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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Worldviews: Question 3 — Life

“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:2-3)
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:6-7)
“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17)
Ah, the doing. Talking about what we believe about distant issues like our origins and even our future destiny is comparatively easy. Since neither is pressing in the present, we can speculate idly if we wish, for hours. But empty speculation is not the purpose of the Christian life, and it’s not the purpose of Worldview Analysis either. In the third phase of my explanation of worldviews, I’m going to focus on the final question, the one where the rubber meets the road: What do we do in light of this?

If you haven’t read the previous posts you’re going to need to if you want much out of this one. In summary, I was talking about a thing called “Worldview Analysis”. It’s a sort of framework for our thoughts — not so much what to think, but how to think about how people think about things. So far I’ve suggested there are two crucial questions we always need to ask ourselves about another person’s worldview: what does he/she believe about where we came from, and where does he/she believe we are going to?

In philosophy terms, these two earlier questions are called the Anthropogenic Question and the Teleological Question, if it matters to know that. The final question is what we might call, “The Ethical Question”: If we know our (past) origins and (future) destiny, what effect does that have on shaping our (present) conduct and choices?

In other words, there’s a natural, logical sequence here. It goes like this: Okay, so I know where I came from and where I’m going to — meanwhile, what? What am I supposed to be doing — or not doing — while I’m on this road between where I’m coming from and where I’m headed?

That’s ethics. Or, if you prefer, that’s morality. (The two are not exactly the same, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment.) The thing they have in common is that they are about our present conduct and choices. We want to know that we’re doing whatever it is we were put here to do, and doing it in such a way as to end up in a good state. Fair enough?

How Shall We Then Live?

Fortunately for us, the answers we have chosen to the previous two questions are a great source of information for where we are living right now. There are certain quite straightforward logical consequences for the beliefs we hold about our origins and our destiny, and parsing them takes very little effort.

Let’s consider the three big worldview alternatives I’ve been suggesting so far: monotheism (or Christianity, if you prefer specifics), the Eastern-style traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.) and materialist atheism (which implies the disbelief in any supernatural beings).

I’ll go through one at a time. Monotheistic traditions do not all have exactly the same ethics. In fact, some of them strongly contradict; and as critics very rightly point out, they cannot rationally all be true at once. Their ethics vary according to what they understand about the nature of God. (Different “gods” = different beliefs about what He, she or it wants). But what they all do have in common is the belief that it is one’s relationship to the Supreme Being that defines ethics. God created them for a purpose (they specify that), and He is leading them to a destination (their particular conception of afterlife) and in between, it just makes obvious sense to live a certain way. All of them hold that God has revealed some of this in terms of commandments or precepts, but Christianity uniquely asserts that these commandments are not the whole story; relationship with the Supreme Being Himself is the ultimate goal, and a spiritual reconstitution of the person by a supernatural intervention from God (a “new birth”) is a prerequisite to any such relationship.

What about the Eastern traditions? Well, they too hold to a variety of things, and I’ll have to mix and match a bit here to catch the sense of all. You came from the cycle of reincarnation; you proceed to enlightenment or yet more cycles of reincarnation. Ethically speaking, the goal is enlightenment; you need to realize the true nature of reality, which is essentially illusory or even entirely an illusion. Once you do this, you have a chance at enlightenment or transcendence of the human situation. Life is basically suffering (samsara), and you get what you deserve through your reincarnation cycle (karma); so suck it up and do your duty (dharma) in each level of life (caste?) or place in which you find yourself. Eventually, if you deny earthly desires and discipline your mind (possibly under the tutelage of enlightened ones or gurus) you can overcome the bonds of the physical world, and escape this realm of eternal suffering.

What is your duty to do here, ethically speaking? Your dharma. Be what you are. But realize that you are living an illusion, and seek to see beyond it if you want to escape suffering. As for others, they have their dharma. Don’t interfere with them. Don’t hurt them, of course; but don’t necessarily help them, if by helping them you are trying to move them away from their duty. In that case, let them be. Work on your own enlightenment; and if you achieve it, you may choose to help others to see it. Or not. Whatever.

