Worldview and the Missional Task

Terry C. Muck

Scholars differ in their understanding of worldview. They do not differ in their agreement that worldview is—that is, it exists. Naturalists and biologists, psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists, and philosophers and theologians all acknowledge that human beings have a way of organizing their experiences that results in a set of beliefs and feelings and actions that are more or less coherent and morally useful.

To be sure, they do not all call it the same thing. “Worldview,” the default term we will use in this essay, is a translation of a term basic to German rationalistic philosophy, Weltanschauung, which they used to refer to an epistemological category, worldwide perception. This derivation of the term, and many of its attendant tenets, have been particularly useful to American evangelical theologians (circa 1959-2000).

Perhaps what we are acknowledging here is that the function that worldview serves—to filter and organize the incredible number of sensory inputs we all experience every moment of our lives—must be done. All the aforementioned disciplines seem to stipulate that. The question, then, is how that is done at the most basic human level. Where scholars differ is not whether worldview is, but what worldview is and how it functions.

The variety of their disagreements is immense, as one might expect. But it may be possible to get a handle on this universe of opinion in two ways. One is to recognize that many of the divergences are discipline specific, that is, they follow the common assumptions respectively of philosophy, theology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and biology. A second way is to identify common categories of the disagreements themselves. Certain themes/questions reoccur even across disciplines. Since in the second half of this essay I am going to make some applications of worldview theory to Christian theology and mission, I have identified three of the common recurring themes/questions that seem to have particular salience to that application:

  • What is the composition of worldviews? Is a worldview made up only of rational statements (propositions and dogmas)? Or is it also influenced by affects or feelings? Can it be considered apart from actions (volitions) that result from cognition and affect?
  • What is the most important unit of analysis in worldview study? Biological organisms? Individual personalities? Social and cultural groupings? Ideological constructs? Supernatural revelations? How do all of these commonly acknowledged units relate to one another?
  • Are worldviews basically mutable or immutable? Are they the immutable givens of nature? Or, the constantly shifting sands of nurture? If changeable, what are the dynamics of that change?

As we have already indicated, philosophers tend to view worldviews in the rational abstract. They are systems of thought held by human beings, to be sure, but systems with the ability to be divorced from individual minds in order to be held and acted upon by many. Although many may live and breathe according to worldviews adhered to at an unconscious level, Weltanschauungs are best understood as conscious articulations, changed and modified according to commonly accepted systems of logic and critical thinking.

Popular religious philosophers such as F.A. Schaeffer applied this understanding of worldview to Christian theology. Schaeffer’s retreat center in L’Abri, Switzerland, specialized in identifying philosophical worldviews and then showing how those worldviews might each be seen in light of Christian faith. Schaeffer’s method spawned an influential stream of Christian theology and discipleship, led by popular writers such as J.A. Sire, J. McDonald, and R. Chandler.

Theologians, properly understood, often seem to be producing what one might call Christian worldviews, but closer examination indicates that the orthodox ones at least are articulating what might more properly be called “heavenviews.” The whole point of biblical teaching is that truth comes from God not humans. The essential point of religions worldwide is that truth is transcendent. This is what distinguishes theology from philosophy.

An illustrative example of this approach is A. Nygren, the Scandanavian theologian and author of Agape and Eros (University of Chicago, 1982). Nygren’s terminology for worldview is “fundamental motif.” He argues that agape, God’s selfless love for humanity, is the fundamental motif of Christianity. Nygren borrows the idea of fundamental motif from the world of art where motifs are seen as that which holds a piece of art together, its theme. Motif research applied to theology penetrates “behind the modes of expression, thought forms, and circle of ideas, to the fundamental religious sentiment.” One feature of Nygren’s theology is that he recognizes that a motif “can be an underlying sentiment” not just an idea. At one point he calls it a “general attitude toward life.” Agape, then, as Christianity’s fundamental motif, is its “basic idea,'” its “driving power,” its “character as a whole.” It is true, beautiful, good, and eternal. As an unchangeable element, it is to be identified, understood, and responded to.

One of psychology’s enduring contributions to worldview theory is its addition of volition (behavior) to philosophical cognition and religious affect as its components. William James, the dean of early American psychologists, did not consider a thought or a feeling as a part of a person’s “worldview” (he sometimes did not use the term, opposed as he was to German idealistic rationalism) until it could be seen to eventuate in an action.

James’ understanding of worldview differed from other psychologist’s understanding of it as archetype (Jung) or unconscious (Freud). Instead, he considered it the root part of one’s observable personality. Today, worldview in psychological terms has developed from there. Modern psychologists are likely to use terms such as “shared assumptions,” acknowledging that individuals do develop in communities. Still, individuals change and shift these shared assumptions based on their unending stream of experiences and sensory data.

Worldview theory has tended to be one good common ground between anthropology and Christian theology, particularly the missiological theories and strategies encompassed by the word “contextualization.” Some modern anthropologists have begun to question the use of worldview theory, but historically it has been seen as a useful construct for describing the rational component of small-scale cultures. Christian anthropologists like M.A. Rynkiewich define culture as the operative unit of the groups they study: “The ideas, feelings, and values of a people.” Worldview is usually seen as the “ideas” part of that triumvirate.

