Forming a Christian Worldview

IMPLICATIONS OF A WORLDVIEW

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Every worldview frames how one understands the world and how one acts in that world. Understanding the phenomenon of worldviews has implications for our thinking in at least three fundamental ways: (1) understanding what happens when variant worldviews meet, (2) recognizing the degree to which worldviews are inherited, and (3) acknowledging the limited degree to which we can objectively reflect upon and alter our own worldviews. Conflict between worldviews usually stems from incompatibility at the level of our assumptions. For instance, if one assumes that the material realm is all that exists, then talk of the immaterial seems absurd. Dialog between individuals who hold differing worldviews must begin by talking about the assumptions inherent in their respective worldviews.

A second implication of the fact that we all hold worldviews is, perhaps, more troubling; it must be admitted that worldviews are less chosen than inherited. From the moment we are born, our views of the world are shaped by the culture and subcultures within which we are raised. Our families, religious traditions, educational institutions, media, and a host of other forces instill within us assumptions about the world and our place in it. We are less aware of these influences than we might imagine or wish. Most of what we know and believe has been given to us by our parents, friends, community, and society. We learn more about the world from others than we conceptualize on our own. We accept and assimilate more than we reject or deny. In short, we do not develop our own private worldviews. At most, we refine and re-conceptualize what we have learned.

The repercussions of this claim are astounding. Very few people have been able to rise above their cultural prejudices to challenge institutionalized slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender bias, or a host of other societal ills. It is humbling to consider how many incorrect beliefs we have adopted – and how many immoral actions we engage in – because of how deeply acculturated they are in our own worldviews. The fact that so many of our beliefs and behaviors are blindly accepted and ignorantly followed is alarming. We are not completely without hope because of our observation about worldview thinking: We can, to a limited degree, perceive and reflect on our worldview. Willingness to look at our assumptions with humble recognition of our own finitude and failings, though, presents an opportunity for re-examination.

FORMING A CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW

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Worldviews ask four basic questions: “Who am I?” “Where am I?” “What’s wrong?” and “What’s the remedy?” The worldview with which you were raised, modified by your personal experiences and reflection, will inevitably affect how you answer.

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Creation

A biblical understanding of Creation informs our concept of who we are, the nature of the world in which we live, and the proper ends toward which we should strive. The biblical account begins not with an anthropocentric focus centered on humanity, but with a theocentric focus centered on God. It is God who creates. It is God who gives graciously and lavishly. It is God who declares the Creation to be “good,” and after it is completed with the making of an image-bearer, it is God who declares it to be “very good.” Humanity is intimately connected to the Creation, and yet is set in a unique relationship to the rest of Creation.

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The biblical sense in which humankind is an image of God, who is given dominion over Creation, is easily misunderstood. The image of a god was a familiar concept within the Ancient Near Eastern cultural context in which Genesis was first read. Images such as idols were thought to contain the essence of a god, and human beings were thought to have been created to care for that god and his or her god-image. Politically, however, Ancient Near Eastern religions promoted social stratification, where kings and priests had more access to the gods – and hence more power – than common folk. Kings and idols were carried in front of and venerated by those who were not royalty. In Egypt, it was not uncommon for kings to claim that they had been suckled by a goddess to buttress their own claims of divinity. The blending of the god-image with the elevation of the king afforded them an incredible amount of power.

Kings ruled their provinces as the gods’ representatives – as the caretakers of the land, resources, and people belonging to a local deity. Oppressive kings created and sustained economic, political, and educational systems that favored the elite and oppressed the marginalized. In contrast to the surrounding religious cultural context, the God of Genesis reveals that all of humanity was created to bear His image. To be His representatives on earth, to do what God would do: to lovingly rule and care for the creation (including not only what we might call “nature,” but also all other aspects of God’s Creation – including societal and cultural institutions). The Judeo-Christian belief that humans are the image of God and have dominion over Creation is not one in which some people have divine right over others, nor one in which nature is to be pillaged, but rather that all of Creation (natural and cultural) is to be tended and developed in loving submission to God’s sovereign rule over all things.

