Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept

BOOK: Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept


Worldview as a Concept



InterVarsity Press
P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426
[email protected]

©2015 by James W. Sire

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from InterVarsity Press.

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, a movement of students and faculty active on campus at hundreds of universities, colleges and schools of nursing in the United States of America, and a member movement of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. For information about local and regional activities, visit

Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

While any stories in this book are true, some names and identifying information may have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Cover design: David Fassett

Elephant on beach: Photo by Jonas Adner/Moment/Getty Images
White elephant: ©Krodere/iStockphoto

ISBN 978-0-8308-9722-3 (digital)
ISBN 978-0-8308-4073-1 (print)

In memoriam
Donald B. Clark
Arthur F. Holmes



Preface to the Second Edition

1 Camel, Kangaroo and Elephant

2 Worldview Definitions

From Dilthey to Naugle

3 First Things First

Being or Knowing

4 Flesh and Bones

Theoretical and Pretheoretical

5 Rational System, Way of Life and Master Story

6 Worldviews

Public and Private

7 Worldview

A Refined Definition

8 Intelligent People Who Clash by Day

Worldviews as a Tool for Analysis



Name Index

Subject Index

Praise for
Naming the Elephant

About the Author

More Titles from InterVarsity Press


am indebted to a host of people,
many of whom I have never met but whose writings and inspiration have encouraged and upheld my interest in worldviews for almost fifty years. Of those I do know, the first among them is Donald B. Clark, then professor of English at the University of Missouri, who in a class on seventeenth-century literature introduced me to worldview thinking. Second is Arthur F. Holmes, whose comments many years ago in a simple paper encouraging students to study philosophy encouraged me to continue my own study. I was never one of his students, and he will probably not remember this first of my many encounters with him and his books, but I am pleased to acknowledge his influence as a worldview philosopher on me and many others.

David Naugle is clearly the one without whom this book would have never been begun. His masterful history of the concept of worldview and his own delineation of the character of the Christian worldview have provided much of the grist for my own mill as it ground out both editions. Thanks, David!

I am very differently indebted to Sixia Lu for confirming for me that young students can think worldviewishly and communicate their thoughts with passion and sensitivity to nuance. Her worldview paper written as an academic exercise is a tiny gem I am thankful to share more widely.

Thanks, too, go to readers of the manuscript as it gradually developed: Richard Middleton, George Guthrie, Douglas Groothuis, Gary Deddo and, again, Arthur F. Holmes. They have not only kept me from making some rather embarrassing errors but made suggestions that required substantial further thought and research.

Finally, I want to thank Ruth Goring, who polishes my prose, my longtime friend and editor James Hoover, who as he has improved my work has earned both my respect and my admiration, and my new editors, Brannon Ellis and Drew Blankman.

Now with all that, I should be able to blame a lot of people for the flaws in this book. Alas, convention says I must only give credit for the good stuff and take my lumps for all the bad. And I do.

Preface to the Second Edition

ince the first edition of this book
was published, there have been both important extensions and additions to the concept of worldview. Two key voices in the evangelical world have criticized the concept as not being sufficiently helpful for a Christian understanding of humans and our role in the world. Others have added substantially to what should be included in its scope. So it’s time for another reassessment and reformulation of the concept.

For almost sixty years I have been trying to think in worldview terms. It was worldview analysis that made the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance come alive for me in graduate school at the University of Missouri. It was the history of worldviews that formed the skeleton on which, as a teacher, I hung the flesh of world literature, English literature in particular. Teaching both in college for over ten years provided a wealth of illustrations of how worldviews were embodied in poetry, prose and drama. Moreover, developing a cognizance of my own worldview has provided a way of orienting not just my own thoughts but my whole take on life itself. I have, in short, long been interested in detecting the basic intellectual commitments we make as human beings, reveling in their variety, delighting in the depth of their insight when they have grasped the truth and despairing over their disastrous consequences when they have proven false.