For anthropologists, belonging to a culture (their operative unit), means sharing the group’s worldview. Change of a worldview can and does occur, but slowly. For that reason, since all expressions of the gospel are culturally embedded anyway, the missiological task is to contextualize the gospel in the worldview of the culture.

Not all Christian anthropologists see it quite this way, however. For example, P. Hiebert seems to separate out the worldview element of culture, which he defines as mainly rational. Further, he seems to indicate that the one element of a culture that needs dramatic change by the so-called Christian worldview is dogmatic theology (or propositional truth as evangelicals like to call it). More on this later.

Sociologists like P. Berger make society their operative unit and emphasize the so-called social construction of any society’s reality, including, presumably, that society’s worldview. Biologists and other hard science determinists might have difficulty distinguishing between human instinct and worldview—neither B.F. Skinner nor E.O. Wilson could find any room for freely changing one’s worldview outside the parameters of cause and effect—but with this caveat there is no reason for them to be unsympathetic to a rationalist philosopher’s definition of worldview.

What might this mean for Christian theology and missiological practice? In general, it may be the case that missiologists have not drawn all the possible lessons from this cornucopia of information on worldview. To be sure, they have drawn heavily—perhaps too heavily—from philosophy, and lightly—perhaps too lightly—from anthropology. Christians do need to express their heavenviews in worldview form using philosophy and psychology to do so, and understanding one another across cultural divides does need to occur. This means that the anthropologically informed process called contextualization is essential. But Christian use of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and biology would be more effective, more true, and more faithful if three insights were acknowledged:

First, there is no Christian worldview, per se. There is only one “heavenview” expressed variously throughout history and across cultures, using many different worldviews analyzed first and foremost through biblical theology, but also using the disciplines of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and biology. To be sure, not all worldviews are equal. Each must be constantly measured against the one heavenview and each will inevitably be found wanting to some degree. To insist that one worldview is the only right one is to needlessly privilege one philosophical system, one school of anthropology, one psychologist, one theology. All may have a contribution to make, but none is sufficient by itself.

Second, worldviews change. Both collective worldviews and individual worldviews change. But worldview change is not always necessary for conversion to Christianity to take place. In fact, it rarely is necessary to change one’s worldview completely in order to begin to live one’s life in congruence with heaven’s view. Put the other way, it is almost always necessary to modify one’s worldview in order to be Christian, but there is no real point to attempt the almost impossible task of replacing one worldview with another.

Either way, worldview has little to do with conversion and a great deal to do with sanctification, discipleship, holiness or whatever your worldview calls it. We are all in the unending process of putting on the mind of Christ, but must remember that it is the mind of Christ we seek to emulate, not the minds of favored men and women, or cherished cultures and people groups.

Third, Christian missiologists can use worldview theory to great advantage—how it is used should be relative to the context. If the context calls for a rational discussion of Christian belief, then philosophical understandings of worldview may be helpful. If the context calls for shared insights of our response to God’s grace, then theology inquiry will surely help. People in situations of personal angst might benefit from psychologists whose primary concerns are with individuals and their approaches to ultimate meanings.

Or one might decide based on what social unit seems most congruent with the “worldviews” of the people in context. The well-known division between Western individualism and Eastern communalism may be an overused cliché and unrealistic simplification, but judgments like these can be made and help determine missional strategies.

* * *

I just finished re-reading what I have written about worldview. As a reader I came away with one question: What is the heavenview you talk about and how is it related to worldviews? You might have already guessed at some of the answer to this question, but let me leave you with a few thoughts just in outline form since that is all I have the words for.

First, the heavenview is not just a perfect worldview. It includes all that is true and good and beautiful and eternal about human worldviews (and has none of their faults), but it is much more than all of them put together.

Second, the heavenview includes the cognitive, affective, volitional, and religious. It is all the words of Scripture perfectly understood, the face of God so beautiful/awesome Moses could hardly look, the lived life of Jesus Christ we so imperfectly attempt to imitate.

Third, the heavenview comes from God and makes possible our reconciliation lost at Eden. We try to pass it on to others in thought, word, and deed, but our attempts are so meager. The best we dare hope for is that our paltry worldviews interest others enough so that they are driven with the Holy Spirit’s help toward God and the heavenview on their own.

Finally, the heavenview is of God. Born in God’s nature, given to us in the image of that nature. This we can know only by faith. It is this faith that is our core. Many of us never in our whole lives bring that human core, made in God’s image, to consciousness. In the religious sense, and the spiritual, and the Christian sense, a worldview, any worldview, is good and true and beautiful only to the extent that it helps us drill down deep so that we can acknowledge that core.

And the closer one gets to that core, to the heavenview, the more one realizes that it is not about us knowing God, but about God knowing us: “Oh, Lord, you have searched me and known me.” And all we can do is plead, Oh Lord, search me and know me more.

Posted Apr 01, 2011