Worldview and the Coronavirus
Since this blog is still in its infancy, I want to make sure to cover some foundational content related to apologetics. In the second part of my story, I talked about how discovering Christian apologetics restored and transformed my faith. It transformed my faith in that, for the first time, I saw Christianity as made up of certain claims (i.e., that God exists; that God raised Jesus from the dead; etc.), which are either objectively true or objectively false. Claims need to be supported in order for us to be said to be rational in believing those claims. Because of this, I began to see the defense of the Christian faith as the defense of certain claims at the heart of Christian theism.
Beliefs such as those at the heart of the Christian faith (and other religions) as well as deeply held beliefs about human nature, the meaning and purpose of life, and other things form what is called a worldview. In this post, I will address two main questions:
What is a worldview?
Why is it important to think of our most foundational beliefs in terms of a worldview?
What is a worldview?
In the West, we don't tend to think of our most deeply held beliefs. Ask yourself, what do you believe about God? About human nature? About the meaning and purpose of life? About morality? About the soul? Where did the universe come from? These-and more-important and weighty questions don't tend to get a hearing in a culture where entertainment and celebrity culture dominate the public consciousness. In other words, the culture of the West tends to be quite superficial.
In my time during my undergraduate education, I found that it was often the case that even my fellow classmates, many of whom were philosophy majors, rarely, if ever, thought about questions like these. They were often thoughtful and intelligent individuals with strongly held moral and political beliefs, but they didn't often ask questions about why they held those beliefs. Think about it. You undoubtedly have some strongly held moral beliefs. For instance, seemingly everyone on social media has been sharing their heartbreak and outrage over the Netflix TV show, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. How is it that a sweet child could be physically abused by his own parents, to the point of death? But have you ever thought about why you believe that the abuse of a child is morally wrong? It could be, at least at face value, that there is nothing morally wrong about child abuse. After all, that claim, that it is morally wrong to abuse children, is a claim that could be either objectively true or objectively false. What beliefs underlie this moral belief? In other words, how do you know that child abuse is morally wrong?
People don't often think about this, but philosophers have thought about these questions for millenniums. Fundamentally, every person's beliefs are built around a worldview, which, as the word implies, structures one's view of the world. It is because of the presuppositions in one's worldview that one believes, for instance, that the murder of Gabriel Fernandez is a moral atrocity. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "worldview" as "a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint." The beliefs in one's worldview guides one's entire conception of life and the world.
Another way to put it is that a worldview is a comprehensive philosophy of life. It guides our understanding of God, people, the world, morality, and the human experience. Vastly different worldview beliefs manifest themselves in vastly different moral and political beliefs and the actions that express those beliefs. For instance, the worldview of the Nazi party during WWII included the claim that the Aryan race was superior to all other races of people. This fundamental belief, that one people group is superior to the other, manifests itself in a prejudice against all other races of people. Paired with a kind of social Darwinism and nationalism, Adolf Hitler thought that it would benefit the continuation of the Aryan race if other people groups, such as Jews, were exterminated. The Holocaust is the tragic result. In order to understand the Holocaust, one must look "below" it, so to speak, to the underlying beliefs that make up the worldview of the Nazi party.
In his article, "What is a Worldview?," for Ligonier Ministries, James Anderson puts this nicely when he discusses what he calls "cultural plate tectonics." Physical plate tectonics involves the movement of massive plates of the earth's crust. When those plates collide or rub against one another at fault lines, the result is an earthquake. In other words, earthquakes, which cause massive destruction on the surface of the earth, are the result of causal forces miles under the earth's surface. In the same way, conflicts in the culture are often the result of competing worldviews colliding with each other.
Where can we see some of these collisions in American culture? To answer this, we must look at the hot-button social issues of the day. Abortion, for instance, involves massive differences in underlying worldviews. As does religious liberty. The debate over issues such as LBGTQ rights and transgenderism comes to mind. But in order to understand these collisions, we shouldn't just look at the surface. We must go deeper.
So a worldview is a comprehensive philosophy of life or view of the world. What are some examples of worldviews? In the same article, Anderson highlights a few worldviews. I will add some of my own and use his list, partially:
I won't define all of these here. This is just a short list of examples of worldviews. From these underlying beliefs, we see differences manifesting themselves in differing beliefs on the surface.
Why is it important to think of our most foundational beliefs in terms of a worldview?
I want to highlight three things about a worldview that we should keep in mind as we begin to think in these terms:
Every worldview is composed of truth claims.
Every worldview has certain logical consequences.
Every worldview includes a certain interpretation of, and way of coping with, human experience.
First, every worldview is composed of truth claims. In the second part of my story, I shared that as I began to doubt my faith and then do research to compare the evidence for and against Christianity and theism, I realized that the beliefs at the heart of the Christian faith are claims, which are either objectively true or objectively false. This is true not just of the Christian worldview, but also of every worldview.
