In contemporary Western society, it is understood that people are not expected to comply to one way of thinking. “The presence of a multitude of alternative worldviews is a defining characteristic of contemporary culture”, states theologian David Naugle in the Preface to his Worldview: The History of a Concept.[i] In the same book Naugle also explains that the values of Enlightenment – such as faith in reason and objectivity –[ii] compelled human beings to put themselves in charge of setting their own rules, which he believes resulted in “heteroglossolalia”,[iii] meaning in a condition for which humans communicate in different tongues. He then concludes by stating that “the postmodern public square is cognitively dissonant and morally cacophonous, bordering on chaos”.[v] For those who may believe in absolute Truth, a postmodern worldview is disconcerting.
Postmodernism shook the foundations of all previous beliefs: if, as postmodernists maintain, origins are cultural constructs created through the self-referential power of narratives and discourses, then on which grounds can truth stand – if on any?
Dealing with the idea that everything is true and false at the same time, depending on the perspective, can be very destabilising. How can one act fairly in such scenario? Is there still a difference between victims and perpetrators of violence, or does postmodernism allocate to everyone the same level of responsibility? Is there any solid intellectual ground upon which we can firmly and safely base our search for truth?
While I can’t fully engage with all of these questions in this brief article, I will instead compare Christian and postmodern understanding of worldview. More specifically, I will discuss these respective positions with reference to the existence of an original source of truth. To do so, I will start by engaging with definitions of worldview from theologians and postmodern writers. I will then outline the content of both Christian and postmodern worldviews with reference to ideas of origin and truth, and articulate how the different positioning in respect to the former (worldview), affects the seeking of the latter (truth).
What is a Worldview?
The term ‘worldview’ – ‘Weltsnschauung’ in German – was coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant. It refers to the perception of the phenomenon, namely of the way in which things manifest themselves, as opposed to the knowledge of the noumenon, meaning of the way in which things are objectively, which for Kant is not directly observable by human beings.[ix]
The concept of worldview has since advanced from the time of Kant. Another author, Sire, describes worldview as “the fundamental perspective from which one addresses every issue of life”.[x] For Nagule, a worldview is “a person’s set of presuppositions and assumptions about the basic make up of the universe”, and “a human being’s foundational system of beliefs”.[xi] A worldview therefore corresponds to the framework of principles and values through which individuals interpret the world.
Philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein rejected the concept of worldview on the basis that the ultimate reality can’t be grasped.[xvii] For him, knowledge can only be relative, as it refers to the linguistic model (language game) that every individual uses to interpret the world.[xviii]
Orr, a Christian writer, alternatively proposes that there is only one set of laws that regulates the universe.[xxi] His view is that the concept of worldview could then assist in validating “Christianity in its entirety as a coherent system”.[xxii] Theologian Kuyper had similar concerns: Christianity could benefit from the concept of worldview because it would allow Christian thought to be “articulated in terms of a comprehensive vision of reality”.[xxiii] Importantly, thought needs to have an origin, a common place of departure.[xxiv]
It is then evident that these particular Christian authors were focused on notions of unity, coherence and originality in their engagement with worldview, whilst postmodern authors mentioned here focus on ideas of relativity and on the way linguistic discourses incorporate agenda, bias, and power over others.
In his essay ‘Worldview. History, Theology, Implications’, theologian David Naugle states that:
Worldview in a Christian perspective affirms the existence of the Trinitarian God whose essential character of love and justice establishes the moral order of the universe and whose word, wisdom and law define and govern all aspects of created existence.[xxvi]
Earlier in the same text Naugle declares that that he believes that objectivity is rooted in God, and that God “establishes the moral order of the universe”.[xxvii] As a person of faith, Naugle thus confirms that he believes that there is an absolute Truth, and that such Truth is to be found in the Word of God, namely in the Scriptures. Accordingly, for Christianity the Trinitarian God is the objective point of reference, the ultimate source, and the solid, unchangeable ground in which to root one’s perspective. Sire in this respect moreover clarifies that “part of the truth about truth is that truth is one”, thus highlighting that in his view truth and contradictions are mutually excluding opposites.[xxviii]
This said, the formation of a Christian worldview is not believed to be automatic or capable of being perfected. While God is the source of ultimate Truth, Christians do not claim to possess truth complete. Rather, they are compelled to continually “call into question unexamined assumptions about God, our world, and ourselves”.[xxix] This is because Christians also live in social contexts that affect and influence their perceptions. Theologian Daniel Migliore in this respect argues, “Christian faith asks questions, seeks understanding, both because God is always greater than our ideas of God, and because the public world that faith inhabits confronts it with challenges and contradictions that cannot be ignored.”[xxx]
Theology, the tool through which Christians seek understanding, is supposed to assist human beings in investigating the reality that they know and live, both in respect to God and their personal and communal existences. Such investigations find grounding in the belief that the Scriptures constitute the authoritative source of the knowledge of God, the point of reference to which we return when in doubt. However, theological engagement with scripture has to submit itself to self-inquiry with respect to its methods.
