Contributor James (“Jay”) Ford wrote his own response, which we publish below with Rusty’s permission. Dr. Ford is Professor Emeritus of Religion (recently retired) at Wake Forest University and the author of The Divine Quest, East and West: A Comparative Study of Ultimate Realities. Watch the video above to learn more about Jay and what has shaped his worldview.
Responses by both Rusty and Praxis Circle Executive Director Doug Monroe will follow in the coming weeks.
In a recent Praxis Circle blog post, Rusty Reno boldly proclaims that “Christ is not a worldview.” This declaration is based, in part, on a somewhat narrow definition of worldview and Reno’s additional assertion that Christian “faith” transcends reason and is therefore not accessible to causal analysis by “academically trained theologians and others with an aptitude for conceptual thought.” The logical inference seems to be that there is little point for Christians to engage in “worldview” analysis or cross-cultural studies because Christianity is not a worldview. Moreover, worldviews are based on deep cultural prejudices and thus largely inaccessible. “One of the conceits of modernity,” he contends, “is that we can do exactly this, that we can use our reason to reform (or even revolutionize) our deepest cultural prejudices (which is to say our worldview).”
Respectfully, I would like to offer a different perspective, one based on a broader understanding of “worldview” and the attendant benefits of worldview analysis and cross-cultural understanding. To deny that Christ—and by extension, Christianity—is not a worldview ignores the undeniably contingent nature of its cosmological, theological, and soteriological framework. More on that below.
First, Reno’s definition of “worldview” begs for amplification. Yes, a worldview might be described as the “web of convictions, principles, ideologies, and sentiments that shape our sense of things as a whole.” But a more complete examination of any worldview should recognize its many tangible dimensions—social, psychological, anthropological, cosmological, political, religious, and so forth. In other words, the way we imagine time, space, the origin/destiny of the world, the purpose of life, the fundamental human problem, life after death, ultimate reality, social structure, human virtue, ethical norms, etc. all contributes to one’s worldview. Western discoveries through the colonial period, in particular, revealed cultures with radically different worldviews—some far more ancient than our own. The effect was to relativize our normative or universal assumptions about the world and our place in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It is also important to acknowledge that worldviews are socially and culturally absorbed. They are not inherent to our being when we come into the world. We learn and inculcate them through the beliefs of our family, our friends, our community, and our broader culture. And because in many instances we’ve absorbed them on a kind of subconscious level, as Reno acknowledges, they have a powerful impact on how we see, experience, and engage with the world in ways that we may not be fully aware. So I would agree with Reno that one’s worldview may include deep cultural prejudices. But worldviews, as noted above, include a broad matrix of views and beliefs. But Reno’s contention that “we can’t view our ‘worldview’” seems a bit absolutist. I am not entirely clear how one would support such a claim. I’m sure he is aware that scholars such as Ninian Smart, Clifford Geertz, John Valk, and many others offer different frameworks and methodological approaches for cross-cultural worldview studies as a means to more clearly understanding self and the other. While we may not be able to uncover all of our deeply held views, it seems to me that any insight one might gain into these embedded assumptions about the world, ourselves, and even our most cherished beliefs is worth the effort and precisely the aim of self-knowledge and wisdom. “Knowing yourself,” Aristotle enjoined, “is the beginning of all wisdom.” It would be rather tragic and dispiriting to imagine that we have no ability to raise to conscious awareness our conditioned prejudices about race, gender, class, foreign cultures, human virtue, life purpose, conceptions of ultimacy, you name it and endeavor to examine those judiciously. This, to me, is the value of both self-reflection and studying other cultures and worldviews. Through the study of that which is unfamiliar or alien, we often gain a deeper understanding of our own presuppositions.
Returning to the relevance of all this to a Christian worldview, the awakening to other cultural and particularly religious worldviews inspired not only comparative academic studies but also serious internal reflections by theologians endeavoring to come to terms with the relativization of their tradition. Some, like Tillich, Whitehead, Cobb, Caputo, Kearney, and numerous others, responded with new ways of understanding and interpreting key components of a Christian worldview—God, salvation, sin, atonement, and so forth. I suspect that Reno may not favor these new theological visions, but their efforts make them no less “Christian.” They follow a long line of Christian theologians who endeavored to come to terms with the contingencies—social, cultural, scientific, theological—of their time.
Relying upon the apostle Paul, Reno writes: “Christian faith is not ‘in’ a worldview. Our faith rests in Christ Jesus, the Son of God made man who was crucified and is risen.” Further on, he references the problem of sin, death, and ultimately the promise of atonement. Faith, of course, has always been central to the Christian experience and commitment, and I would agree with Reno that witness and moral exemplars can be the most powerful emissaries of a worldview. I would maintain, however, that the elements of this foundation of faith do in fact constitute a very particular worldview that is dependent upon specific assumptions or claims about ultimate reality (God), the meaning of “sin”, the problem of alienation, the quest for “atonement,” an understanding of “sacrifice,” and the goal of everlasting life. In short, this particular Christian interpretation—there are others, of course—is based upon a matrix of concepts, beliefs, and assumptions that are mutually dependent. From this perspective and in contrast with Reno’s central thesis, “Christ” is at the center of an all-encompassing worldview. If I am correct, then it would seem only natural that understanding the nature and implications of this worldview’s contingency would be a worthwhile goal for anyone who subscribes to it.