Let's compare two worldviews to see this in action. Consider Christianity and atheism. The Christian believes that God exists and raised Jesus from the dead in history about 2,000 years ago. The atheist doesn't believe that God exists. Because of this belief, the idea that God could have miraculously raised Jesus from the dead is preposterous. If Jesus was raised, it must have been via some natural process, about which we know nothing, which is very unlikely. As you can see, Christianity and atheism conflict at the deepest level. In fact, they could not both be true. When we understand that worldviews are composed of truth claims, then we can see that the claim, God exists, is either true or false. Therefore, with respect to the existence of God, either the Christian is right, or the atheist is right. They cannot both be right.
Let's apply this to apologetics. You are having a conversation with a friend of yours, and you begin to discuss religion. You share that you are a Christian, and your friend says, "Oh, well I am an atheist. I don't believe that there is a God." As Christians, we often feel a pressure at this point to defend ourselves. After all, you want your friend to believe in God, and the God revealed in Jesus Christ, at that! But if you understand that worldviews are made up of truth claims, then you notice that your friend has just made a claim. He has just said that he believes that the claim, God doesn't exist, is true. Why believe a thing like that? So you could just ask, "Oh, why is that?" And just listen. Maybe you'll hear an argument against God's existence. Maybe your friend's reason is more experiential. Maybe your friend just wasn't raised in a religious household and eventually came to the conclusion that God doesn't exist. By understanding that both worldviews are made up of truth claims, you can gently challenge your friend to defend his or her claims, instead of putting all of the pressure on yourself.
Of course, if your friend then asks, "Why do you believe in God?," then it's your turn to "make a defense for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15), and you need to be prepared to defend the claim that God exists. We will get there later.
Second, every worldview has logical consequences. In my experience, this is the most difficult thing for people to grasp. I remember being in a Philosophy class on existentialism. Existentialism came to prominence in the early to mid-20th century with the work of European philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Existentialism can be summed up as a philosophy of human existence, of being in the world. According to the philosophers mentioned above, life must be coped with as absurd, since we are meaning-driven beings in a meaningless universe. How, then, can we live with ourselves in a world like this? If it sounds bleak, it's because it is. For Albert Camus, for instance, the first question, in light of the inherent meaningless and purposelessness of life, is, Why not commit suicide? It's the same as living in the end.
How could these people have such a bleak outlook on life? And where did they get the idea that life was meaningless, purposeless, and valueless? Simple. They were all atheists. And they believed, consistently with their conviction that God does not exist, that there can therefore be no objective foundation for meaning, purpose, and value. They saw the logical consequences of their worldview.
In this class on existentialism, however, it was difficult for me to get people to see that the fact that these philosophers were atheists necessarily led them to these conclusions. My classmates seemed to think that, if you were an atheist, you could just choose to live a life of meaning, as if that made any difference as to whether life had any objective significance. Atheism has no objective consequences to them. These atheists, the existentialist philosophers, were just the sad ones. My classmates were failing to see how one's worldview has objective consequences, which follow logically.
Why is it important to understand that every worldview has logical consequences? I'll make two points here. First, it will help you to look at your own worldview and work out its logical consequences. If you are a Christian, then what follows from God's self-sacrificial love toward sinful humanity? If you are an atheist, then what follows concerning the significance of human life on earth? Second, it will help you to see clearly that how people live follows from their worldview. This means that people live in two ways concerning their worldview: consistently or inconsistently. I'm speaking in terms of logic here. Jesus teaches the same when He teaches His disciples, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15 NASB). The claim to love Jesus is inconsistent with a life that isn't surrendered to Him in action.
When we see people's surface beliefs and actions, we should be thinking in terms of worldview. This is where the connection between one's deepest-held beliefs and the way one generally thinks and acts is made. It is essential to your defense of the faith that you start to see this connection.
Third, every worldview includes a certain interpretation of, and way of coping with, human experience. This closely resembles the second point but speaks to a different reality concerning worldviews. Whereas the second point is primarily about beliefs, the third is primarily about experience.
The ways in which this plays out in a person's life can be difficult to discern, so why not look at something that everyone can relate to right now? The coronavirus pandemic has changed daily life for the foreseeable future. Millions of people all around the globe are working from home. As of the writing of this post, there are just shy of a million cases worldwide. The U.S. has just topped 200,000 cases. The White House is currently projecting anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 deaths as a best case scenario. Meanwhile, the shutdown of the global economy has left people without jobs and hurting financially. Overwhelmed hospitals are leaving everyone, from the sick to the healthcare workers, vulnerable. Large buildings in Italy and Spain are being converted into makeshift morgues. All the while, families aren't able to visit their dying relatives in their last moments.
The events of the world are looking grim, to say the least. How do we make sense of something like this? All around the world, there is suffering, and in many places, suffering beyond comprehension. How do we cope with a crisis like this? Often, worldviews are tested in the fire of suffering. Does the worldview give someone a firm foundation on which to stand in the face of suffering?
Again, Jesus makes this point in Matthew 7:24-27 (NASB):
"'Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.'"
What an incredible claim. Here, Jesus is saying that if one not only believes but acts on His teachings, one's faith is resilient. Even in the face of suffering, one can still stand because the foundation is strong and secure. Are all foundations secure? According to Jesus, the answer is no.
