When Jimmy Carter became president in 1976 and Charles Colson published his best-selling book that same year, their stories made the phrase “born again” an instant media buzzword.
Originally spoken by Jesus in John 3, the phrase began showing up often. I recall watching a televised golf match in which the announcer declared that the man teeing off had been born again. I was delighted, yet curious to see how he was going to explain this on national TV. He continued, describing how the golfer had merely changed his grip a little and was miraculously “born-again.”
We are beginning to see the same thing happen to the term “worldview.” I have heard people use it as a synonym for personality, as in “She has such a delightful worldview.” You have undoubtedly heard it—maybe even used it. But do you know what it means?
What is a Worldview?
Charles Colson says a worldview is “the sum total of our beliefs about the world,” Charles Colson, How Now Shall We Live? Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1999, p. 14.while James Sire says it is our “set of presuppositions … about the basic makeup of our world.” James Sire, The Universe Next Door (3rd. Ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997, p. 16.Webster defines it as “a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world.” See “weltanschauung,” Merriam-Webster online.A worldview is something much deeper than your personality or how you hold a golf club. It defines your beliefs about reality and your outlook on life.
In order to better understand the concept, it’s important to know that there are two different kinds—or two “levels”—of worldview. Allow me to explain…
A formal worldview is a major system of ideas that orders human hearts and minds. To visualize this, picture a bookshelf with twenty or thirty books on it. Some are old, some are new. Some are thick, others thin. Each book has a title: Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Pagan Mysticism, etc.
If you were to study them, you would find that each builds a case that the things it claims are true (its “truth claims”) accurately reflect reality. Some are better defined than others, but each one asserts that it has discovered or crafted the real truth about everything important in life. Marxism, for example, basically claims that the secret of life lies in economics and, as a result, reality consists in the clash between those who control the means of production and those who don’t.
A formal worldview is usually comprehensive in scope, offering its proponents a lens they can look through to formulate universal beliefs about life, from philosophy to science, from anthropology to politics, from economics to social order.
If we camp out on this definition, we might begin to think that our personal worldviews are in one-to-one relationship with the established formal worldviews. We would be wrong. There is a huge difference between a systematic set of truth claims and the complex, fragmented, and elusive beliefs of most human beings.
If someone claims to be a Marxist, what does that mean? Can we assume that his personal beliefs exactly match the Marxism book on the shelf? Or what if someone claims to be a witch? It’s hard to say what that means in terms of her assumptions about life. Likewise, when someone says, “I am a Christian; therefore, I have a Christian worldview,” it’s not necessarily true.
Late in 2003, pollster George Barna attempted to determine how many Americans held a “biblical worldview.” Barna, George. “A Biblical Worldview Has a Radical Effect on a Person’s Life.” The Barna Update, December 1, 2003.He asked people questions taken straight from Scripture, to find out if they really believe what is written there. For the purposes of the research, a biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings. See Barna Research.The results were dismal: Only four percent do. When he looked at the born-again In Barna Research Group studies, born again Christians are not defined on the basis of characterizing themselves as “born again” but based upon their answers to two questions. The first is “have you ever made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today?” If the respondent says “yes,” then they are asked a follow-up question about life after death. One of the seven perspectives a respondent may choose is “when I die, I will go to Heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior.” Individuals who answer “yes” to the first question and select this statement as their belief about their own salvation are then categorized as “born again.”believers in America, the results inched up to an anemic nine percent. How can this be? Instead of adopting the formal framework of a biblical worldview, it seems that “Christians” have accepted a hodgepodge of individual truth claims that come from everywhere.
Life on a Smorgasbord
Look back at the bookshelf for a moment. On the end, you will find another, very large book titled Miscellaneous. In here we find all of the unconnected truth claims that simply float around our culture. They may be distant cousins or distortions of a formal worldview or unexamined claims that don’t at all reflect reality.
For example, if you listen carefully to what people are saying and read between the lines, you will hear this belief: “I am stupid and worthless.” Where did that come from? I can think of several “formal” worldviews that give rise to this truth claim, but not directly. People in our culture are perhaps more influenced by these miscellaneous truth claims than by any formal worldview.
So what’s wrong with that? To begin with, living with a hodgepodge of unexamined beliefs makes our lives purposeless and fragmented. On top of that, when our beliefs don’t accurately represent reality, we end up acting in ways that hurt ourselves and our relationships.
I challenge you to examine your worldview. Do your personal beliefs really come from a biblical framework, or are they collected from various belief systems and your own (perhaps inaccurate) interpretation of reality? If we say that our God, in Jesus, is truth, we would do well to live lives that are based on the truth He has revealed to us in his Word.