On the one hand a Christian worldview is grounded in the belief that the quest for knowledge has a stable origin, and that such origin is the Word of God, considered infallible and inerrant. On the other, however, it remains open to the possibility that such a quest is an ongoing process that might never come to a final conclusion. “Our theoretical investigations”, theologian Stott claims, “will never lead to a final Eureka!”.[xxxvi]
French Philosopher Foucault stated that, “Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint”.[xxxvii] In his view truth is “linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it”.[xxxviii] Following from this, it can be said that, in a postmodern worldview, each society has its own sets of ‘regimes’ or ‘general politics’ of truth: these correspond to the accepted discourses that are made to function as true. They for example consist in the culturally constructed instances according to which one discriminates between true and false statements, and at the same time in the means by which ‘untrue’ statements are sanctioned. More precisely, such ‘culturally accepted discourses’ supposedly become the techniques and procedures that get accorded value in the acquisition of truth, and that therefore self-referentially determine the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true (and false).
According to Foucault we are immersed in linguistic systems of power that create circumstantial truths that are upheld in the context of historical processes for the purpose of maintaining power relations unaltered. Foucault’s philosophy developed from Nietzsche’s formulation that our moral beliefs are contextual, and the result of a specific ‘genealogy of morality’:[xl] we believe what we believe because we inherited our views on moral values from history, and these links to our past can be undone. In a postmodern worldview that followed from such theorising, we should actually venture toward the (im)possible attempt to ‘deconstruct’ the narratives upon which our discursive beliefs are founded. Importantly, when describing what he meant by différance, one of the frameworks of postmodernist ‘deconstruction’, philosopher Jacques Derrida clarified that “there is nowhere to begin to trace the sheaf or the graphics of différance. For what is put into question is precisely the quest for a rightful beginning, an absolute point of departure, a principal responsibility [my Italics].[xlii]
Postmodernists not only argue that there is no ‘origin’,[xliii] they believe that supporting the existence of a specific origin corresponds to reifying a specific self-referential system of power. Postmodernists are interested in how the system of power works, and base their speculations on the idea that everything is discourse, meaning a historical development of itself that always, and inevitably, exceeds itself: language is always insufficient to explain a reality that can never completely be grasped, because the ways in which we look at it – our worldview – is the result of (the limitations imposed by) the narratives produced through the very same language that we use to describe it.
In a postmodern worldview, claims to an absolute Truth are therefore theoretically unstable, and knowledge is to be sought through deconstruction – the ‘disentanglement’ of the various layers of significations and (implicit/accepted) understanding that have built one on top of the other during the course of human history.
Nevertheless, in taking such a stance postmodernists are aware of the fact that they inherently and inexorably buy into the same economy of thought that they intend to dismantle: the present, in fact, cannot be completely rid of the past, and the inherited connotations/relations of power that mark our words, are greater than the (im)possibilities of speech that we have at disposal to describe them and undo them. Consequently postmodern critique is not itself absent of the quality of being historical and imbued with power. The mechanism for which, whilst we deconstruct meaning, we produce other meaning to be once again deconstructed, seems to be inescapable… And yet, necessary at the same time.
As I have so far described, Christian worldview is grounded in the notion that God constitutes the ultimate source of truth and scripture is the authoritative window through which it is rendered available to humans. Postmodernists argue instead that we should do away with the idea that there is an origin, and analyse the way in which narratives and discourses circumstantially affect our values and notions of right and wrong. Therefore, whilst in a Christian worldview the Word of God constitutes the ‘lighthouse’ that guides us in our search for the ultimate Truth (while acknowledging the fact that there are cultural influences in the manner in which people engage with Christian faith), in a postmodern worldview there are no fixed points of reference.
