Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept,
James W. Sire,
Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004, pp 172, $14
For a translation of this review in Spanish click here
This book is an introduction to the concept of a worldview. Its purpose is to define what we mean by worldview. The author does this by using the connecting theme of a child’s question. On seeing a globe, the youngster asks his father, “What holds the world up?” Without much thought the father responds, “An elephant”. “What’s below the elephant?” continues the child, and his father is left with the dilemma of explaining the world’s existence.
The author describes the history of the concept in three main areas. Starting with the secular world of Kant, Dilthey, Neitzsche, Wittgenstein and Foucault, he then moves to the Christian perspective with Orr, Kuyper and Dooyeweerd; and lastly mentions the contemporary evangelical contributions of Othuis, Wolters, Nash, Kok and Naugle.
Most of the rest of the publication deals with three areas of debate.
Which comes first, ontology or epistemology? Christians have traditionally started with ontology, and the description of God: One who is the holy and just creator. After this they then move on to epistemology and our knowledge of God by revelation through the Bible and nature.
But it is possible to start with epistemology and use my experience of the Almighty as a base for describing the divinity’s ontology. Descartes sought to do this with his famous “I think, therefore, I am”. Neitzsche and postmodernism have continued in with a similar approach. Language and hermeneutics have now taken over as the starting point for a worldview.
Sire proposes certain stages in formulating a worldview:
a. The pretheoretical. This refers to what I accept without much thought. Aristotle named 10 items including: substance, quality, quantity, relation, place and time. These are things which are intuitive and describe the way we think.
b. Presuppositions result after a bit of reflection and are based on our pretheoretical position. They are not deep thoughts but are influential. For example, Freud’s atheism was a presupposition he held to.
c. Theoretical. This describes our developed ideas and from such a worldview comes. We can determine our theoretical position by either asking questions or by means of a story. The author suggestions 7 fundamental questions:
What is actually real?
What is the external reality around us like?
What is it to be human?
What happens when someone dies?
How is it possible to know reality?
How can we distinguish between right and wrong?
How do we understand human history?
The other option is to develop a worldview by use of a story. This is seen in the Apostles’ Creed which describes the events in Jesus’ life. Lesslie Newbign says that our beliefs are not given in the form of propositions but as stories. Contemporary hermeneutics engages with the reading of the Bible as story to understand the world.
The third main area of debate concerns whether worldview is public rather than simply private. Our personal worldview interacts with the public domain through family background, our local society and culture, and the influence of nationality. These cause communities to produce a common kind of worldview but this will change when new ideas enter it. Such pluralism is influential in the western world, and the influence of new perspectives, such as Buddhism can be noted.Definition
By the close of the book the author answers his initial question: “What is a worldview?”
“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” (p161).
a. This publication is relevant in coping with the postmodernist worldviews that we meet through the media and will help us to develop our own Christian perspective.
b. The writer introduces us to various other thinkers on the theme: Christian, secular and non-Christian religions.
c. The writer himself is an expert on the subject being the author of The Universe Next Door which is now in its fourth printing. His previous book explored competing worldviews. The author believes in the authority and reliability of the Scriptures.
d. Although not a long publication, it presents to us profound thoughts on the philosophy of religion.
e. Sometimes writers on worldview, such as Dooyeweerd, are difficult to follow. Sire does not fall into this category, his book is quite readable.
a. The main weakness is that the author discusses the ideas of other writers, and it is at times difficult to appreciate the point of debate without having read them.
b. Similarly the references to quite a number of writers means the book does not flow as well as it could do if he were simply describing his own ideas.
c. The final definition of worldview is good as a study definition, but is difficult to remember.
Although in English and written in a North American context, this publication should have a place in Latin American libraries. It deals with the main points of the subject concisely: history of the concept, the relation of ontology and epistemology and the interaction of different worldviews. Particularly the popularity of TV soaps should alert us to the need to think through such issues.
There is considerable interest in worldviews today and this is a contribution by an expert. We all have our worldviews. The question isn’t simply what do you call the elephant, but whether my worldview is valid as a follower of Jesus.
David E. C. Ford
Professor of Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology,
Evangelical Seminary of Lima and the University Foundation, Bible Seminary of