Discipleship: Four Major Worldviews

This article presents a summary of four worldviews that are prominent in the world today. A “worldview” is a way of thinking about truth and reality. It sums up the basic conclusions about life and meaning that a person figures out and lives by, either consciously or unconsciously. James Sire, in The Universe Next Doorgives the following definition of “worldview”:

A world view is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of our world. Or we could simply say it is the sum total of what we believe about the most important issues of life.

Sire suggests the following seven questions we can ask ourselves in determining our own particular worldview. In summary, they are as follows:

  1. What is prime reality—the really real? To this we might answer: God, the gods, or the material universe.
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? Do we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit? Do we emphasise our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us?
  3. What is a human being?  Are we highly complex machines, sleeping gods, people made in the image of God, or “naked apes”?
  4. What happens to a person at death? Is it personal extinction, transformation to a higher state, or departure to a shadowy existence on “the other side”?
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Sample answers include the idea that we are made in the image of an all-knowing God or that consciousness and intelligence have developed under the pressures of survival in a long process of evolution.
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong? Is it because we are made in the image of God whose character is good? Are right and wrong determined by human choice alone? Or have the notions simply developed under the pressures of cultural and physical survival?
  7. What is the meaning of human history? Is it to realise the purposes of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, or something else?

Whatever answers we give to such questions will obviously have a big effect on such matters as our goals in life—how we make decisions; the way we treat other people; the way we value ourselves; our attitude to material possessions; the way we face death; what we think is wrong with the world and how we are going to put it right; how we relate to human need, to family structure, to those outside our own community, to human rights, or to government. Though recognising that what we say we believe and how we behave do not always match up, our actions often point clearly to what we really believe.

With these questions in mind, let’s have a brief look at what are perhaps the four major worldviews that people hold in the modern world. It is important to note that the following summaries are extremely brief and you may well think simplistic. Certainly we could find variations on each of them. However, they are given in order to underline the fact that these worldviews are different and that the differences cannot but affect the way we live. Some people pick bits that appeal to them from two or more of these worldviews and end up with a hodgepodge of beliefs, but this is usually the result of not thinking deeply enough about the issues. If, indeed, one of them should be true and the others false, then which one we choose to go with cannot but have important consequences, both for the present and the future.

Samuel Johnson, the essayist and dictionary-maker of the eighteenth century, said: “Truth, sir, is a cow; which, when skeptics have found it will give them no more milk, they have gone off to milk the bull.” But milking the bull is not only futile. It can be positively dangerous to one’s health!

1.  Atheistic materialism

This worldview is a relative newcomer to the historical scene in any significant measure, but now appears to be in decline. Statistician David Barrett says that since 1970 the number of atheists has dropped from 4.6% of world population to 3.8% (222 million). He predicts continuing decline.

This material universe is what is really real. As Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and populariser of science puts it, “The cosmos is all that is or all that ever will be.” The present scientific view of how the universe came into being, now taught in major universities worldwide, is that it all came into existence with a “big bang” some billions of years ago. The atheist would say this was initiated by some physical process as yet unknown.

Human consciousness and intelligence developed from chemicals by a long process of chance evolution. Personality developed from impersonal hydrogen atoms. “God is the DNA code,” says Timothy Leary. We are all the products of matter, time and chance alone.

How do we know things?
Knowledge is the result of physical processes in our brains. A problem here was well expressed by Professor Haldane as follows: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” If my self-awareness, intelligence and ability to make choices is something more than just the movement of atoms in my brain, then, according to the materialist view, this self-awareness has somehow come about only as the result of physical processes.

As there is no intelligent being who planned it all, life only has what meaning we humans choose to give it. Some would give it no meaning. Samuel Beckett’s play Breath is a 35-second play that has no human actors. The props are a pile of rubbish on the stage, lit by a fight which begins to dim, brightens (but never fully) and then recedes to dimness. There are no words, only a “recorded” cry opening the play, an inhaled breath, an exhaled breath and an identical “recorded” cry closing the play. For Beckett life is such a “breath”.

Death is the end of our personal existence—blotto! “Human destiny,” Ernest Nagel confesses in Naturalism Reconsidered, “[is] an episode between two oblivions.”

Morality and values
Right and wrong are merely what we decide for ourselves as humans, either individually or in groups. Usually it is the majority decision that wins the day.

History has no ultimate purpose. We have to make the most of what we have got. In the end, this planet will certainly burn up or freeze and that will be the end of everything.

2. Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age thinking

In this worldview the focus tends to be on self, how we can improve ourselves, rather than on how we can know God, and better serve him and others. A typical statement from a popular New Age magazine says:

All paths lead to God. The true path finally becomes self- empowerment: the path of self-love. Then one demonstrates that they can manifest God and no longer need to look outside themselves for this information. They have become the path themselves.

