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What it TAKES to Make a Worldview

This is the fourth post in a 5-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) by Dr. James N. Anderson, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions.


In the first three articles in this series I introduced the concept of a worldview and explained why it is beneficial to think in terms of worldviews. In this article, I want to go into more detail about what a worldview is and what makes up a worldview.

Earlier I defined a worldview as an overall view of the world—specifically, a philosophical view of all of reality. Here’s a more technical and precise definition of a worldview:

A worldview is a network of ultimate beliefs, assumptions, values, and ideas about the universe and our place in it that shapes how a person understands their life and experiences (and the lives and experiences of others) and how that person acts in response.

But what exactly are these ultimate beliefs, assumptions, values, and ideas? What do they concern? In teaching on this subject I’ve found it helpful to use a simple acronym—TAKES—to break down a worldview into five basic areas or subdivisions:

  • Theology
  • Anthropology
  • Knowledge
  • Ethics
  • Salvation

With these five key areas in view, we can identify the basic ‘ingredients’ of a worldview. We can see what it TAKES to make a worldview. Let’s consider each area in turn.

Theology

Theology (from the Greek word theos) is most simply defined as the study of God. Every worldview has a theology; that’s to say, it reflects some kind of perspective on God. Its view of God may be very precise or it may be very vague. It may be explicit or implicit. It may be primarily negative in its perspective, focusing more on what God isn’t than what God is. But every worldview has a ‘take’ on God.

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • Is there a God? (The most important question of all!)
  • What is God like?
  • Is God a perfect being?
  • Is God a personal being?
  • How does God relate to the world? (According to some worldviews, God is transcendent and distinct from the world; according to others, God is identical to the world; still others take a position somewhere in-between.)
  • How does God relate to human beings in general?
  • How does God relate to me?

You might think that atheistic worldviews cannot have a theology because they deny there’s a God in the first place. But even atheistic worldviews have something to say about God, even if it’s only that he doesn’t exist! Moreover, when atheists deny the existence of God they still have some conception of what God would be like if he existed. (Otherwise, how could they know what they’re denying?)

Even atheistic worldviews, then, have a kind of theology, albeit a negative one. In fact, we can go further and observe that every worldview has its own ‘god’ in the sense that it posits some kind of ultimate reality (e.g., physical particles) and some kind of ultimate authority (e.g., science). What a worldview affirms about ultimate reality and ultimate authority functions as its theology.

Anthropology

Anthropology (from the Greek word anthropos: ‘man’ or ‘mankind’) is the study of human beings. Just as every worldview has its own theology, so every worldview also has its own anthropology. It represents a certain perspective on humanity, on our fundamental nature and purpose.

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • What are human beings? What kind of beings are we? (Are we creatures made in the image of God? Are we gods-in-embryo? Are we the unintended products of naturalistic evolution? Something else altogether?)
  • Where did we come from? (Note how this is closely related to the first question!)
  • Are we purely physical beings or embodied souls?
  • Are we special or unique in any way?
  • Do we exist for any particular reason or purpose?
  • Are we basically good, or basically bad, or something in-between?

Already you should be able to see how the first two areas of a worldview are closely connected. What we believe about God has significant implications for what we believe about ourselves, and vice versa.

Knowledge

Knowledge is widely viewed as a very useful and important thing. Knowledge is certainly more valuable than mere opinion. If I were to tell you that eating a whole raw cabbage every day would add a decade to your life, it would matter to you whether I really knew that to be true!

A worldview will typically have something to say about our knowledge: about what we can know and how we can know it. It will also have things to say on closely related subjects, such as truth, logic, reason, experience, intuition, and revelation. (All of these topics fall under what philosophers call ‘epistemology’.)

