“Why all this talk about worldview? Why not just follow Christ and serve in his name?”
I’ve been hearing that question a lot lately from Christians who see worldview study as an unhelpful distraction to Christian discipleship. The question unfortunately betrays a serious misunderstanding either of worldview, or of following Christ, or both. Maybe it isn’t their fault; maybe those of us who work in worldview studies haven’t always made the connection clear enough. If you understand both worldview study and following Christ, you know you can’t have one without the other.
Worldview is not found in the Bible, but that’s no hindrance in itself; Trinity is not in the Bible, either. Worldview comes from the German Weltanschauung (world-perception). Commonly you’ll hear it defined as a frame or lens through which we understand reality. Each person’s worldview revolves around his or her answers to central questions such as “Where did we come from? What, if anything, is our purpose? What does it mean to be human? What’s at the root of our problems, and what’s the solution, if there is one? Where are we headed at the end of everything? Is there a God, and if so, what is God like?”
Everyone has a worldview. Even if we answer those questions with, “I don’t know, and I doubt anyone could know,” that’s a way of looking at the big picture of reality. It may be a fuzzy worldview, but it is one nevertheless.
How then does this relate to following Christ? I will suggest three ways: truth, discernment, and decision-making.
Truth was exemplified in Jesus Christ Himself, who came “full of grace and truth” and to “bear witness to the truth.” He Himself is the truth, He told his disciples (John 1:14,17; John 18:37; John 14:6).
Solomon prayed for discernment and the Lord blessed him for it (1 Kings 3:6-14). The New Testament calls us to practice discernment in Romans 12:2 and Ephesians 5:10 (ESV); the Greek term used there appears elsewhere throughout the New Testament, with the idea of testing, examining, approving what is excellent (Romans 2:18, for example).
As for decision-making, I hardly know where to begin. Every command, every instruction in Scripture presents us with a decision to make!
So it ought to be clear enough that truth, discernment, and decision-making are crucial to discipleship.
Recall now that I’m trying to show that worldview is closely tied to following Christ. To do that I want to compare two familiar, contrasting worldviews, and examine them from the perspective of truth, discernment, and decision-making.
The first worldview I want to look at (in a condensed form) is that of historic, believing Christianity. Christianity understands the world to be the creation of a good and infinite God who specially created humans in his image. Our basic human problem is sin, and the solution is provided through Jesus Christ, whom we are all called to follow. God has a plan for the end of the ages, which is to bring everything to consummation in Christ for His own glory.
The contrasting worldview is one that takes it for granted that there is no God. It tells us that the universe came from some unknown place that science hopes someday to discover (and only science; no other discipline has what it takes to help). Wherever it came from, the universe has developed according to mindless and unchangeable natural law and chance operations. Humans are no different from the rest of reality: We too are the fruit and expression of mindless, unalterable processes. Our central problem is that somehow, something about us doesn’t seem to fit. We don’t fit within our own selves, so we’re dissatisfied, disconnected, disillusioned, diseased. We don’t fit with others, so we fight. In the end, we just die and disappear and that’s that.
This second worldview is known as naturalism, because of its view that nature (matter and energy interacting by natural laws and chance processes) is all there is.
The question of truth leaps right out at us from both these worldviews. They disagree violently, so it would seem that logically at least one of them has to be wrong. Christians, of course, take it that the biblical picture is accurate. What does that mean in depth, though? The answer comes by way of worldview study, which helps us understand what it means to say that the Christian worldview is true and the other false, and it helps us know how we can know it to be true.
Additionally, it helps us defend ourselves and others from naturalism-based beliefs, such as “We’re nothing but highly evolved animals.” Ingrid Newkirk, president and co-founder of PETA, infamously said that when it comes to how we should treat them, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” That fits perfectly with naturalism. My first answer to that is almost to laugh: “Really?! You honestly think that?!” But for her it is a serious suggestion. I could (and would) continue by sharing what the Bible says in contrast. Unless I take seriously the naturalistic roots from which that odd belief has sprung, though, I probably won’t address what’s fundamentally driving her to believe it.
What about discernment? Take the current hot-button issues of homosexuality and abortion. There’s more going on there than simple differences of opinion; our differences go all the way down to how we view reality. I wrote in a previous column here that the position we take on these issues depends on our answers to two very basic worldview questions: What does it mean to be human? and Who decides what it means to be human? If naturalism is true, then those choices are up to us, and there is no wrong answer. Anything goes. The Christian worldview says we are what God has made us to be, which leads to quite a different answer indeed!
It leads to entirely different decision-making, too. What sense does it make to a naturalist to take time for prayer? Following that easy question, I have to ask myself a hard one: how much of our culture’s naturalism have I absorbed unwittingly into my mind, and could that be affecting how little I pray? This is a case where discernment and decision-making go hand-in-hand.
For a final example, consider how we might plan for eternity. If naturalism is true, then dead is dead, and the time we have on earth is our only shot. You might remember the old beer commercial: “You only go around once, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can! Why settle for less?” It makes perfectly good sense, if naturalism is true.
But worldview-related discernment knows that naturalism is false, which leads to entirely different decisions. Matthew 6:20 tells us instead to lay up treasures in heaven. Certainly, the command by itself is sufficient reason to do so. But how much better it is if we do it because we view the world as ruled by a good God who sacrificed himself freely for us; if we know that giving and serving aren’t just nice ideas, they’re principles woven into the deepest fabric of reality, by God Himself? We begin to see the world as the creation of an eternal God who is the fountainhead of joy, and who built our souls to last. And this assures us that we have a long future ahead of us, so it makes sense to take advantage of every opportunity now to prepare to enjoy it later.
Giving and serving with this in mind are not just religious activities: They are acts of praise to God for who He is, and trust in Him to meet our needs even as we give. This is Christian worship in action, informed by Christian worldview. The naturalists won’t understand it. How can they, until they too discover that reality is ruled by a good, loving, joyful, yet giving and sacrificing God?
Now before I finish, I must pause to consider a common objection to worldview studies: Do we really need to understand other worldviews, the non-biblical ones? Why not just concentrate on our own? Let’s go back to the Bible for the answer once again. There we find that from the prophets to the apostles, great men of the faith knew the evils they were up against in their cultures. When Isaiah ripped apart idol worship so sarcastically in Isaiah 44:9-20, for example, he knew in detail what he was talking about. He knew the lies, he named those lies—with very contemporary examples—and based on that knowledge he exposed what was false about them.
The connections to evangelism should be obvious. There are implications there for personal growth, too. Sometimes we need to discern the truth concerning lies we have picked up from our culture ourselves. It’s easier to examine our own hearts if we have some idea of the faults we might be looking for there.
I do not mean to convey that worldview is the most important thing for us to pay attention to as Christians. It’s just that if it’s true that if growth in Christ and evangelism involve truth, discernment, and decision-making (and they do!), then they involve worldview study. It’s part of being disciples ourselves, and it’s part of making disciples. Viewed in proper perspective, this is one of the many ways we can glorify God, the loving and great One who stands forever at the center of our worldview.
Tom Gilson is editor of Thinking Christian.