360 in 180 Global Campus Reports

Understanding Culture, Worldview and Christianity in France: Final Interviews in Paris

Looking again at my bus ticket, a familiar twinge of dread tugged at my stomach—the same twinge I’d felt in Turkey upon realizing I’d just shown up for my flight on the wrong continent. For an unflinching moment, I stared hard at the screen, willing the numbers there to correct their mistaken positions. But nope. The numbers continued to glare back at me, defiant in their boldface type.

I really did just buy a ticket to London for the completely wrong day—or, night.

Instead of departing at 9:15AM the next morning and arriving in London for 6:00PM, I’d booked passage to leave Paris at 9:15PM that very night, to arrive in London for 6:00AM!

After all the mishaps I’ve negotiated already and all the tickets I’ve booked so far, my inner commentator fumed, you’d think I’d know better by now.

But hey—at least I’m consistent.

I struggled to change my ticket to allow for another night in Paris, as planned, but—of all things—the booking website refused to respond to my clicks. However, my travel troubles would have to wait. The next person I’d be interviewing was due to arrive for lunch any minute!

I’d interviewed a local arts student only the day before, followed by an IT student who shared about being a Christian in his graduate program.

“At university,” he’d told me, “I think it’s okay to speak about religion and what we think. People are open to discuss, but not really to change their opinion. They want to know what other people believe, but they don’t want to change their own beliefs. But in the rest of culture—at the workplace, for instance—people don’t really want to speak about religion. They might say, ‘that’s good for you,’ but they don’t try to understand. That’s very different from university.”

Now, as the swing of the door announced the next interviewee’s arrival, I’d be able to investigate France’s worldview climate a little further. A dark-haired young graduate strolled inside, greeted me and the pastors I was staying with, and sat down with us for soup and baguettes. Of course, the conversation drifted to the challenges which Christian students encounter in France!

“There might not be the same hostility against Christians here as in America,” one of the pastors mused, “as critical thinking is emphasized.”

Hopefully, this emphasis means that professors are more likely to base their worldview comments on logic and objectivity, rather than subjective politically- or emotionally-charged opinions.

“However,” the pastor continued, “while the French do have high standards of critical thinking, because of the Christian heritage in France, professors will hold that heritage up and ridicule it. For example, our daughter told us that her philosophy teacher would refer to Christianity by saying, ‘Look how wrong or how dumb this belief is.’ Or, in another instance, we had a geology student here whose professor would say, ‘Look at what these creationists from the States think,’ and ridicule them. So, students do face that.”

Hmmm. So, what DO most people here believe?

When I asked about the most common worldviews in France, however, I hit an unexpected communication block.

Wait…there’s no such thing as worldview here?


“Do you know what she means by worldview?” the pastor, originally an American, turned to the French graduate.

“Not exactly.”

“Why don’t you explain it?” the pastor asked me, grinning a little.

“Oh,” I responded. “Well—our worldview is the set of beliefs we use to explain the world around us. It’s how we think about human origins, morals, and what happens after death. Ultimately, our worldview is how we answer the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ And that question affects everything that has to do with humanity—including human history, philosophy, politics, morality, ethics, religion and relationships. For example, a biblical worldview holds that humans are made in the image of God, so He sets the standards for what’s right and wrong, and for what our churches, relationships and societies should look like. But a secular humanist worldview states that we evolved naturally, which leaves the definition for what it means to be human open-ended. In that case, we set our own standards for morality, relationships and ethics however we think best.” (See also 5 Consequences of Societies that Forget God.)

I leaned back, content with my explanation. But why was the pastor still grinning?

“Here in France,” he replied, ‘people would say that by defining different worldviews, you’re making categories, which limit your thinking.”

Wait…there are no definitions of worldviews here?!

“But everybody has to have some sort of belief system,” I objected. “How can there possibly not be worldview categories here!?”

In answer, he passed me his phone, displaying the English Wikipedia entry for Worldview.

“See how long it is?” he asked.

