Naming the Elephant: Worldview as Concept by James Sire

This book runs about $10 on Amazon

Lately I’ve been writing and thinking about how reading the Bible works as a formative practice, and it’s led me to think about the concept of worldview.  I found James Sire’s Naming the Elephant helpful in thinking about the concept, both as an abstraction and in terms of the worldviews I see at work in our community. Personally, Sire’s book helped me come towards a better articulation of my own worldview.

Sire has been interested in worldview studies for a while. I know his book The Universe Next Door was used at Harding while I was there, and having gone through several editions, it’s probably been as influential in the way evangelicals think about worldview as anything else, particularly in how we see the differences between ourselves and other faith traditions.  As you would imagine, that has some intense missiological implications, and thus Sire has probably been read mostly in that context.

This shorter book is particularly interested in teasing out the worldview concept itself, and Sire is candid about places where he felt his earlier definitions and examples have perhaps fallen short. Here, he surveys of perspectives on the worldview concept from philosophical, theological, and sociological sources to give a better articulation to what he means by this root concept. Ultimately, he comes the following well-thought definition:

A worldview is 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) which 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.

Most of the book, which is a quick read at 160 short pages, is the work of setting up this definition and giving it substantial nuance. He teases it out against the backdrop of worldview thinkers over the past two centuries—this is not a casual definition. Sire’s work on critically thinking through the implications of his definition is evident throughout the book, and the little book is quite worthwhile for that reason. The descriptions of Sire’s wrangling with the philosophical decision between the priority of ontology over epistemology is interesting, as is his writing about his growing recognition of the importance of story as a vehicle for worldview.

Less satisfactory are the questions Sire offers as a mechanism for teasing out particular worldviews. He sticks to his guns with the following seven questions, although through the text he expands the questions as including more than they seem to on the surface.

1. What is the 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?

Sire has used these same questions for years, and in Naming the Elephant he interacts with questions posed by different authors and compares them to his own. There are a couple of places where I still think better questions exist.

For instance, Sire discusses a set of questions posed by Walsh and Middleton,”Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong?” and “What’s the solution?”. Sire wishes to subsume the first (Who are we?) within question 3 above, which seems fair, as does his inclusion of “Where are we”? within number 2 above. However, he also wishes to include the last two (What’s wrong? and What’s the solution?) within questions 6 and 7 above, and it really seems to me that as a set they function importantly enough to merit their own place in worldview analysis.

Another criticism of the book might be that Sire’s assumptions about the Christian worldview seem to me to bypass critical theological issues. Of course, that’s not a fair criticism, since Sire isn’t really doing formal theology here, but implicitly doing practical theology, and his assumptions probably do reflect a good bit of ground level theological thinking in the sort of folk Christianity that exists in America. Beyond that, Sire recognizes that when he talks about a “Christian worldview” he is really thinking about his own worldview, which he perceives to be Christian. By and large I think he’s correct, and articulates the main parts of what might be fairly called Christian worldviews accurately.

This is a fantastic little book. Sire is, for the most part, fair and measured in his analysis, and recognizes his own commitments as they come up within his argument.  Ultimately I think Sire moves the concept of worldview forward in helpful ways, and provides a good resource for anyone wanting to understand themselves, or the world around them, with greater clarity.