The Right Concept is Worldview

In my previous post, I made an argument for the logical truth of the proposition that all politics are religious. In this post, I want to build on that argument by suggesting that the concept that fully describes the point that all politics are religious is worldview.

The concept of a worldview is not one that most people give much thought to–we’re used to describing ourselves as either religious or non-religious, and we leave it at that. However, just leaving it at that creates a serious problem for my argument that all politics are religious. It’s a serious problem for my argument because all someone would have to do to try to refute my argument is claim to be non-religious, affirmatively irreligious, or actively anti-religious in order to assert that their political views couldn’t possibly be religious in origin. To overcome this possible objection, I need to clarify my argument by being more precise.

Although I still stand by my original claim–that all politics are religious–I don’t mean religion in the colloquial sense. Rather, I mean worldview in the sense that all of us, whether we’re religious or not, have basic presuppositions and assumptions about reality, about the universe, and about our place in the real universe that answer questions about ultimate things. These are questions that we typically think of as being fundamentally religious in nature.

  1. Why is there something rather than nothing?
  2. What is the purpose of this something existing rather than nothing?
  3. Why is it universally felt that there are things flawed about the way things currently exist?

Although we think of such questions as being religious in nature, one does not need to be religious to either ask or answer these questions. I’d even hazard the assertion that these questions are basic to being human. They are also logically structured in that question 1 above naturally leads to question 2 and question 2 naturally leads to question 3. Of course, it should also be clear that these questions do not exhaust the extent to which we, as humans, sort-of naturally speculate on such metaphysical topics.

The way one answers these questions is essentially what I’m referring to as worldview.

The Christian philosopher, Douglas Groothuis, defines a worldview as a “hypothesis (or metanarrative) that attempts to explain what matters most.” Although this isn’t the only definition of worldview, it’s probably the best one because it gets to the heart of what our worldview does for us: it helps us understand and predict the drama or story in which we’re all playing a part.

Whether or not we realize it, we all tend to describe ourselves and our lives in narrative terms. We tell our story, which links us to others’ stories, which links us together into a larger story, and so on.

Some of us, like myself, tell a theistic story. This story begins and ends with a Divine Being who can see, know, narrate, react to, and write himself into all of the other stories, big and small. In this story, all of the other stories–mine, yours, America’s, and the world’s–are all sub-plots in God’s story. And because I’m a Christian, I’m convinced that God’s story revolves around one central character’s story: Jesus Christ. Or, perhaps more accurately and logically stated: I am a Christian because I’m convinced that the story–the metanarrative in Groothuis’ terms–that best explains the world as we experience it is the story of God and his Son. This story is, of course, associated with a distinctly religious perspective insofar as believing this story prompts a particular response to the story.

My overarching point is that, even if someone doesn’t see themselves as explicitly religious, they do behave in response to the story that they believe best explains, at least theoretically, the world as we experience it. We all have a general idea of what history’s narrative arc is or ought to be. For example, one of the best-known, recent remarks in this regard is Barack Obama‘s assertion that “[e]ven though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”

Now, as a Christian, as a mere statement, I cannot help myself from agreeing with the former President. The “arc of the moral universe” does, in fact, “bend toward justice.” Where President Obama and I are likely to disagree is on how one conceives of the moral universe and how one defines justice.

My point is not to get into the weeds on these definitions here. As I stated, my point is to clarify and refine my argument that all politics are religious. And as far as it goes, how one conceives of the moral universe and, consequently, how one defines terms like justice are fundamentally religious questions because they get to the heart of one’s worldview.

When a writer of fiction crafts a complicated, sophisticated story (Dostoevsky, in particular, comes to mind) they must ensure that the sub-plots, plot twists, and individual behaviors of characters cohere to the larger plot–and narrative arc–of the story. My point in introducing worldview–and particularly Groothuis’ definition of the term–is to draw attention to the fact that we all do this in our lives. We all have some conception of what the world’s and universe’s metanarrative is or ought to be and we adjust our own behaviors in order to conform ourselves to that metanarrative. Our behavior–the plot twists and sub-plots of our lives–must in some way fit within the larger story we think is being told. This even holds true for the postmodernist assertion that no such metanarratives exist or that, even if they do, one ought to reject them. In such a case, the story within which the “moral arc of the universe” is revealed is severely restricted to whatever narrative exists in our own individual minds. This, perhaps more than any other possible explanation, gives insight into why so much of our ethical (and therefore political) discourse appears incoherent and inconsistent.

But more on that later.

For now, I’ll end on this point:

In his book Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis points out that all of the political ideologies operative in our world over the last two centuries are, in the end, moral metanarratives. In some sense, they all tell a religious story that tries to explain the reasons why the world is in some sense not right in its current state and what we ought to do to fix it. Ultimately, however, what these political ideologies amount to are stories of self-deception that we use to convince ourselves that we’re in control, that things are getting better, and they’re getting better because of what we believe, think, and do.

And whether you want to call these perspectives religious or not, that’s precisely what they are because they’re attempts to answer fundamentally religious questions. But if you don’t like that, then call them worldviews, because that’s what they are, too. We’re all believers in some kind of story and we all see ourselves as characters in that story. And whether you get your story from the Bible, Karl Marx, or from some other place or places, you’re still trying to tell a story. You’re still trying to tell the story of how you view the world. And you can only view the world from outside the world, and the only way to get outside the world is to adopt a perspective–a view–of the world that is, in the end, religious.

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