The Eight Worldviews of James Sire

In The Universe Next Door, James Sire explores eight worldviews, each a set of first principles or presuppositions people hold about their life in the world.  Is there a God?  What is the universe?  Who am I?  Where am I going?  What are right and wrong?  Does life have purpose?

In a sense there are far more than eight worldviews, given the unique way each person will answer the fundamental questions of life.  But Sire believes at bottom, all worldviews fall into categories that share common characteristics.  There are more than the eight he outlines, he admits, but not many more.

He begins with Christian theism, to which he gives a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins:  A universe charged with the grandeur of God.  Paste together the main points and they form a paragraph summarizing this worldview:

God is infinite and personal (triune), transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good.  God created the cosmos ex nihilo to operate with a uniformity of cause and effect in an open system.  Human beings are created in the image of God and thus possess personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness and creativity.  Human beings can know both the world around them and God himself because God has built into them the capacity to do so and because he takes an active role in communicating with them.  Human beings were created good, but through the Fall the image of God became defaced, though not so ruined as not to be incapable of restoration; through the work of Christ, God redeemed humanity and began the process of restoring people to goodness, though any given person may choose to reject that redemption.  For each person death is either the gate to life with God and his people or the gate to eternal separation from the only thing that will ultimately fulfill human aspirations.  Ethics is transcendent and is based on the character of God as good (holy and loving).  History is linear, a meaningful sequence of events leading to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity.

Sire is a Christian theist, but he gives a fair hearing to the other worldviews:

  • Deism: I am a cog in the Watchmaker’s universe.
  • Naturalism:  I am only matter and machine.
  • Nihilism:  I find no meaning to life.
  • Existentialism:  I create value in an absurd universe.
  • Eastern Pantheistic Monism:  I am one with the cosmos.
  • New Age:  I seek a higher consciousness.
  • Postmodernism:  I create my reality through language.

There were surprises along the way for me, as when Sire puts modern theology in with existentialism (theistic existentialism).  This book has been around in different editions for over thirty years.  Reading it has helped me sort the different voices heard in church and society — all these worldviews are bubbling in the pot.

Naturalism is the dominant worldview today, forming the background of the sciences, public education and the mass media.  Sire believes naturalism inevitably leads to nihilism, to which existentialism is a response.  One of the strengths to the book is his tracing out the links like this between worldviews.  In this tracing, though, Eastern Pantheistic Monism and New Age seem out of place, like a giant parenthesis until we get to Postmodernism, which Sire sees only as the latest stage in Modernism.

Reflecting Sire’s longstanding love of literature, the title for the book comes from a poem by e.e. cummings.  An earlier post on Sire’s concept of worldview itself is here.

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10 Responses to The Eight Worldviews of James Sire

  1. Ken says:

    You wrote: “There were surprises along the way for me, as when Sire puts modern theology in with existentialism (theistic existentialism). ”

    What surprised you about this?

  2. Chris says:

    I would have kept modern theologies under the heading of Christian theism, only as variations within that category. Sire wholly separates them from orthodox Christian theism, treating modern theology under the existentialist worldview category. He also labels Karl Barth as a theistic existentialist, which was the main surprise for me. But then I don’t know that much about Barth; I’ve only read selections from the Dogmatics. Was Karl Barth an existentialist? And, if you don’t mind, what is existentialism in your understanding?

  3. wordsprite says:

    This is one of my favorite books of all time, along with Sire’s just-as-excellent Discipleship of the Mind. These are my “desert island” books that I turn to again, again, and again- never running dry. Thanks for bringing these out again.

  4. Ken says:

    I think I will read this book. I scanned a few pages at Amazon and it seems quite interesting.

    I have heard Karl Barth called an existentialist and I guess I can see him that way, although his theology seems less existentialist than that of Paul Tillich and less than that of John Macquarrie or Rudolf Bultman (whose theologies seems close to being pure existentialist theology.)

