Pros: Understandable, lucid, readable, accessible, and well-written.
Cons: Definitely biased toward Christian theism.
Every once in a while, I find myself on the periphery of a discussion among friends that touches on the topic of world religions. Now, I acknowledge that I am no expert at all on any religion, let alone the one I profess, but at times like those, I feel as though my multicultural literacy, so to speak, is sadly lacking. I suppose the thing to do would be to pick up a decent treatise on philosophy and religion worldwide, but that sounds like way too much effort. What I did was less an active searching out of information on other cultures than a simple movement forward in the bookcase I am currently reading my way through. Despite my startling lack of initiative, though, what I got was quite an interesting education in worldviews, from James W. Sires appropriately titled The Universe Next Door: A Guide Book to World Views.
Sire has four basic goals in mind for his book, which he makes clear in the Introduction. He aims to examine the basic worldviews prevalent in the Western world, to trace the historical progression of worldviews in the West, to show how postmodernism puts a twist on these worldviews; and to encourage [readers] to think with a consciousness or not only our own way of though but also that of other people, so that we can genuinely communicate with others in our pluralistic society. To these ends, he proposes seven basic questions that help to encapsulate the tenets of a consistent worldview:
1. What is prime realitythe really real?
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
3. What is a human being?
4. What happens to a person at death?
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history?
The answers to these questions, according to Sire, may be implicit, or assumed, but one thing is certain, we all have a worldview (though often it is an unspoken, unexamined view). After all, even refusing to adopt an explicit worldview will turn out to be itself a worldview
Following this introduction, the remainder of the book is divided into chapters treating the various major world religions and philosophies. First, A Universe Charged with the Grandeur of God looks at Christian theism. This worldview will be one of the most familiar to a Western audience, and the answers to the seven questions are somewhat unsurprising. Following on the heels of theism, The Clockwork Universe introduces deism, which effectively removes God from any current role in the workings of the cosmos. The philosophy of Alexander Pope informs this chapter greatly, but deism receives short shrift, as Sire considers it a rather ephemeral worldview, prevalent mainly in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
What replaced deism, then? None other than naturalism, of course, termed by Sire The Silence of Finite Space. The philosophies of secular humanism and even Marxism are linked here to the naturalistic worldview, which enjoys widespread acceptance in our current culture. Moving from naturalism, modern thought progresses to Zero Point, or nihilism. Drawing on the monolithic work of Nietzsche, and citing a broad range of examples from literatureJoseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Douglas Adams, Samuel Beckett, and morethe discussion encompasses both the essentials of nihilism and its inherent contradictions. Then, moving Beyond Nihilism, the next stop on the philosophical train of thought becomes existentialism. Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard appear in this chapter, which further differentiates the existential movement into theistic and atheistic branches.
Having driven the Western thought progression through to its conclusion in existentialism, Sire then takes a Journey to the East, and eastern pantheistic monism. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen Bhuddism are discussed in this chapter, and it is hard to mistake the fact that eastern modes of thought are particularly foreign to our western mindset. Following this, a synthesis of eastern and western thought becomes the focus in A Separate Universe, a treatment of the New Age movement. This draws largely on the works and philosophies of Shirley MacLaine, Aldous Huxley, and John Lilly, and is probably the least cohesive of the worldviews treated. The final chapter in the books main section deals with postmodernism, and is titled The Vanished Horizon. Key to this examination are the concepts of language and story, where relativism and pluralism become central.
The conclusion of the book, The Examined Life, reveals both the authors own worldview (though it was quite clear throughout all the earlier discussions) and why the knowledge of and choice of a worldview is important. Christian theism, having begun the book, now ends it. Sire maintains, at the last, that to be personally committed to the infinite-personal Lord of the Universe leads to an examined life that is well worth living.
The Universe Next Door is quite helpful as a basic primer on worldviews. For those who do not know what their worldview is, the discussion can be helpful in highlighting what one does and does not believe in, whether explicitly or implicitly. Most convincing in the worldview summaries is the authors reliance on the source material; that is, the writings of those who best embody, or who have contributed to the generation of certain philosophies. From Alexander Pope to Friedrich Nietzsche to Shirley MacLaine, Sire allows the proponents of the various viewpoints to speak for themselves. Some, of course, are more convincing than others.
To be sure, the bias of the author is firmly in the Christian theistic camp. This diminishes the books status as a primer on worldviews somewhat, as Sire frequently ends his chapters with sections highlighting the perceived inconsistencies and shortcomings of all non-theistic philosophies. He does acknowledge this bias, though, and he himself points out the fact that the seven questions he applies to each worldview were generated from within his own worldview, so are slightly biased to begin with.
This bias, however, is my major problem with The Universe Next Door. When Sire critiques certain worldviews, he tends to push them to their most extreme before deconstructing them. For example, when discussing deism, he relies heavily on Alexander Popes modes of thought, which is a fairly rigid and uncompromising deism, barely a step away from naturalism. I cannot agree with the authors assertion that deism as a worldview was limited to a short period of time about two centuries ago. In point of fact, I make it my business to read as much as I can at the intersection of science and religion, and I find that many scientists nowadays are turning to deism, if not outright theism as a means to explain the unexplainable at the foundation of the universe. I believe that, in the case of deism at least, Sires bias has led him to marginalize a worldview that probably deserves a more extensive treatment. All of this is not to say that the book is bad, or fatally flawed. I merely find the authors stances somewhat limiting in certain cases.
So now I am a little bit wiser concerning worldviews. Perhaps after reading The Universe Next Door I can jump into my friends conversations about philosophy and religion for a sentence or two before retiring to the comfort of my beer (I am assuming here that the discussion takes place in a pub, as all good discussions of philosophy and religion should). All right, I suppose I am only marginally more educated about worldviews than I was a few days ago, but I do feel as though I have broadened my intellectual horizons somewhat. Now if someone brings up the subject of nihilism in art, I can laugh knowledgeably and spout off a line from Douglas Adams or Samuel Beckett. This will make me look rather intellectual, Im sure, at least until I laugh too loudly and spill beer on my shoes. Despite having to stand in rapidly warming Guinness, I will then have to salvage my pride and mention the fact that nihilistic art is in fact a contradiction in terms, as nihilism admits no meaning, whereas art presupposes meaning. Wont I look clever then? And I will owe it all (or at least some of it) to James Sire.
? SL, 2004