What’s Your Worldview?

What in the World Is a Worldview?

This is the first post in a 5-part series by Dr. James N. Anderson, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions.


What’s a Worldview?

There has been much talk in recent years about worldviews. But what exactly is a worldview?

As the word itself suggests, a worldview is an overall view of the world. It’s not a physical view of the world, like the sight of planet Earth you might get from an orbiting space station. Rather, it’s a philosophical view of the world—and not just of our planet, but of all of reality. A worldview is an all-encompassing perspective on everything that exists and matters to us.

Your worldview represents your most fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the universe you inhabit. It reflects how you would answer all the “big questions” of human existence, the fundamental questions we ask about life, the universe, and everything.

Is there a God? If so, what is God like and how do I relate to God? If there isn’t a God, does it matter? What is truth and can anyone really know the truth anyway? Where did the universe come from and where is it going—if anywhere? What’s the meaning of life? Does my life have a purpose—and, if so, what is it? What am I supposed to do with my life? What does it mean to live a good life? Does it really matter in the end whether or not I live a good life? Is there life after death? Are humans basically just smart apes with superior hygiene and fashion sense—or is there more to us than that?

You get the idea. Your worldview directly influences how you answer those kinds of big questions—or how you would answer them if you were asked and gave them some thought.

Like Belly Buttons

Worldviews are like belly buttons. Everyone has one, but we don’t talk about them very often.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that worldviews are like cerebellums: everyone has one and we can’t live without them, but not everyone knows that he has one.

A worldview is as indispensable for thinking as an atmosphere is for breathing. You can’t think in an intellectual vacuum any more than you can breathe without a physical atmosphere. Most of the time, you take the atmosphere around you for granted: you look through it rather than at it, even though you know it’s always there. Much the same goes for your worldview: normally you look through it rather than directly at it. It’s essential, but it usually sits in the background of your thought.

Your worldview shapes and informs your experiences of the world around you.  Like a pair of spectacles with colored lenses, it affects what you see and how you see it. Depending on the “color” of the lenses, you see some things more easily, while other things are de-emphasized or distorted. In some cases, you don’t see things at all.

A Few Examples

Here are a few examples to illustrate how your worldview affects the way you see things. Suppose that one day a close friend tells you that she recently met with a spiritualist who put her in touch with a loved one who died ten years ago. Later that day, you read an article about a statue of the Virgin Mary that witnesses claim to have seen weeping blood. You also hear a news story on the radio about possible signs of complex organic life discovered on Mars. Your worldview—your background assumptions about God, the origin and nature of the universe, human beginnings, life after death, and so forth—strongly influences how you interpret these reports and react to them.

Worldviews also largely determine people’s opinions on matters of ethics and politics. What you think about abortion, euthanasia, same-sex relationships, public education, economic policy, foreign aid, the use of military force, environmentalism, animal rights, genetic enhancement, and almost any other major issue of the day depends on your underlying worldview more than anything else.

As you can see, then, worldviews play a central and defining role in our lives. They shape what we believe and what we’re willing to believe, how we interpret our experiences, how we behave in response to those experiences, and how we relate to others.

In the next two articles I’ll say more about the importance of worldviews and the benefits of thinking in terms of worldviews.


James N. Anderson (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (excerpt).

The Importance of Worldview-Awareness

This is the second post in a 5-part series (part 1) by Dr. James N. Anderson, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions.


In my introductory article I introduced the concept of a worldview and the role that worldviews play in our lives. In this post I want to outline five reasons why it’s important to be worldview-aware.

1. Worldviews serve as the necessary foundation and framework for our thoughts and actions.

Have you ever watched a house being built? No doubt you noticed that a house has two essential components: its foundation and its frame. These two components furnish the house with its basic stability, shape, and structure. A similar principle applies to your thought-life: it needs foundational assumptions and a framework of guiding principles to provide your thinking with a basic stability, shape, and structure. For example, you cannot reason intelligibly about your experiences without some basic presuppositions about what your experiences are, where they come from, and what principles of reason you can apply to them—even if you take those presuppositions for granted and don’t consciously reflect upon them.

2. Our worldviews are the single greatest influence on the way we interpret our experiences and respond to those experiences.

How is it that people who live in the same neighborhood, with very similar experiences of the world around them, can come to such radically different conclusions about the world and how we should live in it? The primary reason is that those people have different worldviews.

