On worldviews

Dr Arthur Jones’ brief visit to The Hump’s comments reminded me that it may have been he, back in the 1980s, who first introduced me to the concept of worldviews. Amongst other useful stuff on his website there is a pithy description of “worldview” as the spectacles behind our eyes with which we view the world. Because we look through them, we generally don’t look at them, and more often we’re not even aware that we have such a pair of specs. It’s like vocal accents – I speak ordinary English, you have a strange American drawl/ plummy British dialect. This has obvious implications in the matter of education, but it goes wider.

By way of current example, a headline in the Independent today says:

Japanese whalers carve up and behead animal in front of local schoolchildren

Although there was a range of reaction in the comments, the story was only newsworthy at all because of a cluster of more or less invisible, and not particularly rational, worldview commitments that have become part of the British psyche.

Japanese whaling is only a genuine issue because most countries have long had a moratorium on whaling for conservation reasons, and Japan has flouted/circumvented it on various good or bad grounds – nevertheless, conservation of endangered species is what it’s about, and though the article harks back to that, it has nothing directly to do with it.

Incidentally, I can’t forbear to mention that it was Arthur Jones who recounted the illogical materialism of a New Scientist editorial back in the eighties, which waxed polemical over the fact that the moral imperative of conservation should trump Japan’s tradition, culture and even national sovereignty over whaling. Jones pointed out that the New Scientist espouses a theory of purposeless and unplanned evolution that functions through the extinction of 99% of all species that have ever existed, in which morality is a mere epiphenomenon. Worldviews need not be internally consistent…

Back at the news story, the factors I can think of that explain why it was printed include:

  • Somewhere back in the sixties or seventies (maybe through recordings of Humpback calls and aquatic theme parks), western people started to regard whales subsconsciously as people rather than animals. So there’s a soupçon of cannibalism in the story.
  • More generally vegetarianism, though a minority position, has surrepticiously become the moral norm, so that a vague sense of guilt hangs over the whole idea of meat. It comes in plastic packs now, whereas once carcases hung unselfconsciously in butchers’ shops, and got there from farms in which most children began life.
  • There is also the strange idea that the bigger an animal, the less moral it is to kill it. Kill a mosquito (or better still, the whole species) and it’s good. A mouse – yes, if it has a scaly tail and isn’t called Mickey. Cows – maybe, unless you’re a vegetarian and as long as it’s somewhere else. Horses – bad news: we make friends with them, so only foreigners eat them. Elephants – definitely murder. Whales – even killing one is genocide. The Copernican Principle appears applicable biologically as well as astronomically, especially since fetuses are about as fair game as mice.
  • Since whale is no longer on our limited list of “OK” meats, there’s a yuk factor that would be the same for anything non bovine, ovine or porcine.
  • As we have become progressively more hung-up about animal death, some kind of taboo has arisen about children being aware of it. It’s not clear whether this is because they will be corrupted into – well, eating meat like everyone else, only knowing what it is, or alternatively whether they will be traumatised beyond reclamation. In fact, of course, children take butchery on board like any other normal part of life – my grand-daughter of seven has a healthy interest in understanding the life, death and preparation of the animals she eats – and probably has more respect for them as a result.

The punchline of the Independent story is that these kids are actually from a town whose economy has depended on whaling for generations. They’re watching what their Dads do for a living, and what they will probably do. Incidentally, whatever the merits of the whaling ban, the likely alternative to their watching whales butchered is watching their community die – a story that I doubt would be covered here as “foreign unemployment” doesn’t figure large in the western worldview.

Christianity has a particular issue with worldviews. Old Testament Israel was called to be “a nation apart”, and the whole “holiness” principle of torah reinforced that. One can, of course, trace a common ANE culture in the Bible, but from Moses to Ezra, and even to the Pharisees, the revealed worldview of God’s law was maintained through separation, and of course by the comprehensive education and enculturation programme indicated by Deuteronomy 11.18-20:

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Christianity, however, soon became a directly missionary, universal faith, calling those of all cultures not to separation, but to leavening and seasoning their existing cultures. The faith challenges and critiques all competing worldviews – believers are to be “in the world, but not of it.” They are “Not to conform to the pattern of this world, but transformed by the renewing of their minds.” That’s a significant challenge when worldviews are so invisible and pervasive. It can only come through imbibing a better and stronger worldview than the native Greek, or English, or American one we grew up with before we knew Christ.

The New Testament says relatively little about recognising faulty worldview commitments – maybe surprising given that its mission is to draw people from all cultures into one holy nation acting as salt and light in the world. Nevertheless the Church soon became recognised as that nation – early critics of Christianity referred to it as a “third race” after pagans and Jews.

The Church needed to be, and was, equipped with powerful means of retaining its sacred identity in the absence of a theocratic nation-state like Israel. Paul, writer of that last quote from Romans 12, goes on to talk about the varied teaching ministries of the Church (for some reason he omits the guild of secular academic theologians).

In ch8 Paul had talked about the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose main function is to set our hearts on the things God wants. But that is not a passive guarantee that our worldview will be Christian – we are to keep in step with the Spirit, having an obligation to put to death the misdeeds of the body. A dichotomy within ourselves is presented to us.

