A Useful “Tree-roots” Apologetic Tool

(Posted by Paige Britton)

I want to sketch for you a favorite apologetics tool that I’ve found helpful both for assessing what others think and for communicating the Christian view of reality. I wish I could literally sketch it here, actually, because it results in a visual map that looks like a tree, all decked out with seven questions, each at a different level. You’ll have to draw it for yourself in the air, or on the back of a handy phone bill or something, to get the idea. (I’ll give artistic directions below.)

This “Worldview Tree” is original to Mark Potter, a WTS (Philly) grad in apologetics and the mind behind GreenTree Campus Ministries, an east-coast-based grass-roots apologetics outreach to college students. Mark invented his Tree a long time ago as a student in a philosophy class, in a bid to try to communicate to a professor the roots-to-fruit idea of consistent worldview systems. Now he draws it on a lot of dining center napkins to get conversations going.

So, draw yourself a tree somewhere, about as fancy as the ones you drew when you were a kid (and probably still draw if you’re anything like me). Make sure it’s got roots and a horizontal line wherever the trunk comes up out of the ground. Okay? Now, start just below the roots and label as you go up, as follows. (Each level will have a five-dollar theological word and a related question. Answering the questions will result in a pretty comprehensive graphic summary of a given worldview. Update: You’ll find one example of this in the comments below.)

(ROOT TIPS) Ontology: What is Ultimate Being?

(ROOTS) Metaphysics: What is the nature of ultimate reality? (Or, What’s really going on in the universe?)

(SURFACE LINE) Epistemology: How do we know things?

(TRUNK) Anthropology: What is a human being?

(FIRST BRANCHING) Teleology: What is the goal or purpose ? (This can be construed either as an ultimate – “What is the purpose of everything?” – or as a specific that leads to an ultimate – e.g., “What is the purpose of wealth?”)

(MAIN BRANCHY AREA) Axiology: What is right and wrong / good and bad?

(LEAVES OR FRUIT) Therapy: How do we get better? (Again, this could be construed ultimately or regarding a specific concern.)

Of course the value of the Worldview Tree as a tree is that it readily conveys the idea of parts of a system leading to / stemming from other parts, as well as the basic concept that a consistent worldview is organically connected from roots (well, in this case ground!) (“ontology”) to fruit (“therapy”). Not that people usually operate with a coherently articulated worldview, let alone a consistent one! So when Mark sits down with college students over lunch and pulls out a ballpoint and draws his Tree, it may be the first time that those students have ever been challenged to sketch their own view of reality or evaluate whether the fruit at the top of their tree really belongs to their tree after all (or was it maybe stolen from another tree and duct-taped onto their branches?). (Mark doesn’t necessarily always start with the ground or the roots in these conversations, by the way; he is just as likely to start near the top of the tree and work backwards to fill it out.)

I like to use the Tree when teaching believers, too: It’s a handy way to lay out the biblical worldview in a class on Christian doctrine, for example, and useful when it comes to comparing different theological systems, biblical or otherwise. I also use it to teach people to evaluate the things they read or hear, by starting with the clues they are given by a speaker or author and then filling out the (implicit) rest of his or her assumptions about the world. (One exercise begins with the childhood rhyme, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight” and builds a whole tree from “therapy” [things get better when you make a wish] down to “ontology” [a benevolent but impersonal universe]!)

Probably the best way to realize how useful the Worldview Tree might be for apologetics (or teaching) is to try it out as a graphic organizer for a couple systems of thought and compare the resultant dendriforms. So take it for a spin, and tell me what you think. Could this come in handy in teaching or conversation sometime?

I’m going to return to this Worldview Tree in another post sometime to see how readers perceive the differences between similar-sounding theologies, asking the question, “At what points do the ‘trees’ differ?” For now, I’d love to hear your feedback on Mark’s idea more generally.

