worldview. Worldview has its own language, its own labeling system. First, you learn to speak Worldview and then you learn to “lens” everything through Worldview.

 

Really?

 

Imagine your news app reporting the news of the day using only phrases or clauses culled from Justin Bieber lyrics. That’s what Worldview talk would sound like to those generations alive before the Worldview chatter got rolling. It has its own jargon, its own argument style, its own attitude.

 

What is “worldview”? As we will see in a moment it’s a difficult definition to pin down. Its definitives move around like jello. Well, maybe not that much, but there’s a good amount of flex in how we define it. Here’s a start. A worldview is “…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,” (David Noebel, Understanding the Times).

 

Notice how in this definition, Christian though the author is, that his idea of “worldview” has moved ahead in rank over God. It’s not uncommon to make God fit inside your “worldview” according to many worldview gurus in the Worldview industry. They need to make their mark on the market so crafting a presentation and an identity to go with it is essential for advancing their Christian worldview. God can often be found in the Christian “worldview” as a servant of it instead of this being the other way around.

 

It’s common knowledge by now the term “worldview” has its origins in Immanuel Kant. What is less well know is what Weltanschauung actually meant. There is a wide gap between the use of the term in recent decades and the concept of the term as it was meant back then. The word Weltanschauung is a compound of Welt, meaning ‘world’ and anschauen, “to behold, regard, look at.”

 

You may already see how different that is from our use of the term “worldview” in recent times. Our idea of “worldview” is a top-down idea structure, a complex framework of principles. Weltanschauung was really more about an impression, a presumption, an opinion of the way things are overall, an imprecise, but distinctly felt connection to reality around a person or community.

 

In Georg Simmel‘s Kant and Goethe on the history of the modern Weltanschauung (Translated by Josef Bleicher), he pinpoints the trenchant intuitive “sense” in Kant’s idea of worldview:

 

It is Kant’s monumental achievement to have raised the subjectivism of the modern period, the self-glorification of the ‘I’ and its irreducibility to material factors, to the highest level – without relinquishing the solidity and significance of the objective world. He demonstrated that all objects of cognition can, for us, consist in nothing other than the cognising representations themselves. All objects exist for us only as the unification of sense experience, that is, as subjective processes determined by our sense organs. But, at the same time, he showed that the very reliability and objectivity of reality becomes comprehensible only on the basis of this presupposition.

 

I bold a few key words to indicate how different Weltanschauung – at least for Kant – was to what has been crafted into what we are calling “the Christian worldview” or “the biblical worldview.”

 

It’s ironic to consider as well that the way in which the ancient Israelites were enculturated, even under Torah, would not be authentically considered now to be “the Christian worldview.” Again, Christianity is afflicted with insider talk, insider lenses, insider bias from within the walls of “the Christian worldview.”

 

The way “worldview education” is being done on many Christian settings appears to be motivated by sub-culture preservation than a genuine thirst for knowledge and the history of ideas reaching back into ancient times. The pursuit of Christian wisdom should be instead the primary mode of gaining maturity in knowing how biblical doctrines and philosophy fit in and function in the realm of ideas. If at all Christian wisdom has been folded into “worldview” as a lesser concept therein by Christian teachers and curriculums.

 

Helmut Meier has also done a grand task in the study of the Weltanschauung concept from a continental perspective. He shows it developed into the formation of German Idealism. German idealism became both their philosophical explanation of reality (thus “worldview”) and also a fertile ground for later assertions of superiority. It has been documented how the Hitler Youth program used “worldview” education as another tool of indoctrination. The natural consequence of that should be for us to see how the Dutch theologians and, of course, German ones as well, imported the idea of Weltanschauung with its acretions to our shores. The content, of course, has changed, but the assumption that worldview indoctrination is essential has not. Think Kuyper or Van Til, for example.

 

What has resulted is that “worldview education” – such as it is now in Western Christianity – is front loaded with so many “assumptions” that in many respects its form and content across the scope of it does not resemble the Bible either. It’s turned into a supposedly comprehensive system to analyze everything. Originally in Kant Weltanschauung wasn’t used as we use “worldview” now or how the word has been built up in the West over the last century. Western Christianity uses “worldview” to carry more luggage than it probably was intended to carry initially.

 

We hear it used as a term for a thorough thought system that is well-defined from stem to stern. I’ve heard it so often I believed it for myself. I believed that “worldview,” like Weltanschauung means “a comprehensive cognitive awareness of reality.” It’s as though we have come to regard “worldview” as a thick manual on what to think about almost everything. But can “Worldview education” actually do this and furthermore what are both the positive and negative outcomes of such a method of teaching?

 

Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, wrote a short essay on how we’ve gotten off track with our “worldview” systems approach to church, to family, to engaging the culture and especially in education. I am still not convinced about Dreher’s Benedict Option, but he makes a serious case for “the problem with worldview education.” He pointedly states his concern and I agree that…

 

The problem with worldview education…is that it closes off the possibility of wonder by providing a rigid ideological measuring stick for texts.

