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.