This is the third post in a 5-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, Part 5) by Dr. James N. Anderson, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (excerpt).
In the second article in this series I elaborated on the significance of worldviews in our lives. The last of my five points was that one of the most fruitful and effective ways to engage with non-Christian religions and ideologies is to think of them in terms of the distinctive worldviews they reflect. In this article I want to develop this point further by giving four specific reasons why it is beneficial for Christians to think in terms of worldviews.
1. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to understand why people see the world as they do.
Why do some people think that the scientific evidence for Darwinism is utterly overwhelming while others find it wholly unimpressive? Why do some consider abortion to be an abominable practice while others think banning abortion would be a violation of basic human rights? Why do some people view the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as despicable terrorists whiles others praise them as heroes and martyrs? Why were some people outraged by Phil Robertson’s recent comments about homosexuality while others applauded them as plain common sense?
The basic explanation for these widely divergent viewpoints is that people have fundamentally different worldviews. Once we understand what a worldview is, and how it affects a person’s thoughts and actions, we’re much better placed to understand why they tend to think and act as they do.
2. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to make meaningful comparisons between different religions and ideologies.
How do you compare Islam with Existentialism or New Age Spirituality? How do you compare Mormonism with Buddhism or Marxism—or with biblical Christianity, for that matter? Once we recognize that all these ‘-isms’ and ‘-ities’ represent different worldviews, and can identify the basic components of each worldview, we’re in a position to “line them up” and make meaningful comparisons between these different religions and ideologies.
3. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to make reasoned evaluations of different religions and ideologies.
Just as worldview-thinking helps us to make meaningful comparisons of different religions and ideologies, exposing their fundamental commonalities and differences, so worldview-thinking can help us to make reasoned, principled evaluations of those religions and ideologies.
Once we’ve identified an underlying worldview, we can then evaluate it by applying various theoretical and practical tests. Is it internally consistent? Does it live up to its own standards or is it self-defeating? Is it unnecessarily complex? Can it account for things we take for granted all the time, such as our capacity for logical thought and our ability to make meaningful moral judgments? Can it explain some of the fundamental things that just beg to be explained, such as why anything exists at all?
Can the worldview be lived out in practice? Does it address our existential needs? Does it provide the foundation for a meaningful, purposeful life? Does it offer comfort in the present and hope for the future?
4. Thinking in terms of worldviews helps us to have constructive conversations with unbelievers.
In order to have a constructive conversation with another person about any topic of importance, you need to have a good understanding of their basic outlook on life and what ultimately motivates their beliefs and responses. For the same reason, it’s best if the other person has a good grasp of your basic outlook on life and what ultimately motivates your beliefs and responses. Furthermore, to have a really fruitful discussion you need a clear view of the most central and fundamental points of agreement and disagreement between the two of you, and some notion of how to evaluate your differences in a principled way.
When we enter into conversations with unbelievers over controversial topics, we should recognize that any significant disagreements we encounter will often trace back to more fundamental worldview differences. When that’s the case, the most responsible and constructive way forward will not be to try to ignore or bypass those foundational differences, but rather to acknowledge them and lay them out on the table for scrutiny. When we’re trained to think in terms of worldviews, we’re better equipped to challenge unbelievers at the root of their beliefs and actions rather than at the surface level; we’re able to expose the crumbling foundations of their houses rather than just the creaky floorboards.
James N. Anderson (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (excerpt).