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. In the third edition (1997) Sire added his important chapter on postmodernism, and further developed his chapters on Eastern religions and the New Age. The necessity of such nuances speaks volumes of the effects of globalization over the past twenty years. In the fourth edition (2004), Sire continued to address these same developments and became more precise with his definition of worldview. Now in the fifth edition, Sire adds an important chapter on Islam, given the way it has moved onto the Western scene since even before 9/11, and expands the chapter on deism to account more thoroughly for its persistence. Moreover, each chapter has been slightly reworked to more consistently answer each of the worldview questions in order. Additionally, the final question on praxis is entirely new to each chapter. It is also worth noting that with each edition, references and bibliography have been updated to keep the book contemporary. The illustrations in the sidebars are also entirely new to the fifth edition.
On a macro level, one of the book’s major strengths is the way Sire demonstrates how each worldview grew out of its foregoing predecessor (naturally or in conscious reaction). Thus, chapters 2–9 flow organically into each other, and each chapter sheds light forwards and backwards throughout the book. Readers do not come away with a bullet list of worldview characteristics, but a robust understanding of philosophical developments that did not take place in a vacuum, but in the real world of historically situated persons and events. Moreover, worldviews can be complex, but Sire’s organizational technique (asking the same specific questions of each) is helpful pedagogically. The illustrations are helpful to this end as well. Some illustrations are so common (Star Wars, New Age book titles, etc.), that many of us have been blind to the philosophical motivation of their creators and the existential effects on their audiences. Sire helps open our eyes. Thus, potentially incurably abstract material is more easily grasped and the book is saved from esotericism.
Sire’s balance between an evenhanded presentation of each worldview and a consistent Christian appraisal of them is also an admirable feat. His book is not designed for critique, or even interaction per se, but for understanding. Yet, his Christian commitments provide a consistent and effective platform from which to observe these other worldviews.
Several individual chapters have strengths in their own right. The chapter on nihilism appropriately abandons the standard questions—ironically so, since the systematic use of the questions is a strength in other chapters. But by its very nature nihilism bucks against such categorization, and Sire does not feel the need to contrive anything. Further, theistic and atheistic existentialism are rightly delineated. Various forms of Eastern thought are helpfully disambiguated, and it is made clear how they have found a home in the West. The chapter on the New Age is helpfully jarring in the presentation of its growth. And the chapter on postmodernism demonstrates well how its tenants moved from a nearly exclusively academic arena to the person on the street.
That said, there are a few minor weak points in my opinion. The second edition (1988) added eight pages on Marxism to redress the inadequate coverage it received in the first edition (1976). The content has basically stayed the same through this latest edition. But is that enough attention to Marxism? I agree with its placement in the chapter on naturalism, but I think it deserves a more thorough treatment, perhaps in the form of an extended excursus. Its influence on “liberation theology” could also helpfully be delineated.
The chapter on Islam in the fifth edition does not seem to fit for two reasons. First, Islam did not grow organically out of previously pervasive Western worldviews. Rather it arrived in the West fully formed in recent years. But I do think it warrants attention, therefore perhaps it would fit a little more appropriately in an appendix after Sire’s concluding remarks. Secondly, the chapter does not have any examples of the way Islam has penetrated the Western mind. Outside of distinctly Muslim communities and apart from conscious conversion, how has Islamic thought penetrated the West? This chapter has none of the helpful examples from academia and the arts (as in other chapters) that show the relevance and the pervasiveness of the worldview. Hopefully this will be redressed in future editions. Historic Islam could also be helpfully distinguished from organizations like the Nation of Islam and its offshoots.
It should be evident why such a book would be helpful to philosophers, historians, and apologists. However, I state above that all Christian educators should read this book. I’ll briefly mention a few reasons. First, it is full of insightful illustrations from academia and popular culture that demonstrate the way these worldviews have taken root in the disciplines of sociology, science, literature, fine arts, architecture, medicine, even athletics (to name but a few). As Sire himself points out, “the most fundamental issues we as human beings need to consider have no departmental boundaries” (12).
Secondly, Sire helps readers to situate themselves in the stream of history, and grasp with greater insight the reason for contemporary events and common rhetoric. Thus, Sire helps readers discern popular trends even in fields seemingly distant from philosophical deliberations.
Thirdly, Sire helps readers see the connectedness of all knowledge, making us all slightly better generalists. Finally, Sire accomplishes his above stated goals and equips Christians of all walks of life to understand themselves and their neighbors better. This can only help in the personal evangelism to which we are all called.
In conclusion, my brief critiques are dwarfed by the overall strength of The Universe Next Door. Rightfully does it belong near the top of a “books that all Christian educators should read” list. Even before Socrates, David soliloquized over what human is in relation to God and the universe (Psalm 8). Sire’s book is but a contemporary attempt to muse over these same age-old questions, and we are all served by his efforts.