Editor's Note: Alden has very kindly offered us an expanded version of the commentary from Good Word which was posted earlier.
This is a tough lesson, maybe the most difficult in living memory for me. I am not a missiologist and trying to walk in someone else’s shoes pushes me far beyond my comfort zone.
What I end up doing when I actually teach the Sabbath School class may be quite different from what I do here. But what I have decided to do for Spectrum is to take a well-known “worldview” book by James Sire as my starting point: The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog (InterVarsity, 4th edition, 2004). When the fourth edition was published, a back-cover blurb claimed, “over a quarter million copies in print in three editions.”
In addition to Christian theism, Sire explains the basics of deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, Eastern pantheistic monism, New Age philosophy and postmodernism. I have attempted to simplify the descriptions of each – a foolhardy venture for a non-expert – and have added a clearer developmental chronology wherever possible for there appears to be some distinct movement from one worldview to the next, at least in the history of Western philosophy and religion.
But as I was seeking to increase my competency in a field where I am woefully lacking, another book came to light, one that I would like to absorb, for it brings a more “secular” perspective to the discussion. Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Baker Academic, 2008). Like Sire, Hiebert is an evangelical and his book is published by Baker, an evangelical publisher. But the mention of “secular” anthropology is a red flag for many of the devout.
And here I want to speak candidly to the more sophisticated members of my church, who may not be inclined to study a Sabbath School quarterly at all. The dominance of science in our modern secular world has threatened to push God to the fringes for some, making it more difficult for them to believe. Interestingly enough, the natural scientists are statistically more inclined to believe than are their academic colleagues in either the humanities or the behavioral and social sciences, even though we often perceive the greatest threat to our world view as coming from the natural sciences. One survey that I came across many years ago reported that 20% of natural scientists do not believe in God, compared with 36% of humanities scholars, and 41% of the behavioral and social scientists. That may explain why the behavioral and social scientists fare so poorly on Adventist campuses. At Walla Walla University, for example, psychology and sociology are both subsumed under a professional program: psychology in the School of Education and Sociology in the School of Social work, and even there they are on life-support. Anthropology doesn’t even move the needle on our campus. That highlights yet another interesting question: does the study of behavioral and social sciences destroy faith, or does the lack of faith lead one into the study of these “atheistic” disciplines?
In any event, that short detour from our primary topic here is intended as an enticement for you to add Hiebert to your list of “required” reading.
But now let’s return to our discussion of “worldview” and take a quick look at the official study guide and its “Memory Verse” for this week: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3, NKJV). Is that passage intended to convince someone of the biblical worldview? Probably not. But it does serve the purpose of planting the flag, so to speak, for biblical and/or Christian theism. Before we proceed, however, “worldview” begs for a definition and Sire gives us one:
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in 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 constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being (Sire, 17).
After working through Sire’s book and pondering his definition, I’m still not sure what a “worldview” really is or how one slips from one worldview into another. Did Saul of Tarsus experience a change of worldview on the Damascus Road? Clearly a confrontation with Jesus transformed his life but did it change his worldview? That’s a question I am still exploring. Christianity and Judaism are two of the world’s great monotheistic faiths – Islam is the third. Yet Christian theism certainly differs from either of the other two.
This might be the place to insert a personal parentheses, for as I pondered the transformation that took part in Saul’s experience, I thought of the transformation that took place in mine, one that was triggered, not by a Damascus Road experience, but by the reading of Scripture, in particular, John 14-17. Those chapters helped answer a haunting question that was becoming increasingly urgent for me: If the Father loves me, why do I need a mediator? To my mind, if Jesus had to plead his blood to the Father on my behalf it suggested the image of a reluctant Father who had to be persuaded of my worthiness for heaven.
That question had become so urgent for me that I actually tailor-made an independent study seminar when I was a second-year student in the seminary at Andrews University. And it was in that seminar that I discovered John 14-17. There, in the words of Jesus, God incarnate came into focus for me: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told Philip (John 14:8, NRSV). Those words suddenly opened the windows of heaven for me and I realized that God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. And if God himself cared enough to come to earth to save me, I could serve that God forever.
In the end, I am inclined to argue that whatever kind of transformative experience you might have had or might have in the future, the best response to the “worldview” question is your own testimony. Whether it is a Saul-of-Tarsus extravaganza or a placid and unobtrusive affair, it can be an effective witness to a God who produced “a universe charged with the grandeur of God,” words from the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899), a favorite for Sire, who characterizes Hopkins as “a nineteenth-century Jesuit poet whose own intellectual journey provides a fascinating study of how a searching mind and heart can find a resting place” (Sire, 248).
Sire opens his chapter on Christian theism with that simple line just cited from Hopkins. But his list of characteristics for Christian theism that follows is rather overwhelming. So I will be selective, noting key phrases and passages of Scripture by way of illustration.
