Do you know why you believe what you believe? It sounds like an odd question on the surface, but it actually goes to the heart of a book by Dr. James N. Anderson, What's Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life's Big Questions. Anderson, a theology and philosophy professor and ordained minister, has created an unusual and engaging way for his readers to determine how they view the world, and you don't even have to read the whole book to figure it out.
Why is determining your worldview important? Well, it's really up to you to decide whether or not it's important to you, but let me offer the thought that defining your worldview is essential to establishing a foundation for everything else you believe. The answer to the question, "How do you view the world?" is like a filter through which you can analyze, ponder and answer every question that life throws at you. And who wouldn't want that?
Let me share an opinion with you when it comes to the beliefs we hold and espouse. I think that many of us, maybe even most of us, carry beliefs like heirlooms passed down to us by our families or tribes, and we hold fast to them because we trust the people or communities that gave them to us. It takes a significant event in one's life, or an uncommon humility, to shake loose those beliefs and force us to examine them more closely under the harsh light of contrary evidence or experience.
That happened to me more than three decades ago, when I left home for college and encountered a cognitive dissonance between the values with which my family raised me and their political allegiances, which I willingly adopted simply because I trusted them. Confronted with this dissonance, I asked them to explain it to me, yet even their explanation didn't align with what I was observing.
American social psychologist Leon Festinger, who advanced the theory of cognitive dissonance, postulated that when we encounter dissonance, we seek to reduce it in one of four ways:
- We change the behavior or cognition.
- We justify the behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition.
- We justify the behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions.
- We ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs.
As I wrote in my memoir, "The cognitive dissonance between what I previously believed and what I observed with my own eyes was too great for me not to change." Not everyone makes that decision, however. Many others are unwilling to let go of long-held, cherished beliefs, and they will perform the mental gymnastics necessary to keep those beliefs close, and competing beliefs, and those who champion them, at bay.
Even with my willingness to turn away from the political identity bestowed on me by my family, in retrospect, I lacked a firm foundation for my beliefs and was merely exchanging one set of heirlooms for another. I became adept at parroting positions and rationales that validated my beliefs, and while arguments for contrary positions didn't resonate with me, I couldn't tell you why. I simply accepted the fact that my changed beliefs were more in harmony with my personal experiences and emotions, and I was content with that.
It wasn't until our church small group in Maryland began a study called The Truth Project that I realized that there was a way to determine the foundation of my beliefs. That study introduced me to the concept of worldview, originally a German philosophical construct but one which increasingly became central to religion, culture, and politics. The Truth Project changed my life, and I began reading as much as I could about worldview, believing that it was truly the starting point not only for determining what I believed, but ascertaining the beliefs of others as well.
In simplest terms, a worldview is a set of assumptions about the nature of things, and those assumptions allow us to make sense of and interact with the world around us. I've read and studied enough about worldview to conclude that I hold a Christian worldview, sometimes referred to as a biblical worldview.
Hold on a minute, you might be thinking; I hold a Christian worldview, and I'm sure we don't believe the same things.
To that, I would say that, first of all, the Christian worldview has ample room for differences of opinion on matters of practice. The second thing I would say is, are you sure your worldview is Christian? I thought mine was until I read this book, and just one belief took me from a Christian worldview to one I'd never heard of before. Once I went back and examined that belief, I understood why it didn't align with a Christian worldview, and I changed my belief accordingly.
That is what makes Dr. Anderson's book perhaps one of the best I've ever read on the subject, and the amazing thing about it is that you don't have to read the whole book unless your intellectual curiosity compels you to do so. It's an interactive book, meaning that how much of it you read depends on your responses to the questions in the book. I was able to finish the book in 45 minutes because of where my answers led me. Each question is explained on one page, the answer to each question is either "yes" or "no", and the book explains the implications of your answer and directs you to the next question, which may or may not be on the next page depending on your answer. Eventually, you arrive at a worldview page, and there are 21 worldviews in the book, one of which is yours based on the answers you gave throughout.
The first question in the book is "Do you have the power to make free choices?", and it takes off from there. You will find questions about the nature of truth, matter, God and man, just to name a few. The last question that was posed to me, and the one that tripped me up, was "Do good people go to heaven and bad people to hell?" I won't tell you why my initial answer knocked me out of the Christian worldview camp and into something called Pelagianism, named after a 5th century monk in Rome! Once I read the description of that worldview and why it is at odds with the Bible, I realized that I had responded more from a worldly perspective than a biblical one, and so I went back – you can go back and reexamine any question you previously answered – and read the question and accompanying explanation more carefully. Once I understood it better, I changed my answer, and I landed on the final worldview page I expected.
There is an appendix after the worldview pages with questions and answers that will help you figure out what to do now that you know what your worldview is, but the key outcome of this interactive exercise is that you now have a standard of measure against which to hold every belief. As I indicated previously, that doesn't mean a Christian worldview obligates you to translate your beliefs into actions in exactly the same way as another Christian. There are matters of temperament, spiritual gifts, and other factors which can take two Christians who share the same worldview down different paths. Their motivations, however, are the same, and that realization could lead to greater understanding and dialogue, and less demonizing and dehumanization – if we are humble and teachable enough to let it guide us.