    One way I understand existentialism is by comparing it with Plato’s philosophy. In Plato’s view there is a reality separate from us, that precedes our existence, that transcends our lives and the world, and that we can know. That means that life and reality have an objective essence or meaning that we can discover or learn. In existentialism, the idea is that life and reality have no essence that precedes our existence. Instead, we are, in a sense, thrown into a meaningless universe where we struggle to create meaning.

    Existentialism is not always expressed in such philosophical terms, and the expression of existentialism varies much among writers and philosophers. I gained a sense or understanding of existentialism, and its variations, through reading the writings of the existentialists – and growing up with parents who had that perspective.

    I think of existentialist theology as liberal or modern theology because it begins with human experience, or philosophy, rather than with scripture or tradition. I think I can understand Sire’s categorization, although, like you, I generally keep modern theologies under a heading that includes the word “Christian.” (I grew up associating the existentialist perspective with Christianity.) Paul Tillich, John Macquarrie and other existentialist theologians have tried to maintain connections with traditional, orthodox theological ideas. Since the time of the earliest theologians, philosophy, as well as scripture and tradition, has been considered an appropriate source of Christian theology. To some extent protestant theologians have considered it less appropriate than their ancestors did. At the same time, I do think that a certain amount of Christian distinctiveness, and certainly orthodoxy, is lost in modern, liberal or existentialist theologies. And, as I examine myself I think I do see that the word existentialist fits me at least as well as the word Christian.

    One of my favorite existentialist theologians is Jewish – Abraham Joshua Heschel. His writings are quite similar to those of Christian existentialists, even though his understanding and practice of Judaism was certainly orthodox. I think in some ways existentialism does not respect identity boundaries, so, in that sense, perhaps I understand Sire’s distinction. (As I write these words it occurs to me that this is an important difference between Barth and other existentialist theologians – his boundaries were clearly Christian, and his theology is generally understood as beginning with Christ.)

  5. Chris says:

    Thanks, Ken. Sire’s book offers an evangelical’s view of various worldviews. He gives them a fair hearing. He was for many years the editor at IVP books. I often gravitate back to this publisher because of my IV experiences in college, even though I’ve migrated some since then.

    I’m puzzled by the notion that reality has no essence that precedes my existence. There was certainly a reality prior to my existence, and it had its own essence, did it not? Why does it depend on my existence?

    Wordsprite, thanks for your encouraging comment. Peace to you.

  6. Ken says:

    I think that existentialism is a way of looking at our lives that emphasizes the difficulty we have had in modernity finding meaning – a transcendent meaning (essence.)

    I have been listening to some lectures given by various evangelical intellectuals, including Dallas Willard, gaining a better understanding of evangelicalism, I think. It seems rather tough to explain, just like existentialism. A theologian in seminary said that evangelical theology begins with the Bible, whereas liberal theology begins with experience. I am not sure now that evangelical theology begins with the Bible, or liberal theology with experience. I think they both begin within certain theological traditions and with the theological crisis represented by modernity. Each is a reaction to that crisis.

    I am finding within evangelical theology a kind of conflict, or paradox, in which ethics, or morality, or how to live fights with the protestant emphasis on salvation by grace through faith. It seems after the initial conversion experience, the emphasis quickly shifts from grace to trying to live by the “teachings” of Jesus as these are thought to be found in the Bible.

  7. Aaron says:

    I’ve been wanting to read that book for some time. Thanks for the review.

  8. Chris says:

    Ken — The evangelicalism I imbibed through Intervarsity certainly centered on the Bible, an inductive approach to reading and interpreting it. The problem I found was there is no way to arbitrate between different readings of the Bible — each person reads it through the lens of their own experience. That need for a guide or an arbiter is why many evangelicals are turning to tradition in the form of the church fathers. IVPress is doing a lot of publishing in this area now.

    I agree that evangelicals seem to move quickly from justification by grace through faith to a form of justification through ‘works of law,’ the law being the teachings of Jesus.

    Aaron — thanks for stopping by. Glad the post was a help to you.

  9. i want to get your book on line

  10. Pingback: Looking Back, Looking Forward | As the Deer

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