One of the lenses through which I look at ideas and the people who hold them is W Paul Jones’s theological worlds concept. I wrote about Jones’s theological worlds before here, having learned about them in his book of the same name; they are personality types of a sort, though they pertain more to a person’s root cosmology than to whether or not a person enjoys going to parties.
I want to talk a bit more about the theological worlds now that I’ve taken Jones’s “Theological World Inventory” and gotten somewhat surprising results. As such rather a lot of this discussion will be navel-gazing, but I think even so that will throw off some useful material nonetheless. In this first post I’ll re-introduce the concept; in the second I’ll discuss the Inventory and my results; in the third I want to think a bit about the typology’s usefulness (including to whom the typology is useful).
Each theological world represents the fundamental dynamic, or perhaps dialectic, underlying a person’s engagement with the world. Jones’s own words from the introduction to his inventory will work as an introduction to the idea:
A World results from the interaction between two poles. The first is one’s obsessio, that lived question, need, ache, or dilemma which has its teeth into us at the deepest level. Other concerns are variations on that basic theme, standing in line behind its importance. The second pole is one’s epiphania, that which through one or more events, moments, and/or persons brings sufficient illumination, satisfaction, or healing to provide a lived answer worth wagering one’s life upon. One’s epiphania is what touches promisingly one’s obsession as fact or as hope.1
This is not necessarily, or even likely, a wholly conscious structure. Jones writes that “most often our answers are working assumptions carved out unconsciously through the process of living.” For this reason, a person’s world “is often unknown to the self.”
Jones’s real work is not so much identifying that people operate in this way, but to typify how people work in this way:
There are as many Worlds as there are persons. Yet these individual Worlds overlap, forming communities–latent and manifest. Those with whom we share a World are those whom we can understand almost intuitively, able even to finish their sentences for them. There are other persons, however, with whom we live “World apart.” These are not only the ones we have difficulty understanding, but with whom it is difficult to find a point of contact. Our research has identified five such Worlds, serving as a typology of pure possibilities.
Jones is serious about these five worlds. His work is pastoral and Christian, and yet he’s willing to universalize these five worlds beyond the Christian sphere and into all people:
Christianity does not create yet another World. Rather, those who affirm Jesus of Nazareth as epiphania for their World do so because of the healing pattern of meaning resulting from its unique engagement with one’s concrete obsession. Thus there are as many Christian Worlds as there are Christians. But they also converge in communities, resulting in five Christian variations on the themes of the universal theological Worlds.
I bothered to blockquote that bit because I’m going to come back to this universalization later. It’s not that I think he’s wrong, necessarily, but if he’s right, then analyzing these worlds should be of some benefit to non-Christians, and yet his very pastoral Christian focus could make it difficult to bridge the gap between his books and inventory and a possible non-Christian audience. If you are a non-Christian reading this, I want to say that I hope you’ll stick with me; I want to explore a little later what this might mean for you.
These, then, are the five worlds:
World 1 hangs between separation and reunion. It is, for instance, Blaise Pascal’s world.
World 2 hangs between conflict and vindication. It is Karl Marx’s world.
World 3 hands between emptiness and fulfillment. It is Alfred Adler’s world.2
World 4 hangs between condemnation and forgiveness. It is Martin Luther’s world.
World 5 hangs between suffering and endurance. It is Siddharta Guatama’s world.3
World 1, that of aliens and orphans, and of longing, is characterized by a feeling of isolation, smallness, and abandonment in a vast and contingent universe. The universe seems mysterious, even meaningless, and that experience bothers people in World 1. Jones writes, “Our longing is to find our way home, as it were.” That is the obsessio. The epiphania is “the promise of homecoming.” A person in this world experiences that promise, sometimes, in ecstatic moments:
In sensing this mystery of being, one can be touched with awe. Such sensitivity often comes in sacramental moments in which we are grasped in oneness with the Ground of our being.
These moments are often ones in contemplation of the natural world—a tree lit from behind with light, as though glowing with a fire within—because it is the natural world’s arbitrariness which most highlights the universe’s vast otherness and is therefore where the epiphania is most urgently needed. Something the inventory made clear that I didn’t pick up in the book is the way in which people in World 1 look for a sense of harmony, to see the world as a whole. One of the most evocative phrases Jones uses to describe this World is “bitten by eternity.”