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17 Comments

  1. mary kathryn said,

    January 27, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I heard of a simpler tool that this one, used by Dr. Lou Voskuil, history prof at Covenant College for many years. It’s called a “culture box” – really 4 stacked boxes. The top box is ‘lifestyles,’ the next one down is “institutions,’ the next ‘values,’ and the bottom box is ‘worldview.’ You can assess cultures from their exteriors, to find the underlying worldviews. I taught high school literature, and I would use the culture box to evaluate the “world” being presented by the author (that world’s ‘creator’) of the novel/short story, in order to discover the worldview assertions being made. I imagine, especially in a novel, your tool would be useful in literary study as well.

  2. Reed Here said,

    January 28, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Like it Paige. Simple to follow. It is probably more helpful as an internal tool in most of my apologetic conversations. As I listen to the persons comment, I can use the tree to help assess what they’re thinking. Ordinarily folks will make comments that mix above ground with below ground observations without any awareness of the distinction. I can see the “tree” helping me to on the fly internally dissect their comments, and then craft a response that moves the conversation in a more focused, and hopefully helpful direction.

  3. paigebritton said,

    January 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Yay! I’m glad you liked it, Reed. Yes, I always have the Tree inside my head, especially when interacting here…

  4. paigebritton said,

    January 29, 2011 at 6:36 am

    It might be helpful to have a live example of the application of the Tree, so here’s one worldview “Tree’d.” (And part of the fun of doing this in our circles is that we can argue with each other about how we’d answer the Q’s for different systems of thought. Sometimes the answers are not so clear cut!)

    So, going from ROOTS (or GROUND) to FRUIT, here is…

    ANCIENT GREEK POLYTHEISM, IN A TREE

    ONTOLOGY
    Q: What is Ultimate Being?
    A: This is a little vague, since the head honcho god keeps changing in their origin myths. But even the gods are subject to the Fates, so why don’t we put the Fates as their Ultimate Being.

    METAPHYSICS
    Q: What is the nature of ultimate reality? (Or, What is really going on in the universe?)
    A: The universe is busy with gods, goddesses, lesser immortals, heroes of mixed origin, and all kinds of personalization of natural phenomena. Shape changing, super powers, gods walking the earth in disguise, and the possibility of ending up as a constellation are all par for the course.

    EPISTEMOLOGY
    Q: How do we know things?
    A: No official sacred text, but lots of legends passed down orally at first…Basically you have to guess what the gods want, and try hard not to offend Hera in particular. Altars to “unknown gods” are good insurance policies.

    ANTHROPOLOGY
    Q: What are humans?
    A: Alternately, noble reflections of the gods and the afterthoughts of the gods, depending on the myth. They didn’t get endowed with any particular gifts when they were created because those all got used up on the animals. People are mostly messed up on account of Pandora’s jar.

    TELEOLOGY
    Q: What is the purpose or goal (of life)?
    A: Make the gods happy and maybe they will be good to you. Try to avoid bad luck. Reconcile yourself to Fate.

    AXIOLOGY
    Q: What is good/bad, right/wrong?
    A: Pretty vague — maybe good = “imitate Apollo”; but there are plenty of vices amongst the gods, so “godliness” is undefinable. Some noble ideals are woven into the myths though (and emerge later in philosophical discourse). Easy answer: good/right = whatever makes the gods happy so they are nice to you.

    THERAPY
    Q: How do we get better?
    A: That Pandora really wreaked havoc on humanity…There’s no clear way of salvation, but there is maybe the hint that imitating noble character could control the baser instincts and vices in humanity. (But again, be careful which god you imitate!) And if you’re lucky, you may even end up as a constellation.

    How’s that? :)

  5. January 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    This is great. I’ve been looking for a simple tool like this ground in a pre-suppositional/worldview approach to apologetics. Many thanks.

  6. January 29, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    *grounded

  7. paigebritton said,

    January 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Yes, this graphic organizer is itself rooted in a “presup” approach, allowing for both the coherent expression of the biblical worldview and the challenge to incoherent and/or non-biblical systems of thought in an apologetic encounter. Glad you liked it!

  8. January 30, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Paige,
    Several observations–Mark’s idea works so well and so systemically, not only because it uses an organic metaphorical construct, but because it is inherently emblematic of that construct, itself. Mark’s tree actually derives (consciously or not) from the Hebrew Bible’s eytz chayim, the Jewish metaphysical ‘tree of life’ which Rabbinics and Qabbalist immersed in Jewish metaphysics and scripture have evolved as a system, for over 5000 years.

