In the 1980s Lesslie Newbigin argued that the modern multicultural worldview simply did not have the resources to stand up against absolutist worldviews. Sadly the rise of radical Islam and the results of the EU referendum and US presidential election seem to be proving him right.
As postmodern thinkers have often pointed out, worldviews come at a price. Because they are comprehensive in scope and because they depend on a particular narrative of the world they have a tendency to become absolutist ideologies. They tend to negate all other visions, describing them as deviant or disruptive.
The problem that I am wrestling with is how to resist worldviews-cum-ideologies such as radical Islam and nationalism/ethnicism. Ideals of tolerance, justice and human rights seem to have been jettisoned very quickly by many people. The ‘other’ is being dehumanised so that they can be considered beyond the normal rule of law and as if the normal standards of how humans should treat each other do not apply.
Postmodernism is rightly suspicious of worldviews-cum-ideologies that are totalitarian and seek to destroy difference. Yet encouraging cultural diversity and allowing groups to maintain their own identity also seems to lead to violence as soon as one group begins to feel threatened.
So, I am conflicted. I have a reaction against those who are convinced that the way they see the world is true and that this gives them the right, even duty, to impose their view. But I also recognise that diverse groups do not automatically live easily together if they do not have some over-arching agreed norms. If we are to live together in a shared society it seems there must be some agreed values and morals for society.
So it seems that we do need some sort of agreed worldview, but how can there be a worldview that does not fall into the dangers rightly highlighted by postmodernism? I am writing as a disciple of Jesus Christ, seeking to live with Christ as ‘the clue to history, its source and its goal‘. This is, clearly, a worldview statement. It is a statement that claims a certain understanding of the world, and if true must be true for all people. Unfortunately, there is no denying that this worldview has resulted in oppression and violence throughout the history of the church.
In a worship service recently there was a reflection on Colossians 1:15-23. Here Christ is presented as the image of the invisible God, with all things having been created through him and for him. God’s purpose is to reconcile all things together in him.
This sounds like an oppressive worldview. It comprehensive in scope. It could be seen as attempting to erase all difference. Its followers could be excused for thinking it gave them the right, even responsibility, to actively impose this view on the world and on people.
But what struck me was the image projected while the passage was read. It was a picture of Paul writing these words in a prison cell. The image of powerlessness and suffering was at such odds with the words. This all-encompassing worldview was being written by one who was the victim of the power of the empire. He was writing to a small marginalised group of people within society. This is not a worldview being imposed from a position of power but advocated by those considered as deviant and disruptive by the empire because they refused to bow down to it and its idols.
Christ’s reconciling all things to himself it is not done by crushing people and enforcing conformity – which was basically the Roman Empire’s method of ‘reconciling’ other nations through military action (sound familiar?). Christ’s reconciling all people and all things was done through his own suffering and death at their hands.
This is an all-encompassing worldview, but one which can never be imposed. It is best understood and proclaimed from a position of weakness. It can resolutely stand up against a powerful and resilient ideology, be it presented in the form of the Roman Empire, radical Islam or populist movements. But in responding to and resisting such worldviews, or such people, it does not dehumanise them so that normal rules of justice and human rights no longer apply. It does not seek to crush or annihilate or destroy. And it recognises that in refusing to do so it may suffer terribly.
What this might mean in public policy and practice? A starting point would be that when thinking about the ‘other’, even my ‘enemy’, I must think about and act for their good as well as my own.
Peter McDowell is a member of Contemporary Christianity and works for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. This article is adapted from an entry from his blog belfastexile.co.uk
Peter, I enjoyed your concern about Christianity’s totalising worldview. I wanted to challenge a little on this idea..
“Christ’s reconciling all things to himself it is not done by crushing people and enforcing conformity – which was basically the Roman Empire’s method of ‘reconciling’ other nations through military action”
Paul’s letters were not the only documents circulating in the early church. The Apocalypse of St. John tells a very different approach – it most certainly is a desire to ‘crush’ the city with seven hills and the cry of ‘Come Lord Jesus’ is not simply to usher in the new heaven and the new earth but to brutally and militarily invade, ‘torture’ (ch. 9) and seek ‘vengeance’ on the earth / Roman community (whichever way you look at it the tone is clear).
How can you square that most difficult of circles?
Thanks, Rick for this thoughtful challenge.
I think you are right to point out that there are different perspectives within the Bible. Too often we are uncomfortable with this fact and try to flatten out the differences. I think that it is better to acknowledge that different parts of the Bible were written at different times, by different people, have different emphases and even say different things. We have to wrestle with these differences and with their significance.
We also have to think about the perspective we are reading from. We are reading from a position in which the Church has been in a position of power for hundreds of years. It has been an integral part of western society and has used that power to impose its worldview. That imposition has sometimes been very overt and oppressive, but even when there has not been overt imposition we have spoken and acted from a position of privilege and power. We read the Apocalypse from the perspective of people with power, and quite rightly feel uncomfortable when we see the elements that you have pointed out. We could very easily use those passages to justify the unjustifiable.
