Below is the beginning of a blog conversation written by Contributor Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, on the role of worldview to the Christian. In the coming weeks, Praxis Circle Executive Director Doug Monroe will respond with his thoughts. Watch the video above to learn more about Rusty as he gives a personalized summary of his own worldview.
Worldview. It’s a translation of the German word Weltanschauung. The concept was coined by modern scholars to describe the web of convictions, principles, ideologies, and sentiments that shape our sense of things as a whole.
For example, the Christian faces trials and suffering, and he interprets these hardships as a divinely given opportunity to conform himself to Christ. By contrast, a secular materialist regards similar circumstances as our hard fate in a cold, meaningless universe that cares not at all for our personal wellbeing. The same realities, different interpretations arising from different worldviews.
It’s self-evident that worldviews exist, and one of the most important features of modern life rests in our self-awareness that we view reality through a lens. But our self-awareness remains paradoxically impotent. What I mean is that we can’t do anything with “worldview.” It’s a fact about our mental orientation, but it’s so deep and so fundamental that we can’t make it a mental object to be analyzed or talked about in the way we can analyze and talk about the existence of God or God’s atoning work in Christ.
Put simply, worldview is the way we view things, which means we can’t view our worldview. One of the conceits of modernity 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). Sometimes evangelicals talk this way, as if we “have” a worldview in the same sense that we have a job or house, that we can “put on” or “take off” a worldview, or “develop” it.
St. Paul is wise about worldview. At the outset of his first letter to the Corinthians, he outlines a clash of worldviews. Jews demand signs; Greeks seek wisdom. These are central to two different worldviews. But Christ crucified disrupts both, and St. Paul turns the objections those with these worldviews raise into badges of honor. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1:25).
It is important to recognize, however, that St. Paul does not delve into “worldview analysis.” 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. We adhere to his person; we abide in him, as the Gospel of John affirms again and again.
Again, the notion of worldview is not false. Faith in the risen Christ affects our interpretation of life. As St. Paul observes, “the world” presumes that sin and death rule over our lives from beginning to end. In Christ, we see that this presumption is false. The love of God in Christ breaks sin’s power and destroys death’s dominion.
Faith’s knowledge of the truth about Christ’s victory over sin and death is not idle. According to legend, the third-century Roman martyr St. Lawrence was roasted to death. While on the grate he demonstrated an insouciant attitude, telling his torturers to turn him over, since he was “done on this side.” The story conveys a truth about Christian faith, namely that the threat of death, which carries so much power in “the world,” will not dominate our lives. In Christ, we do not regard death as final, and in that sense faith bespeaks a worldview. But the martyrs do not witness to a worldview; they manifest their faith in Christ’s power over sin and death. They make him visible, which is why it is often said the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Witness is an important word. It means that our lives of faithfulness to Christ provide evidence to unbelievers. There’s a cognitive element, to be sure. The first letter of Peter urges us to be prepared to give reasons for the hope that is within us (3:15). Those reasons are not statements of a worldview. (Again, we can’t “state” our worldview, because it’s the framework by which we make all our statements.) They are instead reasons specific to our circumstances and those of our questioners.
For instance, someone might ask me why I think there’s life after death, or why I think suffering can be a gift, or why I believe that God exists. My answers begin to elaborate a worldview, to plant the seeds of the idea that there’s another way of living in the minds of unbelievers, one that refuses the dictates of “the world” and conforms to God’s will for us.
But reasons only go so far. As St. Paul recognized, one does not reason one’s way to faith. One converts. In this mysterious turning, persons affect us far more than reasons. A witness of fortitude, joy, and freedom inspires a yearning in others, a yearning to participate, to enter into the light.
It is fitting for academically trained theologians and others with an aptitude for conceptual thought to make explicit the metaphysical, moral, and theological implications of faith in Christ. After all, he is the Alpha and the Omega, the Word in whom and through whom all things were made. Christ is the world’s DNA, as it were, which means that to have faith in him and to know him in scriptural meditation, worship, and prayer shapes our worldview in ways that can be made explicit, at least in part.
But we should not confuse cause with effect, source with consequence. Let us be conformed to Christ, not that we can have a worldview, but that we might be among the firstborn of those whom God has predestined to be citizens of the new world he is inaugurating.