Paul has also just given us one of the most concentrated doses of Christian thought in the New Testament in the first 11 chapters. He intended it to be part of that renewing of mind for which he called. We also have not only the deposit of the Old Testament on which Israel was to mould its faith, but the New Testament, presumably given for a similar task, but specifically for those scattered across the many nations and cultures of the world.

And to me that’s the main function of the Bible – not just to act as just as a source of conscious truths (I leave aside the view that one must pick through it for occasional pearls of wisdom amongst the human dross – see here), but instead as the conceptual medium in which one swims, soaking up its worldview as you go in an appropriately unconscious way.

Stretching the metaphor a bit, one soon begins to notice that most of the people around you are swimming in some other current, or even that you’re being pulled in opposite directions at once. The conflict comes with the territory, and makes one somewhat unusual in actually recognising your own worldview, by dint of the contrast. As Blaise Pascal wrote:

When all is equally agitated, nothing appears to be agitated, as in a ship. When all tend to debauchery, none appears to do so. He who stops draws attention to the excess of others, like a fixed point. The licentious tell men of orderly lives that they stray from nature’s path, while they themselves follow it; as people in a ship think those move who are on the shore. On all sides the language is similar. We must have a fixed point in order to judge. The harbour decides for those who are in a ship; but where shall we find a harbour in morality?

Not in a secular education system, that’s for sure.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to On worldviews

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I too thought that the description of a worldview as being spectacles *behind* your eyes as a very good analogy. I’ve been ruminating on similar thoughts for a while myself (and feel the prodding to step it up from ruminating to rallying, as there is probably a time to stop being a scholar and start being a soldier, though one hopes the two aren’t mutually exclusive!) There is just so much at stake.

    C.S. Lewis (in “The Silver Chair” I believe) spoke of enchantments as not being fully in effect if you could feel it working on you. It is when you are no longer aware of being enchanted that you are finally under its full power. I think this also is an apt description of how these world views work. We may not be able to examine the spectacles behind our own eyes, but perhaps we can examine those worn by others and so indirectly begin to have insights about our own. Indeed, these are spectacles being worn by an entire culture as much as by individuals, and by exposure to cultures different than ours perhaps we can hope to gain insights about our own. In fact I think we already have begun that process in discussions like these.

    As Ed Feser noted in one of his blogs (linked by you earlier, Jon) … The Gnus don’t really have a choice about whether or not they will “do philosophy”. Their only choices are whether they will do it well or do it badly. And given that many of them are dismissive of philosophy and not willing to consider it a valid enterprise, they have then subscribed to something uncritically and indeed turn out to be doing it badly.

    But here is a continuing nagging question: How much value is there in this pursuit of trying to “think about my own thought”? As Lewis has written, there is something lost in the purity of experience if I stop enjoying the beauty of the rose and start thinking about my thinking of the rose. Is it with good reason that these spectacles are *behind* our eyes, and should we not let ourselves be bothered by that? Atheists who plunge forward blindly with erroneous and destructive philosophy are in one sense innocently being religious in the best sense of that word. They are sincere even if sincerely wrong. For that reason alone it seems a necessary enterprise to try to force these spectacles out into the open, but I think it has been shown we will never fully succeed in that enterprise for human thought generally. And that is okay. It is also okay for us to try.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think I prefer your first thoughts to your later ones here! Go and experience (for example) African Christians, and you’re suddenly forced to see your own preconceptions as others see them. The specs become visible, and then you have to make choices, willy nilly.

      I’ve never been to Africa (I saw it from Gibraltar once!) but immersing yourself in the thought of other times has a similar effect (“The past is another country”). And the Bible is not just another country, but God’s country.

      It would only be a loss of innocence if it was innocent – but I’m not sure a slave owner escapes judgement because he never thought to question white supremacist theology! The gospel calls us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, n’est ce pas?

      The Gnus seem amongst the foremost in lack of self-understanding, as Feser says. That has to be because they make a virtue of it, being quite certain they alone have insight.

      But, contra your last para, it’s not navel-gazing or second-guessing every thought you have that’s needed, which would be a recipe for paralysis. It’s just a call to the examined life, but actually not even that: it’s the realisation that wherever we’ve come from, we’re called to be ambassadors of the new country, so we’d better soak ourselves in its ways.

      That can mean that even our Christian traditions come under examination. But on the other hand, we can still rejoice in the distinctives of our native worldview where it is innocent, whether that’s the ex-slave owner extolling southern cuisine, the distinctive traditions of a church – or holding a different balance between local industry and conservation from the other bloke. As you rightly say, it’s always a work in progress – only the cultists and revolutionaries believe they can totally transform people in this world, and they only seem to succeed in destroying people completely.

  2. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for the challenge, Jon. You are correct that this is no time for paralysis, and that navel-gazing should not prevent action. Ironically, the survival of science may actually hang on this (it may need rescuing from the clutches of a strangling materialism), but more important things (lives!) rest on this work too.

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