The sad fact in this crisis is that, along with the loss of lives, people will be mentally and emotionally scarred. Dr. Paul Gould, in his book Cultural Apologetics, describes our culture (meaning Western culture in general) as disenchanted, sensate, and hedonistic (27). We see the world and life as mundane and ordinary; we make decisions based primarily off of feelings and not a well-reasoned conviction of the truth; and we live for pleasure. If this general diagnosis of the culture is true, and I think that it is, then what does this say about how people in Western culture will generally live through and experience the coronavirus? Ultimately, if his diagnosis is true, then there is no overarching narrative (what is called a meta-narrative) by which most people can understand and contextualize the widespread suffering in the world. It seems senseless and pointless. Furthermore, it feels awful. In a culture focused on feeling above reason and truth, how will people cope when their dominant emotion isn't a positive one? What happens when we feel despair, angst, and anguish? Do we have the resources in our worldview to cope with those feelings? Or are we not thinking in those terms at all? Finally, our pleasure in the world is being restricted. When we live for pleasure as our telos or goal, how can we cope when our telos is revealed to be ultimately short-lived and cruelly unattainable?
Unfortunately, I don't think that the worldview of the culture, the secularism that we've seen on the rise in the last two centuries or so in the West, has the resources to cope with the coronavirus. Without God at the center of our minds and hearts, ruling over His creation and guiding history toward His desired ends, there is no hope. Why prefer the vitality of a virus over the life of a loved one? Sure, you prefer one over the other, but the universe doesn't care. If it is true that we are the product of no designer with no ends in mind for our existence, then we get to define ourselves. Many in our culture think of this as freedom. But when catastrophe strikes, tugging on our bootstraps can only get us so far. We won't defeat death. Our nonexistence is merely a matter of time, and the coronavirus shortens it for some. Maybe you will be lucky.
Can you see now why the worldview of an individual includes an interpretation and way to cope with human existence? For most in our culture, the coronavirus is the storm knocking the foundation from under their feet. Jesus tells us that that foundation was always sand to begin with.
My hope, my fervent prayer, is that people will realize that their foundation is sand and turn to the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ and that the coronavirus will be the catalyst for that realization. Just compare the secularism of the West with the Christian worldview. In the Christian worldview, God has created us in His own image and, as a result, all human beings are dignified. All of us have inherent moral value. Furthermore, because life is God's good creation, the loss of life is tragic. The Christian worldview objectively grounds the grief we feel at the loss of a loved one. Think about that. If life has no value, your crying over the death of a loved one is little more than the expression of preference for that organism of that species. There's nothing objectively wrong with death. But if the Christian worldview is true, then grief is the expression of a deep and real tragedy of human existence, something which is in itself an assault on God's good creation at the deepest level.
And here's the turnaround: God has determined, from before the creation of the world, that He will put it right. If the Christian worldview is true, then the coronavirus will only last a short time. We were created as immortal beings. We will live forever when Jesus returns on the judgment day, either in His wondrous presence or away from His presence. Christians can have hope in the midst of suffering. On the secular worldview, the coronavirus is random; the best that we can do is try to stave off its destruction and hope that another, worse virus doesn't come behind it. On the Christian worldview, God is sovereign. As difficult as it is to understand, God has some purpose in allowing this to happen, and we can lean on what we know: that He is good.
The resources of the secular worldview lead to despair. The resources of the Christian worldview lead to hope and joy.
Those words may be difficult. Am I hitting a nerve in you, pointing to something true in your experience? Here is my claim, which will form one of the most important themes of this blog: the Christian worldview is the best worldview in establishing a life of flourishing. When we look at the truth claims of Christianity, take those claims to their logical consequences, and examine how one lives in light of that worldview, I contend that we will see a life lived better than any other life. That's easy to explain. It's the life for which God created us.
If you are a Christian, then I encourage you to examine yourself, as Paul tells the Corinthians to do (2 Corinthians 13:5). Have you worked out the truth claims, logical consequences, and way of life of a Christian? Have you compared your way of life to that life? If not, pray that God will show you in the Scriptures what you should believe and how you should think and live as a Christ-follower, especially in this crisis. If you aren't a Christian, then I encourage you to examine your own worldview and how you view the coronavirus crisis. Are you on solid ground or sand? I understand that I haven't yet established the truth of the Christian worldview from how one copes with life in it, but perhaps now you'll start considering it. Is it possible that the Christian worldview presents us with the best way to live a life of flourishing because it's the way God created us to live? Reflect on that question this week.
In the next post, I'll begin my first series of posts. Apologetics requires us to defend the Christian faith, but in order to defend it, we must know what the Christian worldview is. That will be the topic of the next series of posts, as we discuss what central claims make up the Christian worldview.
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Anderson, James. "What is a Worldview?." Ligonier Ministries. Ligonier Ministries, 21 June 2017. https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-worldview/.
Gould, Paul. Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World. Michigan: Zondervan, 2019.