Part III: The Problem With a Universal Christian Worldview
Paul Long tells of the conversion of a chief in the African Congo. Those bringing the gospel demanded that he renounce his charms and medicines before hearing the message, culminating with the destruction of his “life charm”.
“Teller of the Word,” [the chief] said, holding out his little packet in his bony hands, “you have asked the life of Kalonda! This medicine has protected my life from all my enemies for many years. Many still live who hate me and have curses on my life. When I throw down this medicine all their curses will fall on me, my spirits will withdraw their protection, and I will die. But Kalonda is not afraid to die.” As the packet dropped in the dust, the old chieftain straightened to his full height, lifted his old eyes to the distant hills, and waited for death.1
The old man did not die, but went on to put his trust in Christ. This was accomplished through a spiritual power struggle within the worldview of the chief. The power of the medicine, charms and curses was not denied through logical arguments, but was challenged by the presence of Christ. Rather than presenting a universal “Christian worldview” that would, for example, deny the power of human “curses,” the “teller of the Word” brought Christ relevantly into the reality of the chief.
The danger of a universal worldview
The premise that there must be a universal Christian worldview can result in unhelpful conclusions. Those who hold this position can easily consider their own culturally shaped worldview as that one overarching worldview. There is also the danger of becoming selective and reductionist in dealing with the biblical record in order to provide support for this particular worldview. The concept of a universal Christian worldview also obliges them to export those assumptions of reality to others without considering the validity of the values and beliefs inherent within other worldviews.
In addition, those who live within an alternative worldview are forced into a position of rejection and maybe despair, not because they want to reject the truth, but because the truth that makes up their reality is incompatible with this culturally structured “Christian worldview.” They may hear a gospel presentation, but if it is based upon assumptions of a particular “Christian worldview,” it may not be understood or worse, it may simply be rejected as unrelated to their reality.
A fellow missionary in Pakistan prepared the story of Noah’s ark and presented it to her Pakistani colleagues before using it with the intended Muslim audience. When she finished there was an uncomfortable silence. Finally one member spoke up, “You’ve forgotten the most important part. You did not mention the sending out of the dove that came back with the olive leaf!” In editing the story from her own perspective, the missionary had left out that seemingly insignificant detail, which, in the eyes of her colleagues, held the key to the story. Similarly a western application of the story of David and Goliath is usually the idea that if God is with us we can overcome all obstacles. However in a society that is based on concepts of shame and honor, David’s motivation of passion for God’s honor (1 Sam 17:26) is more compelling.
Worldviews provide appropriate diversity
Rather than proposing one ideal Christian worldview that all people need to accept in order to be Christians, it is more appropriate to have the impetus for change come from within cultures as people realize the implications of God’s revelation in Christ within their own context. “Historically, the biblical message has found itself couched without inconvenience in a whole series of worldviews.”2 Aylward Shorter points out that “since the gospel is not itself a culture there can be no question of cultural domination.”3 Therefore the gospel can become relevant within other cultures and worldviews.
In Pakistan when a Muslim becomes a follower of Christ, they do not turn away from the God of Islam whom they know as the sovereign creator. Instead they begin to recognize Allah as their forgiving father through the work of Christ on the cross. Jesus has been welcomed into their worldview and begins his work of transformation.
In the next article I will explore the ways Christ can be Lord in a plurality of worldviews.
- (1) quoted in Hiebert, P. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker. p. 201.
- (2) Taber, Charles R. 1978. The limits of indigenization in theology. Missiology 6 No. 1, Jan.) pp. 203-221.
- (3) Shorter, Aylward. 1988. Toward a Theology of Inculturation. Maryknoll: Orbis. p. 55