World 2, that of warriors and of anger, is characterized by the sense that history and human institutions are corrupted by violence and chaos. “Wherever one turns,” Jones writes, “the scene is a drama of winners and losers.” This is true of the social fabric’s complex machinery, but also of the universe:
Death is the final enemy, symbolizing the hostility which resists the crucial goal of humanizing this world. The foe is widespread, for even the cosmos is beset by entropy, so that such a hemorrhaging seems to give to each part a sense of being violated. Thus threatened by the possibility of chaos, persons are tempted to grasp for power, escalating into the threat of nuclear destruction. Nations seem willing to “bring it all down” rather than lose.
The epiphania to that obsessio must occur within history, where the conflict takes place, not beyond the knowable universe, as in World 1. It looks forward to a redeemed society born out of struggle and relies on small groups—congregations—dedicated to living as though that society had already been forged. To a person in this world, “God takes sides, being committed to the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed–and so must we”; I’m inclined to reverse Jones here, and say that the dwellers of World 2 take sides, and therefore so must any God which could mean anything to them.
World 3, that of the self-exiled and of ache, is characterized by self-estrangement. Forget the cosmic scope of World 1 or the world-historical scope of World 2; this world’s struggles don’t always get out the front door. Feeling impotent, irrelevant, overlooked, or invisible, those shadows-in-masks living in World 3 might not even feel like real people at all:
And inside there is this emptiness, a void, an ache that resides in one’s midsection–the fear of being nobody, which in turn hinders action for fear of being rejected. So I try to be who others want me to be, until I don’t know who I am. And yet still I don’t belong.
This obsessio, which can result in paralysis, aimlessness, floundering, or being trapped within oneself, must be met by an epiphania which lures one out “toward wholeness and fulfillment.” Whether it offers the discovery or the creation of one’s real self, resolution necessarily begins by awakening potential and in experiencing acceptance even at the beginning of the process. “For the Christian,” Jones writes, “such meaning emerges not only through the nurture of a Christian community, but through the One who in scripture models life as giving and receiving love.”
World 4, that of fugitives and of guilt, is characterized by the experience of temptation and sin. To a person in World 4, everyone is a wretched sinner internally disposed toward arrogance and deliberate perversity, but this person would consider themselves the worst of all. Judgement, and a fear of judgement, hangs over this world like a pall. Every attempt to overcome one’s own nature and be a good, justified person fails; every attempt to overcome that nature is driven by fear of judgement, and so is ultimately just as selfish as anything else we do. Epiphania can only come as forgiveness, and at that an unearned, unasked forgiveness that is not corrupted by self-interest. Only the knowledge of undeserved forgiveness can open the way to true unselfish goodness:
Repentance, leading to conversion, exhibits faith as trust that we have received reprieve, even though in no way do we deserve it. […] Good works are not done in order to receive, but are spontaneous and joyous responses to being already justified by God’s graciousness. Thus life becomes the ongoing pendulum between repentance and forgiveness, characterized by thankful humility.
(Jones’s description seems, to me, more limited by Protestant Christianity’s dynamic, and by substitutionary atonement theology, than necessary: I suspect that other people might use different mechanisms of grace and thus different rhythms of life than the sort of evangelical conversionism that the quoted excerpt suggests. Virtue ethics with its narrative of life-long approach to some equivalent of Dante’s Beatrice, who is simultaneously the destination and the enabler of moral development, offers a possible alternative which I think is still part of World 4… but I’m not really qualified to make that claim.)
World 5, that of victims and refugees, and of feeling overwhelmed, is characterized by an experience of inevitable difficulty and suffering. Life is hard, so hard that life itself can become a kind of antagonist in this world. Though others use it, the phrase same shit, different pile was made for this world. Jones writes, “There is a heaviness to daily living, so that it seems that whatever can go wrong will.” A person living in World 5 is scarred, worn down, tired, and engulfed:
So one is tempted not to feel anymore, to trade in trying for a cynical fatigue. Worn down in one’s courageous fortitude, distrust is often the best defense against being done in. This is a hard world, one not readily chosen, for sadness edges even the joys.
The epiphania takes on a different tenor and role for this world than it does for any other. Hope can play a role in all of the other worlds, but not in this one: the present suffering is too urgent for the future to address it. What matters, instead, is living with integrity and spirit, and what enables a person to do that is usually companionship. According to Jones, for Christians this integrity and spirit might be called faithfulness and the companionship is that of God, who on Golgotha endured agony on the cross with us.
