Today, I will work to read psychology and Christian ethics together to explore why it feels right to think of ourselves as common-sensical, biblical world-viewers — and how that self-conception misses the mark of the kind of creatures we are.
Thus far in this series, I have largely analyzed worldview theory as it emerged in history. What follows has its historical elements but will begin to drive my criticism deeper into the posture and structure of “world-viewing” as it shapes our lives today.
The worldview concept and its underlying impulse, as we already have seen, can allow troubling practices and convictions — biases, bigotry and otherwise bad ideas — to evade and even resist transformation in a Christian’s mind. This situation is the essence of what Jacques Ellul called “the subversion of Christianity” and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” When we do not actively open ourselves to God’s claim upon all sectors of our lives, sinful ways of thinking and living are effectively “baptized” and even infused with religious energy.
“When we do not actively open ourselves to God’s claim upon all sectors of our lives, sinful ways of thinking and living are effectively ‘baptized’ and even infused with religious energy.”
My overall project is critical of the worldview concept as the dominant framework for thinking and living faith within all too many Christian circles. But I am not “deconstructing” this framework for fun or fame. Rather, I am deeply concerned about the way world-viewing pushes people to think about themselves and others, the self-deception and divisiveness it can nurture and for which it provides cover, and how perceiving and engaging others through a framework of abstract ideals can foster the desire to bend others to our will (which, we assure ourselves, is the very will of God).
Before I go much further, I should confess my temptation to shift the order of my argument in this series as a way of responding to some of the skirmishes breaking out in various hollers of the internet. These range from conversation around David Gushee’s recent op-ed about the deconstruction of American evangelicalism, to the very notion of whiteness that I have introduced thus far in this series, or to the sustained criticism of problematic forms of masculinity in works like Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. Points of friction include concerns about deconstruction, claims about postmodernism, and problems with using sociological categories to inquire about biblical interpretation.
However, I decided it might be more interesting, not least for those weary from such conversations, to zig while others are zagging. (Although I do like zagging and will address some of the criticism in my next installments.) For now, I will call attention to what has oft gone unnamed: the psychology of world-viewing. In final analysis, I suspect, my tack here may prove more helpful anyway for understanding the many worldview-based reactions to criticism that are simmering out there in the world.
The stories we live by
Psychologist Dan P. McAdams has pioneered narrative identity theory based on extensive scientific research. His work explains how humans develop, experience and live into a healthy sense of self over the course of a lifetime. For our purposes today, I want to key on two specific stages.
The first centers on a core challenge of our adolescent years, namely: consolidating an “ideological setting” that will provide “a backdrop of belief and value upon which the plot of (our) particular life story can unfold.”
In his book, The Stories We Live By, McAdams notes that we can scarcely say who we are without reference to “what I believe to be true and good, false and evil about the world in which I live,” including “that the universe works in a certain way, and that certain things about the world, about society, about God, about the ultimate reality of life, are true.” What he is describing here may well be, in its purest sense, what we mean by a person’s worldview.
“What he is describing here may well be, in its purest sense, what we mean by a person’s worldview.”
But to say that we “consolidate” such beliefs into a personal ideology is to recognize the variety of sources and influences that push and pull on an individual as they explore the world into which history has thrown them. “We come to understandings about truth, beauty, and goodness through conversations with friends and family, in classrooms, playgrounds, and workplaces,” McAdams writes. “Very few of us go off to the mountains for three years to figure it all out by ourselves.”
So, when we start to ask about a well-lived life, we set out with many socially provided resources and models. And a person will find it easier to imagine their worldview is unified — and to assume it flows from exactly the source(s) they hope it does — when core conceptions are shared by significant others and more broadly in their everyday social settings. In such situations, consolidating an ideological setting can feel just like being a good member of the community. With an eye on church stories, we can imagine how at least some compromises with culture and history already have been baked in by this point.
The second stage is a movement into maturity relative to the stories we live by. In his book The Redemptive Self, McAdams analyzes the stories of Americans who exemplify the cultural ideal of the highly generative, “redemptive self.” He defines “generativity” (after Erik Erikson) as “an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations” and as “a broad category that includes many things we adults do and feel as we strive, consciously and unconsciously, to pass on to posterity some aspect of our selves.”
