Sometimes a perfectly good word loses its meaning so much that it ought to be set aside, at least temporarily. Calling someone a “fundamentalist” in 1923—when the word designated Christians who believed in the supernatural—is a very different thing than in 2023, when it conveys sectarian militancy.
Several years ago, I realized another good word had lost its meaning: “worldview.”
“Everyone has a worldview,” the saying went. It was and is true, of course, that the grid through which we see reality shapes who we are. But over the years, I’ve grown weary of hearing the word “worldview” invoked as a list of current culture war controversies with the “correct” Christian view attached.
I’ve also become increasingly convinced that “worldview” talk assumed something I don’t find to be true or biblical: which is the belief that people adopt cognitive axioms and apply them to their lives. Anyone who’s dealt with real people knows that the reverse is found to be true far more often. I have seen countless people with “biblical worldviews” reverse course in an instant when they’re caught in an extramarital affair.
Tim Keller’s foreword to a new translation of J.H. Bavinck’s Personality and Worldview (Crossway) analyzes many of my reluctances. Some of you yawn at even the mention of a long-dead Dutch Reformed theologian, but the book is worth its price if for nothing else than the Keller foreword and the introduction written by its translator and editor, James Eglinton. Both point out the crucial difference between a “world-vision” and a “worldview.”
One thing they argue is that while everyone has a “world-vision,” very few people have a worldview.
Eglinton defines a “world-vision” as “a set of intuitions about the world formed in individuals by their family and home environment, their teachers and education, and the broad culture in which they live” combined with “the idiosyncrasies of an individual persons’ temperament.” That unique combination allows someone to have a “workable frame of reference with which to live from day to day.”
In other words, we don’t just see the world in terms of propositions we affirm and deny or based solely on our social and cultural setting—but based on our personality as well.
That’s one reason many people love to find out their enneagram number or their Myers-Briggs type—or even just to take one of those “Which Marvel character are you?” quizzes somewhere online.
Those things can give, if nothing else, a metaphor to describe why my wife and I react so differently when we hear that a friend is in the hospital after surviving a car accident.
If you could see the thought balloons over her head, you would see something along the lines of “We need to get people together to provide meals for their family and find out how to get their kids to school.”
Whereas my word balloon would say, “Life is short and fragile. Death is coming for us all...” before trailing off into Psalm 104, some Walker Percy quotes, and the lyrics to Jimmy Buffett’s “He Went to Paris.”
She and I would score close to the same on everything in a “worldview survey” on our principles or values. We grew up just a few miles down the beach from each other. We can summarize those different ways of reacting with “I’m an Enneagram Four and she’s a Two.” Even then we realize that human beings are mysteries and none of us can be fully “explained” as a “worldview” or as a “personality,” even to ourselves.
In Bavinck’s framing, while everybody needs a “world-vision”—those basic assumptions and grids to make it through life—very few people have developed what he would call a “worldview,” which is a more mapped-out intentional sense of life’s meaning.
Many people live their entire lives without ever really questioning their basic assumptions, or those of their tribe. Yet some people—often during a crisis—will ask themselves the question, “But what does this all mean?”
Frederick Buechner once said there is one still moment in any church service when the preacher opens the Bible to read—and at least some individuals in the congregation are hoping to hear the answer to a single question: “Is it true?”
It’s one thing to think the Bible gives us good principles to manage our lives, gain spiritual experiences, argue our “values” disputes; or help us to be a better spouse, parent, or citizen.
It’s quite another to ask, “What does it mean if it’s really true that everything, visible and invisible, is held together by the Word of his power?” and “What does it mean for me if there really is a God in whom I live and move and have my being?” and “What will change about my life if it’s true that Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so?”
Unlike the way the word “worldview” is used in most popular Christian contexts, a worldview is not a definitive set of abstractions that one agrees to and then just applies to various truth questions. It’s about, among other things, coming to realize what story is true and what story we are living. As for the Christian story, the plotline is not resolved in the short term.
When the disciples are exasperated with Jesus on the seashore, after he went from feeding the multitudes to talking about eating his skin and drinking his blood, they didn’t get from Jesus an early copy of the Book of Acts, much less a discourse on various views on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Simon didn’t have a first draft of 1 and 2 Peter written out in his head. Jesus just said, “Do you want to go away as well?”
Peter’s answer is more important than a million “worldview manuals” neatly dividing us up into our categories. He just said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69).
In many ways, Peter could not see the way he was going, much less enough to have a comprehensive theory of the world around him. He just knew that this person was the Way. He knew that—however faultily he tried to explain it—he would follow this voice into whatever unpredictable future it called him. Wherever this Jesus went is where he wanted to be.
Did he live consistently and coherently with that? No. Every other page in the Gospels features Peter spectacularly misunderstanding something Jesus is doing—usually by saying dumb things that Jesus corrects. At the fireside after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s “worldview” seemed to be, “I never knew him.”
But Jesus kept pursuing him. Jesus followed Peter after the crucifixion and resurrection to where Peter first found Jesus: while he was fishing in Galilee. And even after their emotional reconciliation, Peter starts asking stupid questions that Jesus refuses to answer. Yet Jesus’ last recorded words to Peter were the same as his first: “Follow Me.”
Your atheist neighbor is more than their worldview. Whatever arguments you have in the coffee shop, he is complex and often lives inconsistently with the abstractions he holds—just like you. Maybe he can tell you fifteen reasons why belief in God is as silly as believing in a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Even so, underneath that “worldview” might well be someone who’s scared, lonely, and ashamed. And maybe he will also find himself asking, “What if it’s true?” in those moments when his worldview doesn’t seem to “work”—he looks at his newborn baby or he stands in front of the Grand Canyon or he hears Psalm 23. And maybe sometimes, underneath all his rational arguing, he’s even hoping it is.
You, too, are more than your worldview. Of course, philosophical arguments have a significant place in the history of the church and the pursuit of faith. But the “renewing of your mind” the Bible calls you to isn’t primarily about learning points of debate, but first reminding yourself of the mercies of God. And through that, you offer yourself—over and over again—as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). This endeavor involves all of you—your affections, your intuitions, and your longings—not only your reason.
That’s why most of us on our deathbeds will not turn to axioms and arguments but to the hymns we learned to sing, the stories we came to know to be true, and the people who bore these words witness to a light shining in the darkness, a word who became flesh—even in their own flawed, fragmented ways.
Maybe we won’t even be able to see with our physical eyes at that point. But we will still know the Way we want to go—which is wherever he is. That isn’t a worldview that can settle all the questions and win all the arguments, but it’s enough for one earthly life, and for the life that comes after that.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.