Saturday, July 4, 2015

The American Worldview

In my last post I mentioned the idea of an "American worldview" that is instrumental in shaping American culture and public life. I meant to expand more on this, which I will do now.

What is a worldview?

I'll start be defining what I do and don't mean by "worldview". In evangelical circles there is a certain way of defining and thinking about worldview. The highly creative "choose your own adventure" apologetics book What's Your Worldview? by James Anderson (reviewed here) states that "[a worldview] represents your most fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the universe you inhabit ... It reflects how you would answer all the ‘big questions’ of human existence, the fundamental questions we ask about life, the universe, and everything." A worldview is to thinking as the atmosphere is to breathing: fundamental and indispensable, but hard to detect and usually taken for granted. The review further indicates that the "big questions" worldviews answer focus on such weighty topics as the nature or existence of God and truth.

This apologetics page explains in more depth what a worldview is:
Our worldviews consist of our best guesses or firm convictions in answering the universal human questions: How did everything come to be? Why are we here? What happens after we die? What’s important? A worldview is made up of the beliefs about what is real and important. It is our beliefs about the unseen – the spiritual, the philosophical, and valuable. Our worldview will determine how we interpret our lives and the world around us. It shapes how we think about everything.
It goes on to list four core areas of belief that worldviews pertain to.
  • God and the immaterial
  • The meaning and purpose of life
  • Human nature
  • What we trust is the primary source of spiritual truth [i.e. truth about what is unseen]
This paper gets into even more detail about worldviews:
Our word worldview comes from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in 1768 coined the term as Weltanschauung (in German Welt = “world” and anschauung = “view”). As the word itself suggests, a worldview is as a way of looking at the world. Your worldview is like the eyeglasses through which you view and interpret your experiences. Other phrases that capture the idea are “mental grid,” “frame of reference,” and “shared perceptions of what is real, true, and good.” A worldview seeks to answer the Big Questions in life, such as Who am I? Where did I come from? What’s most important in life? It’s a whole mountain of assumptions of which you may or may not be aware but upon which your conclusions are based.
Some common themes are evident here: worldviews comprise our most basic and important beliefs, our answers to the "big questions" about God, truth, the purpose of life, human nature, etc. Our worldview is important because it shapes and colors how we think about and interpret everything else in our lives and the world around us. It determines our presuppositional starting point for dealing with the information, events, beliefs, and questions we face in everyday life.

While the beliefs and questions this definition of "worldview" draws our attention to are hugely important, I no longer think it fully encapsulates the concept it sets out to do. This is because it centralizes cognitive beliefs and elevates them as the only thing that truly shapes our orientation to life. The paper explicitly says that worldview is distinct from culture, and that it is possible for two people (say, in a California suburb) to share the same culture but have very different worldviews. This assumes that culture is "shallow", consisting of things like language, behaviors, customs, and social norms that don't really affect at core how we view and interact with the world, while worldview is "deep" and consists of basic beliefs that do affect it. I think this assumption doesn't give culture enough credit—to our peril. The Christian philosopher Jamie Smith, similarly critiquing such cognitivist, belief-oriented "worldview-thinking", gives the example of a shopping mall as a significant formative influence which this kind of thinking misses (his reference to the Supreme Court is almost eerily timely):
Typical worldview-thinking is not primed to recognize something like [the way going to the mall shapes and aims our desire] because it is too focused on the cognitive. If you think cultural critique is based on ideas of beliefs, and that cultural "threats" come in the form of messages and "values," then you'll have a cultural radar that is only equipped to pick up on ideas and beliefs. But the mall has never been guilty of being a think tank; one doesn't usually think of the Gap or Walmart as sites of the culture war because they don't traffic in ideas. As a result, the threat of these sites doesn't register on worldview radar; because such worldview approaches remain largely fixated on the cognitive, something like the mall drops off the radar (while an institution like the U.S. Supreme Court is unduly amplified). But all the while the ritual practices of the mall are grabbing hold of hearts and capturing imaginations, shaping our love and desire, and actually forming us in powerful, fundamental ways. If our cultural critique remains captivated by a cognitivist anthropology, then we'll fail to even see the role of practices. This constitutes a massive blind spot in much of the Christian cultural critique that takes place under the banner of worldview-thinking. (Desiring the Kingdom 84–85)
The British theologian N.T. Wright, especially in his towering magisterial series Christian Origins and the Question of God, gives and utilizes what I consider a much more comprehensive and thus workable definition of a worldview. He begins his definition by saying:
Worldviews have to do with the presuppositional, pre-cognitive stage of a culture or society. Wherever we find the ultimate concerns of human beings, we find worldviews. From that point of view, as the echo of Paul Tillich in the phrase 'ultimate concern' will indicate, they are profoundly theological, whether or not they contain what in modern Western thought would be regarded as an explicit or worked-out view of a God-figure. 'Worldview', in fact, embraces all deep-level human perceptions of reality, including the question of whether or not a god or gods exist, and if so what he, she, it, or they is or are like, and how such a being, or such beings, might relate to the world, Though the metaphor of sight can over-dominate (worldview), the following analysis should make it clear that worldviews, in the sense I intend, include many dimensions of human existence other than simply theory. [i.e. the Greek theoreo, to see, discern, consider] (The New Testament and the People of God, 122–123)
This description has some parallels with the ones above, but also some clear differences: Wright explicitly argues worldviews are pre-cognitive (i.e. not consisting basically of cognitive beliefs), associates them with culture and society, connects them with the "ultimate concerns" of human beings (leaving room for desires and imagination, as Jamie Smith champions), and refuses to limit them to matters of theory. Elsewhere Wright clarifies, as above, that worldviews are like lenses through which you view the world: you rarely look at them or consider them consciously, except perhaps when they are violated or challenged; you more typically look through them at everything else. Or they are like the foundation of a house: normally out of sight and mind, but essential for supporting everything that comes after.