Now for materialist atheism: You came from nowhere. Accidentally. You are going to oblivion — soon — to death, from which there is no return, and then, ultimately, to the death of the whole universe as its energy particles all perform according to the Law of Entropy. The universe thins out into a soup of undifferentiable energy particles, and remains that way forever. However, you happen to have gotten lucky; you hit on a time and circumstance when evolution was possible. So …

So nothing. You have no obligation to do anything. You don’t even owe the universe to evolve. You’re an accident. There is no future for you beyond that described. So you may wish to serve others, or you may wish to serve yourself, or you may not wish to do anything at all — in any case, there’s no morality, so no one is at fault here. Do as you wish to do. Don’t let anyone stop you or tell you not to. Have your own “morality”.

Hold on a Minute

Now, a couple of provisos here, and they’re really, really important:

Critics of worldview theory sometimes suggest it doesn’t apply because people do not act consistently in daily life. Most people don’t even think about anthropogeny or teleology, and most of them make up their ethics based on what just seems best at the moment. Even among those who do give a moment’s thought to such questions, most people live inconsistently with their worldviews, so you can have a Christian businessman who underpays workers, a Hindu who helps the poor, or an atheist who buys his daughter a church wedding. Since it’s all so inconsistent, what use is Worldview Analysis? What is it really telling us?

“Plenty”, is the answer. Firstly, it’s true that many people are not even aware they have a worldview. The same thing could be said about a liver or legs: most of the time, people don’t even think about the fact that they have them. Yet they do. And they use them all the time.  So while they may not be conscious of having a worldview, that does not show that they do not have one, especially since a worldview is something that usually operates at the assumption level, where our most powerful beliefs are formed. All people assume something about where they came from, where they’re headed, and who they are in the meanwhile. Those questions are so fundamental that you actually cannot live and move without taking something about them for granted, if not actually making your assumptions conscious. And even as unconscious beliefs, they exert tremendous pull on who you are and what you choose to do.

Secondly, what the critics neglect to notice is that worldviews all have a sort of “gravity field”. What I mean is that they “push” people toward certain actions because they make certain actions “rational” or “irrational”, depending on the person’s underlying worldview assumptions. People may indeed live inconsistently with their basic worldview suppositions — and admittedly, they often do — but they are “pushed” nonetheless through feelings of guilt, inconsistency or simple confusion into leaning toward particular actions and away from others. And whenever a person decides to make himself or herself more morally consistent, he or she will tend to gravitate in the direction required by his or her worldview.

In other words, Worldview Analysis explains inclination more than behavior. But sometimes it is an excellent descriptor of actual behavior as well. If some suicide bombers kill a hundred civilians, there are important clues to their reasoning buried in their worldview assumptions. Likewise, if an evangelist pleads for secular people to be saved, the answer to why he won’t leave them alone is likely to be found in his worldview.

Not only that, but worldview explains big patterns of behavior somewhat more accurately than smaller ones. Individuals do things for irrational reasons, but larger societies tend to follow predictable patterns based on the worldview assumptions they all share. Again, this is not infallible, but it is certainly very telling.

Worldview and Understanding Others

A very important effect of Worldview Analysis is that it frees us from thinking of people who don’t think like us as simply irrational. They are reasoning; they’re just reasoning differently, because they’re reasoning on different assumptions than we are. Understanding those assumptions — or at least grasping the fact that other assumptions are sometimes held by people — is helpful in freeing us from mistaking them for foolish or wicked.

Most importantly, the worldview concept enables us to set aside our own basic suppositions for a moment, and to see into the way life looks to a person from a different background. Instead of speaking to him/her from our own vocabulary of suppositions, we can speak intelligibly to him/her about their own. And since worldview beliefs can be changed by rational effort and new revelations, it becomes possible for us as Christians to “find them where they are” in evangelism, and move them toward the truth by using the appeal of reason, not propaganda or force. And isn’t that what evangelism is all about?

Nasty, Convicting Bit

But now it’s perhaps time to shine the spotlight on ourselves.  What do you believe is the source of your being? And just what do you think is your ultimate destiny? In between, what is it that you are doing? Are you living consistently with your worldview as a Christian, or have you allowed assumptions and patterns from your secular environment to create inconsistency in your life?

And what about other people? Do you know how they think? Do you know where they are going? What do you need to do about it?

It’s one thing to understand the idea of worldview. But the real value is in learning to apply what it helps you to see. 

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