Shaping Your Worldview
The Challenge of Our Times
by John Stonestreet
Today's Christian Doctor - Spring 2013
Four years ago, the inauguration of the first African-American president in United States history closed with a benediction from Pastor Rick Warren. Warren, author of the bestselling Purpose Driven Life, might be the most well-known evangelical pastor in America. Among the things well known about Warren at the time of his inaugural invitation was his stance on the definition of marriage.
Just weeks before the 2008 election, Warren released a widely-distributed video to the 20,000 member congregation of Saddleback Church articulating clear support for Proposition 8, the California state ballot initiative restricting marriage to one man-one woman unions. Surprisingly, the ballot initiative passed, and traditional marriage continued its streak of unanimous defense in every case in which the citizens were allowed to vote on it.
The invitation for Warren to pray at the inauguration weeks later drew minor protests from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists that went largely unnoticed. After all, President Obama had also articulated his belief in a traditional definition of marriage during the campaign on Saddleback’s stage. Warren felt more heat from fellow evangelicals for accepting the invitation than the President-elect did for initiating it.
Fast forward to 2013. President Obama’s very public reversal on the definition of marriage during his first term is well known. In the same election in which he was re-elected by a large margin, voters in four states decided to legalize so-called “same-sex marriage.” For the benediction at his second inauguration, the planning committee issued an invitation to another popular evangelical pastor, Louis Giglio, reflecting the President’s interest in Giglio’s social justice activity to end worldwide human trafficking.
LGBT activists again went to work, and discovered a sermon preached by Giglio nearly 20 years ago in which he expressed his belief in the historic and theologically orthodox position that homosexuality, like all sexual activity outside of marriage, is sinful but fully subject to the redemptive work of Christ.
LGBT activists swarmed and, according to some reports, the administration swiftly told the inaugural committee to “fix it.” Giglio withdrew under pressure and was replaced by an Episcopal priest who fully endorsed homosexual behavior and same-sex “marriage.” What a difference four years makes.
Decades ago, Francis Schaeffer observed that the West had become post-Christian but was living on what he called “borrowed capital.” If there was any doubt about his prediction, the scenario described above should put those to rest. Simply put, American society is functioning now by a different set of definitions, standards and, increasingly, laws.
As the Culture Shifts . . .
It’s tempting to see anecdotes like the one described above as isolated incidents, but that would be a mistake. Rather, it’s one among many examples where boundaries of religious liberty are shrinking and boundaries of sexual freedom are expanding. Another example is the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act forcing most employers to subsidize contraception and abortion-inducing medication. These medications, which are already accessible and affordable to most, are not only to be available to employees but also free for them. Adding insult to injury, the mandate’s socalled religious exemption is so narrow that it enshrines in law a definition of religious entity that does not include Christian charities, educational institutions or ministries. This represents an incredible shift in what has long been the accepted cultural understanding of the important role religious groups of all sorts play in helping the poor and providing services that the state cannot.
Those in professional sectors are impacted as well. The religious exemption offers no solution for those like the Green (Hobby Lobby) and Newland (Hercules Industries) families, who wish to run their private family-owned businesses according to their convictions. Unless the mandate is overturned in court, they’ll face significant fines for refusing to violate their conscience by complying.
What do we make of these issues? How do they relate to other areas of Christian concern such as the cultural addiction to decadent media, the increase of personal and public debt, the normalization of cohabitation and divorce and the shrinking birthrate? How can we properly understand them as Christians and, even more significantly, respond to them with the heart and mind of Christ?
The Root of the Fruit
What we are witnessing in our culture is the result of a shift even more significant and fundamental than of values or of morals. The shift that took place over the last several decades was at the level of worldview. The commonly held assumptions about the nature of reality and the human condition that organized American culture were abandoned, and the full consequences are just now coming to fruition.
In our book Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, my co-authors and I defined worldview as “a framework of basic beliefs we hold, whether we know it or not, that shape our view of and for the world.” A key part of this definition is “whether we know it or not.” Everyone has a worldview. The question is not if we have a worldview, but which one is wielding influence over our lives.
Our worldview consists of a framework of basic beliefs. One of the things separating humans from other animals is that we try to make sense of our lives. We explore aspects of our existence such as “Where did everything come from?” “Why are we here?” “What’s right and wrong, and how do we know?” “What happens when we die?” and “Who am I?” Various ways of asking and answering questions like these are at the heart of human interaction with the world. Humans have explored them in the arts and the sciences, privately and publically, in law and in literature.
Based on these assumptions, we make judgments about how the world works. We determine the nature of the problems with the human condition and how they might be fixed. We order the structures of our societies and orient them toward the values we assume to be true.
Ask the average person on the street about their worldview, and you are likely to get a strange look. Still, they have one. Individuals in communities tend to share a common worldview. One of the most powerful aspects of culture is reinforcing worldview assumptions to members of the community. In our culture, this happens primarily through entertainment, media, academics and politics.
Far too often, particularly in the West, cultural assumptions go unexamined. As Czech playwright and political dissident Vaclav Havel once said, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” Therefore, most people acquire their worldview just as they acquire a cold. They catch it from the environment.
Our worldview, whether we are aware of it or not, does its work in our lives. Worldviews are personal, but never private. According to our definition, it offers a framework both of life and the world and for life and the world.
First, our worldview is descriptive. In other words, it frames reality for us. Is the world we live in a product of God’s design, or the product of mindless natural causes and processes? Is suffering the story of the world, as the Buddha suggested, or is redemption its story, as the Christ suggested? Are there moral norms that transcend all cultures, or is morality determined by local groups of people as a survival mechanism?