Right at the outset, we can say that Christian theism holds that God communicates with his creatures through Scripture, but also through dreams and visions to individual humans.
Not only is Scripture important, but the conviction that God communicated to humanity through Jesus Christ is also of crucial importance. And in that connection one of the most important passages in Scripture is John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (NRSV). Verse 14 in the same chapter is usually linked with the first three verses: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (NRSV).
Just from these few verses, several crucial worldview elements emerge: God is both creator and redeemer and he has revealed himself to us in human flesh. Based on these hints and additional passages from Scripture, later Christians developed the doctrine of the Trinity, which seeks to describe a triune-God consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That doctrine of the trinity separates Christians from Judaism and from the Muslim faith. But from the standpoint of worldview, Christian theism is still much closer to the views held by Jews and Muslims than to any of the other worldview options.
Sire quotes Ps. 139 (cited below in the NRSV), to illustrate the character and nature of the biblical God, one who is intensely personal, but who is also master of the universe:
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end – I am still with you.
The psalm throbs with a sense of God’s personal presence, contrasting sharply with the alternate worldviews available today.
But in the light of that description of God’s overwhelming personal presence, we should mention the potentially dangerous tendency of devout believers to attribute to God a host of all-encompassing terms: Omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful); omnipresent (ever present), omnibenevolent (all-good) – and that list is only for starters. Now while these terms are often informed by specific passages of Scripture and are well intentioned, believers can run into heavy weather if they seek to apply them universally. In particular, the problem of evil raises significant issues that are not easily resolved. The theodicy question is a key example. Meaning the “vindication of God,” theodicy asks why an all good and all-powerful God permits evil. That simple dilemma suggests that either that God is not all good or that he is not all powerful.
A free-will theodicy – over against a more deterministic Calvinist perspective – argues that God has chosen to limit his power temporarily in order to allow for human freedom and human choice. In the end, however, through all the vicissitudes of history and experience, God will be seen to be just and his goodness will be vindicated. In a Christian worldview, the believer simply trusts in the goodness of God, however puzzling or painful the circumstances may be. Jesus’ cry from the cross is our example: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, the words of an earlier believer whose experience of godforsakenness was one that Jesus came to share.
But now for a quick bird’s eye glimpse of the seven other worldviews listed by Sire. The titles and most of the key lines are from Sire. I have added some chronological points of reference.
1. The Clockwork Universe: Deism. Here Sire’s definition is succinct: “A transcendent God, as a First Cause, created the universe then left it to run on its own. God is thus not immanent, not fully personal, not sovereign over human affairs, not providential.” In short, he is the Clock maker who wound up the clock and let it run without further divine interference. Deism flowered during the “Age of Enlightenment” – also known as the “Age of Reason” – of the 17th and 18th centuries. For deists, truth came from reason, not from revelation. It went into decline toward the end of the 18th century, though traces remain in popular thinking.
2. The Silence of Finite Space: Naturalism. If Deism strips God of his personality, Naturalism strips him of his very existence. Humans are mere machines, with no purpose and history has no purpose.
Metaphysical naturalism, which denies the existence of God, became a dominant world view in sophisticated circles in the early twentieth century. According to the Wikipedia article on “naturalism,” Ron Numbers credits Paul de Vries, a Wheaton College philosopher for coining the phrase, “methodological naturalism” in 1983, a phrase which says nothing about the existence of God, but only describes a “disciplinary method.” It’s worth noting that Wheaton is a leading evangelical institution. In short, “methodological naturalism” is a highly useful tool for the believer.
3. Zero Point: Nihilism. If the first two alternate worldviews destroy God, the third, nihilism, destroys man. Sire summarizes as follows: Human beings are conscious machines without the ability to affect their own destiny or do anything significant; therefore, human beings as valuable beings are dead.”
The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) – Adventists would note his birth date with interest – is the name most closely connected with nihilism. He developed his philosophy in the late nineteenth century, though his thinking was very much in flux throughout his life.
4. Beyond Nihilism: Existentialism. After reducing the universe to nothing, existentialism attempts to reconstruct some kind of “existence” for man. And it comes in two forms, atheistic existentialism, building on the remnants of naturalism, and theistic existentialism, building on the remnants of theism, but contrasting with theism by distrusting the accuracy of recorded history and by moving away from facticity to meaning.
The Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, though he never claimed the label for himself. The philosophy became particularly popular after World War II. In a lecture delivered in 1945, Jean Paul Sartre described existentialism as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism.”
