Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Worldview Approach to Culture: Assumptions, Shortcomings and Benefits

Last Friday and Saturday I participated in the final classes of the Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics course at the seminary, led by Robert Priest of Trinity. One item of discussion was the worldview approach to culture. Evangelicals tend to utilize this particular approach to culture in general, as well as various new religions and world religions as well (consider Jim Sire's book The Universe Next Door as an example). What follows are notes from Priest on the topic.

Priest noted that a worldview approach to culture is affirmed by a minority of anthropologists, but is used by a majority of missiologists and evangelicals who think about culture. The worldview approach to culture assumes that the order observable in culture is primarily cognitive and rational; that such order is related to basic philosophical categories; that such worldview order is deep, implicit, assumed, and largely unconscious; and it assumes a direction of causality in which cognitive order provided by worldview determines other things. Worldview is the base, the first cause, the primary root.

Priest continues by describing the worldview perspective on persons whereby it assumes they have a strong drive for rational order and consistency, and also assumes that humans act rationally, given their cognitive assumptions.

Moving to a theoretical critique, Priest notes that many times culture is shaped by other forms of order, other organizing principles than that of cognitive order. He also states that even the cognitive order which is there is grounded in and shaped by metaphor, symbol and story rather than by abstract rational thought. He continued by noting that human action and speech is often less rational and less rationally determined than is often thought.

In terms of methodological problems, Priest noted that worldview analysis tends to be removed from lived reality. It is often abstract and distant from the data. Other approaches are more closely tied to the data and the method of engaging data. He notes the problem of etic (outsider's perspective) as the starting point, and the propensity to privilege the intellectual's explanations and justifications as the correct ones.

In terms of missiological problems with the worldview approach to culture, Priest states that the language of worldview frames things in philosophical terms, as a question of truth or error. If every cultural difference is thought to be the result of a worldview difference, then every cultural difference invites people who think they have the right worldview to enter into judgment.

Priest concluded this discussion by stating that worldview analysis is valuable if:

1. Worldview is treated as one kind of order, not the only kind of order.
2. If direction of causality is understood to move in more than one direction. It is one contributor to action, not the only or necessarily the primary contributor in any given situation. Much of culture is not contingently dependent on a particular worldview.
3. If it is studied by sophisticated anthropologist with profound knowledge of culture at multiple levels. (It results from multiple research steps beginning with empirical.)
4. If it includes a judicious mix of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspectives.
5. It is especially important in context where systematic efforts at rational order are pursued by members of the society.

As I reflected on this discussion I noted the importance of its application to both missional expressions of church in Western culture, as well as to engagement with the cultures of new religions and alternative spiritualities. Evangelicals can benefit from considerations of worldview, but we must also recognize its limitations, and balance it with other considerations in order to arrive at a full orbed understanding of the culture's we seek to engage.


Jeff Downs said...

I'm not sure if I really got anything from this post. I understand you are summarize Priest's position, but you did not interact with the statement you posted, you just bought into it.

Being presuppositional in my apologetic, dealing with non-believers' worldviews are key in most respects. Again, this is one area that you and I somewhat see eye to eye on, but for some reason we depart as well.

This is certainly nothing new as the reformed community (presuppositionalist) have been steeped in worldview analysis for a long time. Most have not deal with NRMs though, which is where I've been trying to do some work and encouragement.

I disagree with Priest on his dichotomy between the different orders. There is no reason to separate what he seems to think are different orders, from a worldview. So, for me, #1 is not valid, which seems to entail #2.

Actually, come to think of it...I think all 5 you list are bunk, plain and simple. I hate to be so crude about it, but they are off base.

If you have been helped by this, I guess that's good, but I already stated what I think about it.

John W. Morehead said...

Jeff, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I find your reply fascinating and illustrative of problems in the countercult (no surprise there, eh?).

First, I included Priest's outline with little personal commentary in an attempt to allow readers to reflect on it and apply it to their own contexts without predjudicial commentary from me. For the record, I believe Priest is correct in his understanding and assessment of worldview and culture.

Second, regardless of whether one approaches the topic from a presuppositionalist framework or another, we simply have to be willing to reassess our assumptions and presuppositions against the empirical data. I recognize that this runs counter to your presuppositionalist framework, but the refusal to consider the insights of anthropology and other social sciences harms your credibility, limits your views on the topic, and robs those you minster to of the benefits of a more holistic perspective from which you can minister to them.

As to calling Priest's five conclusions "bunk," I am amazed that someone with no study and training in anthropology and who has presumably not read the relevant literature or done the fieldwork on the topic can read a blog post and make a blanket judgment and sweeping dismissal opposing someone with a Ph.D. in anthropology and who has done extensive enthnographic work in the mission field. This, unfortunately, speaks for itself.