Last time, we wrapped up our series on Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. We looked at each of these quite quickly but we looked at them together because they sit between the Pentateuch, which we looked at awhile ago now, and the monarchal period (i.e. the books pertaining mostly to David and his kingdom – 1, 2 Samuel, 1, 2 Chronicles, and 1,2 Kings, some of these also cover the period following David, but pre-exile). At any rate, all of that is part of our general survey of the Old Testament. And, we’ve also looked at numerous NT books.
At any rate, one of our goals in covering the Old Testament books is to develop an understanding of the full biblical narrative, most people being already fairly familiar with the NT narratives. And one of the reasons why this is so important, among many important reasons, is to help us understand what God is doing in human history, or salvation history, and thereby to understand where we fit in it.
Today, we’re going to begin a new series. And what I’m hoping to do is try to locate some of the themes that we’ve been talking about in the biblical narrative into our specific cultural situation. In other words, as we’ve been working our way through scripture, we’ve identified a number of themes, motifs, and tried to build something of a theology (in the barest way). So the question that arises is, “so what?” Or, what does that have to do with living in 21st century Canada? Now obviously, we try to talk about some of that each week. But I want to spend a few weeks digging into this a little more deeply.
So, today we begin with a consideration of worldview. Worldview is a term that we’ve thrown around quite a bit, though we’ve never really delved into this much. Christians (along with others) have been paying increasing attention to questions of worldview over the past several decades, especially as we see the world changing around us. When we talk about worldview, we’re essentially talking about our implicit understanding of how the world works, the structure or logic of the world, and the basic building blocks of meaning. It’s the lens through which we see the world. All of us have a worldview though we may or may not be aware of what worldview we hold or the elements or the characteristics of the worldview we purport to hold.
Now I want to distinguish worldview from culture which we also talk a lot about. Worldview and culture are related but they’re not the same thing. Culture presupposes or requires a worldview but (again) it’s not synonymous with it. For simplicity’s sake, we can say that culture exists within a worldview or that culture flows out of a worldview (that is, it’s an expression of a worldview).
Rather than defining what a worldview is – because it’s difficult to draw concrete lines around such things – I want to turn to N.T. Wright who gives us some useful tools to think about it and talk about it.
According to Wright (in the New Testament and the People of God), a worldview does several things: A worldview provides the stories through which human beings view reality. These stories allow us to discover how to answer the basic questions of human existence: Who are we, where are we, what is wrong, what is the solution?The stories of the worldview and the answers to the questions (both above) are expressed in cultural symbols (which begs the question, “what are the cultural symbols, and why?” An interesting thought experiment related to this calls back to one of our previous discussions, i.e. in Judges – that is, “who are our heroes?”)Worldviews include a praxis, a way of being in the world. That is, a worldview implies action. Or, it is out of a worldview that we can answer the question, “How then do we live?” (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God).
Now you’ll notice that Wright frames worldview in terms of story a lot. Story is a concept that we talk about a lot here at Grace, so we’re probably somewhat comfortable with that terminology. But I just want to point out that story – the story one tells oneself about the world – is not the same thing as worldview (Wright is clear about this). However, the stories one tells only make sense in the context of a worldview. The stories express a worldview because they arise out of a particular worldview. And if you change the worldview, the meaning of the stories change, or the meaning disappears altogether.
Therefore, for example, each of the various stories of creation or world origins – the Enuma Elish, the stories of the Titans and Olympus, the stories of the First Nations, the Big Bang Theory, and the biblical stories in Genesis – each not only seek to explain something, but also presuppose some basic truths about the world. The presuppositions, that there is a god or gods, that chaos or order is basic to the world, that there is or is not a purpose to existence, are questions of worldview. Each of these stories make sense within their worldview. But as worldviews change, the meaning of the stories change, or lose their meaning or relevance altogether.
