The Universe Next Door (5th edition)
James W Sire
IVP Academic, Downers Grove, 2009. 293 pp.
I first read The Universe Next Door while I was at university. We were running an evangelistic event where students lined up to take a quiz to discover what world view would suit them best. We would then give them a pamphlet that explained their likely world view, along with any weaknesses it had and relevant Christian viewpoints they ought to consider. It was my job to write these handouts, and the Christian survey of various world views, The Universe Next Door, was my main source (in combination with Wikipedia, of course). I pored over it for a week, reading and re-reading, and got the pamphlets done in the nick of time. Then, in true student style, I ejected every piece of information out of my brain and moved on to my next assignment.
It’s quite possible that, because I was focused on my task rather than my topic, I never really grasped what I was reading in the first place. Despite its place as the classic work on world views since it was first published in 1976, James W Sire is addressing a heavy subject with this book, and it requires mental lifting to keep up.
What is a world view? Defining the concept could take another entire book, but Sire’s explanation in the first chapter is comprehensive and succinct:1
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions… that we hold… about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. (p. 20)
Our world view provides us with perspective, and enables us to choose our directions and actions. The assumptions that help construct this world view may not be true, and they may be unconscious or inconsistent, but they help construct this framework that we hang our values and choices upon.
Sire devotes a chapter to each of his chosen world views, and asks the same set of questions of each, providing contrast through his answers. In this manner, he outlines the beliefs, history, and problems or inconsistencies of Christian theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, eastern pantheistic monism (including Hinduism and Buddhism), the New Age, postmodernism and Islamic theism (not all of which he credits as being fully-fledged world views). He frequently includes poetry and excerpts by authors writing from the perspective of the world view he is examining, which provides a good change of pace and illustrates how the world view plays out in practice.
Sire readily admits that his catalogue is in no way exhaustive, but simply his selection of the most influential on current western thought. It’s still an intimidating list, and it became more and more difficult for me to comprehend the arguments and logic the further the world views were removed from Christianity. Despite having done some basic study in existentialism and postmodernism at university, I must confess that some of what Sire says about their logical flow I could not follow. I think I’ve come away with the beginnings of a grasp on eastern thought and New Age beliefs, but it would have been nice to acquire more of a handle on them by the end of the book.
I don’t think this is a fault with Sire or with his method; certainly the early chapters following the sequential steps away from Christian theism taken by deism and naturalism were clearer. It is simply that world views far from our own are very difficult to wrap our minds around. Indeed, Sire points out that most eastern thought has a completely different logic to western logic:
What can Westerners say? If they point to its irrationality, the Easterner rejects reason as a category. If they point to the disappearance of morality, the Easterner scorns the duality that is required for the distinction… no wonder Western missionaries have made little headway with committed Hindus and Buddhists. They don’t speak the same language, for they hold almost nothing in common. (p. 164)
This has certainly been my experience. I once got into a discussion with a Hindu I worked with. He had been outlining some of the recent tragedies in his life, noting that bad things kept happening to his family. After commiserating that bad things certainly do seem to happen unfairly, I brought up the topic of sin and Jesus. He kept insisting that there was no such thing as sin and death, and that reincarnation and karma meant that good would be rewarded, even as he continued to complain about how the rich trample on the poor. There was no contradiction in his mind between his belief that good would be rewarded and the reality that he saw in his life. I left that conversation confused and exhausted. If I had paid more attention during my first reading of this book, I would have been less discouraged by the failure of my logic. (Though honestly, I still would have been no wiser on what I should have said instead.)
Unavoidable difficulties aside, this book provides a great foundation for interacting with the tenets of naturalism, as found pervasively in the west (usually in the form of atheism). For example, the problems that naturalists have with knowing anything (“if ‘I’ am only a thinking machine, how can I trust my thought?”—p. 93) and the issues with the postmodern rejection of truth (“the rejection of all metanarratives is itself a metanarrative”—p. 239) are important difficulties that we ought to be aware of. There are serious logical problems contained in these world views, and we should not assume that just because the media treats these expressions of atheism as being the perspective of the ‘thinking person’, they somehow have Christians out-thought or in a corner.
Although it was first written over thirty years ago, The Universe Next Door is now in its fifth edition and has moved with the times (a fact made clear when the author’s preface contains a rebuttal to negative reader comments made on Amazon.com). Sire has helpfully provided updates as debates about world views have carried on, and in this edition addresses Islam via a new chapter written by Winfried Corduan. Interestingly, I found this chapter one of the most accessible and understandable (perhaps due to Islamic theism sharing a number of similarities to Christian theism). Corduan explores the Muslim world view deftly, pinpointing the major differences between the Christian and Islamic deities in a way that would not be clear from reading a standard description of Islamic faith. As we interact with Islamic nations and Islamic neighbours, it is critical that we be clear where our similarities begin and end—both in our own minds and in speaking with others. This chapter is a welcome addition, as are Sire’s own insertions of recent arguments and references throughout the book.
But if you are not interested in having philosophical debates with Hindus, have no atheist friends, and don’t see how Islam has any impact on your life (is such a person really out there?) then why would you read this difficult book? Sire has one more good reason:
Our own worldview may not be what we think it is… Our worldview generally lies so deeply embedded in our subconscious that unless we have reflected long and hard, we are unaware of what it is. Even when we think we know what it is… we may well be wrong. Our very actions may belie our self-knowledge. (pp. 21-22)
It is common for us to have personal assumptions about the nature of God or how his world works, but it is very difficult to self-diagnose them. How can we identify and dispel an unconscious thought? By comparing it to something external, and by being asked questions that bring those thoughts forward for examination. The Bible is our first stop, of course, but The Universe Next Door is a good secondary tool for this. The chapter on Christian theism may join a few dots for you, or you might recognize a belief about God’s involvement with his creation while reading about deism or Islamic theism. You might operate under an assumption for decades before somebody helps you unravel its logical conclusion—and Sire may be that somebody.
If we stick to topics that we already understand, our learning will be very slow indeed. Even though reading this book was frustrating at times, there were other moments when Sire helped me make a new connection, such as why some eastern world views seem to place little value on individual life. (It’s because every soul is part of the wider reality and death does not change that; besides, personality is something to be escaped in order to become more one with the whole: see pages 154-158.) Understanding the perspectives of others is an important part of evangelism—I now understand that an argument filled with western-style logic may not be the best way to begin speaking to a Hindu!—and through seeing the true implications of a world without God, we can be bolstered to continue bringing hope to those who have none. The Universe Next Door will make you think deeply, but you will benefit from the challenge. If you, like me, read it some time ago and have forgotten how good it is, I’d encourage you to pick it up again.
1 Sire has, in fact, devoted an entire book to discussing this concept: Naming the Elephant.