Take just one example. There are many people who think that the scientific evidence supporting the Darwinian theory of evolution is overwhelming and beyond dispute, such that anyone who doubts that theory must be (to use the memorable words of Richard Dawkins) ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked. Yet there are just as many people—I’m one of them—who think that the scientific study of organic life points in a very different direction, namely, to the existence of an Intelligent Designer behind the natural world. What accounts for this sharp disagreement? Is it because one side has access to a mass of evidence that the other doesn’t? Is it because one group is more familiar with the scientific data than the other?

No, those can’t be the reasons. The scientific evidence is publicly available. It’s out there for anyone to examine and evaluate. There are very intelligent and well-informed scientists on both sides of the debate. The explanation for the sharp disagreement doesn’t lie in the evidence itself but rather in the interpretation of the evidence—and that interpretation is determined, more than anything else, by the worldviews of the people interpreting the evidence (specifically, whether their worldview allows for intelligent supernatural causes).

3. Christians are called to think Christianly.

As Christians we’re called to submit the entirety of our lives—including our thinking—to God and his revealed word (Matt. 22:37-38; Luke 11:28; Rom. 12:1-2; Josh. 1:8). We should use our minds in a distinctively Christian way, aiming to think God’s thoughts after him, and to interpret our experiences of God’s world in conformity with God’s word (John 17:17; 2 Cor. 10:4-5; Col. 2:6-8). One significant way in which we can fulfil this calling is by self-consciously embracing and developing a biblical Christian worldview, seeking to apply it consistently to every aspect of our lives.

4. Every religion reflects a worldview and every secular ideology reflects a worldview.

There are a bewildering number of religions represented in the world today (most estimates put the number in the thousands) and the differences between them can be very striking. But all these religions have at least one thing in common: each represents a distinctive take on reality—a particular way of viewing the universe and our place in it. In short, every religion reflects a particular worldview.

And what’s true of religions is also true of secular (non-religious) ideologies such as Darwinism, Marxism, Existentialism, and Postmodernism. Each one has its own distinctive take on reality: on what is ultimate, what is good, what kind of beings we are, and how we should live.

5. One of the most fruitful and effective ways to engage with non-Christian religions and ideologies is to think of them in terms of the worldviews they reflect.

Christians aren’t called to live in Christian ghettos, engaging and interacting only with fellow Christians.  Rather, we’re called to engage with people who don’t share our distinctive faith, practices, and fundamental commitments. But how can we do so fruitfully and effectively?

If everyone—whether Christian or non-Christian, whether religious or non-religious—has a worldview which serves as the foundation and framework for all of their thoughts and actions, shaping their interpretation of the world, it makes good sense to engage with them at that foundational level. If we’re going to engage effectively both with individual unbelievers and with non-Christian belief-systems, it makes good sense to do so in terms of their underlying worldviews.


James N. Anderson (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (excerpt).

Why Think of Worldviews?

This is the third post in a 5-part series (part 1, part 2) by Dr. James N. Anderson, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions.


In the second article in this series I elaborated on the significance of worldviews in our lives. The last of my five points was that one of the most fruitful and effective ways to engage with non-Christian religions and ideologies is to think of them in terms of the distinctive worldviews they reflect. In this article I want to develop this point further by giving four specific reasons why it is beneficial for Christians to think in terms of worldviews.

1. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to understand why people see the world as they do.

Why do some people think that the scientific evidence for Darwinism is utterly overwhelming while others find it wholly unimpressive? Why do some consider abortion to be an abominable practice while others think banning abortion would be a violation of basic human rights? Why do some people view the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as despicable terrorists whiles others praise them as heroes and martyrs? Why were some people outraged by Phil Robertson’s recent comments about homosexuality while others applauded them as plain common sense?

The basic explanation for these widely divergent viewpoints is that people have fundamentally different worldviews. Once we understand what a worldview is, and how it affects a person’s thoughts and actions, we’re much better placed to understand why they tend to think and act as they do.

2. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to make meaningful comparisons between different religions and ideologies.

How do you compare Islam with Existentialism or New Age Spirituality? How do you compare Mormonism with Buddhism or Marxism—or with biblical Christianity, for that matter? Once we recognize that all these ‘-isms’ and ‘-ities’ represent different worldviews, and can identify the basic components of each worldview, we’re in a position to “line them up” and make meaningful comparisons between these different religions and ideologies.

3. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to make reasoned evaluations of different religions and ideologies.

Just as worldview-thinking helps us to make meaningful comparisons of different religions and ideologies, exposing their fundamental commonalities and differences, so worldview-thinking can help us to make reasoned, principled evaluations of those religions and ideologies.

Once we’ve identified an underlying worldview, we can then evaluate it by applying various theoretical and practical tests. Is it internally consistent? Does it live up to its own standards or is it self-defeating? Is it unnecessarily complex? Can it account for things we take for granted all the time, such as our capacity for logical thought and our ability to make meaningful moral judgments? Can it explain some of the fundamental things that just beg to be explained, such as why anything exists at all?

Can the worldview be lived out in practice? Does it address our existential needs? Does it provide the foundation for a meaningful, purposeful life? Does it offer comfort in the present and hope for the future?

4. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to have constructive conversations with unbelievers.

In order to have a constructive conversation with another person about any topic of importance, you need to have a good understanding of their basic outlook on life and what ultimately motivates their beliefs and responses. For the same reason, it’s best if the other person has a good grasp of your basic outlook on life and what ultimately motivates your beliefs and responses. Furthermore, to have a really fruitful discussion you need a clear view of the most central and fundamental points of agreement and disagreement between the two of you, and some notion of how to evaluate your differences in a principled way.

When we enter into conversations with unbelievers over controversial topics, we should recognize that any significant disagreements we encounter will often trace back to more fundamental worldview differences. When that’s the case, the most responsible and constructive way forward will not be to try to ignore or bypass those foundational differences, but rather to acknowledge them and lay them out on the table for scrutiny. When we’re trained to think in terms of worldviews, we’re better equipped to challenge unbelievers at the root of their beliefs and actions rather than at the surface level; we’re able to expose the crumbling foundations of their houses rather than just the creaky floorboards.


James N. Anderson (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (excerpt).

What it TAKES to Make a Worldview

This is the fourth post in a 5-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) by Dr. James N. Anderson, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions.


In the first three articles in this series I introduced the concept of a worldview and explained why it is beneficial to think in terms of worldviews. In this article, I want to go into more detail about what a worldview is and what makes up a worldview.

Earlier I defined a worldview as an overall view of the world—specifically, a philosophical view of all of reality. Here’s a more technical and precise definition of a worldview:

A worldview is a network of ultimate beliefs, assumptions, values, and ideas about the universe and our place in it that shapes how a person understands their life and experiences (and the lives and experiences of others) and how that person acts in response.

But what exactly are these ultimate beliefs, assumptions, values, and ideas? What do they concern? In teaching on this subject I’ve found it helpful to use a simple acronym—TAKES—to break down a worldview into five basic areas or subdivisions:

  • Theology
  • Anthropology
  • Knowledge
  • Ethics
  • Salvation

With these five key areas in view, we can identify the basic ‘ingredients’ of a worldview. We can see what it TAKES to make a worldview. Let’s consider each area in turn.

Theology

Theology (from the Greek word theos) is most simply defined as the study of God. Every worldview has a theology; that’s to say, it reflects some kind of perspective on God. Its view of God may be very precise or it may be very vague. It may be explicit or implicit. It may be primarily negative in its perspective, focusing more on what God isn’t than what God is. But every worldview has a ‘take’ on God.

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • Is there a God? (The most important question of all!)
  • What is God like?
  • Is God a perfect being?
  • Is God a personal being?
  • How does God relate to the world? (According to some worldviews, God is transcendent and distinct from the world; according to others, God is identical to the world; still others take a position somewhere in-between.)
  • How does God relate to human beings in general?
  • How does God relate to me?

You might think that atheistic worldviews cannot have a theology because they deny there’s a God in the first place. But even atheistic worldviews have something to say about God, even if it’s only that he doesn’t exist! Moreover, when atheists deny the existence of God they still have some conception of what God would be like if he existed. (Otherwise, how could they know what they’re denying?)

Even atheistic worldviews, then, have a kind of theology, albeit a negative one. In fact, we can go further and observe that every worldview has its own ‘god’ in the sense that it posits some kind of ultimate reality (e.g., physical particles) and some kind of ultimate authority (e.g., science). What a worldview affirms about ultimate reality and ultimate authority functions as its theology.

Anthropology

Anthropology (from the Greek word anthropos: ‘man’ or ‘mankind’) is the study of human beings. Just as every worldview has its own theology, so every worldview also has its own anthropology. It represents a certain perspective on humanity, on our fundamental nature and purpose.