In the manner of a tabletop RPG, each of these worlds bestows on its inhabitants certain weaknesses and strengths:
- People in World 1, attracted as they are to wholeness and harmony, value inclusivity. They tend to be patient with others’ faults because they have a larger perspective. Their ethics are typically organic and ecologically sensitive—both in the literal sense, and in the sense of valuing the whole system. They are also prone to dallying with mystical experience when they might be doing something useful. This world tempts its inhabitants to see problems—like, for instance, economic inequality or political disenfranchisement—as inevitable and as insignificant from an Eternal perspective. Finally, people in this world often miss out on, or fail to respect, the uniqueness of each person or thing, seeing them symbolically as instances of archetypes or universal patterns.
- People in World 2 are usually committed to justice, freedom, and similar principles. They take risks for these principles and they are deeply aware of the way life is corporate, not individual. This world gives them an appreciation for life’s physical, specific qualities and necessities. They have keen social consciences and a good grasp of the systemic nature of evil. But they have difficulty enjoying life and have a tendency to see things—and often people and the environment—as means rather than ends in their crusade. Passion for one cause does not always give inhabitants of World 2 sensitivity to other forms of oppression and the focus on systemic injustice can foster a blindness to personal iniquities. These faults often lead to the self-righteousness, desperation, utopianism, death denial, and tribalism that contribute to systemic evil in the first place.
- People in World 3 are often intimately aware of how socialization and institutionalization can alienate, marginalize, and damage the person. They often avoid dualisms of the left brain/right brain or mind/body type and have a healthy regard for feelings, vitality, and living. At their best they are good at seeing possibilities for growth. But they are also prone to neglecting people who do not help them grow and can have excessive pride in their stage of development, ironically needing “less mature” people around them for comparison. This world can encourage the just world fallacy so that its inhabitants assume that mature people gained that maturity through personal effort while less enlightened souls did not try hard enough. People in this world can sometimes overlook the way that privilege and power not only allowed them to grow, but motivated them to do so as well.
- People in World 4 tend to have the courage needed to examine their own sins and to call out human duplicity. They highly value humility and are aware of the need for confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. As a result of these strengths, they are better than average at committing themselves to goodness and self-denial. However, they also tend to think in terms of a stark distinction of good and evil. They are prone to guilt-tripping and projecting their own failures on others. And if they have spoken of personal conversion, they often hide their inevitable shortcomings, piling deception on deception; this exacerbates their tendency to project their own sins on others. All of this drives them toward victim-blaming and dualistic good versus evil thinking in political, economic, and national arenas. It can also lead to the Protestant work-ethic in attempt to prove one’s worth.
- People in World 5 are typically realistic about what it means to live life; that discernment can foster a deep empathy for others. Their experience enduring suffering often produces tenacity, strength, cunning, and loyalty. They value dependability for its own sake and are the sort to share even when they have little. They are also prone to burn-out, overextension, depression, paralysis, apathy, and masochism. They can be fatalists and often will not try to fix what’s wrong with their own life or with the world at large—or will stake it all on a ridiculous gamble in an irrational moment. Finally, if a glorious reversal of fortune does occur, an inhabitant of World 5 could find themselves lost and alienated from life, or become judgemental and intolerant of those with whom they had once identified and empathized.
If this write-up has made you want to take the Inventory, then I suggest you do so now before Part 2, where I will discuss the Inventory in detail. And if you do not want to take the Inventory, but change your mind some part of the way through the rest of this discussion, I recommend you stop immediately to take it.
A word of caution: after I read Theological Worlds, I identified World 2 as that of the social justice warrior, but after I read the Inventory I discovered that World 2 is also that of Trump’s rhetoric. It has a division of society between winners and losers, with an aim to help a chosen body of losers become winners; it blames large systems less than individual sin (though involvement in those systems is akin to sin) for victims’ ills; it strives for material this-worldly goods in an imagined future rather than personal virtue or holistic meaning for the universe. That is not to say that Trump himself is an inhabitant of World 2 or that Trump supports likely are, but merely that this is the set of tensions that animate Trump’s rhetoric and much of social justice rhetoric. Therefore be cautious in thinking of some Worlds as better or worse; that which most aligns with your favourite movement might also align with your least favourite.
- The document is not properly paginated, so I’ll have to do without page numbers in the citation. My apologies.
- Alfred Adler coined the term “inferiority complex” and worked on a holistic developmental sense of the personality. After Freud and Jung, Adler is considered one of the major founders of depth psychology.
- You may know Guatama as the Buddha. Designating a specific historical figure as “the Buddha” may not be representative of all forms of Buddhism, but Siddharta Gautama is the one most people would mean.