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The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog - Summary & Critique

Sire, James. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edition, Downers Grove, Illinois. InterVarsity Press. 2009.

This is an interesting book! The Universe Next Door is identified as a “world-view catalog” — see front cover. The book explores ideas surrounding the way people view, interpret, and interact with the world. Sire defines a worldview as, "a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. (20)” Sire examines, in his book, 9 different world-views held by various peoples in the world. These world-views are

  • Christian Theism,

  • Deism,

  • Naturalism,

  • Nihilism,

  • Existentialism,

  • Eastern Pantheistic Monism,

  • New Age - Spirituality without religion,

  • Postmodernism, and

  • Islamic Theism.

Each of these organizing mindsets are evaluated based on 8 criteria (as best as they can be — as some [like Nihilism] are not readily discernible using the criteria). The proposition discovering criteria are as follows:

(1) What is prime reality — the 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?

(8) What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview? (22-23).

This book is extremely valuable due to the fact that it teaches us not only a little bit about how people think, but why they have come to think that way and how that thinking impacts their lives and the lives of those around them. These ideas are stated in the following words: "Walk down a street of any major city in Europe or North America, and the next person you meet could adhere to any one a a dozen distinctly different patterns of understanding what life is all about.” (26) - This sounds like a recipe for a potentially confusing personal existence. This book seeks to unravel the tangle of thinking and shed light on the differences.

Critique of Theism chapter

It is a difficult thing to critique the chapter on Christian Theism, because there is essential agreement with the foundational understanding and expression of views offered therein. Perhaps, the most logical approach to this effort of critique will be to look at each world view question and offer consensus or disagreement thoughts as progress is made through each one.

1. What is Prime Reality? Prime reality is the infinite, personal God revealed in the Holy Scriptures. This God is triune, transcendent, and immanent, omniscient, sovereign, and good. As this statement is unpacked, there is no great area of disagreement with the implications offered for the various defining terms offered - I believe that God is beyond our scope or measure - Exodus 3:14; Deut. 6:4. I believe that God is capable of self-reflection and self-determination - Exodus 32:10-14; Job 9:12; Isa. 55:8-9. I believe that there are three persons (not three Gods or modes) in the one essence of the Godhead - Matthew 28:19; I John 5:7. I believe that God is beyond us and our world - Exodus 15:11; Psalm 86:8. I believe that God is with us - He is not removed from us - Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23. I believe that God is Omniscient - Psalm 147:5; I John 3:20; Isaiah 40:13-14, Sovereign - I Chronicles 29:11-12; Psalm 115:3, Psalm 103:19 , and good - Psalm 31:19; Exodus 33:19.

2. What is the nature of external reality? Christian Theism teaches that the cosmos created by God is the essence and actuality of external reality. The cosmos was created out of nothing to operate with a uniformity of cause and effect in an open system. The teaching here is that, in Christian Theism, it is generally believed that our choices have significance. The future is contingent on decisions, both ours and Gods. Now, it is obvious that there is room for discussion surrounding these matters. On one hand there are Christians that believe that every detail of everything is determined by God from the beginning. Others believe that we have choice, although these choices cannot ultimately thwart the will of God. Our free moral agency choices can actually be used to fulfill the will of God (Acts 2:23). This does stand to reason if we consider the foreknowledge of God.

3. What is a human being? A human being was originally a direct creation of God, made in His image. Human beings alone were created in the image of God and thus possess personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, a sense of morality, gregariousness and creativity (among others). Unfortunately, man fall from this elevated position by disobedience to God’s command. The key to more fully understanding human beings is to understand these concepts. This biblical idea is diametrically opposed to the common evolutionary theory of man. It sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom and dignifies man’s existence. The ultimate end of God in relation to man is to restore the image of God that was lost in the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden (II Cor. 3:18; I Corinthians 15:49; Romans 8:29; I John 3:2) . It is Satan’s goal to continue to mar and deface that image in the individual human life, and thus humanity at large The author artfully (and briefly) navigates the issue of predestination and free will, as well as gives a thought encompassing picture of sanctification / glorification of those who are saved (41).

4. What happens to a person at death? 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. Although this work is not an exhaustive treatment on any of the subject matter it touches upon, the author could have given a bit more detail about Heaven and Hell. It is a common idea that Hell is just about being “separated” from God and experiencing “awful loneliness. (41)” As a word of reminder, we must never recoil from the fact that Jesus Christ describes Hell and the Lake of Fire in very dramatic terms, not just describing the separation and loneliness but also the eternal torment of the flames.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all. We can know things because God has built into us the capacity to know things and he has also taken an active role in communicating with us. This is also a part of what it means to be in his image. We have an inquisitiveness that drives us to learn and know. We see the universe as a giant mechanism meant to be understood, so we explore. We see the Bible as God’s special revelation of himself and his will. We see Jesus as God’s ultimate in self revelation (Hebrews 1:2-3). In our explorations we must remember that, ultimately, all wisdom and knowledge and understanding centers in Christ. In all reality, our universe, and all that is within it (as an ultimate end) points to our God and the redemption that he has worked out on our behalf ( Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20).

6. How do we know what is right and wrong? Ethics is transcendent and is based on the character of God as good (holy and loving) - Human beings ultimately are not the measure of right and wrong. God is. Therefore, although every man’s way is right in his own eyes, there is a God who is the ultimate source of ethics and we (and our actions) shall be ultimately judged by him.

7. What is the meaning of human history? History is linear, a meaningful sequence of events leading to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. There is no system of faith in existence which lays out in such detail the future as does Christianity. The human experience is progressing toward a certain end, with the details of that end given in God’s Word, the Bible. We discover in history that God Has primarily worked through the Jews and through Christians to reveal Himself. Both of these groups have been designed to be a witness of God’s person and work in this world. One day, “history” as we know it (past, present, and future) will end and a new heaven and earth will begin. Although there is not much information given in the Bible concerning the future of this new heaven and earth, the fact that it will exist teaches us that there is a continuation of God’s work beyond this present experience.

8. What personal life orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview? Christian theists live to seek first the kingdom of God, that is, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

This section, the first chapter of “The Universe Next Door,” deals with Christian Theism as a world view. The chapter gives an adequate and rather uncontroversial expression to what is typically contained within that world view. There has been some criticism of this book (by various reviewers) based on the fact that it is rather Christo-centric in it's understanding, however, all other world views are compared to the Christian world view, primarily because it is the dominant view in the world today, and due to the fact that this book is written by a Christian. In our pluralistic and, at times, syncretic society, this book gives us a clearer understanding of what “is” and “why it is” in the human experience.

This book is valuable from a pastoral as well as a parental perspective. Most Christians’ experience in this world is rather cocooned. We move in very small circles and don’t really understand the world at large. This book is an excellent reference to help pastors, and parents, begin to learn about the very different ways of thinking in this world so that they can then transmit that knowledge to others. This knowledge will help our people to be stabilized, because they understand how world-thinking works. This knowledge will enable people to better understand and defend their own views. They will also understand better their role in this world, including the challenges that exist to their role within this world.

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