However, John was not writing to a church with power. He was writing to the same insignificant and marginal community that Paul was writing to. There simply was no danger of them taking John’s words as a call for them to impose themselves, to ‘crush’ the city etc. For them the message was to continue to be a faithful community living out an alternative to the empire; and alternative that profoundly challenged it through loyalty to the lamb who was slain.
In The Nonviolent Atonement (p 20-33) Weaver gives a reading of Revelation from a non-violent perspective. Although it doesn’t deal perfectly all the problems you mention, it did show me how much my reading of Revelation had been shaped by my assumptions about the Church and power.
As I said, we have to acknowledge the different emphases in the Bible, even the ones we are uncomfortable with. We must wrestle with them. But we must also think about the perspective from which we are reading.
The best place to start is to reject the fiction of ‘absolutist worldviews’ and start talking to people in order to discover the endlessly shifting complexity of people’s views.
For example, the populist movements that you refer to in your last but one paragraph do not constitute a ‘powerful and resilient ideology’. What for example, does the populist Greek movement Syriza – a collection of largely leftist groups including Maoists, Trotskyists and ‘mainstream’ Marxist-Leninists, have in common with the populist French movement Front National? Both are populist movements but the idea that they share a powerful and resilient ideology, despite some shared policy positions, is far from obvious.
(And it shouldn’t need to be pointed out that the ‘multiculturalist worldview’ you oppose to ‘absolutist worldviews’ is itself absolutist.)
Response to “Resisting Without Imposing
Peter brings to our attention an acute dilemma that all post-modernist views of truth and reality face: if relativism (the view that all claims to truth are relative to the times, circumstances, cultures and individuals), then the question arises: whose claim to truth should prevail when two or more claims to truth conflict? The claim that polygamy is immoral and the claim that polygamy is perfectly moral, at least in a society or culture where its members accept is, cannot both be implemented in the same social environment. How does one decide which view should prevail? One way, as Peter indicates, is by imposition by force of one kind or another. In a dictatorship it will be imposed by political and military force whereas in a democracy it will be by the “force” of the majority view. Legalization of gay marriage and the current controversy re Brexit in the UK and continuing controversy re abortion and capiltal punishment in the US provide very good examples.
One writer defines a workdview “as the fundamental cognitive, affective, and evaluative presuppositions a group of people make about the nature of things, and which they use to order their lives.” A naturalistic worldview thus can be contrasted with a supernaturalistic worldview. According to the former, the whole of reality, including human reality, can be understood and explained by means of physical laws and cause-effect. According to the latter, however, there are entities and beings which are non-physical and which affect the operation of the physical universe including the lives and actions of human beings. Both types contain certain “truths” which are common and undenial. A supernaturalistic worldviw does not deny the “truths” postulated by the naturalistic worldview; it simply postulates non-naturalistic phenomena. Throughout human history and even today we find individuals and communities who seek to live and order their lives according to the presuppositions of their worldview.
Both naturalsitic and supernaturalistic worldviews are “absolutist”. Yet most of their followers seem to be able to live peacefully side by side. So where and why the danger of imposition and conflict arise? First reason is, as Peter alludes to, that a worldview can easily become an “idology” and an “ideologue” cannot tolerate differences. A more impostant reason is that a world view contains “moral rules and “moral values” which guide the actions and priorities of the group which seeks to live by those norms. And moral rules, values and norms can conflict. When this happens, then in a pluralistic society there arises the important question of whose values must prevail at any particular time. As opposing values cannot prevail at the same time in the same social circumstances, somehow one set of values have to be preferred and, ipso facto, has to be imposed. Now the question is: how and by whom they can or should be imposed? They can be imposed by one person or a group of persons with the necessary power (as in a dictatorship) or by the agreement of the majority of members or citizens of a polity (as in a democracy).
Peter seems to imply that because such “imposition” is inevitable the whole notion of a worldview somehow can be dispensed with. However, this cannot be done because alternative to having a world view is not to have one. An indivdual without some basic beliefs about the world he/she lives, about what it means to be human and about what is morally right or wrong, will forced to live a life without any direction and aim. And very few human beings can live such lives.
All adult human beings have a world view in one form or another and whether consciously or unconsciously. The antidote to imposition is neither dispensing with worldview altogether nor postmodernism which basically tells us that one’s ideas about the physical and human reality, about moral beliefs and values and about what is or is not important in life, are entirely “personal” choices and one should tolerate and learn to live with other people’s beliefs, values, and preferences. One consequence of this outlook is that, logically, one cannot tell anybody else that certain choices, prefernces and actions are wrong. A moment’s reflection will show that no group or community or society can survive long on this basis.Thisa is so because there are certain beliefs about the world we live in and about human reality which are patently false. Very few nowadays would dispute that we llive in a heliocentric rather than in a geocentric world or in a world which is governed by certain physical laws and constraints rather than in a totally chaotic envirnment. Even in the sphere of morality, no community of human beings can survive where it was morally permitted to take the lives of innocent children soon after birth or torture innocent individuals at one’s whim.
All human beings are “condemned” to have a worldview in one form or another. Rational human beings can live together peacefully without resorting to imposing one’s worldview on others by force provided one holds one’s worldview tentavely and recognizes that one may be mistaken about some of the beliefs one holds, , one is open to alternative points of views and one seeks to persuade others to one’s points of view by rational arguments and discussion.