W. Paul Jones seems to have two uses in mind for his Theological Worlds construct: self-diagnosis and pastoral planning. First, the Theological Worlds can help individuals understand themselves. Second, the Theological Worlds can help churches organize their congregation into sub-congregations according to Theological World so that the congregants are engaging with people who fundamentally understand them. If the Inventory is mostly useless to you because, as I discussed previously, the questions make no sense to you, the first use does not apply to you. If you aren’t part of a congregation or other group that might reasonably organize itself in the way Jones imagines, the second use also does not apply to you.
These aren’t the only uses, though. My first exposure to Jones was through Richard Beck, and one of his insights was that if people don’t understand that everyone has their own Theological World, standard attempts of proselytization will fall flat:
Now, it’s a big shocker for some Christians to find out that many of their brothers and sisters don’t live within this theological world. Sin isn’t their obsessio. Not that they deny the existence and problem of sin, just that sin isn’t the defining quandary of their spiritual lives.
I am an example of a Christian of this stripe. Sin and guilt isn’t my obsessio. If you tell me that I’m going to hell I’ll just blink at you blandly and yawn. I’m emotionally unmoved. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to go to heaven. I do. I just don’t spend my life trying to save my own skin.
I could expand this point and say that another use of Jones’s Theological Worlds construct is that it might make trying to persuade another person somewhat easier. If I can listen to you, maybe ask you some questions, and work out what your Theological World looks like—in particular, what your obsessio is—then I have a much stronger chance of making sure that what I’m trying to persuade you of in some way corresponds with your epiphania. At the very least, I might be able to give up earlier if I realize what I can offer does not address your obsessio at all. And the Worlds should work for this use regardless of your religious or areligious tradition… so long as you can translate them out of W. Paul Jones’s often very Western Christian idiom.
Persuasion, however, seems like a subspecies of the real use to which I would put the Theological Worlds construct: using it to better understand other people’s worldviews. (You saw that coming, I’m sure.) Although I’m skeptical of Jones’s typology—is it really exhaustive? are we sure there’s nothing missing?—I do find that the Worlds he has built help me understand things somewhat more. For instance, quite a while ago Leah Libresco at Unequally Yoked asked the following as part of her book club on Ronald Knox’s Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes:
In the Roman age, and in the age of the British Empire, it was more natural to take pride in citizenship in an eternal institution, and, when temporal governments failed, the Church promised to be that everlasting body that the people sought.
However, today, most people I know don’t belong to institutions that disappoint them by not enduring — most people I know don’t belong to long-lived institutions at all. There’s no desire to be kindled, disappointed, and redirected. […]
[…] Knox took for granted that his listeners were looking for a body that could satisfy their desire to say “Civis [something] sum” but I have trouble imagining him delivering this sermon unaltered today. In order to pull it off, he might need to first stoke up his listeners’ attachment to whatever institutions they participated in, so that they would long for a stronger attachment and a stronger place to shelter.
You might be able to guess what odds I’d give for Knox successfully stoking up an obsessio in people so he can offer a corresponding epiphania, but that’s beside my current point. When I first read this post in February 2015, I was mystified that anyone would want to invest in an eternal institution. This desire was so alien to me that I asked in the comments for people to explain… and of course no one could to my satisfaction. Now, however, I can see that this is classically World 1: the desire for a harmonious universal order to which one belongs would encourage a person to desire not only membership in an eternal institution but also membership in an institution that spanned the globe to eventually include all people everywhere. I had, in fact, read W. Paul Jones at this point; you would hope I could intuit that something from World 1 was happening in this desire, but I didn’t. When I read in the Inventory that people in World 1 often desire harmony, however, I immediately remembered this and it made sense to me. I still feel like acting on a desire for such institutions leads to the evils of imperialism, but I now understand why someone might have that desire. I may still find a person’s epiphania destructive or ineffective, but I can at least now see, without judgement, that they are trying to find a solution to a problem I don’t have. If Jones had not structured this concept like a typology, where people with obsessio X often have trait Y, and so I could match “wants harmony in an institution” with “obsessio is world’s arbitrariness” it would be harder for me to figure out what a person’s World would be and thus gain this advantage.