Creation holds two truths in tension, first, that humans are part of the created order, and thus, in many ways similar to the other creatures, and second, that they are made in the very image of God and given a caretaker role over the realm to which they belong. We are part of Creation, and yet uniquely set over it to steward it. More importantly, we are social beings, and only through community can we reflect the image of God.  First, God created man from the dust of the ground. Then, God decided that is not good for man to be alone. God made “a helper fit for him.” Loneliness is not good. It is clear that human beings are viewed as the pinnacle of Creation, with the affirmation by God that Creation is very good coming only after the creation of humanity. David felt this, and expressed his emotion in Psalm 119:14a, “I will give thanks to you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (NASB).

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The Bible shows Creation as infused with potential. God’s creative power bequeaths power and creativity to the Creation. Humans are told to tend the garden, that is, to develop its potentials. Certainly, there is a great deal of creativity involved in tilling the earth and mining its countless treasures. The presence of the first couple in the garden creates the beginnings of social and cultural life. It is through mankind that Creation will be shaped as people bring to fruition the possibilities of development implicit in the work of God’s hands. Creation is pregnant with potential for art, agriculture, education, civil government, science, and literature, waiting to be developed by those who bear the image of God. That is, after all, the very definition of Creation.

A final point about Creation must be made: that man, a created being, is given freedom. He can name the animals. He can till and tend and shape the garden as he wishes. But this freedom is also given limits: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17, RSV). There is a paradox in the concept of created freedom. It is the use of free will to transgress against God’s will that is the next part of the story, what theologians sometimes refer to as original sin.

The Fall

While Christianity affirms the goodness of Creation, it also teaches that this goodness is only part of the story. The next chapter in the story recounts the rebellion of the first human beings against their God-given boundaries, and a failure of their responsibility to tend the garden faithfully as God’s representatives. The result was a fundamental alteration of the entire created realm. As a result of human disobedience, pain was multiplied, relationships were damaged, the ground itself became cursed, and death entered the world (Genesis 3:14-19). From that point on, the Bible recognizes a twisted nature within the human condition: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NASB). Moreover, it is precisely because those who were given authority over the creation rebelled that the created realm over which they rule is subject to the curse.

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It is worth pointing out that the created realm is not just physical nature, but it also encompasses the potentials for culture and technology, and all of these things are affected by the curse. Thus, art, architecture, politics, science, commerce, and every human endeavor is now marred and easily twisted away from their proper ends – bringing glory  to God, stewarding the creation in love, and living in peace with each other and with nature.

As we read on through Genesis, we see that the sin of Adam and Eve leads in quick succession to sibling conflict and fratricide, to an antediluvian culture where God laments at how great the wickedness of the human race had become on earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time, and the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. (See Genesis 6:5,11). We are able to see sin as a corporate phenomenon. We begin to catch a glimpse of how sin becomes embedded within cultures and institutions, so that its members become blind to the sins of their culture. It’s sometimes easy to forget that evil is a feature of our existence – a certain undertow – separate from our personal choices and decisions. We are born into a world shaped and distorted by such evils as violence and abuse in families, apartheid, genocide, ethnic cleansing, discrimination, violent jihad, sexual immorality, and the wrongful taking of life.

Throughout Scripture we see not just an individual inclination to sin, but the corporate nature of sin, such that the last five of the Ten Commandments focus on social consequences of individual sin (murder, adultery, theft, false witness, covetousness). The permanent vices and crimes of adults are not transmitted by heredity, but by being socialized. The “gospel” of individualism has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart, and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to Him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not yet evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.

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While it is entirely appropriate for us to attend to individual sinfulness, doing so is incomplete unless we also focus on our participation in the social and corporate sins of our social practices and social structures. Spiritual conversion, then, is not just repenting of individual sin, but also examining our participation in collective sin, and prophetically challenging sins that become embedded within a society, including economic systems which disadvantage some and privilege others. Unfortunately, many Christian denominations tend to focus either on individual sin and the need for individual repentance or on culturally embedded sin and the need for social reform and social justice. A fully biblical picture must acknowledge and address both personal and social dimensions of sin.