Here, we might imagine the healthy, mature, influential adult making an impact on the world that reflects their worldview — Christian or otherwise. McAdams’ data suggest that highly generative Americans “believe that their values are clear, consistent, and coherent and have pretty much always been so,” and this “even though they tolerate others’ points of view.” So, generativity is based within one’s ideological setting but does not necessarily mean closed-mindedness. It does, however, correspond in McAdams’ research with low degrees of self-reflection regarding the unity and coherence of one’s ideology or worldview.
Self-evaluation and thus perceived growth normally occur within one’s ideological setting and without considerable reflection upon or adjustment to that setting. In other words, we gauge our own transgressions (or progress toward sanctification) against the backdrop of our own worldview rather than holding open the possibility that our worldview may, in itself, entail some problematic or sinful ideas. And we evaluate others similarly, often with gut-level approval or revulsion — but holding open the possibility of criticizing both the actions and the ideas of others.
The disruptive, invitational, reorienting call of Jesus
McAdams’ theory shows how we might understand world-viewing as a “natural” feature of mental health. But this does not necessarily tell us where our minds ought to go as followers of Jesus.
“The most important things we know come by way of personal, relational knowing.”
I am reminded of the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the categorical error of thinking about human persons in epistemological terms (referring to the philosophical conversation about what we think we know and how we might know it). Human beings are not merely receptacles for or representatives of some knowledge, nor are we neatly separable into world-viewing camps. We are first persons, created in freedom for relationship with others — starting with God. And the most important things we know come by way of personal, relational knowing.
When we encounter the person of Jesus, Bonhoeffer tells us through his Christology lectures, our “natural” human minds, reasoning as usual, face two choices: kill or be killed. What he means is we cannot simply integrate information about Jesus into our otherwise secure worldviews. Instead, Jesus destabilizes what we think we know, putting questions not only to the sources of our “knowledge” but also upsetting how we hold our ideas. I will say more about the theological points here later in the series. For now, I mean to call attention to how the living, biblical, historical Jesus disrupts all human loyalties — not once and for all, but always and for all time.
Jesus’ call on Christians’ whole lives does not simplify or unify our thinking. It complicates our worldviews and demands that we develop a self-aware kind of complexity in the space of our hearts and minds. If we are alert to the possibilities of sin and self-deception, we should not rest easily with the fit between our faith and the demands of country, party, family and the like. Discipleship — that is to say, following Jesus — is an ongoing, relational reality. But the pressure is on to consolidate and live out of a comprehensive worldview that can and does secure our knowledge relative to these things, attaching them wherever we can to the very pages of the Bible.
I am also reminded of the way the American prophet W.E.B. Du Bois described his experience of “double consciousness.” In an especially poignant passage in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois explained how the color line materialized in America at the dawn of the 20th century: “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. … How does it feel to be a problem?” This problematic feeling began in his childhood and matured into deep, soulful questions like: “What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both?”
“Du Bois saw double consciousness as a sickness, but the diagnosis was complex.”
Du Bois saw double consciousness as a sickness, but the diagnosis was complex. It starts with pathological whiteness, the symptoms of which include excluding Black souls from enjoying a share in the normative structures of mind and society. The wound, however, opened the possibility of dissonance within the Black soul, making space to reclaim the values of an interdependent African culture — over against the individualist mammonism he saw driving white folk.
And so, the second consciousness presented a possible antidote: good competing values. Here, if not before, Du Bois could sense the competition of values within himself, make deliberate choices about what to do with those worldviews, and start to resolve himself in a positive direction.
Stepping into a more complex self theory
But this talk of ongoing competing loyalties — of any kind of doubling or multiplication of selves — does not appear much in mainstream evangelical conversations about world-viewing or the inner life of born-again human persons. Theologians have tended to project a unified psychological picture that fits neatly with the notion of baptism as death to self and the rhetoric of the “new man” taking shape and displacing the old. (For this realization about modern theology, I am indebted to Léon Turner, whose book Theology, Psychology, and the Plural Self started me thinking about this matter in a new way.)
