What’s So Bad About “Worldview”?


We’ve been known to rib on “Christian worldview thinking” from time to time, and scrupulously avoid “worldview” language in our publications and programs. Naturally, I frequently get asked why, and I thought I would finally take a stab at an answer here.

It should be noted first of all that “worldview” is hardly a precise concept, and can be used with many different connotations and implications. It is fundamentally a metaphor, using the image of sight as a way of describing the way that we think about the world. As a metaphor, it need not be evaluated as “right” or “wrong,” but rather in terms of whether it is helpful or unhelpful. Does the metaphor of “worldview” itself help us to view the world more accurately or faithfully? I’m inclined to think not.

A Misleading Metaphor

As frequently employed by Christian thinkers today, the term “worldview” is used with a couple of different, though related, connotations. Sometimes it seems to mean something like a world map, a schematized view of the world as a whole that can stand in for an actual knowledge of the detailed geography itself. Other times, it seems to mean something more like a world-viewer, that is to say, a set of lenses or an apparatus that someone puts on, which construes the world so that it appears to them in a certain way. Some people put on their materialist glasses and see the world as just a bunch of chaotic molecules bumping together, whereas others put on their Christian-worldview glasses, and see the world as the theater of God’s glory. Either way, though the metaphor has its uses, it seems to me at risk of misleading us in at least four ways.

A-priorism

Whether by “worldview” we mean a map of the world or a set of lenses that we bring to our experience of the world, this way of thinking seems to me all too a-prioristic. What do I mean by that? I mean that it assumes that our knowledge is mainly a matter of the categories that we bring to our experiences, rather than those that arise from our experiences. One gets the idea from a fair bit of Christian worldview literature (especially when some conference or course is being advertised) that a worldview is almost like a set of categories you can download, and then march out into the world equipped with the right answers and knowing in advance how to refute the wrong answers. But this is not how people learn—not how they learn real meaningful knowledge and wisdom at any rate. This kind of pre-packaged knowledge turns out to be awfully flimsy and brittle when confronted with the complexities of the real world.

Intellectualism

Of course, there is truth in the “worldview” idea—it’s not as if we all just come to the world without biases and preconceptions, taking in reality raw and unmediated and converting it straight into objective knowledge. Our construals of the world are deeply conditioned by cultural contexts. But it seems to me that this conditioning tends to be much less intellectualistic than the worldview metaphor and much worldview-talk implies. To the extent that we are preconditioned to map the world in certain ways, this tends to take place by virtue of rituals, habits, symbols, and forms of community life much more than it does by virtue of conceptual systems. This is something that James K.A. Smith, among others, has been keen to emphasize in recent years against the over-intellectualism of many Christian worldview circles. 

Resistant to Learning

Another tendency I’ve observed is that, to the extent that worldviewism can offer a pre-packaged framework of knowledge, it can be remarkably hostile to learning. Paul warns about those who are “always learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7) but some worldview warriors seem to suffer rather from an “always already at knowledge of the truth and never learning” syndrome. If the key thing is to have the right worldview, then once you have that worldview, well, you already have a view of the world, you already know your way around. You’ve got your map and are so confident of its accuracy that you don’t bother to actually observe your surroundings. Much of our best learning takes place when our fundamental assumptions are challenged and we have to honestly reconsider them; too often, worldview thinking persuades its adherents that there is nothing that could possibly challenge their assumptions, because these are based on a “biblical worldview” and the Bible cannot err. But the Bible’s inerrancy does not, sadly, extend to our deductive system-building.

Self-contained

Perhaps the worst feature of worldviewism, and the most ironic, is its tacit—if inadvertent—endorsement of postmodern relativism. Consider the unfortunate title of one of the most popular worldview books: James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. There is no “universe next door”—there is only one universe, the one we are all called to inhabit and to describe truthfully. And worldviews are not things that you shop for to see which one fits best or is most in line with your sense of style. To talk this way is to speak the language of the postmodern worldview that most Christian worldview warriors are most determined to oppose.

But it is hard for the metaphor not to lead this way. Worldview-as-map, perhaps, may not—if there are different maps, but only one reality, then only one of the maps can genuinely orient you. But with the worldview-as-lens metaphor, it is easy to think in terms of different lenses that one can switch between, yielding different internally-coherent world pictures, without ever having (or being able?) to encounter the world-in-itself. This, in fact, is no coincidence, but testifies to the intellectual genealogy of “worldview,” which

Immanuel Kant

translates the German Weltanschauung, a term coined by Kant in 1790.[1] Kant’s philosophy made a hard distinction between the world-in-itself and the-world-as-constructed-by-our-minds, a distinction that is ironically a favorite whipping boy of many Christian worldview teachers. To talk of a “Christian worldview” is to tacitly buy into this idealist and subjectivist construal of the world, in tension with the philosophical realism that characterized almost the entire previous Christian tradition.

