An Elastic Worldview

In Christian thought, the concept of a worldview has proved very useful, especially in broadly comparing and contrasting other religious and philosophical schemes. One thing that is generally assumed about worldviews or implied when the concept itself is being discussed is that they are rigid, rather inflexible constructs. If they do undergo change, it is drastic change where the worldview is undermined and then an entirely new worldview is adopted. Given the purpose of a worldview as an overarching, ready to use heuristic for making sense of the world, it is perfectly understandable why they should be stable and resistant to change. However, I think worldviews are more flexible and dynamic than we realise.

The first thing to note is by their very nature worldviews are quite adaptable. A worldview provides the broad framework through which we perceive the world, the metanarrative that explains our experience of reality. Since a worldview necessarily has to be very general and address the big questions, there is room for variation especially when it comes to answering the specifics. This is similar to how one language, English for example, can have multiple dialects. It is possible for one worldview to be articulated in different but mutually intelligible ways. In other words, worldviews are often not monolithic. For example, what we might call the “Christian worldview” actually takes diverse forms. Christian worldviews share a basic outline but there are crucial differences between them.

A great example of divergence among Christian worldviews are those who believe the ultimate goal is to make it to heaven versus those who believe it is rather resurrection in the world to come. These worldviews, which are both Christian, value the material world very differently. Those who look for a disembodied existence in heaven they view the material world, including their own bodies, as having no lasting value and is therefore something to escape. On the other hand, belief in resurrection is a recognition of the goodness of the material world that God made and will eventually fully renew. With the resurrection worldview, the things done in the body have lasting significance.

Even with the significant differences between the heavenly destination versus new creation worldviews, they are mutually intelligible since they are both Christian worldviews and it is possible for one to evolve into the other. The heavenly destination paradigm is often the default among Christians but once they are properly exposed to the New Testament understanding of resurrection and new creation, they modify their worldview accordingly. This is the profound experience of many readers of NT Wright’s bestseller Surprised by Hope, which espouses the radical resurrection worldview.

As I earlier said, a worldview has to be a reliable conceptual framework but it is by necessity very general, therefore it is amenable to serious change while broadly remaining the same. The example I just gave shows that a putative worldview, such as the “Christian worldview” can be quite plastic. In my example, what causes the profound change is new information or understanding. Sometimes new experiences as well cause a radical restructuring of a worldview. After all, the purpose of a worldview is to help you navigate the world you live in. If there are new events that are not quite anticipated by your worldview, as you had up to moment conceived it, it is quite sensible to modify your worldview to incorporate the new experience accordingly.

Sticking with the Christian worldview, belief in resurrection came from Judaism. Now the Jewish belief in resurrection emerged during the second Temple period in response to the cataclysmic events of deportation and exile, which the Jewish people had still not fully recovered from even after they returned to the land. Due to their unflinching belief in the goodness of their creator god and his everlasting faithfulness to his chosen people, in the midst of national tragedy and subjugation the hope of resurrection was born. A radical new foundation was added to their worldview without completely abandoning the core tenets of their pre-existing worldview.

Another good example of the adaptability of worldviews through new experiences is the “conversion” of the apostle Paul. I say conversion in quotes because it is clear Paul did not utterly reject his past or his heritage. As Luke relates in Acts 23:6, Paul claimed before his inquisitors that as a fellow Jew and a Pharisee no less he already believed in resurrection. Jews at the time believed resurrection was going to happen at the end of time. The difference was on the road to Damascus Paul encountered a resurrected Jesus who had been exalted to heaven. It meant the God of his fathers had unexpectedly already begun a new creation, indeed a new reality, in the resurrected Messiah. In many profound ways, his pre-existing worldview was confirmed in that startling revelation but it required a radical rearranging of his symbolic universe.

In Philippians 3:1-11 Paul talks about his ethnic heritage, identity and standing. Contrary to how people often interpret the passage, Paul did not reject his background but in the light of Jesus’ resurrection it was now no longer what was most valuable to him. Knowing Jesus was now incomparably more valuable to him. As a Jew his worldview was largely intact but it was now redefined around the exalted Lord Jesus.

As I have just shown, worldviews are often able to adapt to new experiences or information. Now some worldviews are more adaptable than others however, I do think a sign of a robust worldview is a certain degree of flexibility. A good worldview can bend without breaking. Apart from the examples I have offered, I have seen my own worldview evolve in many ways to accommodate new circumstances and information. In fact, a particularly jarring period in my life prompted me to go on a personal mission to deconstruct my understanding of the Christian worldview and then reconstruct it as a more robust, thoroughly biblical worldview.

One particular issue many believers find hard to reconcile the Christian worldview with is the biological theory of evolution. From some scepticism to ambivalence, I now fully accept evolutionary theory. The work of Old Testament scholar John Walton was instrumental for me in coming to this position, which is sometimes called evolutionary creationism. I believe God created living organisms through evolutionary processes, according to the best of our scientific understanding, and more importantly this does not contradict the Bible because the Bible is not a science textbook nor does it give a scientific account of the origin of living organisms.

Evolutionary science does present a formidable but not an insurmountable challenge. I have found that at the very least, taking the debate seriously often forces people to read the Bible more carefully. Embracing it can offer some new and insightful perspectives on the character of God. As such evolutionary creationism is a particularly good example of how flexible yet robust the Christian worldview is. The revolutionary knowledge of evolutionary science could not have been anticipated yet it can successfully be fully incorporated into the Christian worldview.

A worldview forms the bedrock of how individuals and groups understand the world. It is therefore understandable why people are hesitant to have their fundamental presuppositions examined and even scrutinised. However, worldviews as I have tried to present them, are often less fragile and more elastic than we usually think they are. Specifically, I have found the Christian worldview to be exceptionally adaptable to radical new information and experiences while maintaining the integrity of its basic shape and fundamental tenets. This has given me even more confidence in the essential truthfulness of the Christian worldview. I therefore think believers should not be afraid to explore issues that are deemed existential threats to the faith. If these matters are examined with care and honesty, you might be surprised to find just how reliable the Christian worldview is and how it is enriched by accommodating new perspectives.

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