We might ask whether anything in current psychological theory can help us better understand human psychology — not to satisfy some desire for novelty, but to ask whether we might discover truer paths for following Jesus. If for no other reason than to preserve space in our minds to encounter the living Jesus, who exists outside ourselves but who also becomes a fixture, we might search out a more complex psychology. As one example of the theories that might help us better understand (that is, to honestly wrestle with) what is going on in individual human minds, let me introduce a few key ideas from social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus.
For the sake of readability, I will refer to Markus’ name alone, but she has developed these ideas in a wealth of works, many co-authored with students and colleagues. My book does better to track and credit folks like Shinobu Kitayama, Paula Nurius, Karen Farchaus Stein, and Valerie Jones Taylor, all of whom helped develop the ideas quoted here.
Markus uses the concept of “self-schemas” to illuminate how human minds organize ideas and feelings about themselves and the ways those structures in turn “guide the processing of self-related information.” These schemas (1) represent relationships between specific ideas and conceptions and (2) “direct and regulate self and behavioral processes. They develop as individuals attune themselves to their significant social contexts, and they provide solutions to important existential questions such as who am I, what should I be doing, and how do I relate to others.”
An answer to these questions becomes self-definitional or “schematic” when it forms “a consistent pattern with the individual’s other judgments, decisions and actions.” It descriptively becomes part of their identity. People deal with self-relevant information differently based on such schemas, judging incoming information with relative ease, retrieving evidence for those judgments, predicting their own future behavior on their basis, and resist feedback that reflects negatively on who they think they are.
Early in the development of self-schema theory, the test areas tended to reflect relatively bland self-representations (like “self as a good student”), but theorists have gradually come to include more contentious selves (like “self as Christian,” “self as American” and “self as a manly man”). Tiffany N. Brannon, one of Markus’ students, has convincingly argued, riffing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ well-known commentary on “double consciousness,” that such schemas provide additional — sometimes competing — solutions to those essential existential questions such as who am I, what should I be doing, and how do I relate to others.
Given the relatively simplistic naming of these selves, I should note that a lot of specific ideas, memories, sensations and feelings can be bundled with or otherwise tied to each of these selves — we have histories with them. And these self-schemas are inextricably linked into whatever might count as “knowledge” or other kinds of convictions adjacent to these identities — our theology, our politics and so on.
“We engage others from within a constellation of conscious and unconscious selves, some of them online while others are offline at any given moment.”
Moving into the wider questions about how we operate on a daily basis, the research suggests that, as much as each human being is consistently one self (for example, the same person) as they live and move in the world, every person’s inner life also shifts based on numerous realities. We engage others from within a constellation of conscious and unconscious selves, some of them online while others are offline at any given moment.
And while there may be a core bundle of selves that is relatively consistent throughout one’s daily life, this constellation changes depending on things like whether we have eaten well to what has come up in our day so far and with whom we find ourselves at the moment. The very notion of a schema suggests a person mapping out connections with a schematic diagram; it might be more helpful to picture trying to untangle Christmas lights, pulling here and getting a surprising tug over there even as some bulbs are burning out.
The research also suggests we should distinguish between (a) those self-schemas that are more or less grounded in social reality as past and present selves and (b) those possible selves that we desire (the successful self, the influential self, or the Christlike self) or dread (the impotent self, the lonely self, or the damned self).
While they differ from racial, gender or other like varieties of self-knowledge, “possible selves” arise from “the individual’s particular socio-cultural and historical context and from the models, images and symbols provided by the media and by the individual’s immediate social experiences.” One can freely imagine themselves to be or be like or aspire to become or avoid any number of characters (John Wayne included). The hypothetical or idealistic nature of possible selves frees them from material constraints. They need not be evident in a person’s material life to shape that person’s mental world.
Hindrances to change when our ‘selves’ are too simple
This brings us to the point of discussing some of the hindrances to a more honest, more helpful psychology of Christian identity.
