Years ago as a theology student, one way to make an impression in seminars was to drop into the conversation a heavy-sounding (usually German) theological term. A particular favourite was ‘weltanschauung’, literally meaning ‘worldview’, A ‘weltanschauung’ was a comprehensive set of ideas about the nature of reality, the way things are. Academic theologians were fond of discussing how the way we see things – what our personal, cultural worldview is – affects the way we understand how Christian faith has developed, how we read the bible and therefore what we should believe and how we should live.
So, for example, a characteristic of the worldview of Western culture in the Middle Ages was that the earth stands at the centre of the universe, and the sun, stars and planets revolved around it. Beyond the sky was the dwelling place of God and his angels. It wasn’t so much a belief as something taken for granted, as ‘the way things are’. It was “what everybody knows”
Likewise, using genealogies in the book of Genesis, it was possible to calculate when the world was created. One scholar even calculated the exact day: Sunday, October 23rd in the year 4004 BC. In the medieval, or pre-modern, worldview, everything was based on the bible: it provided factual information about the past, and described how life was essentially a three-act drama. Act one was the fall of Adam and Eve; Act two was the coming of Jesus to atone for sins that began with Adam and Eve: Act three would be the second coming of Jesus and the day of judgement. All of this was taken for granted by virtually everybody.
So it is no wonder that the coming of the age of science and modernity caused such upheavals in the ways men and women thought about the world they inhabited. When science clearly demonstrated that the world was much older than calculations based on Genesis suggested; when the process of creation was a matter of billions of years, not six days; and when the stories of Adam and Eve were shown to be mythical stories (expressing deep truth but not dependent on the fact of there ever having been actual individuals called Adam and Eve), a massive change in our modern worldview, in “what everybody knows”, took place.
Much of modern-day Christianity is still a working out of how a pre-modern and a modern worldview can hold together. The ate over the teaching of creationism in schools is one example. Others, such as Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists, have seized on this change of worldview as a way of trying to demonstrate that Christian belief is childish and untenable. Indeed, every time we hear a passage of scripture read in church we have to work to uncover the spiritual truth for today coming to us from a very different worldview where people took for granted that disease and ill-fortune were largely caused by human sinfulness, and where miracles seemingly defying the laws of nature were a regular occurrence.
It is, I think, helpful to consider Christian belief not so much as a matter of whether a person believes or not (for what, exactly, is it that constitutes belief?) but as a spectrum.
At one end there is the pre-modern worldview, with its emphasis on the bible as giving us literal truth and historical fact. At the other end is the modern scientific worldview, which stressed the enduring spiritual truths about God, human beings and the world, but in a way that is less dependent on seeing the bible as the divinely- dictated words of God, or the gospels as historical re-constructions of the life of Jesus.
All of us are somewhere along that spectrum. And in every congregation there will be a scattering of people at different points. It is not a matter of some who believe more, or believe more strongly, than others, but of where we are in our own worldview in relation to our faith. “What everybody knows” is not the same today as it was five hundred years ago, and our faith has to take account of that.