As we dive into this, the fourth episode of our blog “A Biblical Worldview,” it might be worthwhile to review why we’re doing this at all. Even just a few years ago, it might have seemed unnecessary to cover this topic, as most people in America were either actively engaged in a life bounded by Judeo-Christian values or had absorbed those values through a sort of psychological or spiritual osmosis, creating a reasonably coherent shared worldview. Until recently, even an ardent atheist might form their ethical and moral values based on Biblical precepts and teachings, like the ten commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, even without ascribing any transcendent authority to those teachings.
The old saying “you only see what you are looking at” applies to how our values are formed through the Biblical witness. According to psychologist Jordan Petersen, you can’t see everything – there’s simply too much to see – so you have to prioritize what you see, and that entails an ethical choice – you need to see what’s important to you, so you need to know what’s important to you. For thousands of years, the Bible has provided the framework for determining what’s important, hence the notion of a Biblical worldview.
But in the 21st century, we can no longer take this for granted. Larger and larger segments of our population have no knowledge of the Bible and little regard for the teachings and boundaries it has created. These ever-growing segments are not being taught a Biblical worldview, and thus there are fewer chances to absorb the morals and ethics that worldview teaches. No psychological or spiritual osmosis is taking place. Yet, in order to prioritize what a person sees, the imperative to sort out what’s important remains. With neither a fixed transcendent reference point nor the absorption of Biblical values, a worldview based on humanism, and the philosophical platforms of Freud and Marx, and in the 20th century Derrida and Foucault, has emerged. It is usually referred to as post-modernism, and its implementations are collectively known as “woke.” It provides a direct challenge to the Judeo-Christian worldview. The post-modern worldview is based on the assumption that the drive for power and dominance is the main motivator to life, whereas the Biblical worldview assumes the desire for God is the main motivator. For both worldviews, as for all worldviews, moral and ethical precepts are derived from the underlying assumption.
Nowhere is this collision of worldviews more apparent than in their views of life itself. In the Biblical worldview, life is created and derives meaning not only by the simple virtue of its transcendent beginnings, but also from the sense of a larger ongoing purpose that those beginnings imply. In the post-modern worldview, life is accidental, random, and intrinsically purposeless. The Biblical worldview encompasses some small hope for now but a big hope for forever, whereas the post-modern worldview encompasses hope for now as a self-created delusion, and no hope at all for forever. In the Biblical worldview, each person holds inborn value because they have within them the imago dei, the image of God. In the post-modern worldview each person’s value is measured by their usefulness to the tribe. In the Biblical worldview life, no matter how inconvenient, is intrinsically valuable. In the post-modern worldview, inconvenient or not-useful life is disposable.
Let’s take an example from a worldview that is neither Biblical nor post-modern as a starting point to illustrate the impact of the differences we’ve just described.
In the movie “Seven Years in Tibet” Brad Pitt plays an Austrian who stumbles into the Buddhist nation of Tibet near the end of World War II. In the capital city of Lhasa he encounters the youthful Dalai Lama, and at his request he begins a project to help them build a new building. But as they commence digging the foundation, a problem crops up: worms. The Buddhist worldview includes the concept of reincarnation, and there is always the possibility that any form of life, even the lowliest worm, may be the reincarnation of a grandparent or a friend, thus making it offensive to harm them. In this the Biblical and Buddhist worldviews share, for different reasons, the idea of the sanctity of life. To westerners this scene seems amusing, but we are nevertheless impressed by their commitment to the sanctity of life. Perhaps it’s not our way, we think – our focus is more on the sanctity of human life – but for precisely that reason we can understand and respect the Buddhist’s views.
There is no debate in the Buddhist worldview about when life begins. It doesn’t “begin.” It always has been. Life is a continuum. Each individual “spirit,” (Atman), traverses through many embodiments seamlessly, working out the difficulties of an embodied/spiritual existence through karma. Life is a force that pre-exists the moment when a sperm penetrates an egg, or a heart begins beating, or a fetus achieves viability, or a child is born.
For thousands of years the Biblical worldview has been substantially in accordance with the Buddhist view on the subject of the beginning of life. Perhaps one meaningful differentiator might be that the Buddhist sees the continuation of life, and the Christian or Jew sees the potential for life; but neither sees a fetus as “not-life.” In both worldviews, a miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion is a tragedy: in the Biblical worldview, a unique embodiment of the image of God is lost; in the Buddhist, a sentient being’s spiritual progress (through karma) has been thwarted. Theoretically, In the post-modern worldview, since life has no intrinsic value, the loss of a child would be considered meaningless, but it is just possible that this purist interpretation falters for some when a woman experiences the visceral connection between herself and the child, and the pain when that connection is severed.
A story early in the Bible sets the Hebrew attitude towards children apart from that of much of the ancient world. Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac to prove his obedience to God, and Abraham is ready and willing to do so. The sacrifice of children was not unheard of in the ancient world, but God stops Abraham before Isaac is killed, signaling God’s repugnance to the whole idea of using children as sacrifices. The story tells us a lot about faith and obedience, but it also demonstrates that the imago dei is present and valued in children. Later, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the children to him and exhorts the disciples to have the faith of children, again highlighting the intrinsic value of life. Jews and Christians have taken this concept to heart, particularly as more advanced resources have become available, to place value and meaning on the lives of the disabled and viewing the handicapped as children of God. A person of no utilitarian value is nevertheless honored and nurtured because they too contain the imago dei, and their life has intrinsic meaning because of that.
This leads to the ultimate expression of the Biblical worldview: giving one’s life for the life of others. Christ proclaims this in the Gospel of Matthew, then demonstrates it by giving his life for humanity. This is not a natural impulse for most people until they see value in the other – a child of God worth saving because they are a child of God, even if that entails sacrificing one’s own life. This produces a core conflict between the Biblical worldview and the post-modern worldview, since the latter’s universe is self-created and ascribes no intrinsic worth to the life of another. This is not unlike the dilemma faced by John Yossarian, the protagonist in Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch-22. In World War II Italy the world has gone completely insane, and Yossarian’s main purpose is to stay alive. But as events unfold, he begins to realize that the highest purpose a person can have is risking their own life for the life of another, which is in direct conflict with his stated purpose in life: the preservation of himself. His own, internal, Catch-22, and not too unlike Jesus’ statement “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
For many, the world we live in today has gone completely insane and seems to be governed by ideologies rather than values, where life is nothing more than a utilitarian delusion. The temptation for self-preservation is strong. But if there is one thing made absolutely clear in the Bible, it is that God is pro-life. I use the word not in its current politically charged sense, but as a description of God that is made abundantly clear in the Biblical text. God not only created life, God sustains life, and propels life toward the restoration of a whole and complete relationship with God. In a broken world, humanity makes mistakes or takes deliberate actions that cause us to fall well short of God’s ideal, God’s plainly revealed purposes, and we struggle, as we ought, to find justifications for the taking of another life. We struggle with the ethical boundaries of extending life beyond its natural range with modern technologies as much as we struggle with the ending of a pre-birth life. But the very struggle suggests that, guided by Judeo-Christian values, life has intrinsic worth: not struggling would prove life has no worth. So, it is when we don’t struggle that we have truly turned our backs on God; when we make no pretense at all that life might have intrinsic value.
In the Biblical worldview, instead of a mere utilitarian existence, every life has inherent worth because it is an embodiment of God’s new covenant written, as Jeremiah tells us, on the heart. It is this imprint of the imago dei that allows us to see well beyond a person’s utilitarianism, or lack thereof, and into God’s purposes for humanity.