Monday, July 18, 2011

The Universe Next Door. - A Review

The Universe Next Door. By James W. Sire
James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door is a polemic in favour of a very specific Christianity. Although it purports to be a “catalogue” of a range of differing belief systems which Sire organises into mutually exclusive world views, it’s obviously not committed to that enterprise.
There’s something tragic about The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire being “used as a text at over one hundred colleges and universities” according to its back cover blurb. It’s a tragedy that compelled me to complete it because its a tragedy that is common in the distance between religious apologetics and real humble scholarship.
It’s not that Sire doesn’t know his stuff. He is noticeably weaker in his grasp of “Eastern” thinking and Postmodernism (and he hands the chapter on Islam to a colleague) but he has read and comprehended widely and he links his sources into his arguments well.
The real problem is that Sire’s project is fundamentally intellectually dishonest. This probably shouldn’t surprise. Reading one world views’ approved book on other world views is a shortcut to understanding that should raise suspicions. When the text turns to another “scholar” to contribute the chapter on Islam and pointedly doesn’t turn to an Islamic scholar then the claustrophobia of its academic perspective is obvious.   
Sire’s catalogue is actually a view from his own window over the range of other world views he can see at - but he never sees from those world views. He never leaves his own house. As a part of this Sire never sees his own house clearly. Subsequently his Christian Theism is probably the least investigated of all the world views he describes. Sire makes no mention of the great controversies and paradoxes of Christian Theology. Predestination and the dilemma of responsibility without free choice is actually ascribed to Islam but not mentioned in Christian Theism. Instead Sire ascribes to Christian theism a notion of “an open universe” where human creativity can genuinely create (and even author beauty) outside of Gods permission. No conflict is mentioned between this and “total depravity” or Gods complete sovereignty (hardly obscure points).  Sire also can’t see how divine command ethics could fail to satisfy our sense of right and wrong (ie. That it feels wrong to kill your child even if God says to). The propositions of (Sires’) Christian Theism are just allowed to float on the page unmolested by further investigation.
This is not the case for any other world view in the book. Sire takes every other world view’s answers to his questions (which he admits are theistically biased) to their logical extreme. With Deism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Postmodernism and even Islam (by another author) Sire ends up at Nihilism. (He doesn’t quite get there with Pantheistic Monism so he resorts to some very basic slander about Eastern “skulduggery” at the end of that chapter instead).
Basically Sire has invented a game which requires a perspective to provide both meaning and agency to its adherents. Losing lands you in the Nihilist camp, forced to endure repeats of Samuel Beckets’ Breath. The rules of the game are to answer a series of questions with definite statements (no uncertainty allowed). If you can’t or won’t answer Sire will answer for you (hence Postmodernism is considered atheistic despite it not being about absolute truth statements). Your answers will then be tested for logical consistency and taken to their darkest extreme. There is no room for a Catholic sense of mystery or even the importance of a Calvinist conviction of the spirit in comprehending your views. Sire can do it just as easily from his own perspective as you can from your own.
When I step back from The Universe Next Door I realise there are only really two points in the book. The first point is that ethics is in difficulty without a transcendent moral authority such as a creator God. This is a fascinating area of discussion. If Sire was more humble he might learn from moralities which didn’t have a creator God at their centre. Instead he declares that those people must be “inauthentic” adherents of their creeds – unwilling to see the obvious implications of their propositions. To explain, to a Buddhist morality can be explained as self-evident on the basis that there is no distinction between oneself and another. Compassion and enlightenment are inseparable. A real student of other world views would try to see how this could make sense even if they ultimately concluded it didn’t satisfy them. Alternatively there are ethics within Christian environments which make no claim to divine (or at least biblical) authorship – politeness for example.  Exploring how they operate would be a way towards understanding how a non-theist could be moral without being any more “naive” than a Christian.
The second point of Sires’ is that a “closed universe” where free will is an illusion and only one future is possible is catastrophic for humanity. Art, the law, romance, science and everything else humans feel they do by choice has to logically be abandoned. Or rather has to completed as a kind of sad drudgery produced by compulsion. Once again this is a fascinating space for discussion. The fact is that people who believe in a “closed universe” include most obviously strict Calvinists but to a certain extent Christians in general who would believe that no amount of free will is going to change the outcome of the end times. We all have to accept some limits to our free will and we can all feel those limits as chokingly narrow at times. There are so many other responses to this other than despair. Honouring those responses is infinitely more rewarding than declaring them naive or inauthentic.
I want to praise Sire for the extensiveness of his source materials. I think he shows more integrity than your average polemicist by not cherry picking his quotes. And it’s not like he makes no effort to try on other world views. He just doesn’t try hard or rather humbly enough. He acknowledges that his schema is a poor way to appraise foreign belief systems but he’s not brave enough to abandon it. In the end seeing his own philosophy winning his own game is more important to Sire than genuine understanding. If that’s a university standard for a text then that’s a tragedy.


  1. This is a great blog. Having a great time reading through it.

    Hey - if you are looking for a well written book on comparative religions, try Stephen Prothero's book 'God is Not One: The Nine Rival Religions that Rule the World and Why Their Differences Matter'. In my opinion, Prothero is the best scholar of comparative religions that I have come across.

  2. Thanks Dan. I forgot to check for this book at the library today (doh) but it looks good. You don't have a copy I can borrow by any chance.

  3. Having now read Stephen Prothero's 'God is Not One: The Nine Rival Religions that Rule the World and Why Their Differences Matter', I can heartily recommend it. A great book and a much better primer on comparative religion.