For over thirty years Dr. James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog has pressed upon readers the weight of Socrates’ old axiom, “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, Apology, 38a). With the publication of the fifth edition in 2009, it seems time to review the book afresh and show why it belongs on a list of “books that all Christian educators should read.”
Sire’s goals for the book are to trace the historic development and provide a straightforward outline of basic Western worldviews, show how postmodernism with its accompanying pluralism, relativism, and syncretism “have muted the distinctive voice of every point of view” (9), and encourage readers to think in terms of worldviews. He argues that by comprehending and applying these things we will understand our culture, our neighbors, and ourselves better (17). He writes, “I am convinced that for any of us to be fully conscious intellectually we should not only be able to detect the worldviews of others but be aware of our own—why it is ours and why, in light of so many options, we think it is true” (12).
Sire’s book is a concise introduction to contemporary Western worldviews. Yet it is by no mean juvenile; it has that rare ability to engage persons at various levels of education. In the introduction, Sire lays out a working definition of worldview: “A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic construction of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” (20).
Sire then contends that every worldview addresses, in some form or fashion, basic questions of ontology, cosmology, anthropology, thanatology, epistemology, ethics, history, and praxis. These questions form the basic outline for chapters 2–9, as he broaches and answers each from the perspectives of Christian theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, Eastern pantheistic monism, New Age spirituality, and postmodernism. He demonstrates how each of these worldviews is either a reaction to, or development of, the prior. In chapter 10, Sire commissions Dr. Winfried Corduan to pose these questions to Islamic theism.
In the final chapter, Sire provides a brief apology for the Christian worldview, highlighting its inner intellectual coherence, its ability to explain data, its capability to live up to its claims, and the subjective satisfaction it affords (281–84). In the end, Sire concludes that the problem with every Western non-Christian worldview is that they developed in reaction to the shortcomings of their historical predecessors, all the while granting the general tenants of naturalism; the result has been an inability to push past the nihilism of the twentieth century.
However, perhaps the remedy to the current nihilism is not to keep pushing further and further from the West’s once pervasive Christian foundation. Perhaps the remedy is to return to the point where Western culture went awry—when its intellectual and artistic institutions drifted from their Christian moorings (284–86). If one is lost in the woods, and has made many attempts to bushwhack his way out, at what point does he resolve to return to where he originally lost his way? The initial descent into the current climate of pessimism, loneliness, and despair began when Western thinkers no longer saw the universe as a place “charged with the grandeur of God” (passim) and told the masses what they thought they did not see. Going back is the best way forward. Going back is progressive.
If it has been a decade or so since you have read Sire’s work, there is motivation to pick it up again.