“The chief obstruction is an entrenched theological perspective that imagines conversion producing a single, unified mental world.”
The chief obstruction is an entrenched theological perspective that imagines conversion producing a single, unified mental world. When we get over-attached to conceptions of ourselves as already Christian in all the important ways (and I am including theologians in the “we”), we set ourselves up for a more defensive posture against those who provide feedback that conflicts with our ideas about ourselves. Add into this mix the strength of our commitments to certain possible selves — for instance, the lofty ideal self of one’s real or imagined faith community — and we have a recipe for both self-deception and, over time, the disfigurement of genuine community.
The Christian whose self-story centers on single-mindedly worshipping God is, at best, confessing their hope in a possible future that is true in some proleptic sense but remains materially unreliable and experientially in progress. At worst, the over-identification of this singly desired self with a structurally unified self-concept conceals where a person has baptized whatever else is in their self-system and works to convince others of their truth.
And, thinking of a wider personality theory that includes a bit more on the point of motivation (as we might find in Drew Westen’s work), we also see how people are motivated (often unconsciously) to avoid the pain of a mismatch between who they are and who they hope/think they are.
As Markus shows, dependence upon a single, cherished self-schema sets up a person to pursue “symbolic routes to completion” like (1) attempts to enlist others to validate our sense of self (that “I belong” or “I am Christlike” or “I hold the biblical worldview”), (2) an unwillingness or inability to confess when we have violated our ideals, and (3) relying on external signs and symbols that support one’s preferred self-image. Alternatively, if we do happen to register our failures, we risk judging ourselves merely according to our own ideological setting and without openness to the possibility that our problems start with elements in our ideological setting itself.
I am inclined to argue that we find more pathology in the unquestioned structural integrity of the self among those who live through privileged, normative status — especially when their self-theory is conceived under a single, salient identity — than we do in honest recognition that we simply do have multiple selves operating within our mental worlds. Think of how a high-level theologian like Abraham Kuyper (introduced earlier in this series), read even himself through his abstract ideas about how conversion happens. His theology here gave him motivation and a conceptual form for narrating his incoherence and ongoing moral blindness into a coherent web.
If not pathology, we might use the biblical term for a unified focus on one creaturely aspect of life or another: idolatry. Not even God’s indwelling presence irresistibly (re)orients all our imaginings and strivings toward the kingdom. While we can and should interpret human sin through this self-plurality, we must resist identifying sin with this self-plurality.
McAdams argues, “Opportunities and identity resources are not distributed equally over the lifespan and across the socioeconomic and cultural spectrum. I repeat: In life and in myth, we cannot transcend our resources.” And in this sense, we may be able to see a paradox in many folks with social locations like my own whose privileged life has scarcely occasioned any sense of double consciousness. The freedom to think of oneself as the norm — as exhibiting common/biblical sense — often means both a richness in the ability to make a life as whoever one already imagines oneself to be and, ironically, a poverty of self-critical resources to tell one’s story in relatively clear and all-encompassing knowledge of what one is actually doing.
In my book, I primarily engage those who think of their own worldview, on which they are self-reporting, as emblematic of their theological traditions. Rhetorically, each traces his arrival at this fully formed view back to the simple departure point of being directed toward God in the first place. When two roads diverged in a wood (meaning antithetical life-paths), God led me down the one less traveled by, and that made all the difference.
I make the connection with Robert Frost’s well-known poem here for a reason. When looking back at his life since the divergence in the wood, the narrator of the story sentimentally recasts what happened. While on the day of the event, he sees the paths as equally trod, from his vantage in the future, his intention and direction seemed more significant.
How rethinking our selves helps us live more faithfully
The problems I have flagged should not produce a negative sentiment about human complexity or the status of our many-layered selves in the eyes of God. For one thing, the good news spreads at the scale of real human lives, and the Christian’s many facets can become angles for genuine human connection.
Practicing self-awareness through a new self-conception that registers and even values, to some extent, the many enduring facets of our identities can foster humility about our place within a story that is much bigger than we are and help us embrace our radical contingency as creatures of God who exist in and through our relationships.