It is simplistic to lump Hinduism and Buddhism together, but they do have certain basic beliefs in common. New Age thinking tends to be an adaption of some of these Eastern beliefs to Western culture.

Everything is God. We all share the same essence or “stuff” of reality, which is spirit (Hinduism—the Brahma; Buddhism—Nirvana). This philosophy of the unity of all things has been called Monism. The basic philosophy of New Age thinking has been summed up in three pithy sayings: ‘All is God”, ‘All is one” and ‘All is well”. The New Age concept of God is impersonal, usually described as Force, Energy, Essence, Consciousness, Vibration, Principle, or Being.

This material world is unreal, a sort of fantasy or dream of some kind. The “realised soul” understands that this world means nothing and is of no value. Ultimately, salvation consists in escaping from matter. New Agers tend to put a little more value on this world than do Hindus and Buddhists.

We are one with God. Our unity with all reality is emphasised. Individual personality is underplayed.

Meaning in life comes through realising who we are in our oneness with the divine spirit. There are no criteria for judging true from false religious experience. “I believe” tends to become “I feel”.

How we know truth
Our significant learning comes from withdrawal from the world, looking within, getting in touch with our real selves, the divine within. Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age share a distrust of reason. In Hinduism and Buddhism the Ultimate is unknown and unknowable. It is neti neti, ‘not this, not that’.

Sin is merely ignorance of the true nature of reality. We need enlightenment, not repentance. Suffering rather than evil is seen as our major problem, and much of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy is a response to this. For some, there is no objective standard of right and wrong. As one spiritual sage from India put it, “It’s not a question of whether you are good or bad … good and bad are relative. They are two sides of one coin, part of the same whole.” In a similar vein, Carl Frederick wrote in Playing the Game the New Way, “You are the supreme being … there isn’t any right or wrong.” New Age guru Shirley Maclaine’s philosophy, along with that of many other New Agers, could be summed up as: “If it feels good, do it.”

We die only to be reborn in a continuous cycle of rebirth-reincarnation. In our next fife we will endure the consequences of our behaviour in this one—the Eastern doctrine of Karma. If we succeed in progressing in the steps of enlightenment we will eventually escape this cycle into Nirvana where individual personality will be absorbed into complete oneness with Ultimate Reality, like a wave being absorbed back into the ocean. Much of Buddhism denies the personal nature of God. New Age thinkers tend to be a little more optimistic about our continuous advance in this process than do Hindus and Buddhists.

Because we are caught up in this constant cycle of rebirth, history has little meaning. Eastern religion tends not to understand the world in terms of purpose. As someone has said, there is “movement and change without involving the idea of purpose.”

3.  Postmodernism

Postmodernism is the term used by sociologists and others to describe a way of thinking that has become very pervasive in the Western world over the last generation. It is an approach to reality that is having a significant effect on literature, theatre, art, education, psychotherapy, law, science, architecture, the study of history and people’s view of religion. Some significant writers who have promoted postmodernism are de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller, Jean-Francois Lytard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. Its origins are found in the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx and Freud. On some points, particularly its attitude to truth, it is similar to New Age thinking. As a way of thinking it can hardly be described as a “worldview”, as one of its tenets is that there is no longer any one big story that is able to make sense of our little stories. In other words, “worldviews” are out!

We all create our own reality. God tends to be ignored. Should he (she, it?) exist, he certainly has nothing to say about what we should believe or how we should behave.

Truth and reason
There is no absolute truth. New Age guru Shirley MacLaine holds a typical postmodern perspective. In Out on a Limb she asks David, her spiritual guide, if he believes in reincarnation. He replies, “It’s true if you believe it, and that goes for anything.” As Wheaton College professor Roger Lundin explains in The Culture of Interpretation, in postmodernism “all principles are preferences—and only preferences.” As a result, “they are nothing but masks for the will to power.” Postmodernism is distrustful of all authority and dogmatism. It often recasts the Enlightenment’s sacred cows of reason and science as tools of oppression. Feminist scholar Sandra Harding complains that science embodies a male-centred view that is “culturally coercive.”

Emotions, feelings, intuition, reflection, magic, myth, and mystical experience are now centre stage. “I know” has been replaced by “I feel”. There is a bluffing of the difference between ourselves and the real world out there.

The postmodern aversion to truth is well expressed by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind.

The danger… is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to [teaching]. Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and the various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think that you are right at all.

