Worldview analysis: a way of looking at our field

One of the excellences of the world of religious education and more broadly of the study of religion is the way we are in constant movement and debate. Think of all the great changes since the time of the founding of Shap. I want here to reflect a little about developments in my own thinking about the subject, or at least about a slice of the subject.

It is partly that I work half the year these days in California, and in looking out across the Pacific, feel close in a new way to the East and South. It is partly that the reverberations of the Shah’s fall and Camp David, the fulminations of Paisley, the born again character of Jimmy Carter (is Reagan by the way dyed again?), the upheavals along the Vistula, and the strange attempt upon the Pope’s life, have reinforced my feeling of how odd it is to seal off the study of religion (or of Christian theology for that matter) from the exploration of ideologies and political creeds. It is partly that I have been thinking about these wider matters in writing my recent Gifford Lectures, being published as Beyond Ideology: Religion and the Future of Western Civilization.

My teaching in California reminds me that we live in one world. Where else could a Korean student tell me (wearing a kilt out of a fit of patriotism) that I looked out of place? And how could I live in two lands without the cheap jet that makes a city of the whole wide world? So I do not think it is sensible to isolate education, as though we should be insular and introspective: we should indeed respect our heritages, but the young live and will live in this one world. And that world is a world of overlapping religions and ideologies. It is the world of Islam and Marxism and the Moral Majority and Catholicism and new African religions and the so-called cults and the outlook of the executives of transnational corporations and of Brandt and nationalism and liberation theology

The descriptive part of religious studies can, if broadened to be transparently cognisant of the secular belief-systems and values, be called Worldview Analysis. This way of looking at the subject may also emphasise that often a major religious tradition may only be a part ingredient of a total worldview. If I am asked what my religion is I say I am a Scottish Episcopalian, a sort of Christian. But of course my worldview is a kind of syncretism: it includes ingredients from utilitarianism, Scotland, and what I have learned from Buddhism and so forth. And so with every other person.

Woridview Analysis is not of course the exclusive prerogative of Religious Studies. Part of it is presently done among historians of philosophy, sociologists, anthropologists, classicists, orientalists, Africanists, political scientists and so forth. But consider:

History often in our schools and campuses is chiefly Western and is concerned with much else besides worldviews;

Sociology is largely too about us, and is not typically crosscultural; Anthropology tends to deal with smaller societies and peasants;

Philosophy looks mainly to a selected band of systems of belief and thought in the Western world, and with a main eye to criticism and commendation of ideas rather than to description of them;

Classics is excellent and ancient, but deals with our ancient world; Oriental studies often fail to deal with religious ideas in a comparative way, and though greatly productive of material have many other interests than Worldview Analysis; African studies likewise have much else to preoccupy them;

Political Science tends to take secular ideologies with great seriousness but is shakier in its grasp of traditional religious and symbolic systems.

So Religious Studies has probably a greater stake in Worldview Analysis than many other of these fields as defined by academic convention. It is not that we in religion should get all imperialist. I am just saying that Religious Studies is a good base for Worldview Analysis.

A friend of mine, an excellent Christian theologian, said he thought Worldview Analysis a bit restrictive. It doesn’t quite cover what Barth was doing though it might treat of what he did. Barth was not analysing worldviews (though he did a bit of that, too); he was rather creating a worldview — Barthian theology being a way of expressing the Christian outlook and faith. I suppose part of what Christian theology in a strong sense is is Worldview Development.

Now in practice religious education and the study of religion have often taken in secular ideologies as part of the subject-matter, as can be seen from much of the Shap material. But there are still some changes that would accrue from the use of this title, or at least shifts of emphasis.

First we might begin to think about the distinction between the overall pictures of the world and ourselves which we arrive at, whether consciously or more haphazardly and secretly, and the materials which are used in forming such a worldview. Thus there is in our field a kind of grammar of symbols, and one great advantage of Religious Studies in its modern form is that we are beginning to see how symbols work in mobilising feelings and mediating between fact and value, belief and feeling. The exploration of the grammar of symbolism might be called Symbolic Analysis. This is something which can be especially illuminating in secular and everyday contexts. For instance it is interesting and perhaps important to reflect more deeply about the symbolism of the motorbike, of hair, of the suburban garden, of daily rituals. Here in part we are in the country of Goff and Desmond Morris, but also in that of Eliade. Sometimes in the field of religious education there is a certain undervaluing of the informational. Questions of personal development and experience are often stressed, rightly. But we must not despise the in- formation. For one thing it is depth information we need to be after. Structured empathy is needed in understanding the actual nature and configuration of a worldview. It needs attending to the American Indian proverb ‘Never judge a man till you have walked a mile in his moccasins’. So if Worldview Analysis is largely informational it is also imaginative.

Indeed because structured empathy is of the essence of how to understand worldviews other than our own (and for our own we need a kind of psychoanalysis to bring it to the surface — values clarification as some say: I would rather call it worldview clarification) — because of this, it ought to have a central place in our educational system. For voyaging into others’ minds is a necessary task, and a noble one, too. It is not necessarily all that hard. But it is much neglected. Perhaps we find as much of it in drama classes as elsewhere. It is an obvious ingredient of literary studies and appreciation, too. It is simplistic in doing history and in many other areas. Yet it is not much recognised, explicitly.

It provides a new federalism of the mind: retaining no doubt one’s own perspective but at the same time recognising the perspectives of others.

Thus there are some advantages in thinking of Worldview Analysis as a part of the exploration of human values and events. It stretches us beyond religious systems. It suggests that we need various methods for the exploration and analysis of world-views. It hints thus at structured empathy. It draws us, too, towards Symbolic Analysis, to bring out the grammar of worldviews. It can be applied, moreover, autobiographically to trying to diagnose what our own worldviews actually are.

In getting away from the language of religion there are some advantages, too. What about ‘The Shap Working Party on World Worldviews in Education’?

Ed: Ninian Smart’s book, Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, was published by Charles Scribner, New York, in 1983, ISBN 0 02 412010 3. It is available in Britain as a paperback for £11.65. There are sections on Exploring Religion and Analysing Woridviews; and Woridviews: an inventory a revisitation of the now well-known six dimen- sions developed in Ninian Smart’s earlier writings; reflections on the future of Religions and Ideology; and a postscript of further Explorations in Religion and Woridview Analysis. The book ends in the following way which sets an inspiring agenda for Shap’s work:

I think a sensitive understanding of worldviews is a marvellous preparation for life in our world, and it is a substantial ingredient in proper reflection upon the ways to move our societies forward. So a wish to explore the field more, to voyage inwardly and outwardly through the symbols, experiences, and thoughts of human beings, is not a luxury. It is an exciting quest and there are many valuable things to discover. But it is also a crucial part of any person’s self- education

Bon voyage.

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