Why Is it So Hard to Understand Other Worldviews?

Why Is it So Hard to Understand Other Worldviews?

Depending on your own personal background and level of study and training, you may think you have a good grasp of certain other belief systems. If you have actually been an adherent of that religion or philosophy in the past, that may by true. If you have not, however, what you already know may not be as complete as you think it is. Today, I am going to try and force you to consider your perceived knowledge in a different way.

We know that worldview relates to the basic assumptions that people hold about the nature of reality. We also know that a person’s worldview is the most fundamental level of belief that he or she holds. It is the lens through which everything in life, without exception, is filtered.

On an intellectual level, this is not hard to understand. We can study the doctrines and practices of a belief and gain a certain amount of knowledge. What is hard to grasp, though, is that our personal interpretation of other people’s understanding is tainted by our own worldview lens.

Be sure you understand that last statement, because it is the key to understanding what we are dealing with here. The problem we face is that we are so closely tied to our own understanding of the structure of reality, that it is hard to even imagine that other people could actually believe something different on the worldview level. Be careful as you think about this statement. We are talking about something that much deeper than mere doctrine. We are talking about the core assumptions that lie beneath the surface and are, in fact, the foundation that the doctrinal beliefs rest upon.

As I write this, the 2008 presidential campaign is in full swing. Mitt Romney is one of the candidates and professes to be a Mormon. I was recently listening to a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, who also happens to be a Mormon, as he talked about the controversy which is swirling about because of Romney’s Mormon faith. This talk show host was trying to make the point that we are electing a president not a Sunday School teacher, and that as long as a candidate is a God fearing person with good character, and is on the right side of the policy debates, he is okay.

At this point we are not going to get into whether or not we ought to vote for a Mormon for president. Here, we are after something even deeper and more profound. This talk show host went on to assert that all religions have something worthwhile to contribute to mankind’s understanding of God – that each one holds a piece of a larger puzzle. He continued, that if we could somehow get all of the parts together, we would really have something special, indeed.

For a moment, forget that this approach to God is totally contrary to our Christian beliefs. What is so surprising is that it is also absolutely contrary to Mormon teaching. How could he make a statement like that based on the theology of his own church’s teaching? He was able to do it because his worldview, which runs deeper than his Mormon beliefs, have caused him to pollute Mormonism with ideas which are more fundamental to his understanding of reality than his religion.

What is true for this radio personality is also true for a very large percentage of Christians. I don’t know how many times I have heard Christians tell me some belief that they have (many of them contrary to what the Bible teaches) and justify it by saying, “That is what my parents (or even pastor) taught me when I was growing up.” The fact is, our worldview lens is shaped by the influences we had growing up and most people hold on to them throughout life whether they are actually true or not – even whether they are consistent with the teachings of the Bible or not. We cannot imagine that the people we trusted growing up could have possibly taught us something that is not right.

The point is, our worldview is so foundational to our understanding of life, that we are not normally able to even seriously consider another possibility at a level that would challenge what we believe. It is easy enough to consider and talk about it at an intellectual level. But the worldview level is experiential in a way that is even deeper.

This does not mean that it is impossible to get at, and actually understand, other people’s worldview beliefs. It certainly is possible, and we, as Christians, need to learn how to do it. It is the one thing that will give us the ability to stand strong in the face of contrary beliefs, and help us confront life circumstances which might normally shake our faith.

Reality is structured in some way and is not structured in any other way. Our Christian faith matches up with the way human beings experience reality in ways no other faith system can match. This does not mean that we are able to understand everything. But everything we do understand from God’s revelation is consistent with the way we experience reality. Any Christian who is able to grasp this at a worldview level will never have his faith shaken. We can know that we know that the God of the Bible is the true God, and that what he has revealed in Scripture is a foundation we can build our lives upon.

We can know, unequivocally: that the Bible is reliable, that the Bible is the only place we can find out what God is like, that God is a real person and we can personally interact with him, and that every other belief system in existence is not the truth about God (others may contain some elements of truth, but are not complete).

As Christians, this is the lens we see through. We acknowledge that there are other beliefs, but unless we have learned how to handle worldview lenses, we tend to think they are just variations from what we believe – different beliefs off of the same understanding of reality.

But that is not true. Some people really do believe that under certain circumstances it is completely acceptable to murder, molest children, worship other gods, participate in sex outside of marriage, and many other things that Christians consider wrong. Their worldview belief tells them that it is okay. Since our belief says it is not okay, we generally try to figure out how they can think the way they do, as we look through our own worldview lens.

