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This regular feature is an attempt to provide an elementary Biblical analysis of various topics in Christian theology and practice. We anticipate that this and future contributions will be helpful in explaining fundamental theological issues to those who may be relatively unfamiliar with them.

What in the World is a Worldview?

Norlan De Groot

"Worldview" is one of those terms which is easy to use, but not quite as easy to define. When we hear someone using it, we get a sense of what he means. We understand that he is talking about a perspective, a way of seeing the world. But that is not much help in trying to define what makes up a worldview. It's like the first year theology student who defined "worldview" as "a way of viewing the world." That may be very true, but it is not very helpful.

Perhaps the best place to begin in our attempt to better understand the term "worldview," is to acknowledge that everyone has one. We all have a way of understanding the world. We all have a perspective from which we interpret life.

But as soon as we acknowledge that, we run into a rather difficult question: Just what are we trying to interpret? What questions are we trying to answer?

One early twentieth-century professor of missiology at the Free University in Amsterdam, proposed a solution. In his book, The Riddle of Life, J.H. Bavinck states:

When a person looks at the world round about him for the first time, a multitude of questions throng in upon him from all sides. For the questions that we are concerned with in our lives are innumerable and most of them are so insoluble that, after once having come to grips with them, we seem to feel unable to withdraw from the contest. Indeed, it is not strange that all the people of history have voiced their vexation at being confronted by the very questions which at the moment confront us and which we cannot shake off. Among the vast throng of such questions are a few which particularly occupy our attention and which come back with a monotonous regularity. [1]
Bavinck may have something here. If we want to understand what makes up a worldview, we must begin by understanding what questions a worldview is trying to answer, and particularly what questions come back with, as Bavinck states, "monotonous regularity."

Though the questions we ask are many and varied, they can be concentrated into five distinguishable categories. In another book, The Church Between Temple and Mosque,[2] Bavinck does just that. He calls these categories five magnetic points because men are drawn to them like iron filings to a magnet. These five points cannot be avoided. They are five fundamental questions of life, and as such they make up five fundamental portions of a well developed worldview. Bavinck calls these points: I and the Cosmos, I and the Norm, I and the Riddle of My Existence, I and the Supreme Being, and I and Salvation.

While these questions do not make up any sort of natural religion,[3] they do clearly mark differences in perspective, differences in the way one views the world. By understanding these five magnetic points, we not only come to a better understanding of our own and other's worldviews, but we can also see more clearly the distinct line -- the distinct antithesis -- between a Christian worldview and a non-Christian one.

Bavinck understood the five points in this way:

I and the Cosmos

Every man feels a sense of relationship with the cosmos. He understands himself to be but a particle, an atom in the whole of the universe. But he also knows that he is intimately connected to the universe. He senses that there is no distance between himself and his environment.

A Christian recognizes this as part of his created nature. Certainly, man is the head of creation, but he is still a part of that creation.

I and the Norm

There is some vague sense in man that warns him not to follow his own desires. He senses that there are certain results and a certain order which can only be broken with dire consequences. Paul deals with this in Romans 2:14,15: "Indeed, when Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

I and the Riddle of My Existence

Man is conscious that he is a living, active being. He plans; he acts; he has goals. But he also senses an indefinable something which he is inclined to call fate or destiny. He wavers between understanding himself as a mere particle in the universe determined by the winds of fate and as a free, active being who determines his own destiny, one who is not shaped by the world, but rather, shapes it to his own desires. He stands both within the world and above it.

I and Salvation

Man is continually overcome with the feeling that the world (reality) is not as it should be. It may be hard to define just what exactly is wrong with the world, but there is no question that something is wrong with it. And not only that, but something is wrong with man, himself. Man is not as he ought to be.

Man continually dreams of a better world and a better existence. He longs to be "saved" from what he perceives reality to be.

