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Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change

Paul G. Hiebert
Published by Baker Academic in 2008

Paul Hiebert presents a definitive, one could say “exhaustive,” study on worldview: its concepts, characteristics, contexts, and some methods for analyzing them. He divides worldviews into small-scale oral societies, peasant societies, modern and post-modern ones and concludes with suggestions on transforming worldviews to fit the biblical pattern. The book is excruciatingly detailed, with 52 figures and diagrams, many of them (such as the Indian, Islam and Chinese belief systems) difficult to follow without considerable background (153). Only an expert, for example, would know what is implied by Brahma, Vishnu, Siva,Rakshasas, and yakshas in the Indian system.

Hiebert begins by outlining the history of worldview (despite other names used at the time) in anthropology, including the views of Ruth Benedict, Mary Douglas, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Robert Redfield, Michael Kearney, Morris Opler, E. Adamson Hoebel, Walter J. Ong, Stephen C. Pepper, Clifford Geertz, Clyde Kluckholm, and others. He concludes with a model, a grid with hierarchy and equality, control, and freedom in intersecting quadrants. The United States, for example is in the quadrant of hierarchy and freedom, while Russia is represented by control and equality.

Hiebert considers both the synchronic and diachronic structures of worldview as well. He describes these as levels of culture, where surface and core features intersect to provide the belief system. However, “we must realize that ultimately meaning in our lives is found not in an understanding of our human structures, but in human stories” (31), so both the past and the present continue to influence our worldviews.

In his 1994 book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, Hiebert discussed how worldview themes are built on the way people construct “mental images,” depicting some as “well-formed” and others as “fuzzy.” The former exclude the “middle” and are digital in nature; the latter are analogical and have an infinite number of steps from one set to another. Hiebert combines the notions of “well-formed” and “fuzzy” with intrinsic and extrinsic sets and describes how cultures depict these different aspects in ordering their worlds (36). Each cultural system will operate with its own system of logic, whether abstract, analogical, topological, relational, or simply with “wisdom.” Hiebert gives an example of how a worldview may conceptualize time, for example, as uniform linear, cyclical, pendular, by crucial event, or by dream time. A similar analysis of space is according to organic/mechanistic, individual/group, group/others, or this world/other worlds. A further characteristic of worldview is to shape feeling and influence tastes, with examples given for the dominant moods from “high church,” “evangelical church,” and “charismatic church.” An extensive chart outlines evaluative norms of worldview, contrasting such dimensions as emotional expression and emotional control, group or individually centered, universalist or particularist, and so on (64).

Chapter 3 places worldviews in human contexts, where Hiebert first presents a “stratigraphic approach,” progressing from the dimension of physical to biological, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions. He follows with a “systems approach” where the focus of the study radiates out from the analyst to the same dimensions. There are also mechanistic and organic systems, one static, the other dynamic, one with linear causality, the other with multidirectional causality, with other contrasts as well. To analyze a worldview Hiebert acknowledges that anthropologists have certain etic assumptions, garnered from their own cultures, but that there are emic concepts, which are the assumptions and beliefs from within the culture. As he states, both models are useful, but the question remains if the outsider can ever really understand another culture on its own terms (89). The methods of analysis that Hiebert outlines are ethno semantic: certain signs (clothing, location, literature), rituals, folk-lore and myths, wisdom literature, narrative, aesthetic, evaluative ideals, and other factors, including cross-cultural comparisons.

Chapter 5 deals with small-scale oral societies, including what scientists call “bands” or “tribes.” The tribal worldview includes a High God, earthly gods (also ancestors and the unborn), earthly spirits, impersonal powers, animals, plants, earth and natural forces (107). These groups are human centered, oriented inward, focus on fertility, land and orality. Theirs is a functional logic that includes magic and myths.

Peasant worldviews (chapter 6) are the backbone of great civilizations such as China, India, Europe and Russia. Their geography varies but they have certain cultural (and varied) themes, such as Small Bounded Community/State, Community/Individual, Oral/Literate,Patron-Client/Market Economy, Formal/Folk Culture. Hiebert gives examples of each, including aspects of hierarchy, limited good, and diachronic themes of disaster, heroes, and the “imminent millennium.”

