Objectivity, Subjectivity, Worldview, and Art
Imagine a large, circular room with several tiers of chairs along its inner walls. In the centre of the room is a large globe on a pedestal. In each chair sits a person looking at the globe and attempting to understand what he sees as accurately as possible. But there is a problem: every person in the room is nearsighted, so each one’s view of the globe is distorted.
Each person has some tools and materials at hand, however, so most attempts to fashion some kind of glasses to help them see better, although a few have given up and merely make use of random fragments cast away by others on those occasions when they wish clearer vision. Surveying the room, one sees some people wearing glasses tinted red, others wearing glasses with one lens covered, and still others wearing scratched glasses that magnify everything and distort its shape. One also observes that many of those in the room are engaged in conversations or arguments about the true appearance and overall nature of the globe in the room’s centre. But some people, tiring of argument, draw pictures in an attempt to convey their idea of what the globe looked like. Of course, no matter whether it is by argument or drawing, those wearing radically different types of glasses are rarely able to convince each other of anything, but every so often someone is persuaded to modify his glasses or seek new ones.
As you might suspect by this point, this description is an imaginative model for worldviews. The term “worldview” has been used both poorly and badly by numerous scholarly and not-so-scholarly sources. I am not concerned with its philosophical history; I use it because I find it a useful descriptive term for understanding some basic aspects of how people understand the world and each other. As I use it, worldview means simply the individual perspective from which a person engages with reality, and his basic beliefs about its nature.
To begin with, a worldview is always subjective. Just as each person in the room sees the globe–and only part of it–from a particular perspective, so people understand the world from a particular perspective. Only God can have an objective viewpoint, because only God can see from all points of view simultaneously. Further, mankind’s rebellion against God affected his whole person, including the understanding. Any conception of worldview that does not take the Fall into account is inadequate. Since only God can heal someone from the consequences of the Fall, all the glasses that people manufacture will be imperfect, and will introduce their own distortions even if they correct some aspects of vision. Even someone who has received proper corrective lenses (that is, redeemed understanding) is limited in his ability to make lenses that will correct someone else’s vision, because his subjective viewpoint can never be identical with the other person’s, and his ability to diagnose particular vision problems will never match God’s ability. It is for this reason that a Christian worldview, with its removal of false tints and distortions, can only be developed fully by the aid of the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, conversation and debate among both Christians and non-Christians can be worthwhile, not only for attempting to correct someone who is unconvinced of Christianity’s truth, but for learning from the differently subjective viewpoints of others. Such learning requires careful sorting, since it often comes through a distorted lens, but its descriptions of a side of the world that cannot be seen from one’s own viewpoint are valuable.
But describing what one piece of the globe looks like will never reveal it fully, because not all the information in it can be reduced to propositions. It is here that art comes into play. This is the picture-drawing of the imaginary room described at the start. Due to their ability to convey knowledge and ideas through sight, sound, story, or related means, one function of works of art is to give non-propositional knowledge of the particular part of the world the artist sees most clearly. If the artist’s Marxism gives his art a red tint, or his imperfectly-formed Christianity leaves things a bit blurry, the essential value of his contribution remains beneath the distortion and can bring new insights to even the wisest and most intellectually developed Christian.
While it is important to use the resources of Christian philosophy and theology to reveal the basic assumptions–worldviews–behind particular works of art, it is also important that Christians be open to additions to their understanding of the world from these same works, because human beings by their nature cannot receive the fullness of God’s objective understanding of reality; they can, however, approach it through correlating the differing insights God has graciously revealed to various people.