The Universe Next Door | Book Review

The subtitle of James W. Sire’s The University Next Door calls the book “a basic worldview catalog.” Chapter 1 defines the term worldview and enumerates eight questions worldviews ask. Chapters 2–10 describe how nine worldviews answer these questions, beginning with Christian theism, which is Sire’s own worldview and the perspective of the book as a whole. Chapter 11 outlines four criteria for choosing an adequate worldview. Finally, chapter 12 identifies issues Christian theists need to address that have arisen since 2009, when the previous edition of the book was published.

Sire’s definition of worldview is lengthy, but he summarizes it under four headings. A worldview is “a commitment” that can be “expressed in a story or a set of presuppositions,” which make certain “assumptions that may be true, conscious, [and] consistent,” and that forms “the foundation on which we live” (8–9). In other words, a worldview is a matter of heart (affection), head (intellection), and hands (action).

The eight questions worldviews ask concern what is “really real”; “the nature of external reality” and of “human being”; “what happens to a person at death”; whether it is “possible to know anything at all,” including “right and wrong”; “the meaning of human history”; and what “personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview” (8–9).

Using this definition and these questions, Sire describes and critiques nine worldviews in successive chapters: Christian theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, Eastern pantheistic monism, New Age spirituality without religion, postmodernism, and Islamic theism.

According to Sire, the adequacy of any worldview depends on four considerations (271–273): “inner intellectual coherence,” comprehension of “the data of reality,” and explanatory success—i.e., it should “explain what it claims to explain.” Finally, a worldview should be “subjectively satisfactory,” meeting “our sense of personal need.” These criteria are primarily intellective—logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and explanatory power. Subjective satisfaction is affective. Though Sire’s definition of worldview notes that it is a foundation of action, the livability of a worldview does not here factor into Sire’s account of a worldview’s adequacy. (Interestingly, however, this does arise in his discussion of specific worldviews.)

Sire died in 2018, so the sixth edition of The Universe Next Door is posthumous. The text is largely identical to the fifth, with these exceptions: Sire wrote chapter 12 and an appendix with diagrams prior to his death. Additionally, Jim Hoover, Sire’s longtime editor, updated some references and incorporated new sidebars at various points throughout.

It has been said that one’s greatest strength is also one’s greatest weaknesses, an adage that applies to books as well as people. The strengths of the book are its clarity of expression and simplicity of analysis. Regarding clarity, Sire writes well about complex ideas, using illustrations from both high and popular culture. While thinking through ideas and their consequences is always hard work, the hard work is less hard in this book because of Sire’s manner of expression. 

Regarding simplicity of analysis, anyone who attempts a survey of worldviews (or religions) must face the bewildering variety of differences both between and within worldviews (and religions). The trick is to provide an analytically simple description of a worldview that identifies its most salient features without papering over substantive differences among adherents of that worldview. Sire’s eight questions help him accomplish both tasks. The questions themselves interrogate the most salient features of any worldview. And where there are differences among the worldview’s adherents, or counterarguments to criticism, Sire strives to make those plain.

The analytic simplicity of The Universe Next Door is also a weakness, however. This is because, first and foremost, there are different and perhaps better ways to arrange the subject matter. For example, Christian theism, deism, and Islamic theism all have dualistic metaphysics that distinguish sharply between the Creator and creation. By contrast, naturalism, Eastern pantheistic monism, and the New Age are basically monistic, eliding any such metaphysical distinction. The differences between dualism and monism result in certain family resemblances among dualist and monist worldviews, respectively, even as those resemblances embody contradictory tenets in each family member. For example, both Christian and Islamic theism are dualist (Creator-creation distinction) and monotheist (only one ultimately real God). But they interpret that monotheism in fundamentally contradictory ways, Christian monotheism being trinitarian and Islamic theism being unitarian.

Second, several of the worldviews can be understood more appropriately as variations on a larger worldview than as distinct worldviews themselves. Like the previous criticism, this is a problem of taxonomy. The best examples of this taxonomic problem are naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, and some versions of postmodernism. Naturalism is fundamentally a metaphysical commitment. Sire writes, “In naturalism it is the nature of the cosmos that is primary; for now, with an eternal Creator God out of the picture, the cosmos itself becomes eternal—always there, though not necessarily in its present form, in fact certainly in its present form” (57). Nihilism, existentialism, and some versions of postmodernism can be seen as  attempts to think through and live out the implications of this naturalism, rather than as separate worldviews.

This taxonomic critique does not negate the truth or helpfulness of Sire’s analysis, though it does remind readers (and would-be writers) that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Finally, critics of earlier editions of The Universe Next Door also pointed out the intellectual, even propositional bias of its author. (I first encountered the book in its second edition, and I own and have read each successive edition.) It is a measure of Sire’s intellectual humility and willingness to learn that he took these critiques to heart and continued to improve both his understanding of worldview generally and his analysis of specific worldviews over the nearly five decades of this book’s existence. It is a shame that there will not be a seventh edition, due to Sire’s passing.

The Universe Next Door has demonstrated its usefulness as a textbook in college classrooms since its first publication in 1976,  especially in evangelical schools. It offers fair-minded descriptions of non-Christian worldviews, even as it tacitly provides an apologetic for Christian theism. Outside the classroom, readers interested in worldviews generally or the Christian worldview specifically will find the book to be a congenial and helpful guide.

Book Reviewed
Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. 6th ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020.

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