Defining Worldview

Worldview is a common term in mission discussions that at times can be somewhat fuzzy. Sometimes worldview is reduced to certain values, and at other times it is somewhat synonymous with culture.

I believe that worldview is not just a synonym for culture and is more comprehensive than values such as shame/honor, fear/power, or guilt/innocence. Yes, these values are an important aspect of a worldview, but a worldview answers other questions as well.

Over the past thirty years, I have been collecting definitions/descriptions of “worldview” from readings in anthropology, literature, missiology, philosophy, psychology, and theology. Looking at definitions from these various disciplines deepens our perspective and helps us to see the comprehensive nature of the concept. Here are a couple dozen to stimulate your thinking:

From Philosophy/Theology:

A worldview is an all-encompassing perspective on everything that exists and matters to us. – James N. Anderson, What is Your Worldview? An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions, Wheaton: Crossway, 2014, 12.

A worldview is an interpretation of influences, experiences, circumstances, and insight. In fact, it is an interrelated series of interpretations – and it becomes a method of interpreting, too. A worldview is something you are aware of only in moments of crisis or contemplation. In ordinary times, it is like a pair of glasses or contact lenses. You are accustomed to looking through it that you barely know it’s there. … Don’t think of worldview as sunglasses. Instead, think of it as a pair of prescription lenses. The task of every worldview is to see the world as it is, to correct your vision. the test of a good worldview will be whether it brings reality into sharp focus or leaves things blurry. – J. Mark Bertrand, (Re) Thinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in this World, Wheaton: Crossway, 2007, 26,27.

A ‘worldview,’ after all, is nothing other than a view of the ‘world’ – that is, of all reality. A worldview is comprehensive only in the sense that it tries to view the whole. … A worldview must be comprehensive enough to address the question of deity (If there is a God, what is he like?), the question of origins (Where do I come from?), the question of significance (Who am I?), the question of evil (Why is there so much suffering? If things are not the way they’re supposed to be, why not?), the question of salvation (What is the problem, and how is it resolved?), the question of telos (Why am I here? What does the future hold?). – D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, 95,96.

Culture provides a thought system by which a group’s members adapt to each other and to their environment. To denote this, anthropologist use the phrase world view. Philosophers use world view differently. In philosophy, it means an all-inclusive system of thought. A world view is metaphysical; it addresses subjects like the nature and existence of God and the world, the purpose and destiny of human life, and the nature of values and good. In anthropology, all this counts as part of a culture’s world view (so the two uses overlap somewhat). But world view also includes a culture’s preferred modes of thinking, artistic expression, and personal relating, including its views of space and time. – David K. Clark, Dialogical Apologetics: A Person-Centered Approach to Christian Defense, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993, 184.

A world view is a way of viewing or interpreting all of reality. It is an interpretive framework through which or by which one makes sense out of the data of life and the world. – Geisler and Watkins, Worlds Apart: A Handbook on World Views, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989, 11.

The human need for a world view, then, is fourfold: the need to unify thought and life; the need to define the good life and find hope and meaning in life; the need to guide thought; the need to guide action. – Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a World View, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, 5.

Worldview is the culturally determined set of filters through which we perceive and experience reality. – Long and McMurry, The Collapse of the Brass Heaven: Rebuilding Our Worldview to Embrace the Power of God, Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 1994, 26.

… a worldview functions as a set of habits, forming background beliefs that direct our acts of noticing or failing to notice various features of reality. … Habit-forming beliefs do not stand between a person and reality as do glasses. Rather, they habitualize ways of seeing and thinking, which, through effort, can be changed or retained, on the basis of comparing them with reality itself. – J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, 34.

Any theory or definition of “worldview” is itself a function of the actual worldview of the theorist or the definer. … a worldview is a semiotic system of narrative signs that has a significant influence on the fundamental human activities of reasoning, interpreting, and knowing. – David K. Naugle, Worldview: the History of a Concept, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, 253.

In its simplest terms, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life. … A worldview, then is a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality. – Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, 16.

A worldview (or vision of life) is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world and our calling and future in it. this vision need not be fully articulated: it may be so internalized that it goes largely unquestioned; it may not be explicitly developed into a systematic conception of life; it may not be theoretically deepened into a philosophy; it may not even be codified into credal form; it may be greatly refined through cultural-historical development. Nevertheless, this vision is a channel for the ultimate beliefs which give direction and meaning to life. It is the integrative and interpretive framework by which order and disorder are judged; it is the standard by which reality is managed and pursued; it is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns. – James H. Olthuis quoted in James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 5th. Ed., Downers Grove: IVP, 2009, 18.

