What is a Christian Worldview For?
on Colossians 1:15-22
President Gaylen Byker
September 4, 2001
Students, faculty, staff members, and friends of Calvin College: I'm delighted to be able to address you at the beginning of an academic year that promises so much. My convocation address is the seventh in a ten-part series on the "Habits of the Mind" that should flow from transformed minds, to use the phrase from Romans 12. Neal Plantinga, former Dean of the Chapel, and I have been alternating addresses on the mental habits that should characterize this Christian college community. This year's habit is analyzing basic assumptions and asking worldview questions. My title: "What is a Christian Worldview For?"
When I checked with one of our resident grammarians about using a title that ends with a preposition, I learned of a rejoinder Winston Churchill once made when he was chided for ending a sentence with a preposition. Churchill responded, "That is the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put."The habit of analyzing basic assumptions and asking worldview questions is especially important today in this Christian academic setting because so many of the leading intellectuals in our world claim that basic assumptions and coherent worldviews are impossible to claim, or are mere self-delusions. It is also important to emphasize this habit because, despite the great benefits from practicing it, very few do it consistently. In his fascinating book on the role of basic assumptions and worldview questions in political thinking, Glenn Tinder says this: "Anyone who gives people the illusion that they are thinking [about these matters] will be loved by them, whereas anyone who actually prompts them to think will be hated."1
So, what is a worldview, and who has one? A worldview, or as Abraham Kuyper described it, a "world and life view," is a set of presuppositions or basic beliefs about the make-up of our world. In his book, Eyes Wide Open, Bill Romanowski of our communication arts and sciences department calls it "a kind of window or grid through which we see the world."2 Richard Mouw says that a worldview is a way of answering four basic questions and that all of us have a worldview, whether or not we think about it or articulate it.3
The four basic questions are these: Where are we? Who are we? What's wrong? And what's the remedy? In this sense, Mother Teresa had a worldview. Madonna has a worldview. The makers of "Star Wars" have a worldview. David Letterman has a worldview. And, you have a worldview. In the movie "Wall Street," the high-powered stockbroker conveys his worldview to his apprentice. He says, "It's all about bucks, kid-the rest is conversation." The postmodern secular professor has a worldview. It may go something like this: There is no creator or any meaning in life beyond what we human beings create. There is no such thing as truth, and all human communications and interactions are just forms of power and domination.
Where are we? Who are we? What's wrong? And what's the remedy? Mouw says that the Bible presents us with the following answers to these questions, and the answers constitute a theocentric, a God-centered worldview.4
Where are we? We are in God's creation. Psalm 24:1: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein." We live in a physical universe, an ordered cosmos, that was created by the personal God who reveals his will for us in the Scriptures.
Who are we? Each of us is a child of God, a creature of God created in the image of God, created to glorify God.
Well, what's wrong? What's wrong is that we don't do what we were created to do and to be. We've rebelled against God, following in the pattern set forth by our first parents, Adam and Eve. We have been estranged from God. We're sinners, and that's the foremost problem.
What is the remedy? The remedy is God's plan of salvation as set forth in the Bible, which set us free from sin and motivates us to lives of service.
These are the elements of a theocentric worldview as understood by Christians since the coming of Christ, but foreshadowed already in the Hebrew tradition.
John Calvin emphasized the importance of our answers to worldview questions in the opening lines of the Institutes. He said, "Nearly all of the wisdom we possess consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves."5 In his book, The Fabric of Faithfulness, Steven Garber vividly describes and illustrates the weaving together of Christian students' basic beliefs and behaviors during the college years to produce such wisdom.6 By wisdom he means the ability to understand themselves, the world, and what is going on in it, the ability to make moral judgments and the ability to plan and act in ways that are consistent with their basic beliefs.
In his extensive research and interviews, Garber identified a pattern of three features that was the same for each and every person that he found to be intentionally and consistently living out a Christian worldview twenty years after graduating from college. First, each had formed a worldview sufficient for the challenges of the modern world and consciously struggled to apply it. Second, each had found a teacher, mentor or role model who incarnated that worldview as his or her convictions for living. And third, each had forged friendships with people whose common life was embedded in that worldview. So, first, the basic ideas. Second, teachers, mentors and role models. And third, a practicing community.
We at Calvin try to accomplish these three things. We believe that our new Core Curriculum, entitled "An Engagement With God's World," will help us do an even better job of engaging you students with a Christian world and life view and showing you the purpose, meaning and interconnectedness of what you learn. The purpose statement and courses of the new Core are designed to foster the real life character virtues that should be the fruits of a Christian world and life view. The incarnation, the role modeling of this world and life view, and the support of a coherent community of like-minded believers are equally important parts of this process. Our aim is to have few, if any, graduates who meet what Neil Postman calls "the technocratic ideal," that is, "persons with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills."7 You will gain marketable skills, but, hopefully, you will also recognize your commitments and be able to articulate a point of view.
