Since the late 19th century, the concept of a worldview has been an important analytic concept for Protestant Evangelicalism, rooting in the Reformed theology of Scottish Presbyterian James Orr and Dutch Neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, who aspire to a description of Christian faith that was “a robust, systemic vision of the reality” so that Christian could “meet the challenges of the modern world head-on.”1 The concept has become thoroughly diffused witihn the Christian intellectual tradition that it has been taken from it original, ‘rationalist’ presentation of the Christian message in a Calvinist form to a basic building block of historical and theological interpretation of the Bible. Most prominently, n The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright outlines four key features that make up worldviews as the basic presuppositions that determine how people and cultures interpret the world around them: stories, questions, symbols, and praxis.2
However, while Wright’s work on worldview owes to research in cultural anthropological and the social science, the concept of a worldview finds it origins in the Weltanschaung of German scholarship, including notably its one usage by the philosopher Immanuel Kant that Kant’s successors used to refer to the “perspective of the human knower.”5 As anthropologists studied the differences between various cultures more thoroughly, they began to observe the impact that culture had on how beliefs are form.6 Since then, it has been increasingly used to describe the way people make sense of, comprehend, and categorize the world in cognitive terms, as if the way different people and cultures live can be understood through persisting cognitive patterns that generally operate outside of the awareness of the interpreter.
However, the concept of a worldview has not gone without its criticism. James K.A. Smith presents his concerns the modern analysis of worldviews “retains a picture of the human person that situates the center of gravity of human identity in the cognitive regions of the mind rather than the affect region of the gut/heart/body.”7 In place of it, Smith looks to Charles Taylor’s concept of the social imaginary that focuses on the understanding that emerges from particular practices to replace discussions on worldviews.8 Wright’s response to this criticism of worldview is to broaden the concept of worldview to include the affective elements of human life such as desire, love, and worship.9 Wright’s suggesting broadening of the concept of worldview begins to shift the conception of worldview from understand broader cultural patterns of thinking to including the experiential elements of human life, thereby shifting the original purpose of the concept of worldview.
However, instead of broadening the concept of world, as per Wright, or abandoning the concept of worldview, as per Smith, perhaps a better option is to (1) make a sharper distinction between the difference between the shared and diffuses patterns of cognition from the individual experience while (2) recognizing that insofar as a society is able to successful enculturate people within its zone of influence, its members will experience the shared worldview differently. For instance, Christian faith within even the same theological tradition may create different emotional experience from the same share beliefs, such as an emphasis on overcoming anxiety among the more anxious whereas among those who are more ambitious, they may find in Christian faith a storehouse of wisdom for their dreams and leadership. By trying to incorporate the affective into the concept of worldview, we make the concept increasingly unstable in the face of the diversity of human life, affectivity, and experience. On the other hand, replacing worldview with a praxis-oriented conception of social imaginary, we lose a sense of the original ambitions of worldview analysis: to understand the share systems of reasoning people of a culture.
Smith’s mistake, if I may be so bold, is to draw a sharp distinction between affect and cognition, as if affect is the absence of cognition. By contrast, an alternative view of the relationship between cognition and emotion is that while specific cognitive states of thinking do not define our analysis of people’s emotions and affect as we also have behaviors, facial expressions, vocal tone, physiological states, etc. that all fall under different forms of affect, different forms of affect do have corresponding cognitive states that have some sort of mental representation.10 Rather than emotions being non-cognitive, they rather provide a source for specific type of mental representations of the world that are grounded in the present physiological state of the person in relationship to the environment, other persons, and even themselves. As such, affective experiences are different source of people’s mental representations that is available alongside their memories from the past, including their memories that constitute their worldview. Consequently, the mental representations generated by affective experiences can both influence and be influenced by the mental representations that comes from acculturated worldview, leading to people’s cognitive states being a blend of affective experience and worldview.
This distinction between worldview and experience and the unstable, dynamic relationship between the two that allows us make sense of two other observed, social phenomenons: ideology and cultural transformations. On the one hand, ideologies may be understood as those set of ideas and beliefs that have a more or less entrenched status within the members of its society. Ideologies do not simply give us cognitive resources to help interpret the world, but ideologies have the effect of ruling out alternative construals, no matter the circumstance. As a consequence, ideologies often times reject and repudiate any sort of experiences and understanding of those experiences that conflict with the ideology. For instance, with political ideologies, negative feelings of anger and derision towards ruling powers and their philosophies are not just considered unwarranted or wrong, but a source of evil and division. We can understood ideology functioning in this case as an instance where worldview dominates over affective experiences.
By contrast, cultural transformations can occur when worldviews lose their legitimation and status among the members of their society, in which case people’s own experiences become much more important to construing life. The worldview does not simply compete with emotional affectivity, but it is being actively eroded by people’s experiences. Romanticism’s rebellion against the Enlightenment and post-modernity’s incredulity towards the ‘progress’ of modernity represent two instances where people’s own experiences takes precedence over the worldviews.