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • What are human beings? What kind of beings are we? (Are we creatures made in the image of God? Are we gods-in-embryo? Are we the unintended products of naturalistic evolution? Something else altogether?)
  • Where did we come from? (Note how this is closely related to the first question!)
  • Are we purely physical beings or embodied souls?
  • Are we special or unique in any way?
  • Do we exist for any particular reason or purpose?
  • Are we basically good, or basically bad, or something in-between?

Already you should be able to see how the first two areas of a worldview are closely connected. What we believe about God has significant implications for what we believe about ourselves , and vice versa.

Knowledge

Knowledge is widely viewed as a very useful and important thing. Knowledge is certainly more valuable than mere opinion. If I were to tell you that eating a whole raw cabbage every day would add a decade to your life, it would matter to you whether I really knew that to be true!

A worldview will typically have something to say about our knowledge: about what we can know and how we can know it. It will also have things to say on closely related subjects, such as truth, logic, reason, experience, intuition, and revelation. (All of these topics fall under what philosophers call ‘epistemology’.)

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • Can we know anything at all?
  • What can we know about God?
  • What can we know about the universe?
  • What can we know about ourselves?
  • What is the best kind of knowledge to have?
  • How do we know what we know? (Or to put the question another way: What are the sources of knowledge? Divine revelation? Reason? Intuition? Science? Sensory experiences? Mystical experiences?)
  • Are there any limits to our knowledge?
  • What are the best ways to improve and expand our knowledge?

Ethics

Just as every worldview has a distinctive take on truth and knowledge, so it has a distinctive take on goodness and morality. To borrow from the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer: every worldview has something to say in answer to the question, “How should we then live?”

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • What is the highest or ultimate good? (God? Love? Knowledge? Pleasure? Power?)
  • Is morality real or merely illusory? Are some things really right or wrong?
  • Is morality objective or subjective?
  • Are there any moral absolutes?
  • If morality is always relative, what is it relative to? (The individual? The community? The species?)
  • How do we know what is right or wrong? (Note the connection here between ethics and knowledge.)
  • Why should we try to be good anyway?
  • Are we ultimately accountable to anything or anyone for the way we live?

Salvation

Last, but not least, every worldview has a “salvation story” to tell. When Christians hear the word ‘salvation’ we tend immediately to think of it in terms of the biblical gospel: salvation from sin, death, and hell through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. But here I’m using the term ‘salvation’ in a more generic sense. Under this heading I’m referring to what a worldview says or implies about the basic human problem and the solution to that problem.

Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with the world. (Do you know anyone who thinks the world is just right in every way?) Even those who deny in theory the reality of good and evil find it hard, if not impossible, to apply their theory consistently in practice. For example, they’ll often want to say that we will be better off once we recognize the non-reality of good and evil—but that seems to presuppose our current situation isn’t as good as it could be! Everyone thinks our lives could be better in certain ways than they are now, and when pressed they will tend to generalize or boil things down to one general problem.

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • What is humanity’s most basic problem?
  • What (if anything) is the solution to that problem?
  • Are there multiple solutions?
  • What part (if any) do we play in solving the problem?
  • What part (if any) does God play in solving the problem?
  • What are the prospects for the problem being solved?

All Interrelated

It’s important to see that these five areas—Theology, Anthropology, Knowledge, Ethics, and Salvation—are closely interrelated. What a person believes in one area will inevitably affect what they believe in other areas. What you believe about God has implications for your view of human beings: our nature, origins, purpose, and destiny. What you believe about God and human beings will in turn influence your views on what we can know, how we should live, what our basic problem is, and how that problem can (and should) be solved.

One final observation. While everyone has a worldview, relatively few people are aware that they have a worldview and fewer still have critically reflected on their worldview. People generally don’t have well-defined beliefs or convictions in the five areas I’ve outlined here. They’ve never even considered most of the questions I’ve listed here, let alone taken the time to formulate coherent answers to them. Nevertheless, if they were asked those questions they would be inclined towards certain answers rather than others. Even where people lack distinct beliefs about ultimate matters, their thoughts, actions, and interpretations of the world nevertheless reflect various unconscious assumptions and dispositions. And the more they are prompted to consider these fundamental issues, the more worldview-aware they will become.


James N. Anderson (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (excerpt).

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