Culture Change and World(view)s

Its is duly noted that a discussion of the relationship between language, culture and worldview is necessary in the overall discussion at hand. However, I shall wait for that discussion until a later time. Until then, the following is a continuation of my previous post.

Cultures, and their underlying worldviews, inevitably change. There are several factors that cause cultural change: cultures make advances through knowledge and discovery; also, cultures, through a process called “diffusion” adopt or reject new ideas and practices they find as they encounter other cultures; cultures may also have practices forced on them through “acculturation”, whereby a weaker culture must adapt to customs of living and thinking from a more dominant partner; cultures may rebel against dominant forces.[1] As cultures change, the underlying worldviews change, whether slowly or quickly, depending on the method of change. However, one aspect of a worldview is that is functions to protect the culture from radical shifts that might break the consciousness of a people.[2]

The gospel calls for change, therefore Christianity always has been concerned, more or less, with cultural change. There are many different reasons for this concern, whether due to the associated view of culture itself or to the relationship of Christianity to “other” cultures, or to the biblical concern for transformation and discipleship of the “world,” or because of the missionary nature of the Bible; Christianity is rarely content to leave culture alone. As Christianity has proselytized itself into various cultures, missionaries, as cultural guests, have not always come with the best interests of the host culture in mind. This was increasingly the case from the advent of the modern missionary movement until after the anti-colonial era of missions. Thus, missionaries attempted to enact cultural change less through the vehicles of cultural change like discovery and diffusion but more through the medium of “acculturation”. Benignly, this process has been labeled colonialism, but more acutely, this has been labeled imperialism. Not surprisingly, the colonial era in missions largely coincided with rise of the Enlightenment paradigm.[3]

Even with this history, missionaries concern themselves with cultural change. Ultimately, the gospel demands it. Christianity, by its very nature, is a universalizing religion. Theologians and, especially, missiologists dedicate themselves to understanding how cultures change and to the ways missionaries can and/or should inaugurate such changes. Every major missionary anthropology textbook includes a section on culture change that goes beyond describing how cultures change toward a particular prescriptive methodology. Of these anthropologies, Paul Hiebert advocates inaugurating the change at the worldview level rather than at the level of external cultural forms.[4]

Even so, positing a biblical worldview as the authority for worldview transformation may be dangerous. Worldviews, by their very nature, are particularizing and internally-oriented; the gospel is universalizing and externally-oriented. [5] Thus, with a worldview, there is the danger of universalizing a particular, when the gospel particularizes a universal.[6] There is a difference. Taking a particular worldview then universalizing it tends to erase all distinctives, and thus serves as a totalizing metanarrative. To say that there is a singular biblical worldview is misleading. It implies that all Christians, arising from multiple cultural contexts, will no longer be different. Everyone will think, speak, feel, choose, eat, sleep, relate, etc., exactly the same way. Alternatively, taking a universal world and particularizing it tends to maintain distinctives which serve the universal and that serve other particulars.[7] David Bosch calls the latter “Mission as the church-with-others.”[8] Bosch’s discussion complements the nature of the universalizing “biblical world.” (more on the “biblical world” to follow in later posts). Ultimately, “the church-with-others” at the same time identifies itself in worship of its creator and redeemer and it acts as an agent of transformation of and service to the world.[9] Therefore, Christians from multiple cultural contexts will maintain many of their distinctives while all sharing the same root metaphor that reshapes and reforms their worldview. Thus, the “biblical world” hosts many different worldviews.

The church best performs this service as active participants in the “biblical world” rather than as individuals or communities merely armed with a biblical worldview. The real danger of operating out of a paradigm exalting a single supra-cultural biblical worldview is that one’s horizon may never attain sufficient universality; thus, ones line of vision is not sufficiently broad. Hans Georg Gadamer argues that gaining understanding of a historical horizon “always involves the attainment of a higher universality that overcomes, not only our own particularity, but also that of the other.”[10] In this fusing of horizons, one finds a broader line of sight thus enabling greater understanding.[11] In other words, placing oneself within the horizon of the biblical world draws the reader beyond their own horizon to prevent them from universalizing their own worldview. The danger of interpreting solely from one’s own horizon (worldview) is conflating a biblical worldview with one’s own. In such cases, the authority for change remains, more or less, something other than scripture. The center of change remains ethnocentric. On the other hand, the “biblical world” as “the prior Word and Act of God”[12] stands as the theologico-historical horizon with which all other horizons must be fused. To return to the myth analogy, as an anti-structure, the “biblical world” perfects and improves a worldview, by providing the only real alternative.[13] In this sense, a worldview is transformed by fusion with the “biblical world.”

