Understanding Worldviews: Or Why You are More than Just a “Liberal” or a “Conservative”

As a teacher charged with the task of helping students learn how to construct and deconstruct arguments, I often begin the year by asking my students to articulate their own personal worldview.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  How do you know what you know?  What is the meaning of history?  How do you explain the moral nature of humanity?  What has gone wrong with the world?  Can it be set right?  Will it be set right?  What will “right” ultimately look like?

As foundational as these questions may first appear to be, you might be surprised to know how rare it is for a student to be able to answer these questions in any kind of a meaningful way.  Regardless of how bright the student may be, they are often incapable of providing even the most rudimentary of responses, as they simply have not been taught how to consider their own thought-life.  And yet, as you can see from the questions themselves, worldviews are a summation of everything we believe to be true about the nature of the world around us.  And as such, worldviews are very much a part of our daily existence, even if we don’t spend a great deal of time consciously considering their merits. 

Worldviews inform our every action as they subtly guide us through our routines and our engagements with the culture around us.  Why do we identify with the people we do?  Why do we vote for the parties we support?  Why do we buy the things we buy?  Why do we go the religious places of worship we attend?  The answers to all of these questions are rooted in our own personal worldviews, and in our own “need to unify thought and life.”[1]  And if we ignore the importance of these beliefs, we do so to the detriment of our own lives and to the detriment of the culture around us.  This, ultimately, is why we see so much “gridlock” in our political system.  When politicians make certain moral claims, they do so from certain ideological perspectives or worldviews – perspectives that are often not shared by others in the nation.

Consider, if you will, the common claim that we, as a society, should care for the poor.  The question any discerning individual should ask, when faced with this claim, is: why?  Why should we care for the poor?  What places us, as a society, or me, as an individual, under any obligation to care for someone that, given my current socio-economic status, I likely do not personally know?  What is the benefit of adhering to such a moral command?

One possible answer, offered from a nihilist perspective, is that the claim is a false claim.  Nihilists believe that there is no objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value to life. Thus, nihilists assert that moral values are abstractly contrived and utterly meaningless.   The only real “value” that is useful in guiding one’s life is the exertion of one’s own influence and power to achieve whatever one may desire.  It was this philosophical worldview, first articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche, that enabled Hitler to rise to power in Germany.  There was no felt need to protect Jews, gypsies, communists, liberals, disabled people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, confessing Christians and others, because these types were considered undesirable by the leadership of the German nation.  So when faced with the moral claim that a society should care for its poor, the nihilist rejects the claim as contradictory to his or her own worldview.

Another possible answer might come from the committed naturalist or materialist.  As opposed to theists, who see the word as being created through supernatural means, pure materialists believe in the eternality of matter, and the rise of life through the evolutionary process of natural selection that favors the strong members of a species while allowing the weak members to die out.  When faced with the moral imperative to care for the poor, the naturalist might opt for one of two possible responses.  The first response would be to reject the claim on the basis that poor people are the weak members of the species, and are a drain on society’s limited resources.  As such, they inhibit the strong members from flourishing and arriving at their full evolutionary potential.  This kind of thinking was common in the eugenics movement of the early 1920s, and it was used to justify the active promotion of abortion clinics in impoverished, minority populated neighborhoods.  There is, of course, a second possible answer that a naturalist might put forth.  Recognizing the fact that those in poverty far outnumber those who are wealthy, the pragmatic naturalist might argue that we should aid the poor, only as a means of ensuring that they do not violently riot and bring down the human species as a whole.  In either case, the worldview does not value the life of the poor individual.  If the poor were to be suddenly eradicated, valuable resources could be refunneled back to the stronger members of society, and the species as a whole would likely advance.