We can never fully figure it out using that approach. To understand another worldview, we have to learn how to look through its lens and experientially feel what its adherents feel. This does not mean we come to the point of believing other points of view, but we must learn how to feel them so we can personally understand and share with others why they are not the truth. This is a different way of studying another belief than our traditional method of merely analyzing its doctrine.

Let’s think through this, for a moment, using Naturalism as an example. Naturalism does not acknowledge that there is any kind of supernatural reality – no God, no spiritual world. If all that exists is a material world which operates strictly by natural law, then there is no transcendent person or place for a definitive moral law to come from. That being the case, what is a person to do when it comes to figuring out what is right and wrong?

You might ask them, for example, “Is it wrong to murder someone?” If they say it is wrong, what basis do they have for saying that? There is no God, so they are not offending any deity. If they appeal to the law of the land, that is simply the preference of a majority who may be in positions of authority and can pass the law. If the majority changes, the law can change. If they say it is detrimental to the survival of the species, we must ask, “What makes the survival of the species the basis for morality?” That is nothing more than a functional argument and, in and of itself, has nothing to do with morality.

This is an example from one worldview position, but this approach can be applied to every question that ever comes up related to making a decision about what is right or wrong to do.

As you think about this, you must realize that so far all we have done is to take a doctrinal approach to understanding Naturalistic beliefs. We have simply figured out what Naturalists believe and explored the implications of those beliefs. You can’t get around doing that if you want to understand what someone else believes, but that alone will never allow you to understand the actual worldview that the beliefs are built upon.

So now, let’s take this one step further. You intellectually understand the concept of Naturalism, but now you need to imagine that you are the one who doesn’t believe in God. Imagine yourself on a deserted island with two other people – you, one other person of your same sex and one member of the opposite sex. Suppose you wanted the person of the opposite sex for yourself, but the third person was challenging you. There is no God to impose a moral law from the outside, and the only law on the island is the law the three of you are able to impose. What will you do to win your desired partner? Will you kill your competitor? Since there is no God and no law against it, there would be no consequences – temporal or spiritual. Whatever you decided, and were able to impose, would be considered right. Perhaps you would decide that it is okay for everyone to partner up however they want – opposite sex, same sex or even all together. In fact, there is no reason for you not to do whatever you want.

Of course, there is the possibility that one of the other people may not like your ideas and decide to kill you. Or, if they had the physical power to do it, maybe one of the people would simply banish you from the area. There is no reason why not. It wouldn’t be wrong from a moral perspective, since there is no objective morality. All that exists is the law of the jungle – might makes right.

That little scenario gives you a means of looking through the lens that a Naturalist sees through. If you really want to understand a true Naturalist, you are going to have to stop for a few moments and play this pretend game. What would you do if you were in this situation and the only rule was your rule? You can do anything you are able to get away with, and there are no spiritual consequences. What would you do and how would it feel?

For a Naturalist, your Christian idea of a transcendent God who has revealed moral truth is absurd. The only reason people do anything is because they want to or because they are forced to by those who wield power in the natural world. A true Naturalist believes this to the same degree that you believe there is a God. Can you use your imagination and put yourself in this mental frame and feel what it feels like to be a Naturalist?

So as people with different worldviews live out their lives, they are just as sure about the truth of their belief as you are about your belief in God. As we consider this, we must come to the place where we understand that it is not simply about what we believe, or what we feel is right. These things vary based on the worldview assumptions that people hold. Ultimately what matters is, “What is the truth?”

There is an objective way that reality is structured. As Christians, we believe that the Bible reveals the nature of that truth. But simply believing it is not sufficient. If we have nothing more than blind faith, that makes us no better off than the Naturalist. We don’t believe just because we believe. There is evidence to back up the fact that the Bible reveals the truth. It is essential that we know why our faith is the truth and why other faiths are not the truth. It is the knowledge of “why” that allows us to move forward with confidence in our own faith in God. It is the knowledge of “why” that allows us to share our faith in Christ with confidence.

The reason it is so difficult to understand other worldviews is because, for most of us, the only worldview lens we know how to use is our own. When we learn the beliefs and perspectives of the other worldviews, we put ourselves in a position to look at the world the way non-believers do. This allows us to more fully understand where they are coming from, and gives us the ability to be stronger in our own faith and more effective in our witness. A worldview is not right because we can understand it. But if we can understand it, on every level, we are in a position to be more effective instruments of God as he works to build his kingdom in the hearts of all mankind.

© 2007 Freddy Davis