Sigmund Freud had described this outcome with glaring precision nearly one hundred years ago:

Fundamentally, we only find what we need and only see what we want to see. We have no other possibility. Since the criterion for truth—correspondence with the external world—is absent, it is entirely a matter of indifference what opinions we adopt. All of them are equally true and equally false. And no one has the right to accuse anyone else of error.

Someone has said that we have now moved from the conviction that everyone has a right to his own opinions, to the notion that every opinion is equally right!

A good summary of postmodern thinking is given by Os Guinness in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds.

Where modernism was a manifesto of human self-confidence and self-congratulation, postmodernism is a confession of modesty, if not despair. There is no truth, only truths. There are no principles, only preferences. There is no grand reason, only reasons. There is no privileged civilization, only a multiple of cultures, beliefs, periods, and styles. There is no grand narrative of human progress, only countless stories of where people and their cultures are now. There is no simple reality or any grand objectivity of universal, detached knowledge, only a ceaseless representation of everything in terms of everything else. In sum, postmodernism … is an extreme form of relativism.

Postmodernism does not rule out religion as did modernism, with its emphasis on human reason. However, the religions that are approved are very different from Christianity. You may believe what you want to. Go for what makes you feel good. Religion is cafeteria style. You choose what you like from what is spread in front of you, and put a meal together that suits your taste. There are strong links with paganism.

All moral values are relative. Each person or culture develops their own moral values. The important question is not “Is it right?” but “What will it do for me?” There is a strong emphasis on the fact that we are shaped by our culture, and a consequent diminishing of personal responsibility.

Tolerance of other views is one of the pillars of postmodernism. However, there is one group of people to whom this tolerance is not extended, those who believe truth to be important! This intolerance is especially directed to those who think others might be wrong. Postmodern analyst Frederick Turner, for instance, in The Future of the Gods: Notes Towards a Postmodern Religion, calls for tolerance and syncretism (mixing different religions together). Yet, in the same article he calls evangelical Christianity a “junk religion”!

There is a strong emphasis on individualism. In the American court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in justifying the abortion license, the court declared that it is up to each individual to determine “the concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

There is much rewriting of history. What really happened is either unknowable or unimportant. A sad symptom of this is seen in a survey indicating that 33% of Americans subscribed to the view that the Holocaust, the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II, may never have happened. 

William Dever, in an excellent article in Near Eastern Archeology on some writer’s approach to history, and archeology in particular, says:

Such “postmodern” thinking has affected nearly all disciplines since [about] 1950, both in the natural and social sciences, to such an extent that it is now taken for granted as the reigning paradigm.

4. Christianity

There is one God of infinite wisdom, holiness and power, who has existed eternally. God is personal and exists within himself as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit that have always existed in a love relationship.

The universe is the creation of this God and is dependent on him for its existence. It had a beginning and, in its present form, will have an end. Matter is real and good. God himself shared in created human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. Though God maintains the created universe, he is distinct from it. He himself is beyond space and time.

God has created humans “in his own likeness” with self-consciousness, freedom to make choices, moral accountability, intelligence, and spiritual qualities that enable us to relate personally to him. [I have dealt with issues such as the creation of humans, their place in the universe and their distinction from the animal world in the booklet The Complementary Nature of Science and Christianity.] His desire is that we should enter into the loving relationships that already exist within the persons of the divine Trinity, and enjoy fellowship with him, both in this life and through eternity. We have messed things up by our waywardness, but he has acted in Jesus Christ to restore that fellowship. More of that later.

We exist beyond death, either in a relationship with God or without him, depending on choices we have made in this life. Because the material creation matters to God, our bodies will be resurrected at Christ’s Second Coming, though in a transformed state similar to Christ’s resurrected body.

How do we know the nature of reality?
God has given us intelligence which he expects us to use, whether in our understanding of the universe or our knowledge of him. However, our moral perversity affects our ability to think clearly, especially when it comes to truth about spiritual matters. Truth about God, the meaning of life and death, and such matters, come to us by revelation. In other words, God reveals this truth to those humble enough to receive it.

 Because God is perfectly good, he created humans with the same qualities of moral goodness. However, humans have misused the freedom given them, and our moral natures have become warped. Our goodness is tainted with “sin” and this affects our relationship with God, whose justice demands the condemnation of evil.

God makes his purposes known in history. It is “his story”. He has made himself known by his actions in history and by revealing himself to chosen individuals, and particularly by entering the world in the person of Jesus Christ. History had a beginning and will culminate in the return of Jesus Christ, whom he has appointed as judge of the human race. God will ultimately create “a new heavens and a new earth” in which his people will live eternally in a loving and joyful relationship with him.

Author: Dick Tripp

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