So, staying with Wright, he describes worldviews emerging in sets of basic beliefs and aims. Basic beliefs and aims might emerge, for example but not exclusively, in terms of political or economic alignment. It might have to do with opinions on ethics or human rights, freedom or responsibilities. Again, these are only examples of basic beliefs and aims which are far from exhaustive and may not even be accurate. However, suffice it to say that one might, for whatever reason shift one’s basic beliefs and aims without abandoning one’s worldview.
And finally, these basic beliefs and aims give rise to consequent beliefs and intentions – about the world, oneself, one’s society, one’s god. So, for example, you may have a population that widely believes that human beings have a responsibility to take care of the environment, but have wildly different ideas about how to do that. Or, and more to the point, you may have a population that believes that Christianity is true, but have wildly different responses to what that means in the world (which is okay).
Now the first thing to say about all of that – because I understand it may not be readily clear to everyone – is that there may be a large amount of overlap between these “levels” depending on how one thinks about or understands these things. Furthermore, this is just one person’s take on how this all worked out. The main thing to take from this is that there are levels of commitment we have to the things we typically assign as our understanding of reality. That is, we are typically able to change our consequent beliefs more easily than we can change our basic beliefs. And we can change our basic beliefs more easily than we can change our worldview.
Furthermore, it’s possible to share what are essentially the same (or similar) consequent beliefs and basic beliefs while holding entirely different worldviews. We may agree that it is wrong to murder but this may be due to completely different understandings of the sacredness of human beings.
Now we have gone over that very quickly but, at the same time, we have covered a lot of relatively difficult material in a not nearly sufficient fashion. And at the same time, we should recognize once again that Wright’s model for explaining this stuff isn’t definitive – I think it makes sense, but this is just one person’s way of attempting to understand and explain what’s going on. But I hope for our purposes, it’s just a useful tool for discussion and reflection. The simple point I want to draw out is: What makes a Christian worldview? What are the elements of a distinctly Christian worldview?
And, referring to the previous discussion, this is an important question because it is entirely possible to be a Christian (and a sincere, genuine, faithful one) while not holding a Christian worldview (I think). Or, and perhaps this is more to the point, it is possible to hold an ostensibly Christian worldview, and yet live according to different or conflicting basic or consequent beliefs (or different aims or intentions).
At any rate, as we said, the main question is: What are the elements of a Christian worldview? Well, we have just noted the relationship between worldview and story. And what we’ve been doing over the past several years is looking at the biblical story. We’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the Old Testament (up to Ruth, so far) and we’ve also spent a considerable amount of time in the New Testament and the Gospels (particularly John and Matthew). What are some of the elements of the story that we’ve been focusing on (and we do have to recognize that we’ve intentionally been focusing on certain things)? Well, what we’ve seen is that:
- God created a good world (including human beings)
- Human beings sinned against God
- We chose to reject the kingship of God
- God purposed to redeem and restore human beings
- God’s (the Father) purpose is fulfilled in Jesus Christ (the Son)
- God enables to live in/out of His promises until Christ comes again
These are the basic elements of the biblical story with much of the detail left out (obviously). But as we said, story is not the same thing as a worldview – stories arise out of, and presuppose, a worldview. So, what are the things that the story presupposes? What does the story tell us – what does it point to – about how the world is and is supposed to be? How does it help us understand our reality – to understand what is really real?
Well there are a number of things that we could talk about and are genuinely important. However, I want to focus on just one thing without which, I think, all the other things are not important. And I think scripture bears this out, and that the story of scripture revolves around it. Simply put, I think that a Christian worldview is: God.
I hope it’s obvious that I’m being somewhat cheeky here by oversimplifying. But there’s a sense in which I’m quite serious. I could have said, “everything begins with God,” “everything depends on God,” “God is the prime mover,” or some other formulation. And essentially what I mean is that the basis of reality, the foundation of the universe, the lens through which everything makes sense is God. And if we remove God, trivialize God, or put something else on equal footing with or in place of God, we wind up with an entirely different worldview.