Worldviews, according to Wright, typically involve four things:
  1. The stories through which human beings view reality; the overarching narrative, and perhaps one or more sub-narratives, in which people locate themselves to make sense of their context. "Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark." (NTPG 123)
  2. Answers to the basic questions of human existence and meaning, derived from the stories; element corresponds to the entire definition of worldview given by the earlier sources. These questions are basic ones like "Who are we?", "Where are we?", "What time is it?" (i.e. in the stories), "What is wrong?", and "What is the solution?". "All cultures ... have a sense of identity, of environment, of a problem with the way the world is, and of a way forward ... which will, or may, lead out of that problem."
  3. These stories and the answers they provide to the basic questions are expressed in cultural symbols. Wright explains that these symbols can be either artifacts or events. Applying this model to second-temple Judaism, he names things like Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Passover as such symbols. These symbols "can often be identified when challenging them produces anger or fear." (NTPG 124) and can function as social or cultural boundary markers; those who observe them are "insiders" to a culture, those who do not are "outsiders". Symbols serve as acted and visible reminders of a worldview that is otherwise largely invisible.
  4. Finally, worldviews include a praxis, a "way-of-being-in-the-world." The answer to the last question "what is the solution?" implies the need for action of some kind. "Conversely, the real shape of someone's worldview can often be seen in the sort of actions they perform, particularly if the actions are so instinctive or habitual as to be taken for granted."
Again, worldviews are like lenses through which people see the world, or like the foundations of a house: vital, but invisible. They are not usually called into conscious thought unless significantly challenged, but they can be discussed and reflected on if necessary; this is what makes conversion possible. More often, worldviews come into view through the basic beliefs (about what is) and aims (about what should be done) that they generate.

Thus, in Wright's (and my) view, worldviews are not so much what we today think of as "belief systems": theism, atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, and so on, nor are they epistemologies, though they probably include and assume these things. They are more comprehensive than either of these, much closer to what we would consider a "culture" with its common stories, symbols, and practice, and it makes sense to talk about them as belonging to societies (or in today's pluralistic world, subcultures within societies) as to individuals.

So, if it is possible to speak of worldviews as belonging to cultures and societies, it seems likely that the United States itself has a worldview, as I argued last time. Let's stop and try to see what this worldview is like using Wright's rubric.

Describing the American worldview

In what follows I will try to outline what I think the "American worldview" might look like. My answers will certainly be incomplete; you might be able to give some more examples.

The overarching American narrative, the one we locate ourselves in and see as having continued since our nation's earliest days, is the escape from tyranny and oppression (economic, political, religious) to justice and liberty, from absolute monarchy to democratic rule by the people, for the people. This mission was decisively accomplished by our gaining independence from Britain, but also continues to this day as we continue to work our America's founding principles and secure more and more rights for more and more people. This gives rise to subnarratives, like the women's suffrage and civil rights movements, which we look back on positively as having advanced the causes of liberty, equality, and individual rights which arguably serve as the end goals or ultimate "good" of the American narrative. Our story is one of struggle and victory over forces both internal and external that threaten to impinge on these causes.

