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How Does Worldview Differ From Cultural Environment?

Confusion about the difference between worldview and cultural environment has been a stumbling block for Christian apologetics

5 Worldview vs. Cultural Environment

By now it will be apparent that a cultural environment differs from a worldview. Let’s say a bit more about that difference, because it is important. A cultural environment applies corporately to the group or community in which one resides. On the other hand, a worldview is, in the first instance, held individually, though it can be shared and therefore held corporately. Thus we may speak of “the Christian worldview.” One’s worldview is the set of beliefs that one holds about what the world is like. As such, it doesn’t distinguish between beliefs that are held intensely and those that are held more lightly. It doesn’t distinguish between beliefs that are non-negotiable and those to which we pay lip service.

A cultural environment, by contrast, emphasizes the deeply entrenched cognitive and moral commitments by which we make sense of life because of our shared life with others. Much of the ideational content of a cultural environment is tacit, though careful inquiry can help make it explicit. In any case, a cultural environment tends to be far more influential than a worldview. We see this when words and actions collide. Born again Christians, for example, hold, as part of their worldview, that marriage is sacred. Yet divorce among them is as prevalent as elsewhere in the culture. Nor do they attach to it much of a stigma. The prevalence and widespread acceptance of divorce among Christians reflects less on their worldview than on their cultural environment.

Confusion about the difference between worldview and cultural environment has been a stumbling block for Christian apologetics. A worldview is essentially a set of propositions, and propositions are properly dealt with by placing them in contradistinction to other propositions and arranging them in arguments. A cultural environment, by contrast, is much more organic. It lives and breathes. Propositions and arguments play some role in them, but imagination and narrative play an even stronger role in them.

Ask yourself about the increasing opposition to abortion over the past years, which is perhaps one of the few issues where we’ve seen positive progress of late. Apologetic arguments about life beginning at conception and humans being made in the image of God have, I submit, played a minimal role here. Much more powerful has been the use of ultrasounds and other imaging techniques to show the fetus’s human characteristics, its ability very early on to experience pain, and the horrendous violence that abortions produce. Apologetics, to be effective, needs to focus less on logical analysis and more on retraining the imagination of the culture. I’ll return to this point.

6 The Temptation of the Ghetto

When I taught apologetics at seminary, I would stress to my students that in doing apologetics, they needed to get out of the ghetto. Granted, the very term “ghetto” is deeply offensive. But I was trying to make a point and focus my students’ attention. There are less objectionable terms that make the same point. But the less objectionable terms merely soft-pedal the point at issue, and that point is sufficiently grave that it needs to be made starkly. In any case, I’ll stick with the term “ghetto” because the day is far spent, the night is approaching, and there’s no point in mincing words.

The fact is, we as Christians are easily tempted to get comfortable in a ghetto. But a ghetto is not the actual cultural environment where all the real apologetic work needs to take place, and at some level we always recognize this fact. The ghetto is a cozy little enclave within a larger cultural environment (hence we also refer to it as a subculture). In a ghetto, we can all get comfortable, we can all speak the same language, and, provided the cultural environment doesn’t challenge us too harshly, to say nothing of actively persecuting us, we can all go about our business and live reasonably contented lives, convinced that we’re all good Christians doing the work of God.

Unfortunately, if the broader cultural environment that includes our ghetto is going to hell in a handbasket, as it often is, we are fooling ourselves if we content ourselves with simply living in the ghetto. Some Christian denominations are so large that people can live their entire professional lives in it, and largely sidestep the broader issues of their broader cultural environment. But a large ghetto is still a ghetto, and redemption never happens inside a ghetto but only by going outside it and reclaiming the larger cultural environment for Christ. This is God’s world. The cultural environment ultimately belongs to God. And our task as Christians is to redeem as much of it as we can, subject of course to the fallenness of the world.

Once we realize that we are not called to live in a ghetto, certain misconceptions that hamper Christian apologetics lose their hold. If we mistake a ghetto for our larger cultural environment, then we are likely to draw invidious comparisons between the structures and institutions within the ghetto versus those of the wider culture. Consider, for instance, the inferiority complex of many Christian colleges and universities, and the consequent diffidence with which they pursue Christian apologetics. These schools know that our culture does not put them in the same league as the elite schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. But by being content to reside in a Christian ghetto, they aspire for at least some grudging recognition from these elite schools, and any such recognition requires playing by their standards, and these standards are invariably corrupt. In particular, these standards will give short shrift to a robust Christian apologetics.

Yet rather than seek the approval of these elite institutions, Christian colleges and universities, if their claim to be Christian amounts to anything, should strive to boldly assert and justify Christian truths and to attain a level of scholarship that matches or exceeds the best that is available among the elite schools. Our work as Christians, and especially as Christian apologists, should be so good that it deserves to be called excellent by our cultural environment even if that environment is hostile and in the end denies us that approbation. The Christian academy is called to be excellent not by aping the secular academy but by setting an intellectual agenda that combines outstanding scholarship with distinctives that clearly advance Christian truth in the cultural environment.

I said earlier that truth is never enough. That’s right if we think of truth as simply stringing words together to form true propositions, and thus think of truth in the abstract with little connection to life as it is actually lived. But there’s another sense in which truth is enough and apologetics is all about truth provided we are talking about truth as residing not just in the mind but also in the heart, as challenging a corrupt cultural environment with boldness and courage, and as delivering that truth in a way that the corrupt cultural environment cannot ignore. In Luke 21:15 Jesus describes giving his followers wisdom that none of their adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. Such practical wisdom needs to be part of apologetics. It’s not just about uttering the right words in the right order, but about implanting them in a cultural conversation where they cannot be ignored and where they make a difference. Christian apologetics, if it is to rise above idle chitchat, needs to persuade and influence.

Next: How do we get from apologetics to rhetoric?

The entire analysis is here.

Here’s the first portion (Parts 1 and 2) published at Mind Matters News

What makes arguments for God convincing — or not? Is truth enough? A look at the unfulfilled promise of Christian apologetics: Christian apologetics has, in my view, mainly been in the business of playing defense when it needs to be playing offense.

Here’s the second portion (parts 3 and 4): Is truth just what your peers will let you get away with saying? Sound, logical thinking is NOT the norm. Many people, anxious to remain in good standing with leaders and influencers, live quite happily with incoherence and inconsistencies. Christian apologists should recognize that incoherence and inconsistencies only become a problem in most people’s thinking when they hinder their lives.

William A. Dembski

Founding and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Distinguished Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.

How Does Worldview Differ From Cultural Environment?