There are some important corollaries to this including the presence and reality of sin – that is, that the world as it is is not as it was intended to be; that Jesus Christ (son of God and God very God) is the solution to this problem of sin;
The truth of this, the importance of this, is testified to throughout scripture. As we’ve been going through various books, we’ve been framing this largely in terms of kingdom. So when we talk about Kingdom of God, one of the things that we’re talking about is that God is primary, that God is the only necessary, and that God is the source and sustainer of all other. So all of scripture testifies to this, but I also want to provide us with some scriptural anchors – a few texts which help keep us connected with and grounded in a biblical worldview.
- Gen 1:1 – In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
- Deuteronomy 6:4, 5 – 4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
- John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
These are passages that are familiar to most of us, I hope. There a multitude of other passages and stories that I could have, and we should regularly, referred to. But as I was reading this week, the book of Revelation really spoke to me. I want to share with you one passage:
Revelation 4:1 After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3 And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. 4 Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6 Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”Revelation 4:1-8
This image of the throne in Revelation, along with much of what’s going on in the book, speaks to the sole and supreme authority of God, the sole and supreme authority of Jesus Christ, over all creation, over all history, and over all salvation. Revelation, after all of the stories of human sin, human failure, human rebellion (alongside of course all of the accompanying work and grace of God), reminds us, affirms to us, that in the end of all things (that is, the telos of all things), there is God. And in terms of the way we’ve been working our way through the bible, we might simply say, “God is King and there is no other.”
Now there is a lot more to be said about this to fill out an understanding of a Christian worldview. One of those crucially important things is the nature of this God. Because a Christian worldview insists that God is not an abstract idea or force, but that God is personal, God is holy, and God is love, among other things (and there’s actually a lot to think about at this point about, among other things, the relationship between worldview and theology, but we’ll leave it there).
At any rate, I’m sure many of you are asking, “why does any of this matter?” Why should we (really) be concerned about any of this. Some of you may think this is overly theoretical, overly esoteric, or just kind of irrelevant. And certainly, inasmuch as we call ourselves Christian, don’t we agree on most of this anyway? Why does it need to be said?
Well, firstly, it’s important because we’re no longer living in a world where a common worldview can be assumed. It can no longer be assumed that people believe in a reality beyond the material and observable. It can no longer be assumed that when we talk about right and wrong, that we’re talking about the same thing. And more to the point, when we talk about right and wrong, we often have very different assumptions about why something is right and wrong. And this is important because – oftentimes; not all the time – we need to know what conversation we’re actually having. We can talk about consequent beliefs – whether it’s about taking care of the poor and widows, taking care of the environment, or whether beef is better than chicken – but if we have very different basic beliefs, or very different worldviews, we’re having a very different conversation.
And even if we share a worldview where we begin with God, sometimes we have a very different understanding of God. Of course this is going to be true because none of us understand God perfectly or completely. But my particular (personal) concern is when we have a worldview that contains God but doesn’t begin with God. Worldview matters when we are prone to treating God as a cosmic genie or s a spiritual butler instead of understanding that He is God and we are His creation. It matters when we think that God is there to serve us instead of recognizing we are made to worship Him. It matters when we think that God is there only to determine where we go when we die instead of realizing that it is only in God that we can truly have life.
Now we’ve already gone on for quite a long time so I want to wrap up. We’re going to be spending some weeks thinking and talking about this in some more detail. I want to explore some of the particular worldview or cultural challenges that we’re facing in the 21st century.
And I’m hoping to encourage all of us – definitely not to criticize or condemn any of us – but to encourage each of us to examine these things. And the practices that I want to commend to us are those which are always critical to spiritual formation:
These are the practices (among others, of course) by which we can maintain a proper orientation and understanding towards God and our relationship with God (and therefore with each other and the world). My intention is to spend some time talking particularly about each of these, but I also hope we will pay attention to these throughout.
Ultimately, I want to encourage us all to live more fully the life that we were created for. I want to encourage us to enter more fully into the world that acknowledges that Jesus is King.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Day and night [may we] never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”Deuteronomy 6:4, 5