Obituary for James Sire (1933-2018)
When I took the course, “In the Twilight of Western Thought: A Christian Response,” at the University of Oregon in 1978, we read a book called The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue (InterVarsity Press, 1976), by James W. Sire, editor of InterVarsity Press. I was a young Christian, who had been reading Francis Schaeffer and wanted to get more grounded in Christianity as true, rational, and pertinent to life. I did not want to fear investigating any other religion or worldview. After all, why be a Christian unless you know it is true and will stand up to criticism?
Winsome and accurate, The Universe Next Door taught me the meaning of worldview and the world views of Christian theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and the New Consciousness (later called New Age). (Later editions contained a chapter on postmodernism.) After reading this book, I feared no other worldview and wanted to learn more about all of them. I have done so for the last forty years. Universe was immensely readable and helpful. Unlike many books on worldviews and apologetics, Jim’s love for literature shined through. He was, after all, a professor of English before coming to InterVarsity Press as head editor.
I would later go on to read and teach from all five editions of this path-breaking book and come to know Jim Sire as my editor and friend. Dr. Sire and others at InterVarsity Press took a chance on a young and relatively unpublished writer and campus minister. They offered me a contract for my first book, Unmasking the New Age, which was published in early 1986. He likewise edited my second book, Confronting the New Age (1988), and I interacted with him in his capacity as editor until he left to lecture full time around the world.
I read nearly all of Jim’s subsequent books, and used several as textbooks, such as Habits of the Mind (2000) and Scripture Twisting (InterVarsity, 1980). Universe has never gone out of print; it has been used as a textbook in many colleges, universities, and seminaries; and it has been translated into a number of other languages. I’m sure he found much delight in this, as did his readers.
Jim was kind enough to give me an endorsement for Truth Decay (InterVarsity Press, 2000): “Written with brilliance and clarity that is highly unusual among both defenders and critics of postmodernism.” I was also honored when Jim asked me to look over several of his manuscripts. I endorsed his recent book, Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Is Really Believing (although I wasn’t smitten with the title). But enough about how James Sire helped me. You can tell how much he meant to me.
Jim was the father of the Christian worldview movement. Loosely defined, this movement is made of writers, speakers, and educators who advocated that Christianity be understood and promoted philosophically. C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were key as well, but Sire consolidated the Christian view in a clear and captivating way. Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession. However, worldview isn’t an in-group way of explaining Christianity. It is not a catechism. Rather, it specifies broad and neutral conceptual categories that can be applied to any belief system, not simply Christianity. Although he refined it in subsequent editions of The Universe Next Door, I still appreciate Sire’s first definition of a worldview.
Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession.
A set of assumptions (or presuppositions) held (either consciously or unconsciously) about the basic makeup of the world.
A worldview answers such questions as these:
What is the nature of ultimate reality? Is it matter, God, or ideas?
How does the universe work? Is it a closed system or open to divine reordering through revelation and miracle?
What is the meaning of history? Is it haphazard, linear, or cyclical?
What is the basis of morality? Is it God, the self, or society?
What is the human condition and is salvation possible?
Is there an afterlife, and, if so, what it is like?
Before Jim wrote The Universe Next Door, he was instrumental in the writing careers of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness, two giants of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism. Both applied the Christian worldview skillfully to apologetics and social criticism. He edited Guinness’s first book—his unmatched critique of the counterculture, The Dust of Death (1973). In the case of Schaeffer’s Death in the City (InterVarsity Press, 1969), Sire shaped a manuscript from a series of explosive lectures Schaeffer gave at Wheaton College. Sire also wrote an incisive introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Schaeffer’s modern classic, The God Who is There (original publication, 1968). The 2006 of Schaeffer’s gem, The Mark of the Christian, is introduced by Sire as well.
In recent years, some critics, such as James K. A. Smith, have disparaged the idea of presenting Christianity as a worldview. They charge that it is too conceptual, reductionist, and lacks a confessional element. But the idea of a worldview was never meant to replace systematic theology, liturgy, or the corporate confession of the church. The principal strength of worldview is for apologetics and cultural criticism. Yes, some of the recent books on worldview are superfluous, but that is not the fault of James Sire.
I tell my students that discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement. Further, as Sire himself demonstrated in his public lectures and interactions with unbelievers, we must be sensitive to the particular human beings before us, by asking the Holy Spirit to give us intellectual and emotional insight that is fruitful for Christian witness.
Discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement.
James Sire, especially later in life, became something of a mystic. He was hardly a stilted worldview-brandishing rationalist (in Schaeffer’s use of the term) with no room for personal communion with the living God! He wrote two books on meditating on the Psalms: Learning to Pray through the Psalms (2006) and The Psalms of Jesus (2007). His later writings spoke more of spiritual experience.
Jim and I were not close personal friends, but we fondly communicated over many years and appreciated each other’s work. He always signed his letters or emails with, “Cheers, Jim Sire.” We enjoyed being together the few times we were. I met him for the first time in 1983 at a Christian’s writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon. While teaching a seminar, Jim said, “We have one of our InterVarsity Press author’s with us.” He meant me, even though I had only signed the contract for Unmasking the Age. That was kind. We exchanged a few emails in recent years and I’m happy that I thanked him for his work in a hand-written card some years ago. (Hint: I suggest you write cards or send emails to authors who have meant much to you. See 10 Ways to Write a Meaningful Card.)
I knew Jim to be a warm and genial man, both quick witted and ready to laugh. He was a prolific author, an expert editor, a smart Christian statesman, and an ardent follower of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. Thank you, Jim, for your life and work. Thank you, Jesus, for giving this man a long, full, and productive life in your service. Cheers!