Our various and sundry identities and self-representations do have their liabilities and dark regions, which may remain inaccessible to us until brought to light by genuine encounters with others who provide counter-schematic feedback. When such feedback comes, when we are forced to question key self-defining ideas and identities, awareness of our inner complexity can make us more resilient. We can recognize that only a part of who we are, not the whole thing, is under scrutiny.
“We can learn to feel the dissonance between the competing sets of values in our minds and hearts, and we can preserve space for Jesus to speak a word to us.”
More than that, by learning to see the complexity of our identity formations, we can develop the skill and the will to ask good, critical questions about how the stories we have been telling ourselves and living by are too tidy to be honest. We can learn to feel the dissonance between the competing sets of values in our minds and hearts, and we can preserve space for Jesus to speak a word to us.
Thinking of our religious convictions and ideals in terms of hoped-for possible selves can shift our relationship to them so that they can become motivational. Our many identities and self-representations compound the process of conversion, making it lifelong and, frankly, uneven. When we are free to register the mismatch between who we are and who we hope to be, then we can actually grow and change and continue to rightly order our loves (to misplace an idea of Augustine’s).
Put differently, the problem is not merely that our personal worldviews, if that is a useful term for what we think about the world from within the world, have many sources. And I do not see the ongoing reality that we have many significant identities as only trouble — otherwise, Paul would not have counseled the Corinthians “to remain in the state in which you were called.”
Rather, I see the mindset and posture of world-viewing as fundamentally warping the way we think of ourselves and approach others in the world. In the most important sense, taking up Christian faith means forging new relationships — with God and with other persons — in the course of which we will be challenged and, hopefully, change for the better. We cannot safely predict how we will need to change and grow in order to be faithful and to love our neighbors well, and thus we should also expect key parts of what we are in the habit of calling simply “our worldview” to change as well.
And this, too, fits with the wider sensibility in developmental psychological theories today. Challenging as this word may be, adults can and sometimes do continue to develop a more complex cognitive capacity to reflect upon and exercise freedom in how they engage in the stories they live by. Over the last several decades, psychologists like Robert Kegan and James Fowler — who studied together under Lawrence Kohlberg — have offered models of developmental stages well into adulthood. But even in telling his stories about researching and proposing his model, Kegan reveals the challenge of getting colleagues on board with the possibility of (their own) ongoing development.
Some concluding thoughts
Jesus’ calling is not about escaping all that we were before we started to follow — we could only do that in a showy way, but our minds and hearts do not change so easily or so evenly. Our past has a way of creeping into the present. The call to follow is about learning to live with God within the many other realities that seem to structure our lives, both out there in the world and within our own hearts and minds.
“Jesus’ calling is not about escaping all that we were before we started to follow.”
Discipleship and growth cannot be boiled down to mere ideological change or a focus on an isolated individual’s character. Setting out to follow Jesus is nothing short of an all-encompassing reorientation of a complicated self within a wider, rather broken world. For followers of Jesus, all the many aspects of who we are — those conditions in which we remain — are drawn into our walking with Jesus. And each can be an obstacle to the kingdom, for ourselves or others, even as each can become an instrument of God’s kingdom.
The fullness of life is not a synonym for inner peace owing to a sense of self-unity relative to an abstract, universal sensibility of created perfection. We should always already imagine the change that can and must happen over time as largely initiated from beyond ourselves. God approaches us from beyond our selves and graciously draws us out of ourselves into a genuine unity — one that is never fully “haveable” but always securely held in and through an ongoing relationship.
This is the fourth in a series of articles introducing the hypothesis of the author’s new book, Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of Evangelical Faith.
Jacob Alan Cook is a postdoctoral fellow at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is the author of Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of Evangelical Faith as well as chapters on Christian identity, peacemaking and ecological theology. He earned a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Related articles in this series:
What if your ‘Christian worldview’ is based upon some sinful ideas?
A short history of the roots of colonialism, racism and whiteness in ‘Christian worldview’