Vinoth Ramachandra

Beyond “Worldviews”

Posted on: February 16, 2014

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth noted that “joy is really the simplest form of gratitude” and how common the theme of joy and celebration is in the Bible: “It is now genuine, earthly, human joy; the joy of the harvest, wedding, festival and victory; the joy not only of the inner but also the outer man; the joy in which one may and must drink wine as well as eat bread, sing and play as well as speak, dance as well as pray.”

Barth was not denying that sorrow, anger, doubt and pain all have their legitimate place in the Christian life. Moreover, depression and mental illness have been the experience of some of the Church’s greatest saints. But “the affirmation of ordinary life” (to use the words of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor) re-discovered in the time of the European Reformations, and contrasted with a medieval world-denying spirituality, tears down the sacred-secular divide and plunges Christians into the depths of bodily life and cultural creation.

If the heirs of Calvin have not often been noted for their joy, they have been responsible for deep-seated cultural and political transformations in Western societies. It is to one such heir of the Calvinist Reformation, the Dutch politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) that we owe the grand and famous dictum: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not say ‘Mine!’”

Kuyper popularized the idea of a uniquely “Christian worldview”. Since Christians have fundamentally different views of reality and of humanness from non-Christians, and thus see the “world” through different “lenses”, they should create a uniquely Christian scholarship in their intellectual endeavours. A distinctive “Christian biology” no less than a distinctive “Christian philosophy” or “Christian economics”.

I have never been persuaded by this. It seems to ignore what Kuyper elsewhere recognised as God’s common grace (another Calvinist emphasis) – that all people everywhere, Christian and non-Christian, share in the Creator’s creational blessings and creative gifts. Moreover we share a life largely in common with others, responding to common needs and challenges. The Christian scholar aims in her scholarship, not so much to be distinct as to be faithful to Christ. If, in her faithful scholarship, she is led to say things that are truly distinctive, well and good. But, if not, that may not necessarily reflect a lack of Christian sensibility.

Often Christian scholarship will gladly endorse what others may have been saying as true or right or just; while also exposing, illuminating, challenging and judging beliefs and practices that distort or conceal important aspects of reality. The world being what it is, and humans being what we are, we should expect much overlap, and even be prepared to learn from others on the way.

In a recent biography of Kuyper, the historian James Bratt points out that Kuyper was, like the rest of us, formed by the social and cultural prejudices of his day. He spoke blithely of “the superiority of Western civilization” and indulged in derogatory comments about African peoples. Even as Prime Minister he never questioned the right of the Netherlands to be colonial masters in Indonesia, although he did promote a more paternalistic and ethically responsible form of colonial government than his predecessors. Although difficult to prove, Kuyper’s “worldview” approach could so easily be co-opted in the service of the doctrine of “separate development” of Dutch settlers and native Africans in South Africa.

Pick up a book claiming to describe “the Christian worldview” and it will quickly be obvious where the author lives and to which socio-cultural group he belongs. Since the majority of these come from a suburban, middle-American context, it is not surprising to find the American Dream insinuating itself into “the Christian worldview”. One finds relatively few Kuyperite “worldview” enthusiasts joining the Occupying movement, exposing the hypocrisies of immigration policy or campaigning against the use of drones.

Does a Nepali Christian farmer see the same “world” as a Christian banker in Tokyo? How about a Christian corporate lawyer on Wall Street and a Christian factory worker in Detroit?

Worldviews (or interpretive frameworks) function as “operational maps”. Our deepest operational beliefs are not necessarily those we state, but those we think we have no need to state- because we take them to be universal. The Church historian Andrew Walls points out that while God as Creator may be acknowledged by all African Christians, in their “operational religion” far more attention is paid to territorial divinities who control the land, or to ancestors who maintain the family and the clan, or to intermediary beings of some kind than to God. On their worldview maps, therefore, God appears relatively small, the other entities significantly larger.

I have never seen the place of ancestors (“the cloud of witnesses”, Hebrews 12:1) ever discussed in teaching about “the Christian worldview” in Western church or seminary circles. Nor the centrality of economic justice, hospitality to outsiders and ethnic reconciliation.

Clearly Christians whose “worldview” has been shaped by one context will have a somewhat different operational map of reality from Christians whose worldview has been shaped within another. There is no one single Christian worldview, but a variety- all changing and growing even as they share some “family resemblances” that enable them to be identified as Christian. At the same time, Walls observes that “Christian worldviews may have important elements in common with non-Christian worldviews of the cultures from which they come- features that will differ from those on the worldview maps of their fellow Christians of another cultural background.” And I would add “social and historical background.”

Hence the need to converse across our differences and divisions.

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13 Responses to "Beyond “Worldviews”"

Vinoth, thanks so much for this. I’m still appreciating your talk to my Workdviews class at Laidlaw last year. So much of this post echoes my discomfort with much so called Christian worldview literature, despite the fact that I teach “Worldviews”. Any resources which take the same line and offer a similar approach would be appreciated. It would be great to have you back at Laidlaw sometime.

It was partly through acknowledging that interpretation of the Bible was often blinkered by social background that I became Anglican: without ignoring or being ungrateful for the theological clarifications that the West had contributed, it also, through its catholicity, stood against the presumption that what was current was surely correct.

