IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY Stephen Crane captured our plight as we in the early twenty-first century face the universe.
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist.”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
How different this is from the words of the ancient psalmist, who looked around himself and up to God and wrote:
LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)
There is a world of difference between the worldviews of these two poems. Indeed, they propose alternative universes. Yet both poems reverberate in the minds and souls of people today. Many who stand with Stephen Crane have more than a memory of the psalmist’s great and glorious assurance of God’s hand in the cosmos and God’s love for his people. They long for what they no longer can truly accept. The gap left by the loss of a center to life is like the chasm in the heart of a child whose father has died. How those who no longer believe in God wish something could fill this void!
And many who yet stand with the psalmist and whose faith in the Lord God Jehovah is vital and brimming still feel the tug of Crane’s poem. Yes, that is exactly how it is to lose God. Yes, that is just what those who do not have faith in the infinite-personal Lord of the Universe must feel—alienation, loneliness, even despair.
We recall the struggles of faith in our nineteenth-century forebears and know that for many, faith was the loser. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in response to the death of his close friend,
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream; but what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light;
And with no language but a cry.2
For Tennyson, faith eventually won out, but the struggle was years in being resolved.
The struggle to discover our own faith, our own worldview, our beliefs about reality, is what this book is all about. Formally stated, the purposes of this book are (1) to outline the basic worldviews that underlie the way we in the Western world think about ourselves, other people, the natural world, and God or ultimate reality; (2) to trace historically how these worldviews have developed from a breakdown in the theistic worldview, moving in turn into deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, Eastern mysticism, the new consciousness of the New Age, and Islam, a recent infusion from the Middle East; (3) to show how postmodernism puts a twist on these worldviews; and (4) to encourage us all to think in terms of worldviews—that is, with a consciousness of not only our own way of thought but also that of other people—so that we can first understand and then genuinely communicate with others in our pluralistic society. That is a large order. In fact it sounds very much like the project of a lifetime. My hope is that it will be just that for many who read this book and take seriously its implications. What is written here is only an introduction to what might well become a way of life.
In writing this book I have found it especially difficult to know what to include and what to leave out. But because I see the whole book as an introduction, I have tried rigorously to be brief—to get to the heart of each worldview, suggest its strengths and weaknesses, and move to the next. I have, however, indulged my own interest by including textual and bibliographical footnotes that will, I trust, lead readers into greater depths than the chapters themselves. Those who wish first to get at what I take to be the heart of the matter can safely ignore them. But those who wish to go it on their own (may their name be legion!) may find the footnotes helpful in suggesting further reading and further questions for investigation.
WHAT IS A WORLDVIEW?
Despite the fact that such philosophical names as Plato, Kant, Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche will appear on these pages, this book is not a work of professional philosophy. And though I will refer time and again to concepts made famous by the apostle Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin, this is not a work of theology. Furthermore, though I will frequently point out how various worldviews are expressed in various religions, this is not a book on comparative religion.3
Each religion has its own rites and liturgies, its own peculiar practices and aesthetic character, its own doctrines and turns of expression. Rather, this is a book of worldviews—in some ways more basic, more foundational than formal studies in philosophy, theology, or comparative religion.4
To put it yet another way, it is a book of universes fashioned by words and concepts that work together to provide a more or less coherent frame of reference for all thought and action.5
Few people have anything approaching an articulate philosophy—at least as epitomized by the great philosophers. Even fewer, I suspect, have a carefully constructed theology. But everyone has a worldview. Whenever any of us thinks about anything—from a casual thought (Where did I leave my watch?)
to a profound question (Who am I?)
—we are operating within such a framework. In fact, it is only the assumption of a worldview—however basic or simple—that allows us to think at all.6
A worldview (or vision of life) is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world and our calling and future in it. This vision need not be fully articulated: it may be so internalized that it goes largely unquestioned; it may not be explicitly developed into a systematic conception of life; it may not be theoretically deepened into a philosophy; it may not even be codified into creedal form; it may be greatly refined through cultural-historical development. Nevertheless, this vision is a channel for the ultimate beliefs which give direction and meaning to life. It is the integrative and interpretative framework by which order and disorder are judged; it is the standard by which reality is managed and pursued; it is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns.
James H. Olthuis, “On Worldviews,” in
Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science
What, then, is this thing called a worldview that is so important to all of us? I’ve never even heard of one. How could I have one? That may well be the response of many people. One is reminded of M. Jourdain in Jean-Baptiste Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman, who suddenly discovered he had been speaking prose for forty years without knowing it. But to discover one’s own worldview is much more valuable. In fact, it is a significant step toward self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-understanding.
So what is a worldview? Essentially this:
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 fa...