It still isn’t easy to categorize people, however, particularly since there seem to be very few people who are pure types. For instance, when I first read Coates’s Between the World and Me, I thought it was one of the most clearly World 2 pieces of writing I’d read: the prevailing ethos of the book is struggle, particularly against systems set against African Americans, and its investments are always grounded in the concrete rather than the abstract. Moreover, it clearly isn’t World 1, because Coates disavows otherworldly answers or the attempt to give events meaning, or World 4, because Coates’s discussion of his own lack of innocence is far too nonplussed for me to think it bothers him much. But upon reading more about Coates, and reading more of Coates, and reading reviews of Coates’s writing, I realize I completely overlooked the ample World 5 elements in Between: its fatalism, its insistence on struggle despite the impossibility of winning, its focus on a communities defined not by common cause but common suffering. “Struggle” is a World 2 word, but Coates seems to be using it as a synonym for “endurance/survival,” a World 5 ideal. Even its concreteness fits just as well in World 5 as in World 2. Likewise the obviousness of my World 3 traits hid my World 5 traits from me.
And even those who are pure types don’t always show their obsessio to the world. I can get glimpses, hunches, and intuitions, sometimes: Richard Beck, above, suggests he’s World 2, and certainly his published work suggests this, but a person as enamoured with memento mori as Beck cannot be wholly World 2, which makes me think he has a strong dose of World 5 in there as well, with an intellectual appreciation for the inward honesty of World 4. Sometimes I find the mere attempt to categorize a person helps me think through their positions better: for a long time I had trouble placing the blogging of Leah Libresco, also above, but eventually I realized that because she has both capital-T Truth and moral law (with agency!) at the emotional centre of her worldview, I’m inclined to identify some combination of World 1 (with an emphasis on universally-integrated order) and World 4 (though with virtue ethics over metanoia), and an intellectual appreciation for World 3 (because of the preference for virtue ethics over metanoia). A lot of things I didn’t understand about her writing make more sense now that I can look at it in light of Worlds 1 and 4; of course she’s going to be more Lawful than Chaotic! of course her truth-telling thing can’t be a method but must be somehow communal! But I still really can’t say whether Leah Libresco herself operates in this way. It is instead the persona which emerges out of her writing that seems to have these concerns. And furthermore I simply have no idea what Worlds ozy franz lives in, even though theirs is the blog I read most often these days.
So there are a number of hazards to going about diagnosing people with Jones’s Theological Worlds: if a connection to one World is obvious, then connection to a second might be obscured; the diagnosis may apply more to the rhetoric and therefore the conversations in which a person engages than to the person themselves; some people just don’t reveal much about what really motivates them; it seems rude in much the same way that expecting a person born in mid-May to be stubborn and materialistic is rude.
This is one of the reasons I want to help popularize this concept: it would be nice to not have to guess a person’s unique Theological World. I would like for people I know to be able to say, “You know, that just doesn’t address this sense I have that suffering is inevitable,” or “You know, that just doesn’t address this sense I have that suffering is unacceptable,” and then everyone else can accept that, at the very least, that sense neither has nor needs logical support because it is their obsessio. And I would like for people to be able to say, “I think this argument is logically strong and well-supported by empirical evidence, but I also realize that I’m very much in World 4 so I of course I’d be attracted to this kind of argument.” Therefore, whatever the flaws of the system, I hope you’ll spend some time with it so that I can mention it when it’s useful and you can mention it when it’s useful.
As a bonus, it would be easier to recommend books if the Theological Worlds construct was more popular. Jones has done a good job starting to sort Christian theology, certain Continental philosophers, and classical composers into the Worlds, but I would like to sort other domains as well. If Ta-Nehisi Coates is World 2/5, and Ralph Ellison and maybe W. E. B. Dubois are World 3, and Martin Luther King Jr. is (probably) World 1, who in the African-American Studies canon would you recommend to someone in World 4? If I spend most of my time in Worlds 3 and 5 and I’d like to read more Muslim or Daoist authors, whose writing would most appeal to me? Or if World 1 is foreign to me and I’d like to improve my empathy for that perspective, what contemporary literary fiction could best immerse me in it? Recommended reading lists of this sort could really help, but only if we can start translating the Theological Worlds out of Jones’s Western Christian (+ existentialist) context.