What is a "worldview"?
A worldview is the perspective from which I look at all the areas that make up my life and make decisions about them. A worldview is made up of all the things that I assume are true, and which seem to me to be common sense. Every person accepts certain beliefs which they cannot prove, and these beliefs will color and shape the way that s/he views everything else in life.
These core beliefs which influence how I see everything else deal with what I think is real, what I believe is the pupose of life, and how I gain knowledge about truth. One of the most common ways that people have approached comparing worldviews is to subject each one to the same set of questions, such as "Is there a God?", "What is the chief purpose of man?", etc.
David Naugle in his book Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), after tracing how the concept of "worldview" developed and was used through the last several centuries, convincingly argues that the way a person defines the idea of a "worldview" depends ... on that person's worldview! If that is the case, then the very questions which any person believes are the most important questions of life hinge on underlying assumptions unique to his or her worldview.
So how can we escape this circular way of thiking? Is there any way of approaching this concept withiout being guilty of a particular bias?
How Do We Study Worldviews?
Many scholars and thinkers from a wide variety of disciplines have come to recognize that the human brain actually processes life most fundamentally through the stories we believe to be true. These include not only philosophers, but also neuroscientists, theologians, ethicists, historians, psychotherapists, political scientists, communications theorists, etc. In light of this, it may be both helpful and appropriate to think of worldviews are various narratives, i.e. "world-stories."
There are certain kinds of questions that have been recognized across all cultures and time periods as the most beneficial in studying narratives. These are the kinds of questions most of us were taught in our literature classes in school. By asking these standard, literarily-based questions, I believe that it is possible to minimize the prejudice so common in most "worldview" texts. Here are six basic questions relating to world-stories.
Six Questions for Comparing World-stories
1. How does the story start?
Every world-story offers some explanation of our origins. How did the universe come into being? Where do human beings come from? Present-day battles rage over evolution through random chance versus creation by intelligent causation as the best, most plausible explanation. But this is not just a fight between ivory-tower theorists. It amounts to who gets to start the story. Because the one who has "control" over the beginning of the story will certainly have the upper hand when it comes to all the subsequent questions ... and answers!
2. What's the conflict ... the big problem to be solved? And how can it be fixed?
Every story has some element of conflict. Something goes wrong, and the story progresses as the nature and intensity of the problem worsens. As it reaches a climax, either a breakthrough moment occurs that alters the entire situation so that it turns out for the good (a "comedy") or the problem is recognized as insuperable, and the failure is complete (a "tragedy").
Identifying the big problem is virtually the same thing, then, as defining the world-story. What is wrong and how to fix it are the building blocks for how we seek to understand the world in which we live.
3. Who are the main characters?
Just as every narrative must have characters, so every world-story has to account for several characters.
Is there a god? If so, how do you describe god?
Even if one chooses to believe that no divine entities exist whatsoever (atheism), or that it is impossible to know for certain (agnosticism), it is nevertheless unavoidable that every world-story must give an answer to this question. Other alternatives include pantheism (everything is god), panentheism (god is in everything), monotheism (there is only one god, who is separate from the world), and polytheism (belief in more than one god). Notice that all of them are some form of "theism," even if in denial.
What is a human being?
What is the essence of humanity? Other than physical features, are we fundamentally the same or different from the rest of animal life? Do human beings have a special or distinct role within the world?
What is our relationship to the world around us?
What is the nature of nature itself? Is it merely the "setting" for the world-story, or does it have an active part as a character within the storyline itself? Is our global biosphere a "player" in the world-story we tell ourselves? For example, we may see ourselves in opposition to our environment in the fight for survival, or as caretakers of a divine gift, or we may strive to exist in harmonious co-dependency with nature, or revere it as an object of worship, or we may explain it in strictly geo-mechanical physics, or we may see ourselves as thoughtfully (or carelessly) strategic consumers of its resources, or views ourselves as partners together with nature in a never-ending dance of life, etc. The storyline of the movie Avatar revolves around the conflict between two people's differing views regarding how to relate to the planet they uneasily co-habit with one another.
4. What am I supposed to do?
All the best stories teach us about life; they give us insight into how we also ought to live. World-stories create a sense of ought-ness, obligation, and responsibility. In philosophy, we refer to this sense of purpose, meaning, value, and ought-ness under the headings of "axiology" and "ethics." But these values are not merely abstract propositions. We learn them first and foremost from the stories that define them for us.
5. Where can I learn about the story?
What are the legitimate sources of the story that I choose? For some, the only acceptable source of truth might be scientific study of the natural (material) world. But this is only one option (and ironically, one does not arrive at this criterion for truth by scientific study of the material world!). Others may seek out truth in a wide variety of alternative or additional sources--intuition, divine revelation, alternative consciousness--in an even wider variety of means: dreams, spirit guides, meditation, scriptures, human spiritual authorities, rules of logic, crystals, "signs" in nature or circumstances, and many others.
6. How does the story end?
Every narrative has an ending, whether a good one or a bad one. And every western world-story anticipates some kind of conclusion in which humanity finally succeeds in overcoming the "big problem" (utopia), or it ultimately fails in this quest (dystopia). The world-story must provide some kind of anticipated narrative resolution (denouement), for both the individual (i.e. What happens when I die?) as well as what we believe will eventually happen to society, the world, and the cosmos. Where are we heading, and is the world moving toward any ultimate goal or destiny (telos)? And is this ending inevitable (determinism) or open-ended, dependent upon the free choices that we or some other being make(s)?
These questions hopefully will not only provide a useful point of reference for comparing and contrasting world-stories, but because they emerage from the study of narrative itself, should be less skewed in favor of one particular slant. As this website continues to be developed, the goal will be for these questions to provide the framework for each of the world-stories that are presented here.
For a good annotated bibliography surveying books written on worldviews from a Christian Theistic perspective, see this link.