While the distinction between a biblical worldview and the “biblical world” appears to be nothing more than an argument over semantics it certainly is more. Paul Hiebert discusses a biblical worldview through the same cognitive, affective and moral categories he uses for a worldview in general. As such, he inevitably is selective in the themes he identifies for a biblical worldview. Since every worldview has its own set of themes/counterthemes, Hiebert can only select those themes with the broadest application, for even as Hiebert recognizes that “In one sense, it is arrogant to claim that there is a biblical worldview. Many point out that in Scripture there are many worldviews.”[14] The Bible, arguably, was written over a two-thousand year period by as many as, or more than, forty authors. There may be hundreds of different cultural contexts mentioned and/or addressed in the Bible.[15] Therefore, Hiebert arbitrates which themes are more important than others, in which categories they belong, and how they may be understood by people from different worldview backgrounds. Perusing the themes he identifies will reveal that he chooses only those themes that have been abused more than others by modernity and then offers alternatives.[16] Why are other themes ignored?[17] Certainly it would take a series of books to trace all the themes of a biblical worldview like this, but his choices demonstrate the blind spots that necessarily arise in such a discussion.

To be fair to Hiebert, he argues that diachronic themes are essential elements of a biblical worldview, serving as “root myths” and “root metaphors.”[18] He describes these themes as “charters of life and moral wisdom” and “archetypes of human existence.”[19] In other words, they form a metanarratives (read: world) through which people interpret reality, the foundation for worldviews. “[A] worldview is based on foundational assumptions about the nature of reality,”[20] assumptions located in the root metaphors and root myths. Therefore, Hiebert errs in identifying the diachronic themes as elements of a worldview, since, by his own admission, they stand over a worldview. Rather these diachronic elements function as worldmakers. In that sense, the “biblical world” functions as a meta-world (a meta-metanarrative?) in that it is not confined to one culture or worldview. It is a cosmic story in which all the nations, every worldview, find their true foundation.[21]

Most worldviews, however, are built on counter-worlds that rebel against the “biblical world.” Thus, transforming a worldview will not be successful unless the mythic foundation of that worldview is transformed. The “biblical world” does just that in its movement from universal to particular and back to universal. It draws the reader/actor into action as it “provides direction for the disciple’s (and the church’s) faithful speech and action, direction for embodying the way, the truth, and the life in new situations.”[22] It is performed locally, transforming worldviews from within so that they can participate in God’s dramatic speech-act for the whole world.

The performance of the “biblical world” results in conversion. Therefore, the best method for reaching this end-goal of theology is through participation in the “biblical world” which includes, among other things, worldview transformation. Thus, Hiebert can define worldview transformation as “changes in the fundamental ways in which we configure our view of reality;”[23] this means the refining of the root myths and root metaphors for a worldview. In many ways, Hiebert’s treatment of worldview transformation presupposes a different definition of a biblical worldview than that which he provides. Hence, the necessity of clarifying the terminology.

Therefore, a Christian community does not have to jettison its worldview and replace it with a general biblical worldview. Rather, some cultural distinctives are maintained and others transformed by the “paradigm shift” in root metaphors.[24] On the whole, many of the elements of the worldview that are essential to the culture because of its environment, language, or other neutral structures, are brought into service of the community for the sake of the gospel and for the world.

[1] Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember, Cultural Anthropology, 6th edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall, 1990), 319–25. Cf. Stephen Grunlan & Marvin K. Mayers, Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, 2d edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 80–4; Kraft, Anthropology, 366–74; Luzbetak, Church and Cultures, 306–8.

[2] Kraft, Christianity in Culture, 57.