We must also note that sin has widespread effects throughout the created realm. While sin itself has both individual and social dimensions, the biblical view is that sin affects the entirety of creation. God told Adam and Eve, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-20, NIV). The effects of the Fall are pervasive, and yet we often fail to notice them, because they are part of the fabric of our lives. When sin shattered a perfect creation, everything changed. It’s not just that we sin or that we are sinned against; it’s that everything is different from the way God intended it to be, and all of these differences can be attributed to the consequences of sin. There are weeds in our garden now, and in our personalities. We have mental illness, disease, discontentment, failure, and a lack of vision. Since the Fall, creation now groans with birth defects and disease and poverty. Everything around us is broken. Things are not the way they are supposed to be.

Notice that we look forward not only to individuals being released from the consequences of personal sin, as we see in Romans 8:1-2, but now we see that all of the created order is being released from the consequences of the Fall. In part, the release of Creation from the bondage of the Fall comes about when the image bearers begin to rule properly as God intended, rather than in selfishness and idolatry.

A Christian understanding of human nature affirms our created origin in the image of God, and it recognizes the reality of human sin and its pervasive effects throughout the created realm. Decay, suffering and morality are among the unavoidable realities that led the author of Ecclesiastes to remark on the seeming futility of life. While a Christian worldview insists that we acknowledge the reality of sin – both individual and corporate – the Bible also speaks of God’s continuing interest in humankind, and recognizes remnants of the splendor in which humanity was created. In the Reformed view, Creation and Fall both frame important aspects of human nature, but it is the story of redemption that speaks to the deepest hopes of humanity.

Redemption

The biblical story proceeds from Creation and Fall to the unfolding story of Redemption and Restoration. The story advances through God’s interactions with characters such as Noah and Abraham and Sarah, and to events such as the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, and the giving of the Law to God’s people. It includes the progressive history of God’s interactions with the Israelites, the proclamations of the prophets, and the rise and fall of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It reaches its climax in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It proceeds through the early church, and continues today through God’s activity in reconciling all things to Himself (Colossians 1:20). Throughout these encounters, we see Redemption cast in both individual and social terms. Individuals are called to turn from their evil ways, and the entire nation of Israel is called upon to enact justice.

Since sin has social consequences, and is corporate as well as individual, Redemption involves confronting both individual and corporate sin. Reconciliation of relationships is clearly a major focus of Christ’s redemptive work. But Redemption goes well beyond individual and social life. Colossians tells us that Christ is reconciling all things to Himself. This means that every aspect of creation is to be redeemed and restored: Art, music business, economics, politics, our caretaker role over the environment and our fellow creatures, and so forth. In every conceivable area of life, Christians are called to be agents of Redemption.

Consummation

The biblical story as discussed explains why human nature has elements of both good and evil. It explains why the world around us is subject to decay and disease. It introduces God’s desire to reconcile humanity and the entire created realm to Himself. If we were to leave the biblical narrative at this point, we would have an incomplete picture, because it has yet to address questions about our ultimate end and the final shape of God’s Kingdom. Christians believe that they live in the “now and not yet” of salvation. While a Christian has been saved from the penalty of his or her sin, the struggle with sin and the effects remain very real.

The term Consummation refers to the completion of God’s rule over the Creation that has been in rebellion against His sovereignty. The concept of Consummation is sometimes framed as re-creation – that is, that God restores the Creation from its fallen state. Fulfillment comes in the eschaton, the end of the present age, which begins when God’s rule is firmly established. Much of what the Bible has to say about this is difficult to interpret because it is often presented in apocalyptic imagery. It is also easily misunderstood, since modern, western, individualistic Christianity often focuses on the salvation of the individual rather than on the Restoration of all Creation.

Re-creation culminates in the reversal of sin’s effects on the fallen, judged Creation. The biblical account climaxes with the “new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:13, NRSV). It is clear that this picture is not just one of individuals saved from personal sin. It is also an image of the people of God living in community where righteousness reigns. Thus, the complete reign of Christ offers the solution to both individual and social dimensions of the Fall. Moreover, Restoration involves the redemption of all created things. It is my belief that Christ intended for us to live in a manner that promotes the redemption of all things within our present circumstances.

Concluding Remarks

To hope for a better future in this world – for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, those who are mentally or physically ill, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world – is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the Gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is a central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it.

The whole point of what Jesus was up to was not merely saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of Creation which is God’s ultimate purpose. So, Consummation is the final outworking of what God will bring to completion, but which He is already beginning to bring about in and through His people in restoring all things to His rule.

 

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