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What is the Nature of Religion? Worldview

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series

"Worldview-Forming Worship"

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Religion is composed of two parts, the first of which is worldview. A worldview consists of a set of assumptions a person holds about reality; it is a lens through which he understands and interprets everything around him. James Sire has provided a helpful and influential definition of worldview:

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.

Several elements of this definition are important to recognize. First, central to this definition of worldview is that it is “a fundamental orientation of the heart.” In fact, David Naugle has suggested that what philosophers today call “worldview” is essentially equivalent to the biblical concept of the “heart.” He argues, “As the image and likeness of God, people are animated subjectively from the core and throughout their being by that primary faculty of thought, affection, and will which the Bible calls the ‘heart.’” In both the Old and New Testaments, the idea of heart refers to “the central defining element of the human person.” Naugle observes,

In Hebraic thought the heart is comprehensive in its operations as the seat of the intellectual (e.g., Prov. 2:10a; 14:33; Dan. 10:12), affective (e.g., Exod. 4:14; Ps. 13:2; Jer. 15:16), volitional (e.g., Judg. 5:15; 1 Chron. 29:18; Prov. 16:1), and religious life of a human being (e.g., Deut. 6:5; 2 Chron. 16:9; Ezek. 6:9; 14:3).

Likewise in the NT, “the heart is the psychic center of human affections (Matt. 22:37-39; John 14:1, 27; 2 Cor. 2:4), the source of the spiritual life (Acts 8:21; Rom. 2:29; 2 Cor. 3:3), and the seat of the intellect and the will (Rom. 1:21; 2 Cor. 9:7; Heb. 4:12).” Thus, while the philosophical concept of worldview is a relatively recent philosophical development, “what the heart is and does in a biblical way is what the philosophers were getting at unconsciously in coining the term ‘world-view.’” A worldview is not primarily a set of ideas or beliefs; rather, it involves the innate inclinations at our core.

This leads to a second important characteristic of worldview: a worldview is a set of assumptions about the basic constitution of reality. Since worldview is not primarily stated beliefs but rather an orientation of the heart, these assumption about reality are not usually stated or held explicitly; rather, they become formed within us often without any conscious intention. Another word for this is what philosophers have called the moral imagination—an inner image of the world. Everything we encounter filters through and is interpreted by this inner image. Sire provides eight helpful questions that form the presuppositions that lie at the core of our worldview:

  1. What is prime reality—the really real?
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
  3. What is a human being?
  4. What happens to a person at death?
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
  7. What is the meaning of human history?
  8. What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?

Now, in evaluating a worldview, these assumptions can be stated, and as we shall see, we can consciously and intentionally assess and even change our assumptions—we can reorient our hearts. But in the normal course of life, most people do not give careful reflection on these questions or evaluate their worldview; rather, these innermost assumptions about reality, assumptions that orient the core of our being, are naturally formed very early in life based on what we experience in the environments in which we grow; thus, a worldview often develops subconsciously, unless we intentionally reshape our worldview based on other factors.

Third, it is the heart orientation of a worldview that “provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.” The inner image of the world formed within us—our moral imagination—interprets reality and thus affects how we evaluate and respond to what we encounter. It is what motivates and moves us to act in certain ways within the various circumstances of life. This is why the Bible commands, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov 4:23). As Naugle suggests,

From a scriptural point of view, therefore, the heart is responsible for how a man or woman sees the world. Indeed, what goes into the heart from the outside side world eventually shapes its fundamental dispositions and determines what comes out of it as the springs of life. Consequently, the heart establishes the basic sic presuppositions of life and, because of its life-determining influence, must always be carefully guarded.[7]

This is all the case for individuals, but it is also characteristic of entire societies. Because a worldview is a heart orientation formed in an environment, individuals within particular communities tend to develop similar assumptions about reality and thus a collective worldview. It is also important to recognize at this point the possibility that certain worldview assumptions of non-believers can often be very similar to that of a biblical worldview. This is true both since all people are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and because God’s creation provides a general revelation that reveals to all people God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1:20). Unbelievers suppress this truth about God, but nevertheless their assumptions about reality emerge from that suppressed knowledge—they borrow the biblical worldview without even knowing it, and they operate in the world as if God exists while at the same time rejecting him.

For example, throughout most of the course of human history, even unbelieving people have assumed the existence of an immaterial reality that cannot be perceived merely with the physical senses, and therefore they have sought to interpret what happened in the world around them on the basis of transcendent reality, just like God’s people do.

Yet while God’s people share worldview assumptions like this with some unbelievers, ultimately their heart orientation is different, and this is due to a fundamental difference of the second component if religion—theology. That’s our subject next week.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.