I have mentioned W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds construct more than a few times here. It is one of the constructs I use to help me understand why other people believe and assume the things that they do. But I’ve also expressed concern here about two potential problems that arise out of Jones’s very Christian emphasis: a) how useful is it to apply Jones’s construct to non-Christians and b) how comprehensive is his set of Worlds?
To an extent that last question is an empirical one which will be difficult for me to answer; Jones’s method involved surveying hundreds of people and I do not have the resources to do the same. But there is another way to attempt to answer the question about comprehensiveness which, I have discovered, might also help make his constructs more useful for non-Christians. After a bit of thought I think I have been able to schematize his Worlds so that they do, or at least might, cover all possible sources of anxiety and obsession about the human condition.
Let’s start with that human condition: human life is characterized by a) individual humans with their own internal dynamics b) embedded within and enmeshed with an environment which includes, but is not limited to, the facts of time and space, of the Laws of Thermodynamics, and so on, and c) associated with other individual humans (even if only their own parents) in ways more or less organized. The internal workings (understood both physically and psychologically) of any given human, which I will call human nature, has various requirements (ie. sustenance, medicine, narrative), some of which that person can only attain from the surrounding environment; when humans organize themselves into institutions, they usually do so with the purpose of making it easier for themselves to meet these needs through collective action. These organizations are necessary because it is often difficult for people to meet their needs either within themselves or through interaction with the environment. Even when it is not difficult to meet these needs alone, there is no guarantee that it will remain easy.
Therefore there are three places where crises may arise for any given person: in the environment (which, again, includes all contingent and all necessary features of existence, such as time and space and the laws of physics), in the person’s own internal workings (which might be generalized human nature or a specific person’s unique nature), or in human organization. Indeed, while all problems must necessarily involve elements of each of these three aspects of human existence, an individual person may experience one of these as being more responsible or more ultimately responsible in comparison to the other two.
Now I am less confident in this next part of the argument, but I think you can distinguish between two ways of framing problems that arise at each of these levels. On the one hand there are positive problems, in which the individual encounters the problem as the presence of some object or force or agent that frustrates their attempts to meet their needs; on the other hand there are negative problems, in which the individual encounters the problem as a lack of means to meet their needs. Of course in any given case it could be hard to distinguish between the negative and positive problems, and even philosophically it may be impossible to define their difference. I am thinking about two complementary and opposite ways of framing problems, not of two genuinely distinct types of problem.
This gives us six possible permutations: positive problems in the nature of existence itself, negative problems in the nature of existence itself, positive problems in human organization, negative problems in human organization, positive problems in human nature, negative problems in human nature. One of these, however, ought to stick out as being an unlikely framing: if the goal of human organization is to help people meet their needs both in regards to their own internal workings and in regards to their interaction with the environment, then any lack on the part of human organization is ultimately derived from a problem in the individual or in the environment. So, for example, if I am having difficulty feeding myself and the wider society in which I live isn’t providing me with food, I might consider that to be a failure on the level of social organization, but only because either a) I am not able to feed myself on my own and therefore there is a problem in the environment or in myself, or b) that wider society, or some element in it, is actively preventing me from feeding myself. Therefore negative problems in human organization always resolve into one of the other five kinds of problem, which may be tightly interrelated but cannot be reduced into one another.
Each of these five remaining ways of framing problems matches with one of Jones’s theological worlds. World 1, in which the subject experiences the universe as meaningless and chaotic, is a negative problem in the nature of existence itself: although the universe does not actively thwart attempts to meet one’s needs, it does also does not satisfy the human need for meaning. World 2, in which the subject is concerned about the violence which certain ubiquitous forms of human society and culture engender, is a positive problem in human organization because human institutions, even while being unavoidable, introduce the problem into human life. World 3, in which the subject feels impotent or empty, is a negative problem in human nature because the person’s own constitution lacks, or seem to lack, what people need from themselves, such as a life-narrative or self-actualization. World 4, in which the subject is burdened by the knowledge of past wrongdoing and the anticipation of future wrongdoing, is a positive problem in human nature; in this view, people are such that they sometimes actively work against their own well-being and the well-being of others. World 5, in which the subject is overwhelmed by the sufferings and labours of life itself, is a positive problem in the nature of existence itself: even if the universe is better described as inert rather than malevolent, the obstacles and burdens to need-fulfillment make the experience less about the absence of satisfaction and more about the presence of pain and difficulty.
Perhaps a chart will help.
|Positive Harm…||Negative Harm…|
|…in existence||World 5||World 1|
|…in humans aggregated and organized to contend with problems of human condition||World 2||n/a|
|…in human nature||World 4||World 3|
What this reframing of Jones’s concept might do is widen some of these Worlds to support obsessios and epiphaniae which his Christian and existentialist explanations might otherwise not allow. If you were to ask a World 4 person hostile to Christianity which World they felt most comfortable in, they might say none of them worked; with my reframing above, though, they might be able to say, “Aha! I fit best into ‘positive problems in human nature,’ the biggest of which are stupidity and herd conformity! Indeed I recognize in myself the tendency towards both and fight against them every day.”
Now, I am skeptical of my own explanation here because it seems all like an idol of the theatre: the schematization seems in some ways too convenient and in other ways too forced. However, it does suggest that Jones’s worlds may be less culturally contingent than I had feared. That is, his specific explanations and descriptions might be culturally contingent, but nonetheless he has identified five distinct ways of seeing the universe which, if my work here is correct, completely capture all worldviews at a certain level of specificity and distinguish between them in a way which should prove to be helpful. I am to a corresponding degree more confident in my use of the theological worlds to understand people and am more confident of my ability to translate those worlds into culturally specific idioms.
That said, I can anticipate one criticism in advance: a person might say that this threefold conception of the human condition is very Western. In particular, the Western philosophical and religious traditions emphasize the individual self far more than any other traditions. Communitarian traditions, of which Confucianism is far from the only example, would not make such a distinction between individual humans and aggregated humans, while ecological traditions, of which Dene spiritualities are far from the only examples, would not make such a distinction between individual humans and existence itself. But I think this threefold structure is still valid enough because I have difficulty believing any human cultures entirely negate an intrinsic self-other distinction in human psychology; specific people may have brains which lack the capacity to make that distinction (it’s the relationship between the left and right parietal lobes which does it), but that would be idiosyncratic and not culture-specific. How the human brain’s insistence on the self-other distinction is interpreted and conditioned will likely vary culturally, of course, but I’m pretty sure all I need for this idea to work is for most people in all cultures to have a base-level experience of the self-other distinction.
I always value comments, criticisms, and concerns, but here I would value them more than usual.