by Natun Bhattacharya
A medical missionary in the former Zaire, while teaching about preventing internal parasites, was interrupted by the poignant question of a village elder: “But, Doctor, why try to get rid of sickness? We have always been sick. It is the will of God.”
A medical missionary in the former Zaire, while teaching about preventing internal parasites, was interrupted by the poignant question of a village elder: "But, Doctor, why try to get rid of sickness? We have always been sick. It is the will of God."
Though surely unaware of it, the elder was not only vocalizing his own tribe’s view of the supernatural and human helplessness, he was also articulating the perspective of most of the non-Western world on this issue. This viewpoint stands in sharp contrast to the naturalistic and mechanistic worldview of the Western world, which encourages an analytical approach to life and seeks to categorize and discover the cause and effect of all that happens around us.
WHAT IS WORLDVIEW
The assumptions arising from our worldview affect not only the supernatural but nearly all areas of our everyday life. A missionary, confronted with a worldview radically different from his or her own, may deem it unreasonable and inferior. Often we emphasize the need to understand cross-cultural differences yet do not seriously strive to comprehend the deeply rooted worldview assumptions that overarch the culture.
What is this thing called worldview? Norman Geisler compares worldview with "tinted glasses" through which people see the world, or as a grid through which life is screened. Elaborating on Geisler, David Hesselgrave comments, "Everything is given the tint or hue of whatever particular ‘worldview glasses’ the person happens to be wearing. Moreover, since the vast majority of people are used to one pair of glasses from the time of their earliest recollections, they are not predisposed even were they able to lay those glasses aside (even temporarily) in order to look at the world through another pair of glasses."
Worldview is the sum of one’s beliefs about the most significant issues of life. We are not usually aware of our worldviews or those of others. Growing up in a traditional Hindu community, I didn’t really reflect on why Muslims lived so differently. Only after I left home, away from the confines of my own cultural context, did I begin to form theories about our differing ways. Such is the implicitness of worldview. Collectively and individually, we possess a set of assumptions that we cannot readily articulate. Nevertheless these create a coherent belief system. Ronald Nash calls this coherence a "conceptual scheme," or a pattern of ideas by which we interpret and judge reality.
COMPREHENDING WESTERN WORLDVIEW
Many worldviews have contributed to the modern Western way of thinking. Although Christian theism was foundational, the later influence of naturalism has also left its imprint. James Sire suggests that naturalism and many other world-views, such as deism, nihilism, existentialism, and more recently Eastern pantheistic monism and New Age thinking, have shaped Western thought. A North American raised and educated in such a context is subtly and subconsciously influenced by secular naturalism as well as other prominent streams of philosophy. One’s religious, socioeconomic, educational, and family background further adds to the formation of one’s worldview. When we talk about a "biblical worldview," we may doctrinally know what the Bible teaches on the concepts of the supernatural, eternity, the role of God in creation, human relationships, and such, yet our hermeneutics and application of these truths may be perceived through the "glasses" with which we have been brought up.
For example, consider how cultural influences such as empiricism or individualism may affect our everyday life, our relationship with our fellow human beings, and our general perception of reality. The logical, analytical, linear, and extremely systematic way of perceiving the world and "doing theology" do not necessarily match the biblical way of viewing the world. This tendency toward analysis and linear thinking is best reflected in the way systematic theology is taught, in contrast to the relatively "disorganized" way various issues are presented in the Bible. Peter Chang uses the metaphor of the botanical garden to describe how the Western theologian labels and categorizes biblical topics. This contrasts with how the Bible writers scatter truths in a rather unsystematic way. Certainly their Hebraic worldview came into play in their writing.
Likewise, when a missionary from the West encounters people from radically different worlds of thought, the perplexity begins. Cultural behavior patterns often seem haphazard. Having the insight to translate these patterns in the context of the worldview of the host country can open new doors for communication. Quite possibly a lack of understanding may originate from ethnocentrism, a genuine inability to adapt to the deeply rooted belief system of the host country, or perhaps the assumption that the host country’s apparent affiliation with Western technology, language, or popular culture implies acceptance of the Western worldview.
