Worldview: The History of a Concept
By David K. Naugle
384 pp.; $26, paper
For many readers of Books & Culture and Christianity Today, to deploy the phrase "Christian worldview" in conversation nowadays is to risk uttering a banality. The development of the "evangelical mind," particularly as it is manifest in the "faith and learning" industry in Christian higher education, is inconceivable without the conceptual framework of worldview thinking.
But the American zeal for practicality, quick answers, and efficient techniques has reduced this robust concept to "resources" for giving "The Christian Response" to various contemporary issues, from cloning to prayer in public schools to liberal media bias—and, of course, ways to make your local college biology teacher look silly. All of this has conspired to persuade more than a few philosophers and theologians in the Christian community that "worldview" as an analytical tool has outlived its usefulness.
Not so fast, says David Naugle. His comprehensive book, Worldview: The History of a Concept, is a heroic attempt to revive worldview thinking. Naugle's study offers an in-depth historical survey of this important but complex and often misunderstood concept. Despite its abuses, he argues, worldview thinking should not be dismissed. What is needed is a new view of worldview—and Naugle's sophisticated account of its origins, development, and use will no doubt reinvigorate a concept that has too often been mobilized to shut down, rather than open up, discussion.
As a curator of a university art museum and historian of modern art, I have come to see most Christian worldview discourse on art as unproductive at best. Naugle's nuanced and self-critical exploration of the concept has rekindled my own interest in its potential explanatory power as it relates to the interpretation of modern and contemporary art.
But my involvement in things worldviewish is not limited to my professional work as a curator and scholar. I am also serving on the board of my kids' Christian school, and one of its strategic goals is to deepen and expand the Christian worldview throughout its curriculum and programs. And this is precisely why worldview thinking is so important for Christians, who recognize that ideas have tremendous consequences not only for academics but also for parents and teachers of young children.
Naugle's book combines scholarly acumen with a pastor's heart. He's convinced that the church needs worldview thinking to help "believers understand the cosmic dimension and all-encompassing implications of biblical revelation." As a one-person philosophy department at a Baptist university, he is committed to bringing an intellectually robust Christianity to his students, many of whom no doubt view faith as a private spiritual matter.
Although the book is written from an evangelical Reformed perspective, the story Naugle tells reveals in no uncertain terms that worldview thinking is neither the invention of American evangelicals nor even the exclusive domain of Christian thinking. With his expansive, textured view of worldview discourse as it weaves its way through diverse Christian theological and Western philosophical traditions, Naugle shows that it is just as important to explore Kant's and Wittgenstein's understanding of worldview as it is to study Abraham Kuyper's or Francis Schaeffer's.
Naugle begins his study by comparing and contrasting Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox worldview perspectives. He plumbs the depths of the concept's origins in Kant's idealist philosophical system, surveying its use by philosophers in the 19th and 20th century. He then explores its disciplinary applications in the natural sciences, philosophy of science, psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology. After this historical survey, Naugle circles back and approaches the concept from theological and philosophical perspectives. He concludes with a brief discussion of the dangers of worldview analysis, a synopsis of evangelical worldview contributions, and a useful bibliography.
I can only offer two cavils. The first is that Naugle neglects worldview thinking in the arts and humanities, where I believe the risks and rewards might be greatest, as evidenced in Martin Heidegger's interest in poetry and the visual arts. The second is that Naugle seems to dismiss the potential abuse of worldview analysis a little too quickly (the danger that Heidegger observed, for example, that worldview thinking has transformed the human being into a "subject" that defines, explains, and masters the world as an "object"). I have a hunch that much of this abuse in the evangelical context can be traced to a penchant for enlisting Thomas Kuhn's captivating but ultimately reductive notion of the "paradigm shift."
But these criticisms are the result of the fecundity of Naugle's important work. We may hope that his book will engender a deeper, richer understanding of worldview among Christians who take both the cultural mandate and the Great Commission seriously.
Daniel A. Siedell is curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the editor of Weldon Kees and the Arts at Midcentury, forthcoming in January 2004 from the University of Nebraska Press.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (August 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (August 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books? | Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture." (May 12, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)