Thoughts on Westar, religion, and politics

By David Galston | 6/30/2018

Worldview is the English word used to translate the nineteenth-century German use of the word, Weltanschauung. There are several ways to understand "worldview," depending on the discipline engaged. In the nineteenth-century, Wilhelm Dilthey linked a worldview to interpretation; we interpret the world the way we do because of the worldview we hold. In this basic claim, Dilthey indicated that no one can be outside a worldview. In the fifth-century Augustine said, non posse non peccare (not possible not to sin); Dilthey could have said, not possible not to have a worldview.

A worldview is like a frame. More accurately, a worldview is what actively enframes the experience of the world. We look upon the world through the frame of our culture, language, and history. Culture, language, and history actively frame the world we experience. We cannot experience the world without the frame – one frame or another – in place. So, we could say, not possible not to have a frame.

What is very important in such abstract thoughts is that both religion and politics are worldviews. Unlike mathematics, where a formula is a formula is a formula regardless of one's culture, language, and history, and unlike music, where to play a piece everyone must follow the same score regardless of culture, language, and history, both religion and politics are systems of interpretation. Sometimes they are individual interpretations – possibly delusional at that – and sometimes they are collective interpretations. Both on the individual and collective scale, they are worldviews.

Religion and politics actively frame the way the world is interpreted. It is, of course, best to be conscious as much as possible of the worldview one holds and the collective worldview in which one lives, but many times in religion and in politics worldviews are assumed, unquestioned, unconscious, and even regarded as authoritarian. When religion or politics slip into the realm of unquestionable authority, we have another word to use: ideology. An unquestionable, authoritarian worldview is an ideology.

Westar is about scholarship in religion or, in other words, Westar is about scholarship in worldviews. There is a clear balancing act that scholarship in religion, and Westar scholarship, must uphold. Westar does not promote a worldview, yet, at the same time, it is impossible to be without one. The mark of good scholarship lies in the ability to uphold one's own view with skepticism. This act, the act of holding skepticism, allows for dialogue, the questioning of assumptions, and the refusal to acknowledge authority for authority's sake. Scholars - good scholars - are practiced at avoiding ideology while pursuing critical questions about truth. Good scholars constantly raise the question about what method of research best suits the subject under study while, at the same time, holding the skeptical suspicion that a method, any method, has roots in a worldview.

Because of the natural tie between religion and politics, Westar scholars cannot avoid, even when talking about how to interpret an ancient text, being political at least in implication. The Bible is entwined in the politics of its time. To interpret the Bible, whether with critical skill or with naïve literalism, is to be political. The role of religion is to question worldviews, which means the role of religion is to question political realities. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, the biblical prophets, in particular, question and even condemn destructive worldviews played out in politics. Sometimes, though, and this is also true in the Bible, the author in question defends the political worldview in play and the worldview a government holds.

What makes a government good or bad, unfortunately, rests on the worldview of the individual critique. There is no natural form of "good government"; human beings must create, debate, deconstruct, and reconstruct a government that works for the betterment of the people. Religion does not say what is the best political model to use. (People in biblical times did experience totalitarian forms of government that we might say are particularly ill-suited to human well-being.) However, religious traditions, both in the Abrahamic family of faiths and in other faith traditions internationally, do say what are essential qualities for human life: compassion, peace, and justice. Religious critique upholds these guiding qualities and, therefore, cannot avoid critiquing politics.

The fine line that Westar, along with any other scholarly institution, must observe is to offer measured critique while not siding with a government, regardless what form of government is in place or what political party is in power. The historic nature of religion in human history is to critique worldviews, to question values, and to debate the meaning of justice, but this practice does not mean that one specific political party is necessarily supported against another. It just means that scholarship is doing its job when it brings into question the dominant worldview of the time.

Critics of Westar scholars can get upset and accusatory when a scholar calls out injustice or severely questions a politician's use of the Bible or various references to God. Yet, the intention of the scholar is not to choose a side. The intention is to open a question, sometimes a very difficult, important question that holds our collective future in the balance. Sometimes these questions are not welcomed because they critique and raise skepticism about the operating and unconscious worldview in which we participate. Yet, without this scholarly act of questioning and critiquing there would be no prophets among us and no sense to the Jesus saying, "A prophet is not without honor except at home."

This post (June 30, edited July 1) is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.