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. – James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 5th. Ed., Downers Grove: IVP, 2009, 20.

From Anthropology/Missiology/Literature/Psychology:

… a Weltanschauung [worldview] is an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of a single hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no questions unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds a fixed place. It will be easily understood that the possession of a Weltanschauung of this kind is among the ideal wishes of human beings. Believing in it one can feel secure in life, one can know what to strive for, and how one can deal most expediently with one’s emotions and interests. – Sigmund Freud, quoted in Stevens and Musial, Reading, Discussion and Writing about the Great Books, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970, 117.

The framework of beliefs, expressive symbols, and values in terms of which individuals define their world, express their feelings, and make judgments. – Clifford Geertz quoted in Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000, 136.

A worldview is the way people see or perceive the world, the way they know it to be. What people see is in part what is there. It is partly what we are. But these combine to form one reality, one worldview. – David Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids: 1991, 197.

We will, however, define the concept [worldview] as we use it in this study as the ‘fundamental cognitive, affective, and evaluative presuppositions a group of people make about the nature of things, and which they use to order their lives.’ Worldviews are what people in a community take as given realities, the maps they have of reality that they use for living. – Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008, 15.

Worldviews are the most encompassing frameworks of thought that relate belief systems to one another. They clothe these beliefs systems with an aura of certainty that this is, in fact, the way reality is. They are the fundamental givens with which people in a community think, not what they think about. – Hiebert, Shaw, and Tienou, Understanding Folk Religions, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999, 40.

The world view of a people is their way of looking at reality. It consists of basic assumptions and images that provide a more or less coherent, though not necessarily accurate, way of thinking about the world. A world view comprises images of Self and of all that is recognized as non-Self, plus ideas about relationships between them, as well as other ideas we will discuss. – Michael Kearney, World View, Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp Publishers, 1984, 41.

Cultures pattern perceptions of reality into conceptualizations of what reality can or should be, what is to be regarded as actual, probable, possible or impossible. these conceptualizations form what is termed the “worldview” of culture. The worldview is the central systemization of conceptions of reality to which the members of its culture assent (largely unconsciously) and from which stems their value system. The worldview lies at the heart of the culture, touching, interacting with, and strongly influencing every aspect of the culture. … The position (model) here espoused sees the worldview of a culture or subculture as the “central control box” of that culture. – Charles Kraft, Christianity in Culture, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979, 53.

Worldview is a fundamental commitment of the whole being to a culturally-formed grand story along with its set of primarily tacit assumptions about reality – by which one interprets and interacts with all of life. – Michael Matthews, A Novel Approach: The Significance of Story in Interpreting and Communicating Reality, Tellwell, 2017, 167. (Italics original)

The culture of a people is, then, its total equipment of ideas and institutions and conventionalized activities. The ethos of a people is its organized conceptions of the ought. The national character of a people, or its personality type, is the kind of human being which, generally speaking, occurs in that society. The “worldview” of a people, yet another of this group of conceptions, is the way a people characteristically look outward upon the universe. If “Culture” suggests the way a people look to an anthropologist, “worldview” suggests how everything looks to a people, … But if there is an emphasized meaning in the phrase “worldview” I think it is the suggestion it carries of the structure of the things as man is aware of them. It is the way we see ourselves in relation to all else. – Robert Redfield, The Primitive World and Its Transformation, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958, 85,86.

In kernel form, these definitions assert that a world view is both an ideology (a set of ideas) and a mythology (a set of images, stories, symbols, and heroes). It also includes such nonverbal qualities as emotion and attitudes. – Leland Ryken, Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000, 136.

… a worldview consists of a central concept (one of the basic human concerns), which is given the role of defining and ordering all other human concerns. This worldview, or any other, is capable of infinite variation at the level of particular detail. – Stevens and Musial, Reading, Discussing and Writing about The Great Books, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970, 117.

What is worldview? It is the story-based grid through which one “sees” and interprets all aspects of life. Worldview is inseparately linked to symbol and story. It is a present tense grid, synchronic, or at a point in time. Metanarrative, on the other hand, is diachronic, or a big picture story that develops, unfolds, and spans across time. The grid of worldview is not only story-based, but it also contains integrated components. – Robert Strauss, Introducing Story-Strategic Methods, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017, 44.

Now it is your turn.  After reflecting on these definitions/descriptions of worldview from various disciplines, write out your own understanding of worldview.


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