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Blog // Thoughts
September 7, 2006

A View On Worldviews

Five years on from 9/11 an interesting trend is emerging – more and more writers, bloggers, journalists and Christian communicators are using the language of worldviews. This approach was very popular in the 80s as a way to understand apologetics and explain why many people seemed unreceptive to simple presentations of the Christian message. However, […]

Five years on from 9/11 an interesting trend is emerging – more and more writers, bloggers, journalists and Christian communicators are using the language of worldviews. This approach was very popular in the 80s as a way to understand apologetics and explain why many people seemed unreceptive to simple presentations of the Christian message. However, it became passe as postmodernity (in simpler epistemological terms), became the dominant way to explain contemporary western culture.

But, now we see a genuine struggle to understand how people can live in the same society, yet have radically divergent viewpoints – how people around the world can look at the same event (like the fall of the twin towers) and see in it totally opposing symbolism. Thinkers are taking ideas seriously again and this is driving the new discourse of worldviews.

That’s all good. Having lived through the Forrest Gump decade of apolitical lunacy, I’m glad to see that culture, religion and yes, politics are back on the popular agenda. I’m glad to see Christian thinkers taking ideas seriously. I’m glad to see a genuine concern for questions of multiculturalism, world faiths and globalisation.

But there is one problem Рpeople don’t have worldviews.

OK, maybe some do, but most don’t, not in any coherent or systematic way. I remember postmodernity being described as “intellectual velcro dragged across culture.” The same is true for our outlooks on life; we are a pastiche, or bricolage. Many of our beliefs, responses and prejudices are simply inherited from our background or context; seldom explicitly reflected upon or evaluated. Moreover, these bits of our outlook may be and often are internally contradictory.

Part of the problem with the worldviews is that they it assumes that there are all these neat philosophical boxes that people “choose” to jump into (or are forced into by society); that people are systematic and philosophical in their approach to life and that there is some of sort of coherant unity to our beliefs. But the processes that shape our “worldview” (especially in our current era) are far more random and unpredictable than that, our beliefs tend to hang together far less cleanly and quite frankly few us have the time to reflect philosophically about the many decisions we make in a day or week.

Also, I think it is really important to take Rowan Williams admonition not to “use people to think with.” seriously. The moment we say a person has X worldview, we start to abstract them from their real existence, from their biography. Labeling people with a worldview tag (be it secular-humanist, muslim, liberal or whatever) means we stop treating seeing what is unique and peculiar about their personal story and start treating them in more abstract and by nature, easier to dismiss ways. We stop listening to them on their own terms.

We see this every-time we tune into US political discourse. The name calling is a way of containing and rejecting what someone has to say and by extension any nuance or originality within their voice. No wonder so much political discourse is bland and coarse. You don’t see people talking like people, you see people talking like computer viruses.

Not that a worldview approach is all bad. It helps some people, especially those from a very homogeneous background to understand how people might see in the world in a radically different way. It is a good method for introducing the history of ideas and the nature of cultural difference. But, it can only take us so far.

I was into Christian Apologetics in the late 80s and early 90s and influenced by a worldview approach. However, what I found in conversations with real people, in listening to what they had to say about religion and life, was that worldviews were a terribly poor way of predicting a person’s responses to questions of faith and spirituality. All too often I found people saying and doing things dramatically at odds with their “worldview.” It seemed like most folks I met were not drawing on a deposit of meaning, but making up meaning as they went along Рthey were improvising, instinctively reacting to information and circumstances as they came to them. That’s what us all so prone to contradiction, to hypocrisy, to “changing our mind.”

Rather than a big, heavy, worked out worldview, I believe most of us have something more like like a hermeneutic or tactic for interpretation. Our minds are more like a grid and less like a library. Our ethics are far more improvisational than many (especially Christian scholars) would care to admit. We are prone to change our mind and to act in unpredictable and contrary ways.

This has a big implication for apologetics. In a worldview approach, if someone rejects a message, it is because it does not fit their preconceived view of reality. But, in a hermeneutic approach, it may simply be because they did no understand the message, because it was not obvious how to make meaning out of it (or it was not easy). This puts the onus more squarely onto the quality and form of communication. The game becomes less about changing your mind and more about changing my approach.

[tags] Worldview, Hermeneutics, Apologetics [/tags]

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