We are often confronted by this different ‘worldview’ issue here in South Africa, being in a country with so many different racial, ethnic, language and cultural groups. Just when you think your brother has ‘got it’, you realise that you’ve missed him by a mile, because you were trying to communicate from your own world view context. But surely, regardless of world view; regardless of tradition or cultural influence, once you are a born-again Christian – a new creation where the old has gone and the new has come – your views, traditions, values, taboos etc., must come under the scrutiny of scripture? It has to be the final plumb-line against which all world-views must be evaluated. As a Christian of European descent, I would honour my father by standing up when he entered the room. A Christian brother of African descent, on the other hand, would more than likely honour his father by remaining seated and humbly looking downwards. Biblically, both are correct in that they have honoured their fathers. The traditions though vastly different – and even confrontational when in a mixed culture environment – are perfectly acceptable as a ‘Christian worldview’. But just as this example is ‘acceptable’, biblically, there are many others which are not – and as Christians, these are things which we do need to confront in ourselves, and lovingly in others.

Let me press you on this for a moment, brother. Precisely which “Christian worldview” books do you have in mind when you say that “Since the majority of these come from a suburban, middle-American context, it is not surprising to find the American Dream insinuating itself into “the Christian worldview”.” Most thoughtful books that I have read on the issue are careful to base their views on a Christian view of the world on the Bible, rather than their own culture- James Sires’, work, for example, or Os Guiness’. I find the idea of a “worldview” as a summary term for the presuppositions with which we approach life as a handy approach. One can even find it reflected in Paul’s words in Romans 12 about being “transformed by the renewal of the mind”.

Vinoth, I appreciate your approach to worldview that describes it more as an individual holding. I believe this is the way that was intended when Kant introduced the term. There is clear reference to the concept in the writing of Francis Schaeffer (“The God who is there”) that a world-view is an individual’s perspective. In Leon Mackenzie’s book on worldview and adult education, he describes the collective holding as “tradition.” Certainly, as we see the multitude of Christian denominations and varying doctrinal positions and interpretations of particular Bible passages, how can it be said that there is a single Christian worldview? Writers who present the possibility of a single Christian worldview have done a disservice to the original concept of “weltanschauung” and have overlooked the uniqueness of individuals and their personal experience of God. I would be glad to send you my Literature Review from my MEd thesis on worldview awareness and adult education.

Neil Foster: I think you’ve proved my point already by the authors you refer to (as well as Francis Schaeffer, mentioned in comment 6 above).

You may think that these people are simply drawing their “Christian worldview” from the Bible. So did Kuyper. It is not a matter of personal sincerity.It is a matter of “blind-spots”. The way all of us read the Bible, and what we select and emphasize, is shaped by so many non-Biblical factors. It is only those who do not inhabit these authors’ subculture (and their political views) who can see just how one-sided their readings of the Bible (and of the world) really are. And that is why we need others in the global Body of Christ to challenge what we simply take-for-granted as “Biblical”.

And please don’t read into Rom 12:1,2 the idea of a Christian “worldview”. The rest of Romans 12 elaborates what a “renewed mind” looks like- and it is all to do with new social practices and relationships.

I agree 100%. It is not one christian worldview, but a variety. But I would also have to say a little bit more. I do not know what it must be, but maybe:
1. Jesus Christ is my worldview.
2. The Father is my worldview
3. His cross and my cross, his ressurection and my ressurrection is my worldview.

But it probably have to be a world view that crosses the borders all the time, and Our Lord says in John 17.

Another problem with worldview is that it is very “modern” in its focus on what/how we THINK about the world. As Vinoth – and others – pointed out, our practices (operational maps), hopes and desires, as well as our emotions (EQ and SQ, rather than just IQ) say as much, if not more, about who we are and about our relationship with the world as our minds and thinking do. James K. A. Smith also makes some good comments about this in his “Desiring the Kingdom.”

[…] Finally, Vinoth Ramachandra on common grace and Christian worldview(s). […]

[…] Vinoth Ramachandra cautions Christians who assert a universal “Christian worldview”. Context, he writes, inevitably shapes how one understands reality. […]

following on from your previous post, i wonder whether the concepts of ‘forms of life’ and ‘language games’ are more helpful than ‘worldview’? do they provide a way of talking about belief and practice without succumbing to the myth of a disembodied, neutral observer?

would be interested to hear your thoughts on this and the role of liturgy and christian practice in forming disciples…

All these concepts, like worldviews, are vague. But no matter. We need them all. My objection to worldviews was not to the concept but to the way an “ideal type” is often confused with the actual beliefs of people.

As for “liturgical practices”, once again I think writers like Stanley Hauerwas and James Smith are too idealistic in their ecclesiologies. I come from an ecclesiastical background where people grow up with rich rituals and the result is usually a nominal Christianity. I often wish people in my church were less “liturgical animals” and more “thinking animals”. And I dare say that Hauerwas and Smith, contrary to what they may say, have been moulded more by their wide reading than their liturgical practices!

Social practices (e.g. practising hospitality, learning to ask forgiveness from others, etc) are a different matter. I am more optimistic about how these develop Christian forms of thinking.

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