Naming Your Turtles

by Joe Carter

In his book, A Brief History of Time, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking relates a story about a well-known scientist who gave a public lecture on astronomy:

He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down.”

Like the old lady in this tale, most people haven’t given much thought to what their “tortoise” is “standing on.” When pressed for an answer they tend to be uncomfortable and defensive. Francis Schaeffer called this intellectual exercise of pushing people toward the logical conclusions of their presuppositions “taking the roof off,” and warned that it often causes people psychological pain.

In apologetic discussions we often expect people to “name their turtles” by explaining how their presuppositions provide the scaffolding for their worldview. Yet too often we examine other people’s worldviews in extensive detail while choosing to provide only the most basic framework for our own. In doing so we hide any inconsistencies that might be exposed and avoid shedding light on areas we would rather not have to defend. Such an approach is not fair to those we criticize nor is it conducive to honest and open dialogue.

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But it also causes us to miss a prime opportunity for self-analysis. As James Sire writes in Naming the Elephant:

One of the most important uses of worldview analysis is self-analysis. To become conscious of your fundamental nature of reality, to be able to tell yourself just what you believe about God, the universe, yourself, and the world around you—what else could be more important? You would be able to live the proverbial examined life. Naming your elephant does not guarantee that you are right, but it does mean that you know where you stand.

Some Christians may say that such an exercise is unnecessary since they already have the Westminster Confession or the Book of Concord or the Baptist Faith and Standard. While these documents are useful (I would even say necessary) for clarifying doctrinal positions, establishing confessional boundaries, and should even serve as the basis for one’s self-analysis, it can still be helpful to write out one’s beliefs in order to examine them more consciously.

Many writers will attest there is something unique and profound in having to write out what you believe. As Tim Challies said in a recent interview, “I don’t really know what I believe until I write it down and work it through in my word processor, and in that way writing has been a critical part of my spiritual development.” Writing out what you believe can be an important aspect of worldview self-analysis.

A worldview is not, of course, merely a list of beliefs. But beliefs — particularly religious beliefs — are foundational to a person’s worldview and thus should be made explicit in order that they may be examined and criticized more completely…

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Naming Your Turtles – The Gospel Coalition Blog


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