From a Christian perspective, then, seeking truth consists of examining the Biblical texts to illuminate the human path towards God. Since, as stated previously, the Word of God is simultaneously infallible and subject to human interpretation, the task of Christians consists of negotiating the complexities inherent in interpreting Biblical truths that are invested with the limitedness of human epistemologies. Hence, although Christians believe that there is an absolute Truth that can be sought in/through the Word of God, such Truth might never be fully achieved by humans.
Postmodernists, who both do not recognise the Biblical texts as the Word of God, and question the very necessity to have an origin to which one can refer, are instead concerned with how truth is constituted. Their attention focuses on the analysis of the epistemological processes through which truth is circumstantially created.
Because of the different positions with respect to the existence of an origin, Christian and secular postmodern approaches to truth are theoretically and methodologically dissimilar. Nevertheless, I wish to conclude that they share one commonality. Irrespective of whether there is or is not an absolute Truth to be sought (which in essence is a matter of faith), the commonality is the acknowledgement that, because of our limitedness, in this life we struggle to achieve unattainable final resolutions – we can only aspire to or tend towards them. And the similarity ends there; as Christians maintain that this human predicament will be resolved in the eschatological Kingdom of God while secular postmodernists discount this possibility.
About the Author: Anita Bressan studied Philosophy at the University of Trieste, Italy, where she discussed her dissertation on the feminist movement. She then completed a PhD in Anthropology and Sociology at The University of Western Australia and is currently studying Master of Teaching in Secondary Education at Alphacrucis College, Sydney.
[i] Naugle, D. (2002). Worldview: The History of a Concept. Grand Rapids, Michigan:Eerdmans, p. xvi
[ii] Grenz, S. (1996). A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, Michigan:Eedermans.
[iii] Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept, p. xvi
[vi] Sire, J. W. (2004). Naming the Elephant. Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, p. 31
[vii] Ibid p. 23
[viii] Naugle, D. (2004). Worldview: History, Theology, Implications. Lecture given at Cornerstone University, Grand Rapids, Michigan, September, 2004, p. 2
[ix] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 39
[x] Ibid p. 24
[xi] Naugle, Worldview: History, Theology, Implications, p. 1
[xii] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 26
[xiii] Kluback, W. & Weinbaum, M. (1957). Dilthey’s Philosophy of Existence. New York, NY:Bookman Associates.
[xiv] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 28
[xv] Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept, p. 101
[xvii] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 29
[xviii] Ibid p. 30
[xix] Foucault, M. (1971). The Archaeology of Knowledge, & the Discourse on Language. New York, NY:Pantheon Books, p. 191.
[xx] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 31
[xxi] Ibid p. 33
[xxii] Naugle, Worldview: History, Theology, Implications, p. 3
[xxiii] Ibid p. 4
[xxiv] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 34
[xxv] Naugle, Worldview: History, Theology, Implications, p. 4
[xxvi] Ibid p. 7
[xxvii] Ibid p. 6
[xxviii] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 42
[xxix] Migliore, D. L. (2014). Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, p. 3
[xxx] Ibid p. 4
[xxxi] Stott, J.R.W. (1996). Theology: a Multidimentional Discipline. In Lewis, D., McGrath, A. & Packer J.I. (Eds.) Doing Theology for the People of God: Studies in Honour of J.I. Packer. Downers Grove, Illinois:Intervarsity Press, p. 4
[xxxii] Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding
[xxxiii] Ibid p 5
[xxxiv] Ibid p 16
[xxxv] Naugle, Worldview: History, Theology, Implications, p. 12
[xxxvi] Stott, Theology, p. 5
[xxxvii] Gordon, C. (Ed.) (1980). Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings by Michel Foucault. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, p. 131
[xxxviii] Ibid p. 133
[xxxix] Ibid p. 131
[xl] Nietzsche, F. (1998). On the Genealogy of Morality. Indianapolis, In: Hackett Publishing
[xli] Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and Difference. Chicago, Illinois:Chicago University Press; Derrida, J. (1998). Of Grammatology. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University
[xlii] Derrida, J. (1982). The Margins of Philosophy. Brighton, UK:The Harvester Press Limited, p. 6
[xliii] See for example Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, NY: Routledge.
[xliv] Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 40