[3] See Bosch, “Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment”, in Transforming Mission, 262–345.

[4] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 308–16.

[5] Hans Georg Gadamer makes an interesting case for the necessity of “temporal distance” for being able to overcome one’s own prejudices and presuppositions when interpreting a text. If one does not have this distance then, “obviously we approach such creations with the prejudices we are not in control of, presuppositions that have too great an influence over us for us to know about them.” Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 265. The implication for understanding the difference between an internally-oriented worldview and an externally-oriented world does not relate to understanding the differences between external forms and internal meanings. Rather this means that a worldview is too close to its own horizon to properly understand all of its own presuppositions whereas a world maintains the distance between its horizon and others. In this sense, a world is closer to a meta-cultural grid than a biblical worldview. Cf. Hiebert, Reflections on Missiological Issues, 69.

[6] To make this statement is not to negate the movement from particular to universal and universal to particular in the Bible. Rather, this view complements the movement from particular to universal in the text. The text ends up by highlighting the universal which forms a starting point for the world. As Lesslie Newbigin states concerning the doctrine of election, “The one (or the few) is chosen for the sake of the many; the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal.” Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 68. He states further regarding the acts of God in uniting all things in Christ, “The whole action has its origin in the eternal being of the triune God before the creation; it has its goal in the final unity of the whole creation in Christ; and meanwhile the secret of this cosmic plan, the foretaste of its completion, has been entrusted to these little communities of marginal people scattered through the towns and cities of Asia Minor.” Ibid., 71–2. In other words, particular communities are signs of the universal nature of the biblical world. Bosch concurs, “The church-in-mission is, primarily, the local church everywhere in the world.”Bosch, Transforming Mission, 378.  Compare Richard Bauckham who identifies the universal trajectory of particular promises/events in the Bible. Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Bletchley: Paternoster; and Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 27–54.

[7] Christopher Wright summarizes it this way: “This is the grand narrative that constitutes truth for all. And within this story, as narrated or anticipated by the Bible, there is at work the God whose mission is evident from creation to new creation. This is the story of God’s mission. It is a coherent story with a universal claim. But it is also a story that affirms humanity in all its particular cultural variety. This is the universal story that gives a place in the sun to all the little stories.” Wright, Mission of God, 47.

[8] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 368–89.

[9] Ibid., 385–6.

[10] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 272.

[11] Ibid., 273.

[12] Vanhoozer, Drama, 44.

[13] Luzbetak, Church and Cultures, 269–70.

[14] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 265.

[15] For instance, there are the differing cultures of the line of Seth and of Cain after the Garden of Eden, the other antediluvian cultures, the cultures of those living during the time of the flood, the culture after the flood up to the tower of Babel and the resulting cultures afterwards, the cultures of Ur of the Chaldeans, the culture of Canaan, etc, etc. Certainly the culture of Israel was different prior to the Egyptian slavery as that during, from that after, from that after the wilderness generation had died; and all those different from the people exiled to Assyria, Egypt and Babylon which are different that those who return to the land. What of the surrounding nations? There are dozens more in the Old Testament alone. How many does the New Testament address?

[16] For instance, under cognitive themes, he identifies the following: “Creator/Creation”; “Revelation/Human Knowledge”; “Kingdom of God/Kingdoms of This World”; “Organic/Mechanistic”; and “Group/Individual.” Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 268–290. For some of these, the connection to modernism/postmodernism is obvious. For others, his discussions are driving reactions to modernity. In the first theme/countertheme he identifies, “Creator/Creation,” Hiebert begins by refuting the modern dualistic view of reality. This leaves one to wonder what the Bible knows of either modernity or postmodernity. One is left to suppose that Christians must have been out of luck prior to the seventeenth century.

[17] Noteworthy, some of these themes appear in nascent form in Hiebert and Meneses, Incarnational Ministry, 373–5.

[18] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 65–9; cf. 300–5.

[19] Ibid., 67.

[20] Ibid., 84.

[21] This is one of the most important elements of Christopher Wright’s argument in The Mission of God.

[22] Vanhoozer, Drama, 105.

[23] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 319.

[24] Ibid., 320.


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