  • Who are we? We are rational human beings endowed by our creator with dignity, equality and certain intrinsic rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Where are we? The land of the free and the home of the brave, a beautiful land which we have claimed for democracy at great cost. More recently, it is also the world's largest economy, the most powerful global superpower, and a standard-bearer of sorts for the cause of freedom.
  • What is wrong? People (or certain subgroups of people) are still not as free as they should be; depending on your political affiliation, this may be because of poverty, capitalism, crime, discrimination, illegal immigration, or oppressive government policy, and different rights may be at stake.
  • What is the solution? Democratic or social change; mobilizing the people to claim their rights, just as the colonists did. 
  • What time is it? This question doesn't have a very clear or strong answer; the most accurate one might simply be "now". There is no expected future culmination of America's history, except perhaps the spectre of dystopia, a hypothetical negative future to be avoided at all costs by doing/not doing ____.

Some obvious American symbols would be artifacts like the flag, our founding documents, monuments like the Statue of Liberty, or buildings around our capital, irrespective of the people in them. Events like the Pledge of Allegiance and holidays like Veterans' Day, Memorial Day, and (of course) especially Independence Day would also be up there. while giving examples of symbols, Wright also mentions that monuments to economic success (e.g. skyscrapers) and veterans (represented by Veterans'/Memorial Day) might count. The key to seeing if something is a symbol of the American worldview is whether disrespecting it (whatever form that takes) is seen as "un-American", or even suspicious/threatening.

Some of the symbols mentioned above (such as the Pledge of Allegiance, or still more the national anthem) are participatory symbols which probably fit into praxis as well. More generally, though, civic engagement and active participation in democracy are seen as ways to secure liberties. As well, some are called into military service (which is seen very favorably) ostensibly to secure those liberties. More prominent than either of these in everyday life and based on the popular idea that America is already the "freest nation in the world", though, American praxis is oriented towards something referred to as the "American dream". This consists roughly in living a comfortable, happy, life, provided for by the well-oiled consumerist/capitalist machine, enjoying your liberties without trampling on anyone else's; what you do with your freedom, resources, and time at this point is up to the individual. One could sum up the American worldview by saying that its highest goal is freedom and equality for freedom and equality's sake.

Which is what I meant last time by "ateleological". There is in this worldview little sense of what you "should" do with your freedom once it is secured; such a thing would be antithetical to the very idea of freedom. There is no common higher goal or end (telos) toward which we are to strive; individual freedom, the pursuit of happiness, and self-determination, secured by individual rights, constitute the highest goal, which in turn make it possible for each individual to determine his or her own telos and pursue it. In this regard, the American worldview is profoundly at odds with Christianity, which is strongly, unashamedly teleological in its vision for human flourishing: "whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor 10:31)

Within this worldview, the legalization of same-sex marriage makes perfect sense. A group of people was formerly marginalized and denied equal rights; it made its desire for equality known and, through years of struggle, received it in accordance with the American ideal of freedom. It's almost the Revolution in microcosm. There is nothing in the American worldview inconsistent with "marriage equality" because within it there is no room, no vocabulary to even express, the idea of divine will as a reason to do or not to do something. Maybe there was when the population was substantially Christian with a large shared moral foundation, but this foundation has largely eroded, and continues to do so in the increasingly pluralistic present. This response to the Supreme Court ruling is fantastic and worth reading in full; at one point the author says, "I've long said that if the only argument against same-sex marriage is that God disapproves, then it not only ought, but must be allowed in the United States."

So if we are so concerned with God's disapproval of homosexuality, let's at least be aware of the worldview of individual libertarian freedom and self-determination that has led to its widespread acceptance. As I said last time, this worldview is too fundamental to be resisted through the political, polemical processes that seem to come so naturally to conservatives. Rather, we can resist it the way the early Christians resisted the prevailing worldview of their own parent culture, namely by living a different one, one shaped (as Wright is eager to explain) around the "gospel" of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. That so many churches view American freedom strictly as a positive thing, as entailing freedom to worship without persecution, and see no need to do as the early Christians did, is worrying.

How does the church become the alternative to the "American gospel" (drawing another parallel between the claims of country and of Christ)? Not embracing its language of equality and individual freedom as unqualified, "Christian" goods is a start, as is holding to Christian ethical teaching even if it is derided as unpopular or unequal. (But not seeking to impose it on those outside the church) Better still to examine oneself and one's church and look for how American values like individualism, self-determination, and directionless "liberty" have crept in. Or to look at how terms like "freedom", "equality", and even "rights" (ideas about which the Bible does have things to say) are defined and used in contrasting ways in American discourse and Christian teaching. I need to do this as much as anyone; I'm not even close to figuring out the answers to the questions I'm raising here, or even to adequately describing the American worldview.

Maybe the first step is simply to realize how comprehensive and pervasive worldviews are, and to look at how the worldviews of church and culture contrast. I would love to join (or start) a conversation on this subject.

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