From this context came the first edition of
The Universe Next Door
in 1976. The goal of the book was to provide a way for college students to understand the world of the university—a world of ideas so new and different from those of their own families, churches and communities. A second goal was to provide a foundation for assessing the truth claims of their own faiths and to see the strength of the Christian ways of viewing the world of ideas. These two goals both enhanced and limited the scope of my stated worldview concept. These limitations were the backdrop for the first edition of the book you hold in your hand.

The bulk of
The Universe Next Door
identified seven basic worldviews and then proceeded to explain what they were. I began with Christian theism as it has been largely embodied from the seventeenth century to the present. Then I tried to show how deism arose as an erosion of certain key concepts of theism. Deism, as I see it, is not so much a new worldview as what is left of theism when the personality of God is abandoned. Naturalism, then, is a further erosion of deism, retaining its optimism with regard to the autonomy of human reason. Nihilism is what is left of naturalism when it is realized that human reason, if autonomous, does not have the power to explain nearly as much as was first thought. Existentialism—both atheistic and theistic—attempts to “go beyond nihilism,” affirming the intrinsic power of the individual self to will into being its own conception of the good, the true and the beautiful or to affirm by faith what cannot be proved by reason. Eastern pantheistic monism provides for the West a fresh start that attempts to avoid the pitfalls of Western thought. New Age thought then combines Western existentialism’s exaltation of the self with the Eastern notion of the deity of all things. This is where the first edition of
The Universe Next Door

The second edition, in 1988, updated the book. By 1997 it was obvious that a new twist in naturalism was taking place, and so I added a chapter on the amorphous cultural phenomenon called
Postmodernism has taken a sociological and psychological twist to deny, on the one hand, the human ability to actually know reality in its essence and, on the other hand, to affirm the adequacy of human communities to construct reality by their language. One may not be able to
anything, but one can get along with this knowledge simply by constructing a language that works to get what one wants. Pragmatic knowledge is all one can have and all one needs.

Throughout this intellectual history I used a simple, basic definition of
which, I think, served its purpose fairly well. Somewhere in the backdrop of this definition one might detect shades of James Orr, Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, all of whose work I had poured over in previous years. Still, in none of the three editions of
The Universe Next Door
did I explicitly reference earlier works on worldview, nor did I critically reflect on the concept of worldview itself. After the publication of the first edition of
The Universe Next Door
in 1976, occasional comments appeared in book reviews and among my friends concerning the definition of
I had given. Then, too, several books addressing the issue of worldview appeared. Though I will make reference to others in due course, four deserve special mention. In 1983, Arthur F. Holmes’s
Contours of a World View
provided the most comprehensive discussion of worldviews from a Christian standpoint. In 1984 I edited Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton’s
The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View
; their approach differed somewhat from mine. Moreover, in 1989 the concept was analyzed in
Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science
, edited by Paul A. Marshall, Sander Griffioen and Richard Mouw, an important collection of essays focusing on the nature of worldviews by scholars long engaged in intellectual and cultural analysis. Finally, in 2002 David Naugle examined in detail the entire history of worldview thinking.
Worldview: The History of a
summarized the literature beginning with Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm Dilthey on through James Orr and Abraham Kuyper to Francis Schaeffer and Arthur Holmes. Naugle in addition made some creative new discoveries about the nature of worldviews themselves. His book especially has been an important stimulus for the first edition of the present book.

The major stimulus, however, was my own growing sense of dissatisfaction with the cursory way I had dealt with the concept of worldview. The definition in the first three editions of
The Universe Next Door
now seemed inadequate to me. So the first edition of the present book attempted to rectify that by addressing a number of troubling questions that I had not addressed before. These questions are listed at the end of chapter one and, for reference purposes, they remain in the present edition.

In 2004, indeed the time for rethinking the concept of worldview had come. Four important revisions to my own definition of worldview were in order. First was a recognition that a worldview is not just a set of basic concepts but a fundamental orientation of the heart. Second was an explicit insistence that at the deepest root of a worldview is its commitment to and understanding of the “really real.” Third was a consideration of behavior in the determination of what one’s own or another’s worldview really is. Fourth was a broader understanding of how worldviews are grasped as story, not just as abstract propositions.

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