The modern worldview (chapter 7) begins in the 17th century with the dawn of science, with cognitive themes that had an impact on Christianity, such as naturalism/ supernaturalism, this world/ other world, human centered/ God centered, science/ religion, materialistic secularism/ heavenly spiritualism, public sphere/ private sphere. This type of Greek dualism resulted in a shift from the organic to a mechanistic view of the world, with additional themes that impacted Christianity, namely: foundationalism/ holism, impersonal order/interpersonal relationships, determinism/ choice, technique/ relationships, as well as concepts of the soul and self (ontological/ experiential, objective/ subjective, nature given/nature developed, and so forth (135, 169). Hiebert also discusses capitalism, logical positivism and other mechanistic views, and quotes Brian Stanley: “The early missionary movement displays an immense confidence in the elevating and illuminating capacity of knowledge and rational argument,” leading them to establish modern schools and abstract doctrinal truths (196). There are a number of “myths” in the modern worldview, such as the myths of evolution and progress, redemptive violence, and romantic love. However, the impact of modernity on Christianity has been “profound” (209) and negative, although “the translation of the Bible into local languages was often the catalyst that enabled local cultures to survive the onslaught of modernity” (210).

In chapter 8, Hiebert discusses the worldview of late modernity, or postmodernity, and notes that there is “no unified postmodern theory, or even a coherent set of positions” (217).Postmodernity moves the focus from the known to the knower, deconstructing theories, distrusting reason, suggesting a grand narrative that holds scientists and their theories as cultural and inherently selfish. It has challenged the arrogance of dominant worldviews, but offers no answers to a world in crisis.

Chapter 9 discusses a “global worldview,” where the “post-postmodern” view sees sciences, politics, ethnicities, nationalisms and religions reconstructed as power-exercising vehicles. There are local and global confrontations in areas such as diversity, travel, migration and assimilation, religion and secularism, information flow, and morals. Farms are consolidated, capitalism spreads and inequalities now abound.

The answer to these problems seems to be a biblical worldview (chapter 10), although Hiebert admits that “it is arrogant to claim we fully understand the biblical worldview” (267). He outlines a number of levels of authority that underlie such a worldview. Beginning with Jesus and the Bible as center, we move outward in an expanding circle to creeds and councils, church tradition and theology, the church and denominational positions and, finally, the local situation (268). A number of key themes are important in this model, particularly of the creator and creation, revelation and human knowledge, the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, the church, and our place as citizens of the Kingdom. A biblical view also places value on the life of the individual and attempts to understand the cosmic story that God has provided in the Bible.

Transforming worldviews (chapter 11), if we are thinking of a Christian one, needs help from God for, as Hiebert reminds us, “Spiritual transformation of the work of God in the life of a sinner, [makes] him or her a child of God and a citizen of the kingdom of God” (307). The nature of the transformation involves cognitive categories, which Hiebert defines in terms of intrinsic and relational sets and digital and ratio (or fuzzy) sets. In the biblical view the transformation begins at a point and is in reference to a point, but it is also a process. In Hiebert’s model, there are three levels of conversion, beginning at the surface level with such things as behavior and rituals, progressing to beliefs and belief systems, and finally impacting “deep culture” or worldview (316). He uses Anthony F. C. Wallace’s 1956 “revitalization movements” article to outline five stages in such movements: they begin in a steady or normal state, there is increased individual stress, followed by cultural distortion, revitalization, and the final step is revitalization of faith and life. Conversion in a culture is often a stressful or shocking process and the end process is actually not an end at all, but a conscious examination of “the meanings of their religious practices” (332).

There are three appendices: Appendix 1 provides a model for worldview analysis, in synchronic and diachronic terms, and highlights the themes and metaphors throughout the book; Appendix 2 is a comprehensive comparison of American and Indian worldviews; and in Appendix 3 a chart outlines the shift from modernism to postmodernism.

Hiebert’s book is definitely for the college upper level student, but it would also be suitable to use in a graduate seminar on worldview. It includes an extensive bibliography (249 entries) and an index.

Cite this article
Karl J. Franklin, “Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 132-134

Karl J. Franklin

Karl J. Franklin, International Anthropology Consultant, SIL International