 

Pascal knew that “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” The wonder of the world doesn’t come pre-packaged in a 12 point outline with multiple sub-points and formulaic answers to all the tough questions. There is a kind of seeing that Worldview isn’t tall enough to see. The fact is, Worldview can’t be as comprehensive as it supposedly says it is and can’t be as comprehensive as you and your children are told to believe it to be and can’t be as comprehensive as they say you can be when you subscribe to the “Christian worldview.”

 

One of the biggest problems with “worldview” is that it is almost entirely enamored with Epistemology. This appears idolatrous. I’m not saying it is, but one questions whether a passionate lingering on Epistemology and what we must know is the “thing” we should set before God. It’s as though knowing ‘what is best’ is what is best in the comprehensive Christian worldview.

 

We know so little of Christ though. Does it seem that way to you?

 

But it is not the business of Holy Scripture or of Christian faith … to represent a definite world-picture. The Christian faith is bound neither to an old nor to a modern world-picture. The Christian confession has in course of the centuries passed through more than one world-picture. And its representatives were always ill-advised when they believed that this or that world-picture was an adequate expression for what the Church … has to think….

The Church must beware of establishing itself on the basis of any sort of Weltanschauung. (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 1949, p. 59)

 

If comprehensive is what we need and what we should want, then there is a better way than “worldview.” A way that is much older, more effective and more enjoyable than “worldview.” I’ll mention that in a moment, but first here is a question that ought to make us question the efficacy of the “Christian worldview” project.

 

Which one?

 

Yes, which “Christian worldview”? There isn’t just one Christian worldview. That may surprise many Christians. There’s enough variation that there are different Christian worldviews. So which one should you and I embrace? There are many Christian worldviews. How so? Do a scan of the Worldview literature and products available. You will find as have I that many of these are in competition with one another. By competition I do not only mean in competition for people to buy their stuff.

 

I also mean in competition as in the battle of ideas. The theistic evolution Christian worldviewists are in competition with the 6 day Creation Christian worldviewists. The social justice Christian worldviewists are in competition with the “God of our forefathers” Christian worldviewists and so on. There isn’t just one Christian worldview. The there is also the idea that Gospel is the Christian worldview or the idea that you can’t get into the Gospel except that you go through the Christian worldview.

 

So then, what is the better option (pun intended)?

 

Wisdom. The Christian wisdom tradition has resources far deeper and more developed and more form fitting to needs of man’s void than the rigid lattice work of Worldview could ever aspire to. The thesis of this post isn’t to examine the Christian wisdom tradition. We will do that later. The simple message of this post is to help us come out from our boxes and stand on them to look over the walls we have built around us and see that there is a mighty rubble around us, a mess that “worldview” can’t fix.

 

Additionally, Christian “worldview education” is so varied and various camps therein at odds with one another that a unified Christian worldview, so called, looks to unachievable. At its core Christian worldview is in reality a very “modern” way of looking and interpreting reality. J. I. Packer noted that “Our business is to present the Christian faith clothed in modern terms, not to propagate modern thought clothed in Christian terms” J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism & the Word of God, p. 136). Christian worldview projects seem to be stuck in between these poles if not swinging between them. The intentions behind “worldview education” – good though they may be – are like giving the whole crowd the same “lunch in a box” or a bulky safety vest, one size fits all.

 

Not dissimilar to the scene above from Gulf Port, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina the welt we live in is in constant flux. In many communities there is no Weltanschauung, just a rubble of raging emotions or an eclectic soup of ideas. There they don’t have a worldview because their teachers and professors and preachers have told them they “can be whatever they want to be.” So they are…and the next month they may identify as something different. Worldview therapy can’t fix this.

 

The Industrial Age set the stage for a wrestlessness fueled and accelerated by our hyper-mobility and the age of technology pushes the wrestlessness deeper inside the soul so that now our view of the world shifts with a stream of clicks and likes and memes and binges and swipes left or right, a hyper-socialization. There’s not enough stability in the New World anymore to sustain worldviews of almost any kind in the long term. The only “worldviews” that seem to stand firm are those of an authoritarian bent.

 

We need the sweet allurement of gentle Wisdom (Proverbs 8). We are in the lack of wisdom and in lack of the wonder that wisdom calls forth. There are things “invisible” which Worldview can not touch, but which wisdom under the toutelage of its Everlasting Word can and will press against the heart and mind for wonder. The Apostle James would have us know it and receive it (James 1:5).

 

There is much more to say about the contrast between Worldview and the Christian wisdom tradition. I have more to present on this matter, but will give us time ponder this much for now. If you are interested in hearing other voices that stand in favor of wisdom v worldview consider some wise words from Davenant Institute, their blog entries, short videos and Summer courses.

 

 

The Church must beware of establishing itself on the basis of any sort of Weltanschauung.

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 1949, p. 59

 

 

NOTE: A follow-up to this post in June 2018 will explore further implications of the “worldview” industry in Christian churches and education AND also offer practical insights for pursuing Christian wisdom. If you are interested in hearing more about this and other topics, please subscribe in the subscribe box to the right or bottom of this post. You will receive an email when a new post is published.

 

Thank you for your interest. 

Mark Olivero

 

 

Theology Delish
delight in God. again.

 

 

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