However, even as worldviews and affective experiences are often conflict with each other like a king seeking to take down a subversive rebellion, more often than not are like two lovers, joined together in an embrace where their hearts and minds can not be readily divided from each other even as they are different, but they must be understood in terms of each other.
This is because worldviews are not just how we make sense of the world in some distant, dispassionate sense, but worldviews are part of our cognitive resources we use to survive and thrive in the world, particularly in the face of threatening experiences of our own mortality. In Shattered Assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman describes a set of assumptions that are part of conceptual system operating outside of conscious awareness that has been variously described (including as a worldview): “developed over time, [the conceptual system] provides us with expectations about the world and ourselves. This conceptual system is best represented by a set of assumptions or internal representations that reflect and guide our interactions in the world and generally enable us to function effectively.”11 These assumptions in the West include beliefs that the world is benevolent and meaningfully, that the self is worthy and that we can control what happens to us.12 However, powerful, traumatic experiences can threaten these assumptions.13 However, one of the problems with Janoff-Bulman’s understanding about the function of these assumptions is that it does not readily explain the trauma that onlookers and supporters of trauma victims who were not directly threatened by an event also experience and who, while empathizing, don’t experience the extreme emotions of those with the trauma experience.
An alternative, based upon Terror Management Theory, is that our worldviews provide us a buffer us from anxities about life, particualry our mortality. Consequently, worldviews may be seen to operate similar to the function of defense mechanisms such as denial, projection, sublimation, etc. by psychoanalysis: to protect a person from unpleasants feelings,14 especially insofar as these unpleasant feelings evoke feelings about our fraility, weakness, incapacity, and mortality. To that end, we may suggest that worldviews actaully function to regulate and modulate our emotional experiences, as the experiene of our more complex emotions are often time contingent upon our cultural learning.15
In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the development and diffusion of worldviews is largely contingent upon the operation of these psychological defenses. Whether it is the more mature and ‘reality’ based mechanism or the less mature variety of defense mechanisms, worldviews are built upon the social ‘oughtness’ of specific types of defense mechanisms that are embedded, diffused, and legitimated by specific stories and practices that are treated as normative. For instance, self-denial of the cross may be understood against hte backdrop of sublimation of one’s own desires for another goal, in which case Christian worldviews reguarly contain elements of sacrifice, selflessness, etc. that give people a greater sense of meaning in the face of difficult trials. As the individual person experiences these stories and practices as addressing their affectively in a positive way, they become more inclined to rely upon them in the future. Repeating this again and again as it is deemed necessary, both by social prescriptions from others and personal direction, will fashion a worldview that is motivated by affective experiences and structured by the defense mechanism that provide a satisfactory emotional regulation.
However, this is not intended to be reductive, as the development of worldviews is only contingent upon the function of defense mechanisms to regulate affect, particuarly negative emotions related to one’s mortality. Cognitive and neural causation can not be reduced to single causal factors that we observe in the world, but that our cognitive and neural states are a conglomeration of many causal factors that impinge upon our experience. As such, one can recognize a critical role of the Holy Spirit in the inculcation of a Christian worldview without reject the psychological element of defense mechanisms. Worldviews are sensitive to various aspects of our thinking and experiences over the course of our lives.
What, however, is at stake is the recognition that worldviews are both responsible for and susceptible to emotionally laden experiences that the worldviews can not account for. Worldviews and affective experiences are not the same, but they have a reflexive causal relationship to each other that both blend and contrast with each other.
If this is the case, then Wright’s response to Smith’s critique of worldview is not necessary, as it is Smith who sets the cognitive functions of worldview against affective experience, working under the (Cartesian inspired?) dualistic separation of cognition and emotion. Rather, there are both synergistic and agonistic relationship between worldview and affective exerience in which both ‘contribute’ mental representations that influence the contents of our cognitive consciousness in a bottom-up manner. Then, worldviews and affective experience can indirectly influence each other in a top-down manner, in which the contents of consciousness modify affective experience and/or the encoded memories responsible for the worldview. The experience of tension between worldview and affective experience in the contents of consciousness would approximatley reflect the psychological tensions between the super-ego and id in Freudian psychoanalysis, but yet also recognizing that worldview and affect can also function synergstically (which Freud’s psychoanalytic theory does not readily allow for).
If this is the case, then one way we can relate worldviews and affectivity is through theorizing how the elements of worldviews, such as narratives and practices, embed specific ways of thinking that function to encourage and activate specific type of defense mechanisms in response to anxieties and threats to the well-being of (1) oneself, (2) people upon whom one feels dependence, and (3) the environment they depend upon for their well-being.