Whatever world we think we live in shapes how we choose to live in it. Thus, our worldview is also prescriptive. Why do some suppose it’s fully acceptable to terminate an unwanted pregnancy while others see it as no less than the taking of an innocent life? Why are some medical scientists in favor of enhancing the evolutionary process through genetic engineering while others see it as “playing God?”
In light of this, we can see why Richard Weaver’s oft-quoted maxim is, in fact, very true: ideas have consequences. If we are mistaken about which world we actually live in, we’ll have significant blind spots both as individuals and as societies. For example, the neo-Darwinian view of reality offers no grounding for the inherent value or equality of all human beings. Throughout the 20th century, societies oriented around that view of human origins found reason to take the lives of individuals who did not advance their respective agendas. Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, the elderly, the infirmed and the unborn were all victims of what were sincerely held, but very bad, ideas about life and the world.
On the other hand, many American Christians had a worldview blind spot throughout much of the 20th century. Leftover cultural residue of slavery and racism led to the mistaken justification of Jim Crowe laws and other forms of discrimination. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” masterfully challenged those blind spots and iterated a framework for morality and justice from a biblical worldview.
How Worldviews Collide Today
Chuck Colson often said that Christianity introduced the most revolutionary idea in the history of the world: the imago dei, that all humans were made in the image and likeness of God. Ideas we now take for granted in the West about freedom, dignity of work, rule of law, benevolence and charity, women’s rights and scientific potential were unknown in Greek, Roman, Eastern and other pagan societies. The reason is simple: they lacked adequate grounding for it in the broadly held worldviews of their societies.
The ramifications of the idea of imago dei shaped Western civilization and, in particular, the American experiment. When our country’s founders talked of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they had in mind the classic idea of a good, productive and virtuous existence that all citizens were by nature entitled to and responsible for. These rights were, after all, “endowed by their Creator.”
It is foolish to think we can relegate the idea of God to myth or private belief and somehow think it will not change our understanding of citizenship and responsibility. However, that is precisely the new American experiment. As the structures of our culture become more and more secularized, religion finds itself relegated to purely private matters of personal faith and behavior. We now have what the late Richard John Neuhaus famously called a “naked public square.”
Naked, however, does not mean neutral. Unfettered freedom has replaced the original understanding of responsible freedom. Moral norms that were once considered obvious and necessary for human flourishing now seem outdated and oppressive. The new “good life” was stated perfectly in the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.”1 Authentic freedom, the court declared, begins with no givens, no norms, no design. We are fully autonomous. We are free to pursue whatever sort of life we wish to pursue.
It is important to note that in this decision, as is most often the case, politics was downstream of culture. Culture, as Chuck Colson often said, is the “cult” of the people. Culture is merely the flesh of worldview. The political shifts we’ve seen are the fruit of the bad worldview ideas that have been systematically embraced for the last several decades.
A significant outcome of this shift has been the push to see sexual freedom as the right that trumps all other rights, especially religious freedom. In fact, most of the worldview collisions we see today in American culture are between what was historically considered our “first freedom,” our right of conscience, and what is now considered to be our most important freedom, the freedom of sexual expression. Georgetown University law professor Chai Feldblum said as much when asked about conflicts between religious liberty and sexual liberty. She admitted, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”2
This conflict is not just an issue of shifting morality or legal theories. It results directly from a fundamentally new understanding of the human person. Are humans created or self-created? Are humans responsible to a higher power or fully autonomous? What you believe makes all the difference in the world (and the culture).
Our Call: Clarity and Courage
Understanding worldview used to be a matter of understanding one’s non-Christian friends and neighbors. Today, it is a necessary tool for understanding the times in which we live. A basic understanding of the Christian worldview, as well as other worldviews, is absolutely vital if one is to heed Paul’s dual warning to not be taken “captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy,” but to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (Colossians 2:8, 2 Corinthians 10:5).
Every song, movie, television show, law, political ad, academic lecture, textbook, sculpture and sermon reflects the worldview of the one or ones who produce them. Since hiding from the world around us is neither practical nor biblical, active engagement is the remaining option. Parents must walk with their children through the marketplace of ideas, modeling an active discernment that asks revealing questions of what they encounter. Here are questions every Christian should be prepared to ask:
- “What do they mean by that?” (Definitions are very important. Often, someone might share our vocabulary, but not our dictionary.3)
- "How do they know that is true?” (Assertions are not arguments. We must be able to tell the difference.)
- “What if they are right?” and “What if they are wrong?” (What consequences will emerge from these assumptions?)
- “Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys?” (This is particularly helpful in discerning entertainment.)
Understanding the world is one thing. Engaging it is another. In recent American history, the key players in what have been called “the culture wars,” have been pastors and politicians. While they still have a significant role, the most important players now are professionals, particularly those in business and in medicine.
Further, in past decades, standing for one’s faith threatened one’s reputation. It is quite possible that the coming decades will bring with them tougher choices. We have already seen leaders of companies and non-profit organizations forced to choose between their convictions and their pensions, their profits and even their existence as entities.
Being a Christian in America has not required the sort of courage required of believers throughout history. That is no longer the case. It is the task of Christians everywhere to cultivate informed, winsome courage.
1 A good summary of the case can be found online at http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/rule-of-law/judicial-activism/cases/planned-parenthood-v-casey
2 As quoted in The Weekly Standard, 15 May 2006.
3 I owe this observation to my friend Kevin Bywater of Summit Ministries (www.summit.org). Kevin is an expert on Mormonism, among other things.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Stonestreet is a speaker and fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. With Eric Metaxas, John is the voice of Break Point, a daily radio commentary heard worldwide. You can follow John on Twitter (@jbstonestreet) or at www.breakpoint.org.