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