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.