 

Sloppy Thinking

All of these flaws cumulatively conspire to create an atmosphere that is hardly apt for the cultivation of intellectual virtues. Worldview warriors are liable to be more interested in having answers than asking questions, in dismissing an opponent rather than engaging him, and in teaching rather than learning. Worldviewism, as often practiced, is not an approach that encourages patience, humility, discrimination, or persuasion. Indeed, since any passion must be nourished through struggle, and worldviewism can seem to promise a cheap shortcut to knowledge, it does not often create students fired with a love for truth. 

Worth Salvaging?

To be sure, many of the savvier proponents of “Christian worldview thinking” are careful to try and make the needed qualifications to forestall these dangers. Al Wolters, for instance, in his fine book Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, goes out of his way to acknowledge that worldviews are not necessarily internally consistent, that they are often “half unconscious and unarticulated,” and that often material factors influence our actions nearly as much as intellectual factors; and he privileges the “map” metaphor over the “lens” metaphor.[2] He also notes in his conclusion “that a biblical worldview does not provide answers, or even a recipe for finding answers, to the majority of perplexing problems with which our culture confronts us today.”[3]

Still, Wolters’s account is not altogether free from the ambiguities summarized above, and however much he might try to qualify, it is hard for the language of “worldview” not to be tainted by its associations with the much more ham-handed approaches one more frequently encounters. Given the frequent abuse of the concept by cookie-cutter intellectual culture-warriors, it is worth asking whether it’s really worth salvaging.

What about Wisdom?

This is especially so given that—ironically given the constant mantra of “a biblical worldview”—the language of worldview is foreign to the Bible. Even the ubiquitously-cited Romans 12:2 and 2 Cor. 10:5 can hardly be said to articulate a worldview approach for Christian thinking and discipleship. Nor do we read in Proverbs 9:10 that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of worldview.”

Boethius being taught by Lady Philosophy

Of course, there are plenty of perfectly legitimate Christian terms or concepts not found directly in Scripture, but my point here, as that last quotation highlights, is that we do have a clear and prominent Scriptural category for talking about these things: wisdom. We are commanded to passionately pursue wisdom (Prov. 4:5, 7), told that “wisdom is better than jewels” (Prov. 8:11), that it is by wisdom that “kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (Prov. 8:15), and that “whoever finds [wisdom] finds life” (Prov. 8:35).

What is wisdom? I think we could define wisdom as “the soul’s attunement to the order of reality,” an attunement that is to some extent natural, and to a large extent handed down through the generations, but that can only be fully cultivated through long and close attention to the fine-grained reality that confronts us. Although wisdom does consist of principles, they are principles gleaned from experience and reflection, not prefabricated. Wisdom involves intellectual knowledge and an understanding of how things relate, but it is just as often hands-on and tacit, consisting of and nourished by virtuous habits. Wisdom is not something that you just have or don’t have, like the right worldview; it is always incomplete, and those that have the most of it know best how much more they need to gain. The fear of the Lord is indeed central to wisdom, but wisdom is not a self-contained system unique to Christians, but an attunement to a shared reality, a reality that unbelievers are sometimes considerably more attentive to than we are.

In addition to this general wisdom, focused on the structure of the world, Scripture calls us to remember, internalize, and be formed by the story of God’s acts in this world. By knowing the narrative of God’s saving acts in history, the Christian is equipped with a privileged understanding of the nature of things, and the ends of things, and most importantly, with the virtues of faith, hope, and love that elevate Christian wisdom—crowning it, in the most mature saints, with piercing insight and indomitable confidence. But if we do not first have wisdom, an attunement to our shared reality, then we can hardly expect that merely being privy to more secrets about reality, as Christians are, will suddenly enable us to navigate the world with poise and grace.

In short, there are no shortcuts. Wisdom takes work. So we had better get busy.


Read the follow-up post, which clarifies the concept of wisdom in response to questions and critiques, HERE.

Bradford Littlejohn is President of the Davenant Instituteauthor of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, and editor of Reformation Theology.

 

Notes:

[1] David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 58-59

[2] Al Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 4-6.

[3] Wolters, 115.