Regular readers of this blog will know that I am currently working my way through N.T. Wright’s book The New Testament and the People of God. I have blogged several different times about how informative I’ve found Wright’s epistemology to be, especially in regards to worldview and story. Today’s post is no exception. In chapter 5 of this work Wright expounds on how the discipline of theology interacts with the other disciplines of worldview/story and history.
In doing so Wight explains how theology answers certain questions that naturally arise in a culture. However, cultures don’t usually speak about their underlying theological presuppositions in dialogical terms. Rather, Wright claims, theology, which answers key worldview questions, is normally spoken of in and through cultural narratives and stories.
Previous posts that I have written have gotten at this same point but from a slightly different perspective. In previous posts I’ve spoken at some length about the relationship between worldview and story. What’s different here is the infusion of theology into the mix. Theology holds a unique place in a worldview construct. It holds the place of answering questions about the world that do not usually present themselves in everyday discourse. The questions that theology answers are questions about origin, problem, purpose, and end. Where did we come from/who is God? What went wrong/sin? Why are we here? Where are we going?
With theology now in place, Wright offers what I am calling a fourfold worldview. This fourfold worldview construct is made up of four different parts that interact with each other and play off of each other in organic and complex ways. You will come to find that worldviews are not simple things. Rather they are rich and complex and made up of varying relationships between the following four parts: Stories, theological questions/answers, symbols, and praxis/way-of-being in the world. Here’s how Wright puts it (this quotation is long but well worth your attention so read carefully):
First...worldviews provide the stories through which human beings view reality. Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark...Second, from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence: who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution?...Third, the stories that express the worldview, and the answers which it provides to the questions of identity, environment, evil and eschatology, are expressed in cultural symbols...All cultures produce and maintain such symbols; they can often be identified when challenging them produces anger or fear. Such symbols often function as social and/or cultural boundary-markers: those who observe them are insiders, those who do not are outsiders. And these symbols, as the acted and visible reminders of a worldview that normally remains too deep for casual speech, form the actual grid through which the world is perceived. They determine how, from day to day, human beings will view the whole of reality. They determine what will and what will not, be intelligible or assimilable within a particular culture. Fourth, worldviews include a praxis, a way-of-being-in-the-world. The implied eschatology of the fourth question ('what is the solution?') necessarily entails action. Conversely, the real shape of someone’s worldview can often be seen in the sort of actions they perform, particularly if the actions are so instinctive or habitual as to be taken for granted. (pg. 123-124)
Like I said, the quote was long but worth your time! The worldview that a culture holds is one that is expressed through narrative and/or story. These stories, in one way or another, are answering the theology questions about “who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution?”. The grid through which these stories are expressed is through certain symbols (a flag, an institution, a holiday, a rite of passage). Finally, all of these things imply (and are formed by) a certain way of living in the world, a praxis.
Wright goes on to expand on how each of these four areas of worldview tend to play off one another and help form each other. All of these things are crucial to be aware of when examining one’s own worldview or the worldview of another culture or of another period of time (all of which Wright aims to do in this work).
Our modern world is plagued with many ills but there are two that I believe such knowledge addresses. On the one hand we, as a culture, have next to zero self-awareness. From the stories we tell to the symbols we see and express them through we are completely blind to many of the worldview assumptions that we hold without knowing we hold them. Understanding the worldview of the society one lives in can be helpful to seeing the places where the worldview is wrong and therefore look to avoid such error.
On the other hand, and because of the first issue, we tend to impose our own worldview on other cultures and on other periods of time. This is something C.S. Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery”. What this means is that we tend to think that our way of thinking is the best way of thinking and therefore we impose that way of thinking on to other periods of time. We assume that our questions and problems were necessarily the same problems that people living thousands of years ago had. This is hubris at a debilitating degree. Further, it cripples much of our study of the Bible. Something that Wright is keen on correcting in this book.
Food for thought.