5. Journey to the East: Eastern Pantheistic Monism. Sire admits that once we move from Western to Eastern thought, any explanation is misleading, even more so, if it is a brief explanation. Here are some lines from Sire by way of illustration: “Each person is God. But we must define God in pantheistic terms. . . . God is the ultimate reality. That is, God is the cosmos. God is all that exists; nothing exists that is not God. If anything that is not God appears to exist, it is an illusion.” In Sire’s view, it is so difficult for Westerners to grasp this concept, that, as he puts it “One must die to the West to be born in the East.”
Given the links with both Hindu and Buddhist thought, it’s helpful to note the origins of both movements. Hinduism is described by some as the oldest religion in the world. In India, its roots go back at least to 1500 BCE. Buddhism is also rooted in India and was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) in the 5th to 4th century BCE.
This “Eastern Pantheistic Monism” thus has ancient roots in Eastern thinking, but became attractive in the West in the 1960s when disenchanted Westerners began to look to the East for a meaningful faith.
6. A Separate Universe: The New Age. Borrowing from all the other major worldviews, the New Age perspective is indeed relatively new. It became increasingly popular in the 1970s, but with roots in earlier movements. These statements by Sire give us some perspective: “Like naturalism [it] denies the existence of a transcendent God.” “Like both theism and naturalism, and unlike Eastern pantheistic monism, the New Age places great value on the individual person.” But “like Eastern pantheistic monism, the new consciousness centers on a mystical experience.” And like the East it “rejects reason as a guide to reality.”
7. The Vanished Horizon: Postmodernism. The essence of postmodernism can be succinctly summed up in the phrase, “radical relativism.” And to quote Sire: “Postmodernists are antirealists; they deny that there is any known or knowable connection between what we think and say with what is actually there.” It gained prominence in the West in the 1980s and 1990s.
Coming back to earth after that bewildering array of clashing worldviews, I find that Christian theism feels very much like home. With a faith firmly rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I am powerfully drawn by these vivid words from 1 John 1:1-4 (NRSV).
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Am I being fair to the other worldviews? Probably not, especially since I find my own experience with Christianity so positive that it is almost impossible for me to walk in someone else’s shoes long enough to give them a fair hearing.
In conclusion, a C. S. Lewis quote that has long been a favorite of mine provides a fitting “last word” to this potentially bewildering survey of different worldviews:
Authority, reason, experience; on these three, mixed in varying proportions all our knowledge depends. The authority of many wise men in many different times and places forbids me to regard the spiritual world as an illusion. My reason, showing me the apparently insoluble difficulties of materialism and proving that the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers far more of the facts with far fewer assumptions, forbids me again. My experience even of such feeble attempts as I have made to live the spiritual life does not lead to the results which the pursuit of an illusion ordinarily leads to, and therefore forbids me yet again. I am not now saying that no one’s reason and no one’s experience produce different results. I am only trying to put the whole problem the right way round, to make it clear that the value given to the testimony of any feeling must depend on our whole philosophy, not our whole philosophy on a feeling. If those who deny the spiritual world prove their case on general grounds, then, indeed, it will follow that our apparently spiritual experiences must be an illusion; but equally, if we are right, it will follow that they are the prime reality and that our natural experiences are a second best. And let us note that whichever view we embrace, mere feeling will continue to assault our conviction. Just as the Christian has his moments when the clamor of this visible and audible world is so persistent and the whisper of the spiritual world so faint that faith and reason can hardly stick to their guns, so, as I well remember, the atheist too has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may after all be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe. Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality: disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction, religious or irreligious, will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth columnist in the soul. Only the practice  of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that.
Have we now got to a position from which we can talk about Faith without being misunderstood? For in general we are shy of speaking plain about Faith as a virtue. It looks so like praising an intention to believe what you want to believe in the face of evidence to the contrary: the American in the old story defined Faith as ‘the power of believing what we know to be untrue.’ Now I define Faith as the power of continuing to believe what we once honestly thought to be true until cogent reasons for honestly changing our minds are brought before us. The difficulty of such continuing to believe is constantly ignored or misunderstood in discussions of this subject. It is always assumed that the difficulties of faith are intellectual difficulties, that a man who has once accepted a certain proposition will automatically go on believing it till real grounds for disbelief occur. Nothing could be more superficial. How many of the freshmen who come up to Oxford from religious homes and lose their Christianity in the first year have been honestly argued out of it? How many of our own sudden temporary losses of faith have a rational basis which would stand examination for a moment? I don’t know how it is with others, but I find that mere change of scene always has a tendency to decrease my faith at first – God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in College. The society of unbelievers makes Faith harder even when they are people whose opinions, on any other subject, are known to be worthless.
. Cited in David A. Fraser and Tony Compolo, Sociology Through the Eyes of Faith (HarperSanFrancisco 1992) 23, from Robert Wuthnow, The Struggle for America’s Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals, and Secularists (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1989) 146-47.
. C. S. Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 1967), 41-42.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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