Four Reasons to Learn about Other Worldviews

I’m a nerd. Accordingly, I love learning about all kinds of things, most often, things that require me to learn a lot of fascinating information. One such realm of nerd-dom is world religions and worldviews. Everyone has a specific way of viewing the world: that’s a worldview. And some of the most prevalent worldview systems are the world’s major religions.

But I’m also a Christian (a Christian pastor, to boot). And sometimes, I’ll have a conversation with someone who isn’t quite sold on the importance of learning about nerdy things like non-Christian worldviews. “What’s the point?” “Seems dangerous.” “Why would I waste my time with that.” These are all responses I’ve heard when I suggest learning more about how non-Christians understand and approach the world.

But there are many good reasons for learning about non-Christian worldviews. Below are four of my favorite reasons: wisdom and witness, defense and discernment.

First, learning about non-Christian worldviews increases wisdom. Not only does it further your understanding of the world but learning what other people believe inevitably helps you better understand what you believe too. To quote A.G. Sertillanges, “To understand a single thing thoroughly, we should understand all things.” Of course, there’s a practical side to this wisdom too: you will be less likely to be confused or mislead by an idea or practice that sounds wise, but really is not. And this, in the words of the Apostle Paul, is a wise decision: See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

Second, learning about non-Christian worldviews is a necessary part of a Christian witness. In practice, worldviews function like languages: we make meaning through them and we communicate meaning with them. People with different worldviews, then, are basically speaking a different language. And we cannot effectively share the good news of Jesus with someone unless we speak their language. Understanding other worldviews thus allows us to translate the Gospel into other languages and be effective witnesses for Jesus. Only then can we fulfill our Great Commission mandate: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Third, learning about non-Christian worldviews allows for a reasonable defense of the Christian faith. Scripture and reality both make clear the importance of explaining and defending the truth espoused by faith in the Risen Son of God. Whether in the form of defending against attacks from other worldviews or simply helping to explain the substance of faith or answering questions about why we believe what we believe, this is the task of informed apologetics. Peter calls us to undertake this task in the following way: Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14b-16)

Finally, learning about non-Christian worldviews furthers our spiritual discernment. If we believe that Christianity is more truthful or better suited for life or explains reality more fully, then we need to know how it compares to other ways of framing reality. As Robert Bellah points out, “One can make judgments of better and worse with respect to any religion, but they are more likely to be on point if one has seriously tried to understand them in their own terms.” How do we know? This is the path of discernment, which Paul also talks about: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

For these reasons, it’s appropriate (and necessary) to learn about non-Christian worldviews.

The Importance of Narrative in the Axial Age

This post is the first in a series of reflections concerning “Conceptions of the Ultimate”, the ways in which various world religions conceive of and interpret the Ultimate Being of the cosmos. In today’s reflection I consider some of the implications of the “Axial Age”, a term first coined by Karl Jaspers to designate the period of development among the major world religions, wherein these movements transitioned from “primitive cultures” to developed religions.

World ReligionsIn “What is Axial about the Axial Age?” Robert Bellah argues that the central development of the Axial Age involved the transition from mythic culture to theoretical culture with second-order thinking and ideas concerning transcendence (78). Perhaps the most critical point from this article concerns the ongoing connection between theoretical culture and mythic culture. Throughout the “Axial Age” Bellah argues for a shift from thinking in terms of myth and narrative to analysis steeped in reflexivity and logic, a shift from primarily oral narrative to the use of external memory and graphic invention (79). However, this theoretical turn did not dispense with narrative and mythic culture entirely; indeed, analytic and theoretical thinking were added to the existing narrative worldviews and modified them. Thus, while second-order thinking during the Axial Age gave rise to considerations of the transcendent, these conceptions were ultimately born out a worldview that contained mythic narrative as well as analytical insights. It is within this context of the “radicalization of mythospeculation” that transcendental breakthroughs occurred, not merely with the insights of the theoretical (81). Recognizing the centrality of this point remains key for the study of conceptions of the Ultimate both because it touches upon the cumulative effects of ideas of the transcendent as well as because it notes the centrality of narrative within axial worldviews. Continue reading

Book Review: Religion in Human Evolution (Bellah)

Religion in Human EvolutionRobert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution stands as magnum opus of breathtaking proportions. Developed from the Merlin Donald’s work on cultural evolution, Karl Jasper’s insights on the axial age, and drawing upon a range of historical, anthropological, and biological sources, Bellah traces the evolution of religion within human culture from its origins in primordial play to the theoretical turns of the Axial Age. Central to this argument is that nothing is left behind during the evolution from episodic to theoretical culture through the mimetic and mythic. As a result of this massive study, Bellah argues that the evolution of human religion, which culminated in theoretical religious discourse in axial cultures and refigured preceding mimetic and mythic culture, continues to influence human religion and culture today. Bellah’s latest monograph stands as in-depth treatment of the evolution of human culture that is a must read for those involved in the study of the history and sociology of religions. Continue reading