    I highly advise some study of the Qabbalist “tree of life” toward understanding the interconnectedness of the spheres which relate to each other, and in their systematic formulation which ultimately manifests the idea first attempted to be put into systematic theology by John in his gospel 15:1-7.

    I am actually trying to connect with Mark! but would also love to know more about you and this blog–forgive me, but, I don’t see any way to contact you–no email, etc…

    I have a new ministry which is bidirectional–it is a faith-based artists guild as well as a ministry of Pastoral Chaplaincy in creating online communities to discuss questions of worldview and scripture’s relevancy to contemporary and modern life. I hope you’ll be in touch with me so I can better understand this blog, your work, and your connection to Mark who I very much would like to be in contact with.

    Blessings into the sabbath

  9. paigebritton said,

    January 30, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Hi, Deborah,
    Well, that’s an interesting direction to go – but I think this is not exactly a setting conducive to your particular interests – this is a place for much Reformed theology and rather little art (or Qabbalah). (Mark is not involved here, BTW; I’m just giving credit to him for his Tree.)
    pax,
    Paige B.

  10. January 30, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Hey Paige,
    Thanks so much for your response–actually, my interest (wish I knew the html for ital) isn’t in Qabbalistic sources, but actually, in scripture and metaphysics and how they, in certain areas, inform modern Apologetics. As a Divinity School student, while my emphasis is in Pastoral Chaplaincy and lived faith through missional living, I have always taken care to understand Reformed theology and apologetics where I’ve come across it, and to see it’s relevancies to the upsurge in faith and art—especially in the contemporary Evangelical Christian milieu. What I’ve read of Mark’s work in fact, bridges much of reformed theology and the Christian worldview, with art’s capacity to communicate it just as widely as apologetics. This is why his name caught my eye.

    I would though, really love it if you had any clue on what direction I might be in, to reach him?

    Blessings, and many thanks for your considerings

  11. paigebritton said,

    January 30, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Hi, Deborah,
    I’ll see that Mark gets your contact info.
    pax,
    Paige B.

  12. January 30, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Hey Paige,
    You’re very kind, thank you! Mark’s so grass roots, that the grass is covering all traces of how to even get to him by simple campus or ministry email. I don’t find him at Bryn Mawr or Haverford so I truly appreciate your helping hand, and look forward to delving more in depth to your blog which is a veritable font for contemporarily relevant apologetics narrative. The field is changing so much so quickly. And thankfully, turning I think to more modern models of lived faith that demonstrate living and cultivating faith from the ground of a truly, missionally Christian worldview.

    all blessings, in Christ– deborah

  13. jared said,

    January 30, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    I might rearrange where some of the terms get placed (and I’d start with roots rather than ground since they’re at the very bottom). Other than that, this model is extraordinarily useful.

  14. paigebritton said,

    January 31, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Yeah, maybe “Ontology” is at the tips of the roots when Mark draws it — I may have forgotten that. :)

    How would you tweak the order, Jared?

  15. paigebritton said,

    January 31, 2011 at 6:33 am

    Hi again, Deborah,
    Mark doesn’t let that grass grow under his feet, which is why it is hard to track him down sometimes. Hope you hear from him eventually! :)

    (BTW, though I’m privileged to be writing here, GB isn’t “my” blog — Lane Keister, who is a scholarly-minded Presbyterian pastor (PCA), is the mind behind Green Baggins. There is some overlap between GB and Mark’s thoughts, which is why I brought in the Worldview Tree, but there might not be a wholehearted embrace here for his theological approach to the arts.)

  16. jared said,

    January 31, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    Paige,

    Like I said, I’d start with “roots” and keep its metaphysics label. Next comes “ground” which would keep its ontology label. (I understand that as a graphic model one would probably draw the ground before drawing the roots, logically, however, metaphysics precedes ontology). Really I’d probably put both metaphysics and ontology in the “roots” and put epistemology at the “ground”, but then we’ve got to come up with another $5 theological term and I’m on a tight budget right now. So, the “surface line” becomes epistemology and I think the “trunk” should be axiology. The “first branching”, then, is anthropology, the “main branchy area” is therapy and the “leaves/fruit” are teleology.

