The Limits of ‘Worldview’

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSON

We’re all familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” especially the part about the child saying, “But he hasn’t got anything on.” For me, the most important part is what happens after the kid speaks and the whole town agrees with him.

As Andersen tells us, “The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.”

A recent blog post by Rod Dreher on “The Problem With ‘Worldview’ Education” (the scare quotes are Rod’s, not mine) reminded me of Andersen’s story. The idea of “Christian worldview,” as it is practiced a large (vast?) majority of the time, is deeply flawed and problematic, and a lot of people know it. Unfortunately, they don’t express their concerns, at least not publicly.

The result is an intellectual version of Gresham’s Law in which bad worldview teaching crowds out the good stuff. There are people walking around thinking they have mastered this whole Christian worldview thing who, to put it charitably, are wrong.

Whose Christianity? Which Worldview? (With Apologies to Alasdair MacIntyre)

Truth be told, I have always had misgivings about the idea of “Christian worldview”—starting with the term itself, especially the “Christian” part. Far more often than not, it suggests that there is a single Christian answer to a given question. This isn’t true theologically, never mind politically.

Over the past two millennia, Christians have debated, argued, and even literally fought over issues such as Christology, soteriology, and eschatology, to name but three important areas.

And, of course, let’s not forget the recent unpleasantness whose 500th anniversary we are marking this autumn. As Alister McGrath tells readers, the disagreements there ran in all directions, not just Catholic vs. Protestant.

What is true of theology is even more true of matters such as economics, stewardship of the environment, and war and peace. To speak as if there is a single Christian answer regarding any of these subjects betrays a profound ignorance of nearly two millennia of Christian thought.

Red Leader, This Is Gold Leader

Given this ignorance of the Christian tradition, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of what passes for “Christian worldview” is ignorant of rival worldviews, or, to borrow Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase, “rival versions of moral enquiry.”

In the prologue to the 25th-anniversary edition of “After Virtue,” MacIntyre writes that a “necessary first step” to defeating the claims of a rival version is “to come to understand what it is to think in the terms prescribed by that particular rival tradition, to learn how to think as if one were a convinced adherent of that rival tradition.

“This,” MacIntyre continues, “requires the exercise of a capacity for philosophical imagination that is often lacking.”

That’s an understatement. Far too often, engagement with rival worldviews brings to mind the Rebel Alliance’s attack on the Death Star in “Star Wars,” in which the only thing that matters is shooting your proton torpedoes down the womp rat-sized thermal exhaust port.

If pressed, most worldview mavens could not pass what I call the Minson Test: being able to articulate and explain the other side’s positions and beliefs in a way that the other side would characterize as fair or accurate. What they mostly know is where the other side’s worldview is vulnerable.

While this approach may be sufficient to destroy Death Star 1.0, it can’t be our only model for engaging rival worldviews. That requires “[identifying], from the standpoint of the adherents of that rival tradition, its crucially important unresolved issues and unsolved problems . . . [that are] unresolved and unsolved by the standards of that tradition.”

If and when it becomes clear that problem lies in the constraints imposed by the rival tradition’s standards and presuppositions, that’s when you make the case citing your own tradition.

Two examples of this kind of engagement are recent pieces by Rod Dreher and Michael Gerson on “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Hariri. Both men take Hariri’s ideas seriously on their own terms; that is, they understand, as the saying goes, where Hariri is coming from. Stated differently, they give Hariri a sympathetic, or at least fair, hearing.

To put it bluntly, it’s difficult to imagine something like this taking place in most “Christian worldview” circles. If people read Hariri’s book at all, it would be in a way that brings to mind a story told about W.C. Fields. When a friend visited Fields in the hospital, he was surprised to find Fields, a self-described agnostic, reading the Bible. When his surprised friend asked Fields what he was doing, Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.”

If You Want to Send a Message, Try Western Union

To be fair, books like Hariri’s are in the worldview business, so it’s understandable that some people would read them with the mental equivalent of a 9mm handgun with the safety off.

Unfortunately, this mentality extends to other kinds of books. In his aforementioned piece, Dreher quotes Joshua Gibbs, who teaches Great Books at a Classical Education school in Richmond. Gibbs writes that “worldview analysis often involves reducing a complex and humane novel into a series of abstract propositions, then showing those propositions to be consistent (or, if you are reading great literature, inconsistent) with a few passages of Scripture.”

Far too often, “the worldview model,” as Rod, paraphrasing Gibbs, writes, “gives a student permission to point to a text, label it, and dismiss it after only a superficial acquaintance with it.”

It’s not only books. I used to write about movies. I don’t anymore. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that I realized that, while I could tell people about the cultural, moral, and other “worldview” aspects of a film, I couldn’t really weigh in on its artistic merits as people like Rod, Megan Basham at WORLD magazine, and, especially, Jeffrey Overstreet could.

It’s not that what I was doing was wrong or unnecessary. But you can’t, or at least you shouldn’t, approach a work of art in the same way you do a book like “A Theory of Justice.” My writing about movies bore an unsettling resemblance to what Franklin Foer described twenty years ago in Slate: an ideologically driven approach to art that was vaguely “reminiscent of the Communist Party’s literary journal the New Masses, which obsessed over inane questions like whether bourgeois writers such as Proust would be acceptable reading after the revolution.”

So I stopped. Unfortunately, there were plenty more where I came from. While some writers, like my colleague Gina Dalfonzo, strike a balance between ideas and artistry in their reviews, most, in my experience, don’t.

You Keep Using That Word

There’s no getting around the idea of “worldview.” I agree with Gibbs when he writes “I believe worldviews are real, and that everyone has one, and that referring to worldviews (on occasion) in class is a fine thing to do.”

Emphasis on the “on occasion.” People use “worldview,” or, more precisely, “Christian worldview,” when what they should be using words like “theology,” “tradition,” “ethics,” and even, as Gibbs suggests, “dogma,” which comes from the Greek words for “that which one thinks is true,” and “that which seems good.”

What results from this substitution is that the faith once delivered to the saints comes perilously close to being turned into a kind of ideology, what British intellectual Terry Eagleton defined as “a system of concepts and views which serves to make sense of the world while obscuring the social interests that are expressed therein, and by its completeness and relative internal consistency tends to form a closed system and maintain itself in the face of contradictory or inconsistent experience.”

Like all ideologies, this approach emphasizes what to think instead of how to think. Thus, it can be impervious to “contradictory or inconsistent experience” because it has ruled out the implications of that experience beforehand. (Let he or she who has ears to hear, hear.)

And that’s how you end up seeing people wearing Ermenegildo Zegna instead of their birthday suits.

Image courtesy of Wookieepedia.

Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.


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  • Joel Stucki

    Brilliant. I have been nibbling on the edges of this problem in my own writing for years; you have gone straight for the heart and hit the nail on the head. Bravo.

  • Robert Cremer

    I could say, I have the basis of a Christ like worldview but my “humanness” keeps getting in the way, so I apologize in advance for my periodic misstatements and errors.