Naming the Elephant – Review

James W. Sire. Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity P, 2004. Print.

Dr. James Sire is probably best known for his book The Universe Next Door. That work came out in the seventies and has been updated a couple of times. Naming the Elephant spins off from that book. The Universe Next Door examines various worldviews. Naming the Elephant does not directly do that.

Instead, Naming the Elephant discusses what a worldview is. In that sense, it is more directly philosophical. Still, it is written for the layman. Sire first introduces us to the various philosophers, mostly German and Dutch, who have tried to define what a worldview is.

Of course, one’s worldview has many implications and ramifications. It becomes the way people see other people, history, ethics, nature. It becomes a foundation for our actions, our thoughts, our rationalizations.

The book’s title comes from an anecdote that many readers have probably heard in one form or another. In Sire’s version an Asian Indian boy asks his father how the world is suspended in space. The father explains that a group of animals, one on the back of the one below it, holds it up. The elephant is at the bottom of the short stack.

“What holds up the elephant?” the boy asks.

“It’s elephants all the way down,” the father replies.

I first heard or read this as an American Indian tale with the earth-bearers being “Turtles all the way down.” The concept is the same.

What is it that really holds our universe together and makes up its reality?

Sire points out that the two roots of any worldview are a question of being and knowing. Since we all exist and we all have some degree of knowledge, we all have a worldview. The late philosopher Francis Schaeffer would maintain that every person has a philosophy.

What is being or existence, and how do we account for it? What is knowledge, and how do we know what is real or true? Like The Universe Next Door, and most other philosophical works, Sire wants to direct the reader towards a worldview similar to his own. InterVarsity Press, the publisher, is a Christian publisher that specializes on ministry to university students and teachers.

Still, Sire is fair to the various perspectives he presents. One major change since he wrote the first edition of his other book is the prevalence of postmodern relativism in the culture and the similar, though not identical, embrace of Eastern religions in the West.

Like many others, Sire notes the inherent self-contradiction of the idea that there are no absolutes. (Are you absolutely sure that there are no absolutes?) He has fun with this. His college students claim that “Truth is anything I want it to be, especially with regard to ethics.” Yet they complain as much as anyone if they have received an unfair grade! (133)

Sire notes, for example:

When the various hermeneutics are turned back on themselves, they often can be shown to be self-referentially incoherent. For example, if in accord with Michel Foucault, all uses of language are plays for power, so is the language used to say so. If power is not a criterion of truth (which it isn’t), there is no reason to believe that all use of language is a play for power. (155 n.14)

He also notes that worldviews can change. Sometimes the change causes a radical change in lifestyle and perception. Other times, he says, it is “fairly painless.”

He gives a personal example of a change of the fairly painless variety. As an undergraduate, he adopted the belief advocated by one of his postmodern professors that the proper way to study the text of a work of literature is apart from the writer. Take the work at face value; the life and times of the author are irrelevant.

At the same time, he was studying the Book of Psalms in the Bible. The individual psalms often give the reader the context in which they were sung or in which they were written. This helped him understand the meaning of the psalm better. At one point he realized the two ideas were not compatible. Since his behavior clearly showed that he really did not believe the first idea, he abandoned it. He was surprised, but it was not hard to do.

The change that can take place in a religious or philosophical conversion can life-changing and radical. It may involve some pain. Naming the Elephant shares the moving story of a Chinese woman raised as an atheist in Communist China. She wrote about a mental change that took place when she discovered an appealing Taoist writer. At that point she was still able to reconcile her ideas because the People’s Republic was “Communism with a Chinese face.”

However, the belief in the Tao eventually led her to the Bible and Christianity. The King of Heaven in Daoism and Confucianism would become specifically identified as the Creator God of the Bible. (For more on this see our review of Finding God in Ancient China.) This would have a radical change on her understanding of people, ethics, government, those ideas of being and knowing, and her behavior.

At one point Sire lists what he considers seven basic questions that make up a worldview:

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?

For any thinking adolescent or adult, it is not a matter of answering these questions. We already have. How we answer them tells us our worldview.

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