BUILDING A BRIDGE TO OTHER WORLDVIEWS
How do we enter another person’s worldview? Can anyone really take off his or her tinted glasses and replace them with someone else’s lenses? We may never totally be able to do this, yet we can launch a journey toward greater worldview understanding. This pilgrimage is crucial to disciple-making and the establishment of a contextualized church. Abiding fulfillment comes from knowing that a connection of hearts is taking place, both in personal relationships and in ministry.
As we embark on the journey to another worldview, we must assess our own worldview. Having assessed our worldview, are we moving toward transformation? Is our worldview changing in extrabiblical areas of life and ministry? In an article I wrote with Tom Eckblad, we told about our own change of worldviews as we deeply immersed ourselves in two cultural contexts. At a training session for prefield missionaries, I used a questionnaire to stimulate the participants to investigate their own worldviews. One of the multiple-choice questions was this: A man driving up a steep Colorado mountain road was hit head on. Instead of dying, he survived with just minor injuries. Why?
Then I listed four possible answers: (1) The sovereign God was watching over him and performed a miracle; (2) He was extremely lucky; (3) A careful examination of all conditions (kind of car, safety features, weather, speed, the severity of impact) will provide a rational explanation of why he was not fatally injured; and (4) It is a mystery which defies any explanation.
I was amazed at the diversity of answers given. Some commented they had not really thought of the worldview issue behind their answers. When confronted with a crisis or dealing with the unexpected, what framework do we use to explain it? What is our personal and collective value system? How do we respond to others who have a very different system of belief and behavior? If we seek to perceive the difference in perspectives on life through understanding the overarching assumptions of the people, then it serves as a bridge to other worldviews. When we deal with tensions of linear versus cyclical; orientation to past versus orientation to future; a passive, fatalistic outlook versus taking control of life and seeking to change its course; or viewing the supernatural world as an incomprehensible mystery versus seeking to find a rational explanation for it; then understanding the beliefs behind the behavior of people in the host culture will unlock doors never before entered.
The continuing transformation of worldview to conform to God’s design should be our objective, not just for the people we seek to reach, but for ourselves as well. As Paul Hiebert accurately observes, "We are part of the worldview we have, but we must continually examine that worldview in the light of the Scripture and consciously work to change its understanding of reality."
Returning to the village elder in the former Zaire, we may not concur with his fatalistic view of illness, but we should seek to understand "where he is coming from." With that understanding, we then proceed to a meaningful dialogue with him, and ultimately to a declaration of the glory of the God of the Bible-in terms he can understand.
1. Quoted in Daniel E. Fountain, "Why Africa’s Transformation Waits," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July 1996, p. 322.
2. Norman Geisler, "Some Philosophical Perspectives on Missionary Dialogue," Theology and Mission, David Hesselgrave, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1978), p. 242.
3. David J. Hesselgrave, "Worldview and Contextualization," Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1981), p. 400.
4. Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), p. 16.
5. James Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
6. Peter Chang, "Steak, Potatoes, Peas and Chop Suey: Linear and Nonlinear Thinking in Theological Education," Evangelical Review of Theology, October, 1981.
7. Natun Bhattacharya and Tom Eckblad, "Towards a Biblical Worldview: Reflections of a South Asian and a North American," International Journal of Frontier Missions, April-June, 1997, p. 88.
8. Paul G. Hiebert, "Conversion and Worldview Transformation," International Journal of Frontier Missions, April-June, 1997, p. 85.
Natun Bhattacharya worked in a cross-cultural ministry in Northeast India among various Indo-Chinese tribes as well as on an Operation Mobilization team. He also served with OC International as a missionary in the Intercultural Ministries/USA Department. Natun was also a campus minister for International Students, Inc. He is now on the staff of Mission Training International (Colorado Springs, Colo.), actively involved in the training of missionaries. He earned an M.Div. from Northwest Baptist Seminary (Tacoma, Wash.) and a M.A. from the University of Northern Colorado (Greeley, Colo.).
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