Worldview and Worldvision
While cultures might be driven by grand worldviews, J. H. Bavinck argues that most individuals are not. To borrow the language of Isaiah 44:19 (NIV), “no one stops to think” about worldview, despite the pervasive influence worldviews have on whichever culture they inhabit and the haphazard glimpses of those worldviews that can be seen in people’s lives. That kind of claim offers scope to nuance the worldview conversation considerably, and as such, it merits our detailed attention.
Advocates of worldview tend to emphasize its ubiquity (which is to say, in effect, “Worldview matters because everyone has one”). With that in mind, it is perhaps surprising that in Personality and Worldview, J. H. Bavinck makes the paradoxical claim that worldview is both everywhere (“Everyone has a worldview”) and nowhere (“Almost no one has a worldview”).
How can both these statements be true? How is it possible that while all people live on the basis of a priori starting points (which are generally taken to be the basic building blocks of worldview), worldviews—or at least, worldviews truly deserving of that name—are nonetheless as rare as hens’ teeth? J. H. Bavinck’s answer lies in a novel conceptual distinction between worldvision (which all humans have, by necessity) and worldview (which drives entire cultures, while being possessed by very few people).1 While we all begin life with a worldvision, a proper worldview is a momentous achievement. Few individuals move from one to the other.
To provide you with a short introduction to this distinction, a worldvision is a set of intuitions about the world formed in all individuals by their family and home environment, their teachers and education, and the broad culture within which they live. It is also closely bound to the idiosyncrasies of an individual person’s temperament. That particular combination provides a workable (albeit limited) frame of reference with which to live from day to day. Indeed, it is possible to spend the entirety of your life only looking at life and the world through the single lens that is your worldvision. In the same sense, it is possible to spend an entire life navigating the streets of New York City only in a first-person perspective, never seeing a map of the city (and all that lies beyond it) or climbing a skyscraper in order to move from the limitations of your individual vision of each street to a more capacious view of the whole city. Worldview relates to worldvision in that sense. It elevates the limitations of first-person vision to the breadth of a bird’s-eye view. An individual vision within the world is a necessary starting point, certainly, but it should not be confused with a capacious view of the world. Every individual has a worldvision, but few have a worldview.
In that setting, J. H. Bavinck’s provocative claim is that each worldvision is, in essence, no more than a set of untested presuppositions about life imbibed within our home communities. (Viewed as such, worldvision functions as an equivalent concept to Charles Taylor’s notion of the “social imaginary”—the claim that humans “imagine” the world in an unconscious, pretheoretical way and live within it on that basis more so than on the basis of calculated, abstract reasoning.)2 A worldvision is made up of utterly subjective working assumptions about the world and nothing more. It provides a means of functioning in the world but in no way offers the truth about that world.
Life is livable, to a degree, on the basis of a worldvision in the same way that life in the Matrix works for those who never ask, “What is the Matrix?” Some, however, desire to ask precisely that question. They become conscious that their working assumptions might not correspond to the truth, and as such, they want to put them to the test. In J. H. Bavinck’s terms, that kind of person has begun a pilgrimage from the realm of the wholly subjective (a worldvision) toward the truly objective (a worldview), which is most profoundly a pilgrimage from the finite to the infinite, from the creature toward the Creator as the only one whose view of the world is exhaustive in knowledge and perfect in wisdom.
While we all begin life with a worldvision, a proper worldview is a momentous achievement. Few individuals move from one to the other.
Worldview as Mapmaking
With this distinction, J. H. Bavinck tries to provide tools with which to understand his uncle Herman Bavinck’s account of worldview as a slow process of mapmaking. To adapt one of J. H. Bavinck’s own illustrations, a worldvision is like a map of the world that has been crumpled up into a paper ball. Although that ball now feels manageable in your hand, and while its visible parts offer you some tools for navigation (and a limited degree of truth about the world depicted), it nonetheless must be uncrumpled. The map’s potential far exceeds whatever the crumpled ball can offer.
As a complement to that cartographical picture, Johan Herman adds a further useful illustration: if a worldview is a map, a worldvision is a compass. Those who have no wish to make a map, who reject the struggle to cultivate a worldview in order to remain grounded in whatever worldvision life happens to have given them, have something far more basic—a tool that orients and directs them, albeit without offering any grand view of the world in which they move.
In Personality and Worldview, neither worldview nor worldvision is inherently bad. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A person’s worldvision is a necessary starting point in life, a location in God’s good creation, a set of home coordinates somewhere in nature and history. As such, we must all begin with a worldvision and should see it as a basic good. It is by God’s kind providence that no one starts off nowhere.
Despite this, worldvision nonetheless becomes problematic when it is made a permanent abode rather than a starting point. A worldvision shows you one way to live in the world on the basis of all manner of untested assumptions, and as such, it is utterly subjective. It is an assumption—but not the truth—about the world. It is life lived on autopilot by a passenger who as yet sits passively and unquestioningly. When a person remains in this state forever, worldvision changes from good and limited to life limiting. That person’s unwillingness to ask, “What if my assumptions aren’t true?” is, in effect, a self-imposed house arrest. His home coordinates become his prison because he lives without hunger for the truth about life, the world, and God. In light of that position, Personality and Worldview equips readers to think in deeply appreciative but also profoundly critical ways about worldvision. It offers a creative and somewhat experimental attempt to improve the conversation around worldview.
- Prior to the publication of Personality and Worldview, the Dutch religious socialist Henri Wilhelm Philip Elise van den Bergh van Eysinga (1868–1920) used the terms wereldbeschouwing (worldview) and wereldvisie (worldvision). His work, however, does not offer an account of how the terms differ and seems to use them more or less interchangeably. See, for example, Henri Wilhelm Philip Elise van den Bergh van Eysinga, Apologie en bevestiging: Nadere toelichting bij “Het bankroet van religie en Christendom in de moderne maatschappij” (Zutphen: J. H. A. Wansleven & Zoon, 1899), 7, 23, 29, 53. Twelve years before Personality and Worldview, the term wereldvisie also appeared in a publication by J. R. Slotemaker de Bruïne, once again without an account of its relationship to wereldbeschouwing. See J. R. Slotemaker de Bruïne (1869–1941), Dogmatiek en cultuur (Utrecht: G. J. A. Ruys, 1916), 20. The only twentieth-century Dutch writer to use both wereldvisie and wereldbeschouwing in close textual proximity prior to J. H. Bavinck was the liberal theologian Gerhardus Hendericus van Senden (1884–1968). See, for example, G. H. van Senden, Het vraagstuk van rechtzinnigheid en vrijzinnigheid (Baarn: Hollandia-Drukkerij, 1912), 5, 24, 46. Like van den Bergh van Eysinga, van Senden does not deploy the terms as distinct concepts. Dutch sources that treat wereldvisie and wereldbeschouwing as conceptually distinctive only emerged in neo-Calvinist circles after the publication of Personality and Worldview. See, for example, N. W. van Diemen de Jel, Niet onze wegen (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1932), 120.
- See, for example, Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
This article is adapted from Personality and Worldview by J. H. Bavinck and translated by James Eglinton.
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