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • Can we know anything at all?
  • What can we know about God?
  • What can we know about the universe?
  • What can we know about ourselves?
  • What is the best kind of knowledge to have?
  • How do we know what we know? (Or to put the question another way: What are the sources of knowledge? Divine revelation? Reason? Intuition? Science? Sensory experiences? Mystical experiences?)
  • Are there any limits to our knowledge?
  • What are the best ways to improve and expand our knowledge?

Ethics

Just as every worldview has a distinctive take on truth and knowledge, so it has a distinctive take on goodness and morality. To borrow from the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer: every worldview has something to say in answer to the question, “How should we then live?”

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • What is the highest or ultimate good? (God? Love? Knowledge? Pleasure? Power?)
  • Is morality real or merely illusory? Are some things really right or wrong?
  • Is morality objective or subjective?
  • Are there any moral absolutes?
  • If morality is always relative, what is it relative to? (The individual? The community? The species?)
  • How do we know what is right or wrong? (Note the connection here between ethics and knowledge.)
  • Why should we try to be good anyway?
  • Are we ultimately accountable to anything or anyone for the way we live?

Salvation

Last, but not least, every worldview has a “salvation story” to tell. When Christians hear the word ‘salvation’ we tend immediately to think of it in terms of the biblical gospel: salvation from sin, death, and hell through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. But here I’m using the term ‘salvation’ in a more generic sense. Under this heading I’m referring to what a worldview says or implies about the basic human problem and the solution to that problem.

Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with the world. (Do you know anyone who thinks the world is just right in every way?) Even those who deny in theory the reality of good and evil find it hard, if not impossible, to apply their theory consistently in practice. For example, they’ll often want to say that we will be better off once we recognize the non-reality of good and evil—but that seems to presuppose our current situation isn’t as good as it could be! Everyone thinks our lives could be better in certain ways than they are now, and when pressed they will tend to generalize or boil things down to one general problem.

Some key questions we might ask of a worldview under this heading would be:

  • What is humanity’s most basic problem?
  • What (if anything) is the solution to that problem?
  • Are there multiple solutions?
  • What part (if any) do we play in solving the problem?
  • What part (if any) does God play in solving the problem?
  • What are the prospects for the problem being solved?

All Interrelated

It’s important to see that these five areas—Theology, Anthropology, Knowledge, Ethics, and Salvation—are closely interrelated. What a person believes in one area will inevitably affect what they believe in other areas. What you believe about God has implications for your view of human beings: our nature, origins, purpose, and destiny. What you believe about God and human beings will in turn influence your views on what we can know, how we should live, what our basic problem is, and how that problem can (and should) be solved.

One final observation. While everyone has a worldview, relatively few people are aware that they have a worldview and fewer still have critically reflected on their worldview. People generally don’t have well-defined beliefs or convictions in the five areas I’ve outlined here. They’ve never even considered most of the questions I’ve listed here, let alone taken the time to formulate coherent answers to them. Nevertheless, if they were asked those questions they would be inclined towards certain answers rather than others. Even where people lack distinct beliefs about ultimate matters, their thoughts, actions, and interpretations of the world nevertheless reflect various unconscious assumptions and dispositions. And the more they are prompted to consider these fundamental issues, the more worldview-aware they will become.

Read Part 5.


James N. Anderson (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He is the author of What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (excerpt).


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2 Comments »

  1. Dr. Anderson,
    Just curious, I know you do make a distinction between worldview and religion, how do you define religion in light of your definition of worldview?

    Comment by SLIMJIM — February 9, 2014 @ 1:01 am

  2. This is a great series and is also very helpful.
    I wonder though, in terms of a “Christian Worldview”, whether we can even definitively agree on the five beliefs, assumptions, values, and ideas:
    Theology
    Anthropology
    Knowledge
    Ethics
    Salvation

    Wouldn’t you say that within historical Christianity there are a host of different views on each of these areas? Even within specifically Protestant, Evangelical, and/or Reformed Christianity it would seems that there might be a fair variety of perspectives here.

    Comment by Deb — August 12, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

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