I scrolled through several columns of text. “Yep.”

“Now, look at the French entry.”

He showed me his phone again, revealing only a tiny stub of an article.

Whoa. He wasn’t kidding!

“So,” I clarified, “people wouldn’t normally say ‘I’m atheist,’ because then they’d be categorizing themselves?”

“No,” he agreed. “Worldview comes from a 19th century philosophical concept, foundationalism, which is the idea that you can rationally look at things and determine what they are. But in France, we’re so deep into post-modern secular thinking, that philosophically, we don’t even think about post-modernism. Instead of postmodernism, the French use the word structuralism. Even then, the idea of that word came to France by way of English. And it’s not that there’s no concept of worldview here, but people don’t use worldview as a starting point for trying to understand things. They don’t know there could be different worldviews. In France, we instead think that because we’re all critical thinkers, we’re free from ideology.”

Instead of telling someone he has a Christian worldview, then, this pastor prefers to say he “thinks biblically.”

“French philosophers,” another member of the table added, “will think about social constructions and representations. We’ll more often use that word ‘representation,’ which is how you project onto other people. So, your worldview could be considered ‘how you project onto other people.’”

Well then. For someone who loves apologetics, discovering that the idea of worldview doesn’t really ‘work here’ made me feel as lost as a dentist arriving in a culture where nobody believes they have teeth. Still, the graduate deemed the worldview concept as “useful,” working it into his story of being a Christian student in France.

The psychology graduate’s story:


“In my field, psychology,” he began, “people refer to Christianity as making people feel guilty. The professors don’t have the aim to destroy religion; they’re just speaking about the past. They forget that they may be speaking to people who are believers. In the professors’ worldview, believers are non-existent. So, they will say things that make sense to them—that Christianity is a myth, from the dark ages.”

But it’s not just professors. Even the Christians this graduate knew weren’t always totally on board with Christianity.

“I remember many times talking with Christians in my prayer group,” he said, “but they didn’t understand what the purposes of God and the Bible really are, or that Christianity is a living faith.”

Meanwhile, the rest of French culture has drifted so far from its Christian heritage that to most people, meeting someone who accepts the Bible as true may be as extraordinary as encountering someone who claims to be a toasted croissant.

“I remember a guy saying, ‘I cannot imagine that Christian people still exist,’” the graduate continued. “He knew there are Catholic churches, but he couldn’t believe that other people his age still believe in God. He was so shocked! So, he searched the reason, and ended up becoming a Christian.”

Seek and ye shall find, I smiled. An honest investigation has led many a reluctant convert to the cross.

“No one wants to know the meaning of life,” the graduate went on. “They feel the need for God and are asking questions about the sense of life, but they’re not asking the simple question, ‘Is it true that God exists?’”

In a culture where few seek God, the sense of spiritual isolation—of feeling like the only person fighting their way up an ideological staircase which millions of people are running down—can lead even the most assured believers to second-guess their faith.

“I think even when we, as Christians, have a difficult time in our faith,” he added, “it’s a deep temptation to say, ‘I was wrong.’ This is when the church has a role to support and be in relationships with young people. They need it. I’ve seen friends that gave up, and just turned back. They turned their backs on God. I have the feeling that it was a war. Many, many people believe because of their parents, but as they grow up, the rest of us see which of them really believe in Christ.”

Given the double standards of respect which can often appear in Western cultures, however, these beliefs are not always welcome in society.

“In the common society, non-believers have lost the idea that we have to respect the ideas of everyone. It’s clear that we have to respect political ideas, but if someone’s a Christian, this is not a respectable belief. If someone is a Buddhist or Muslim, you should respect that because it’s their choice. But as a Christian, you don’t have the right to be respected about what you believe. This is the feeling.”

Fascinating. Certainly, this final interview with locals in France had taken some directions I certainly wasn’t expecting. What other surprises might await me in the last country on my agenda, England? Only time would tell. But first, I had other matters to find out—like how to change that bus ticket for London!



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