[This is an excerpt from Understanding Spirituality and World Faith Expressions, 2nd ed., The Chaplain Skill Set Series, Volume 2 (2019).]
What is a Worldview?
In essence, a worldview is an individual’s ideology which is formed by a variety of cultural, spiritual, religious and intellectual perspectives…Like the broad, complex concept of spirituality, defining the concept of worldviews can be equally challenging. In Understanding the Times, Jeff Meyers and David Noebel present one definition from a monotheistic perspective. They define a worldview as,
a pattern of ideas but also a pattern of beliefs, convictions, and habits that help us make sense of God, the world, and our relationship to God in the world (Meyers & Noebel, 2015).
Scholars of worldview and philosophy state that the answers to a few key ultimate life questions create an individual’s worldview. These answers may be succinctly expressed verbally, but more often than not, the answers are observed as one makes daily decisions of life. These ultimate questions circle around questions of origin and existence (ontological), how do we know things as right or wrong (epistemology), what gives us value and worth (axiological), and what is our purpose, where ae we going (teleological)? Each faith tradition, philosophy or religion attempts to explain what the world is like and how one should live.
The significance of worldview applies not only to nations and civilizations, but also to every single human being. “Each person either consciously raises and answers these questions for himself o herself or allows, if only be default, someone else to answer them for him or her” (Martin, p. 25). European history professor Glenn Sunshine gives a succinct description to how he defines a worldview is in his text, Portals (2012). Sunshine states,
Your worldview is how you see the world and your place in it. It is the operating system your mind uses to makes sense of the world, the mental eyeglasses you use to bring the world around you into clear mental focus…It is impossible to live in or interact with the world without one, since your worldview determines what you think about what is possible, what is true, what is rights, what is wrong, what “makes sense,” even what is real. In other words, your worldview set the boundaries of the world you live in.
Sunshine’s perspective of worldview is that an individual’s worldview,
Includes answers to the basic philosophical questions of what is real (metaphysics), what is true (epistemology), and right and wrong (ethics), along with “higher level” questions about human origins, the meaning of life, etc. James Sire has a different but overlapping set of questions in The Universe Next Door (InterVarsity Press, 4th ed., 2004). Ravi Zacharias summarizes worldviews under four headings: origins, meaning, morality, and destiny (This We Believe, Zondervan, 2000).
Sunshine writes that when all is said and done,
The worldview must answer four fundamental questions: where did I come from? What is wrong with the world? Is there a solution? What is my purpose? These correspond to the basic Christian themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, through their implications go well beyond the usual theological discussions of these topics.
Three Main Worldviews
Worldview and culture experts place an individual’s view of God or ultimate reality into several general categories based upon whether ultimate reality is knowable or not (Phillips, pp. 22-23). There are many variations of worldviews, but the most basic categories are naturalism, transcendentalism, and theism. In brief,
Naturalism includes those worldviews that suggest ultimate reality is limited to the physical matter of the universe; transcendentalism includes those that see ultimate reality as being only spiritual or physic (mental energy); and theism refers to those worldviews that posit a personal God as ultimate reality who created the material and spiritual universe (Phillips, p. 22).
Discerning a Worldview
Professor and European historian Glenn Sunshine has written several texts regarding worldview and world faiths. I highly recommend his texts for chaplains who desire to study deeper on this topic. Possessing this mental framework can only improve informal but intentional chaplain conversations with others regarding their spirituality and faith belief perspectives.
Instead of the three primary worldviews as presented above, Sunshine expands upon these three to include several more variations. In his text, Portals: Entering Your Neighbor’s World, Sunshine divides his worldview discussion into seven categories: historic Christianity, secular naturalism, postmodernism, Islam, Eastern religions, new age movement, and the Gaian worldview (Sunshine, 2012).
But how does a spiritual care provider discern which worldview an individual may possess? In Sunshine’s text, he evaluates worldviews by the answers to four fundamental questions of life: (1) Where did I come from?, (2) What is wrong with the world?, (3) Is there a solution?, and (4) What is my purpose?
James Sire relates in his text, The Universe Next Door, that each worldview can be expressed in propositions to seven basic questions:
1. What is prime reality?
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
3. What is a human being?
4. What happens to a person at death?
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history? (Sire, pp. 22-23).
There are many other philosophers who pose various questions of life, but these listed by Sunshine and Sire are at the core and useful for chaplains to consider personally as well as during their conversations. I will use Sunshine’s four questions in evaluating the world faith beliefs covered in this text.
Phillips, Brown, and Stonestreet assert that each individual’s worldview must try to answer the ultimate questions of life. These questions are placed in the following categories:
Origins of life
Why am I alive?
What is the cause of my existence?
Why are humans here?
Are humans different or superior to other life? Why?
Who am I?
What is humanity?
What does it mean to be human?
How do I fit in with the world?
Meaning and purpose
Why am I here?
Why should man be concerned with education, social justice issues, stewardship of earth resources, family values, etc.?
Is there a right or wrong?
How am I supposed to live and behave?
If there is a moral code, what is it based upon?
Should morality be absolute or relative?
What happens when I die?
What really is my spirit or soul? Is there life after death?
If so, what happens after death and what determines what happens?
As you reflect upon these ultimate questions of life, what is your worldview?
Martin, Glenn R., Prevailing Worldviews of Western Society Since 1500. Marion, Indiana: Triangle Publishing, 2006.
Myers, Jeff., and David A. Noebel. Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews. Manitou Springs: Summit Ministries, 2015.
Phillips, W. Gary, William E. Brown, and John Stonestreet. Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing, 2008.
Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. Fifth ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
Sunshine, Glenn. Portals: Entering Your Neighbor’s World. Newington, CT: Every Square Inch Publishing, 2012.