So, what practical difference does having one worldview versus another make? What difference does it make if someone believes that there is no God and that the world has always existed? What difference does it make if someone believes that human beings are merely the highest form of animal and that there is no transcendent moral order, nothing that is inherently right or wrong? What difference does it make if someone believes that humans are basically good and that there is inevitable progress toward fixing the social ills that exist?
It makes a great deal of difference because basic beliefs have consequences, consequences for how we understand ourselves, the world around us and events we experience, consequences for how we evaluate things and make judgments, and consequences for how we plan and act.
Our metaphysics, that is, our understanding of beings - of God and human nature, and our epistemology, that is, our understanding of what and how we know, have moral consequences. Lesslie Newbigin put it this way: "If there is no point to the story as a whole, there is no point to my own actions. If the story is meaningless, any action of mine is meaningless."8 All moral judgments become mere expressions of personal preference or tribal loyalty. If your worldview consists of the belief that we are all autonomous individuals or groups who cannot understand each other and that your only goal in life is the replication of your genes, you will make very different moral judgments and pursue very different courses of action than if your worldview consists of the belief that we are fallen image bearers of God who have been redeemed for lives of service.
We live in an age that has no consensus reference points other than humans themselves. This has produced moral relativism and a pervasive sense of incoherence and alienation. Walker Percy describes current theories of man as secular and incoherent;9 George Marsden has recently written of "The Incoherent University;"10 The Oxford Literary Review recently published an entire issue entitled, "The University in Ruins,"11 and Robert Jensen describes "How the World Lost its Story."12
In this context, we can again ask, "What is a Christian worldview for?" A carefully considered Christian world and life view that is consistently acted upon can provide the coherence, the integrity, that is the basis for a meaningful life. James Bratt of our history department says that a Christian world and life view can provide coherence that is "a true alignment of our ideas, values, and life-practices, each feeding back on the others through critical reflection, so that genuine coherence might exist in ourselves and our communities."13
I take this to be the major thrust of the passage from Colossians 1 that was read at the beginning of this service. All of the elements of a Christian world and life view are set out there. And, everything is held together or finds its coherence in Christ. Why? So that we can live lives of integrity guided by minds that have been transformed, minds that no longer conform to the pattern of this world.
A wonderful sonnet by Edna Saint Vincent Millay, written in the 1930's, prophesied insightfully about the fragmented, postmodern, Internet age in which we live. Listen to her words:
Upon this age, that never speaks its
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind -
[And pay particular attention to these words]
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric .14
A daily shower of facts and opinions bombards us, but they lie unconnected, unwoven into meaning. There seems to exist no loom to weave them into fabric. Things don't appear to be held together by anything. Instead of cosmos, we see chaos.
This is why a Christian world and life view is vital for a Christian academic community like Calvin College. This is why we foster the habit of analyzing basic assumptions and asking worldview questions. Many of you are familiar with the Contemporary Testimony entitled "Our World Belongs to God," and with the Heidelberg Catechism upon which it is based. The coherent world and life view they present of creation, the fall, redemption and lives of service underlies our vision and curriculum here at Calvin.
The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" The answer beautifully articulates a Christian world and life view and what it's for. It says, "That I am not my own, but belong - body and soul, in life and in death - to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him."
This is a robust world and life view, a sturdy loom upon which to weave a life of meaning and service.
1. Glenn Tinder, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions, 4th ed. (Glenview: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1986), p. 1.
2. William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001), p. 46.
3. Richard J. Mouw, "And Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Old-Time Religion for a New Millennium," speech given at The Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York, July 1999.
5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.i., trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 35.
6. Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior During the University Years. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
7. Neil Postman, Technology: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. (New York: Knopf, 1992), p. 186.
8. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 91.
9. Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man is, How Queer Language is, and What One has to do with the Other. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), p. 18.
10. George Marsden, "The Incoherent University," The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 2, No. 3, Fall 2000, pp. 92-105.
11. "The University in Ruins," The Oxford Literary Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 1-2, 1995.
12. Robert Jenson, "How the World Lost its Story," First Things, October 1993, p. 20.
13. James D. Bratt, "Reformed Tradition and the Mission of Reformed Colleges," Conference papers of the RUNA Conference on "A Reformed University in a Secularized and Pluralized World," held at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI, March 11-12, 1993, p. 46.
14. Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Sonnet 137, Huntsman, What Quarry? (New York: Harper, 1934), p. 697.