This is the fifth post in a 5-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) 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.
So far in this series of articles I’ve discussed what a worldview is, why it matters, why it’s helpful think in terms of worldviews, and what are the ‘ingredients’ of a worldview. Evidently it’s important and beneficial to be able to figure out what worldview a person has. In this final article, I want to suggest five different ways to discern someone’s worldview.
1. Pay close attention to what that person says.
This is the most obvious and immediate way to identify someone’s worldview and it can often be very straightforward too. For example, if a person claims to be a Muslim who was raised in Saudi Arabia, the chances are pretty good that they have an Islamic worldview. You don’t need to PhD to figure that out!
Having said that, we should be careful not to leap to conclusions about a person’s worldview based on the labels they use to describe themselves. To take the example above: if a person claims to be a Muslim, that tells us something about what he believes, but it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to adequately discern his worldview. There’s actually quite a lot of diversity among those who claim to be Muslims. The worldviews of nominal Muslims and liberal Muslims differ in significant respects from the worldviews of traditionalist Muslims.
So we have to dig a bit deeper and pay close attention to everything a person says. If someone claims to be a Christian, but says things like, “No one really knows anything for sure,” or, “Each of us has to find our own way to heaven,” that indicates something other than a biblical Christian worldview. Even incidental, seemingly throw-away comments can give insight into a person’s worldview. Indeed, the things people say when they aren’t thinking carefully about what they’re supposed to say can be invaluable for discerning their basic outlook on the world.
2. Pay close attention to how that person lives.
Often people’s actions can shed as much light on their worldview as their words. Indeed, sometimes they can shed even more light! Our behavior is driven by our deepest desires, values, and motivations—all of which are defined or directed by our worldviews. So we can trace the stream back to its source. We can ask, “What sort of worldview would encourage or motivate that those actions or that lifestyle?”
Suppose you have a next-door neighbor who lives a very materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle. He loves to party, and to party hard, with little concern for his long-term health or for the needs of others around him. Even if he never spoke a word to you, you could still make a good guess at his worldview. At the very least, you could rule out certain worldviews! Based on the way he lives, it’s likely he thinks that this life is the only life, that only the material world is real, that physical pleasure is the highest good, and that there’s no God, no afterlife, and no ultimate accountability.
3. Consider the person’s upbringing and education.
What are the most formative influences on a person’s worldview? I would suggest that the three most significant are parents/guardians, the local community, and educators (school teachers, college professors, etc.). So another indirect way to gain insight into a person’s worldview is to consider which worldviews they have been exposed to, and had impressed upon them, by way of these influences.
4. Ask direct questions!
The first three approaches I’ve outlined here are essentially passive: they require us only to listen and observe. But we can also be more proactive in ascertaining someone’s worldview by asking them directly about their beliefs, assumptions, values, and ideas. We can ask the sort of diagnostic questions I listed earlier under the five headings of Theology, Anthropology, Knowledge, Ethics, and Salvation (TAKES).
This is the most efficient way to identify someone’s worldview, at least in principle. The tricky part is to do it in a way that doesn’t seem invasive, intimidating, or just plain weird! Precisely because of the sweeping scope and penetrating nature of worldview questions, they can’t be asked “out of the blue” without any build-up discussion. (“Well, enough about the Cubs game, Dan. What’s your view on the ultimate reality?”)
If the person you’re talking to is very religious or philosophically-minded, it may be relatively easy to get into a discussion in which such questions can be asked directly. In other cases, however, you’ll have to take a more subtle and indirect approach. It takes some skill and practice to be able to gently steer a conversation towards worldview-questions, but it’s always possible. One relatively straightforward way to do it is to use a moral disagreement or controversy as an opening for a worldview conversation:
“Susan, I think our disagreement about same-sex marriage is really just a symptom of a deeper disagreement. There’s a fundamental clash of worldviews here.”
“Oh? What do you mean by that?” Now you’re up and running.
Another way to direct a conversation toward worldviews is to use a major news event as a launching pad, particularly one that raises serious moral, religious, or existential questions. For instance, scarcely a week goes by (sad to say) without a report of some terrorist act by Islamic fundamentalists. Suppose a work colleague expresses her inability to comprehend how people could act that way. You might remark that such acts may be incomprehensible to us, but given the worldview of the terrorists those acts make perfect sense. They would be morally justified and even praiseworthy! This could usher in a discussion of what their worldview is, what her worldview is, and why some worldviews are superior to others. (If your colleague has a non-theistic worldview and you really want to stir things up, you might also point out that her moral outrage is hard to justify given her own worldview!)
One further approach is to use a recent movie or TV show as a doorway to a worldview conversation, since every story is told against the backdrop of some worldview or other. (For a very helpful discussion of the relationship between popular culture and worldviews, see Ted Turnau’s book Popologetics.)
5. Give them a copy of What’s Your Worldview? and ask them where they end up!
Okay, I admit this last one seems rather brazen and self-serving. But it would be remiss of me not to suggest it at all, since What’s Your Worldview? was written for precisely this purpose: to serve as an informative, engaging, non-threatening tool for introducing people to the idea of a worldview, encouraging them to think about their own worldview, and stimulating constructive conversations about competing worldviews.
Whether and how you make use of that tool, I leave up to you!
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).