I and the Supreme Power

As Calvin put it, every man is endowed with a sensus divinitatis which, though not enough to save him, is enough to convince him that there is a Power above and beyond him and also to condemn him for rebelling against this power. Again, we can go back to Romans: "...since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse" (1:19-20).

While Bavinck does not specifically say that these five points make up the fundamental parts of a well-developed worldview, he comes close:

The answer which (man) gives to these questions determines his entire conduct and his attitude to life. Even when he never takes the time and trouble deliberately to ponder on them and to penetrate into them, still his whole way of living already implies an answer, and is an answer. That is why we find these five focus points in every religion and in every human life, even in that of the so-called nonreligious man.[4]

But one must still ask what practical use Bavinck's Five Magnetic Points can be in understanding worldviews. These five points may be fine for helping us acquire a neat, academic understanding of the term "worldview," but what use is this for us in our day-to-day activities and functions with Christians and non-Christians around us?

The most significant help is that they assist to distinguish the spirit of the age. Let's take an obvious example. The New Age movement is a conspicuous, current example of a non-Christian movement. But Christians have been far from unified in their approach and critique of it. Some see it as a well-developed conspiracy, the precursor to the antichrist. Others see it as a somewhat benign fad. Still others see it as definitely unchristian, but nothing worth getting terribly excited over.

How should we approach the New Age? I believe we should start by examining its worldview in light of Bavinck's Five Magnetic Points. That will give us the perspective necessary to know how to deal with New Age and its advocates.

I and the cosmos: Fundamental to the New Age movement is the idea that all is one. Man is not merely connected to the cosmos, man is one and the same with it. Ultimately there is no difference between a man, a dog, or a rock in the field. They are but different manifestations of the same reality.

I and the norm: Many New Age celebrities have beckoned society to a revolution in consciousness. We must not try to go against reality, but must instead enlighten ourselves to the power within us. We cannot ignore this reality without grave consequences. It is a norm that is found within ourselves, but it is a norm, nonetheless.

I and the riddle of my existence: The New Age answer to the riddle of our existence is not that we are created by God, but that we have always existed, and that we always will. We are but manifestations of one continuous reality.

I and salvation: Neither the world nor man is as it should be, but that is not a fault of reality. It is simply due to the fact that we are not as enlightened as we should be. Salvation, for the New Ager becomes a matter of seeking a greater harmony within himself and with the world around him.

I and the Supreme Power: As Shirley MacLaine said so succinctly in her1987 miniseries, Out on a Limb, "I am God!" The Supreme Power does not exist in a being outside of oneself, but rather it is oneself.

That, then, is the New Age movement in terms of Bavinck's Five Magnetic Points. Certainly there are more and different aspects to the New Age movement. But if you want a basic understanding of a New Age worldview, these Five Magnetic Points can be of great help, and if you want to know just how distinctly opposed to Christianity a New Age worldview is, look at these five points. There is no common ground between a Christian worldview and a New Age worldview. The antithesis is wide and deep.

This is but one example of how Bavinck's Five Magnetic Points can be helpful in understanding and critiquing worldviews. They can be just as helpful in dealing with humanism, materialism, Buddhism or any other "ism" currently in vogue today. These five points may not always give us a perfect basis for a critique. But they are a start, a beginning in understanding worldviews as something more developed than simply "a way of viewing the world."


Notes

[1] J.H. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958), p. 7.

[2] J.H. Bavinck, The Church Between Temple and Mosque, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981).

[3] Bavinck put it this way: "These are the five magnetic questions to which man is inevitably drawn. We cannot speak of them as innate ideas, because they are not a sort of natural religion. They are just questions with which man is confronted through the mere fact that he exists and that he finds himself in a world full of riddles and mysteries. These five questions keep him busy whether he likes it or not." (Ibid., p. 33)

[4] ibid., pp. 33-34.


Norlan DeGroot is a graduate of Dordt College and Calvin Theological Seminary and is currently the Assistant Editor of CONTACT magazine
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