Let us look at one more example of how this moral question might be addressed.  Consider, if you will, the pantheist perspective.  Most commonly found in the Far East, but certainly on the rise in the West since at least 1950, pantheists hold to the belief that there is no ultimate distinction between humans, animals and the rest of creation.  Rather, all are aspects of a united oneness, often referred to as a “god.”  So if all are one and all are “god,” than the destruction of even one diminishes all.  Thus, for a pantheist, the question of caring for the poor should be of utmost importance.  For when even one human being suffers, all of creation suffers and the “divine” in all of us is deeply wounded.

Can you see where this is going?  This is just a small sampling of worldviews that are at play in the West today.  And this is why, in the course of our political engagement, we often end up speaking right past one another, without any apparent ability to make significant, meaningful, cultural progress.  The media, and much of the surrounding culture, has convinced many of us that the divide simply comes down to conservative versus liberal or Democrat versus Republican.  But underlying our political affiliations are both conscious and subconscious philosophies that we have both willfully constructed and inadvertently absorbed.

So the questions I leave you with today are rather simple:

  1. Why is there something rather than nothing? 
  2. How do you know what you know? 
  3. What is the meaning of history? 
  4. How do you explain the moral nature of humanity? 
  5. What has gone wrong with the world? 
  6. Can it be set right? 
  7. Will it be set right?
  8. What will “right” ultimately look like?

[1] Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 5.

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3 Responses to Understanding Worldviews: Or Why You are More than Just a “Liberal” or a “Conservative”

  1. Jon Grant says:

    The conundrum I always struggle with in regards to world view is how intensely personal it is, yet there is this almost immediate need (or desire, or pressure) to then label it as a part of some larger group or movement. Without critical thinking or a great deal of personal navel gazing it can quickly evolve into something akin to trying on jeans. This is comfortable, that is not comfortable, these look great and people will smile and agree, these make me look “______________” and I don’t want to look that way. This is pretty much how we all start on this road of figuring out what a worldview is before we are gifted with a mature thought life. We often begin by trying on the worldview of our parents (and some people stay here), we then move on to trying on the worldview of our peers, we then move on to trying on the worldview of someone we admire or want to emulate (like a Kardashian)…For many, I think this where it all ends. They adopt a worldview that is shared by other people they feel comfortable with and admire and they hold onto it. You can ask them what they believe and they will tell you in great detail, you ask them why they believe it and you have got yourself a much shorter conversation. I don’t think it is fair to judge this approach and many very good people do a lot of good things and have a very nice life following this model. These people are the worker bees of many fine movements that have done a lot of good things in the world because they love being on a team, they are pulled by the positive inertia of working together in a group, and they will do whatever a person they identify as a leader asks them to. This is why philosophers don’t play well with others, it’s always that damnable “Why?”

    A load of baggage from my conservative and legalistic background I struggle with and have been pushing against for a great portion of my life is how my Faith should effect my worldview. I once had a well-meaning youth pastor tell me that the hard decision is deciding that Christ is your savior and the Bible is the inspired Word of God. After that, he said, you only have to look to Him and the Good Book to know what to think and be and how to act. In essence, choose Christ and get this pre-packaged, pre-destined worldview for free. This thinking has lead to that great sentence some of us hear from time to time…”How can you call yourself a Christian and ________________________?” Being stupid enough to almost buy his argument at that young age it nearly cost me my Faith.

    A rather rambling incoherent response that does not touch on any of your questions…blame the internet. Thanks for letting me ramble as I tried to digest some of what you wrote.

    • Without question, this post was inspired by me wondering why people are so quick to latch on to two overly-simplistic labels, when even a quick peek under the hood reveals that such labels are almost completely meaningless. But beyond that, I’ve also been inspired by Timothy Keller’s latest book, Center Church. What makes it an interesting read is that Keller isn’t concerned with the usual questions about church growth. He’s talking in terms of hardware (theology and doctrine), software (church practices) and middleware, which he defines as a “vision for what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” In other words, he’s looking at the question of culture and worldview as being the link between theology and practice. And thus far, I am really appreciative of most of what he has to say.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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