    Here’s the model I’m using rearrange:

    Creation – “roots” – metaphysics
    Division – “ground” – ontology
    Ascension – “surface line” – epistemology
    Testing – “trunk” – axiology
    Maturity – “first branching” – anthropology
    Conquest – “main branching area” – therapy
    Glorification – “leaves/fruit” – teleology

    And then rolling this into the covenant model:

    Transcendence – creation – “roots” – metaphysics
    Hierarchy – division – “ground” – ontology
    Ethics – ascension, testing, maturity – “surface line”, “trunk”, “first branching” – epistemology, axiology, anthropology
    Oath – conquest – “main branching area” – therapy
    Succession – glorification – “leaves/fruit” – teleology

    So, whatever that’s worth. ;-)

  17. paigebritton said,

    February 1, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Thanks, Jared!

    Very interesting thoughts and applications there! Great thinking!

    Here’s the reasoning behind the order as I presented it. Some of this has to do with choosing one definition of a $5 theological term over another, and some has to do with the purpose of the Tree:

    ONTOLOGY precedes METAPHYSICS because the Ultimate Being determines what goes on in the universe. (We often use the term “ontology” to talk about “being” or “essence,” but the key here is to think of it as the ULTIMATE Being that precedes and is the source of all things. Mark sometimes calls this “the ultimate thing that BE‘s,” because of course in some worldviews this is an impersonal ultimate thing.)

    ANTHROPOLOGY precedes the last three (Teleology, Axiology, and Therapy) because, given the way the last three are conceived in this Tree, people are already assumed. So we have to know what a person is before we can understand how purpose, ethics, and improvement relate to them.

    TELEOLOGY precedes Axiology and Therapy because a person’s purpose precedes his ethics and action in this scheme. Your order ends up at teleology, as the goal; Mark’s order says teleology gives direction to the choices people make about good/bad, right/wrong, and “getting better.” (Maybe the difference is what you are trying to communicate with the Tree: Mark is trying to explain why people do what they do, where “teleology” is their bottom-line motivator; and maybe you are showing a picture of what God is up to in the grand scheme of things. Mark’s scheme is able to do both, actually.)

    AXIOLOGY precedes Therapy because values control action choices. (No, not consistently, in real life; but the Tree is a picture of what would happen if our worldview were consistent.)

    THERAPY is the leaves/fruit because this is the logical consequence, the sum game, of the rest of the Tree — and it’s the rest of the Tree acted out in the world, so it’s what the rest of us see.

    Going backwards from an action, then, we get, for example:

    THERAPY: Having an abortion will solve the problem I’m in.
    AXIOLOGY: It is okay to have an abortion because it’s my body and therefore my choice, and what’s in me is not a person. It would be bad to compromise my potential by remaining pregnant.
    TELEOLOGY: The ultimate goal is to be happy and achieve my potential. (And the proximate goal is to solve the problem I’m in.)
    ANTHROPOLOGY: A person is only a person after birth, so what’s in me is not a person. A person has rights, so I have rights to get rid of what is in me.
    EPISTEMOLOGY: I know what to do based on my feelings and the advice of friends and professionals.
    METAPHYSICS: All that Bible stuff about sin and the afterlife is just old myths and messes with my self-esteem. [i.e., there's no judgment for our actions.]
    ONTOLOGY: There’s no God or anything that I have to be accountable to.

    (Now, maybe only at the level of “therapy” would any of this be consciously articulated; but this is an example of what might be articulated if the questions were asked. This is also an example of a “personal” worldview, which may or may not fall into any particular textbook-case worldview that we can name; but this is the sort of Tree many people are working with.)

    I do very much like your version & applications. I’ll be using this Tree from Mark in a future post or two, because I particularly like the logic of its scheme and what it is trying to explain. But I’ll keep yours in mind, too, as interesting alternatives!

    pax,
    Paige B.


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