Brian Clayton
(Revised, 8 January 1998)


(Based on James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 3d ed., 1997)

1. Sire identifies the following as the seven basic questions a worldview tries to answer:

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?

2. What follows are nine different worldviews that Sire identifies and discusses. The numbered points do not necessarily correspond to the numbered questions, above. However, the numbered points taken as a whole do attempt to offer a comprehensive response to the questions Sire has identified.

3. Christian theism:

1. God is infinite and personal (triune), transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good.

2. God created the cosmos ex nihilo to operate with a uniformity of cause and effect in an open system.

3. Human beings are created in the image of God and thus possess personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness and creativity.

4. Human beings can know both the world around them and God himself because God has built into them the capacity to do so and because he takes an active role in communicating with them.

5. Human beings were created good, but through the Fall the image of God became defaced, though not so ruined as not to be capable of restoration; through the work of Christ, God redeemed humanity and began the process of restoring people to goodness, though any given person may choose to reject that redemption.

6. For each person death is either the gate to life with God and his people or the gate to eternal separation from the only thing that will ultimately fulfill human aspirations.

7. Ethics is transcendent and is based on the character of God as good (holy and loving).

8. History is linear, a meaningful sequence of events leading to the fulfillment of God's purposes for humanity.

4. Deism:

1. A transcendent God, as a First Cause, created the universe but then left it to run on its own. God is thus not immanent, not fully personal, not sovereign over human affairs, not providential.

2. The cosmos God created is determined because it is created as a uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system; no miracle is possible.

3. Human beings, though personal, are a part of the clockwork of the universe.

4. The cosmos, this world, is understood to be in its normal state; it is not fallen or abnormal. We can know the universe, and we can determine what God is like by studying it.

5. Ethics is limited to general revelation; because the universe is normal, it reveals what is right.

6. History is linear, for the course of the cosmos was determined at creation.

5. Naturalism:

1. Matter exists eternally and is all there is. God does not exist.

2. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system.

3. Human beings are complex "machines"; personality is an interrelation of chemical and physical properties we do not yet fully understand.

4. Death is the extinction of personality and individuality.

5. History is a linear stream of events linked by cause and effect but without an overarching purpose.

6. Ethics is related only to human beings.

6. Nihilism:

1. Matter is all there is and it is eternal.

2. The cosmos exists with a uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system.

3. Human beings are complex machines whose personality is a function of highly complex chemical and physical properties not yet understood.

4. Genuine knowledge is impossible?i.e., we cannot know if what we think we know is illusion or truth.

5. Values are a human creation with no further basis.

6. There is no meaning of human history.

7. Atheistic existentialism:

1. The cosmos is composed solely of matter, but to human beings reality appears in two forms?subjective and objective.

2. For human beings alone existence precedes essence; people make themselves who they are.

3. Each person is totally free as regards his nature and destiny.

4. The highly wrought and tightly organized objective world stands over against human beings and appears absurd.

5. In full recognition of and against the absurdity of the objective world, the authentic person must revolt and create value.

8. Christian theistic existentialism:

1. God is infinite and personal (triune), transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good. God created the cosmos ex nihilo to operate with a uniformity of cause and effect in an open system. Human beings are created in the image of God, can know something of God and the cosmos and can act significantly. God can and does communicate with us. We were created good but now are fallen and need to be restored by god through Christ. For human beings death is either the gate to life with God and his people or life forever separated from God. Ethics is transcendent and based on God's character.

2. Human beings are personal beings who, when they come to full consciousness, find themselves in an alien universe; whether or not God exists is a tough question to be solved not be reason but by faith.

3. The personal is valuable.

4. Knowledge is subjectivity; the whole truth is often paradoxical.

5. History as a record of events is uncertain and unimportant, but history as a model or type or myth to be made present and lived is of supreme importance.

9. Eastern pantheistic monism:

1. Atman is Brahman; that is, the soul of each and every human being is the Soul of the cosmos. [Zen Buddhist variation: The final reality is the Void. Final reality is nothing that can be named or grasped. To say it is nothing is incorrect, but likewise to say that it is something is equally incorrect. The individual person is a not-soul.]

2. Some things are more one than others.

3. Many (if not all) roads lead to the One.

4. To realize one's oneness with the cosmos is to pass beyond personality.

5. To realize one's oneness with the cosmos is to pass beyond knowledge. The principle of noncontradiction does not apply where ultimate reality is concerned.

6. To realize one's oneness with the cosmos is to pass beyond good and evil; the cosmos is perfect at every moment.

7. Death is the end of individual, personal existence, but it changes nothing essential in an individual's nature.

8. To realize one's oneness with the One is to pass beyond time. Time is unreal. History is cyclical.

10. New age-ism:

1. Whatever the nature of being (idea or matter, energy or particle), the self is the kingpin?the prime reality. As human beings grow in their awareness and grasp of this fact, the human race is on the verge of a radical change in human nature; even now we see harbingers of transformed humanity and prototypes of the New Age.

2. The cosmos, while unified in the self, is manifested in two more dimensions: the visible universe, accessible through ordinary consciousness, and the invisible universe (or Mind at Large), accessible through altered states of consciousness.

3. The core experience of the New Age is cosmic consciousness, in which ordinary categories of space, time and morality tend to disappear.

4. Physical death is not the end of the self; under the experience of cosmic consciousness, the fear of death is removed.

5. Three distinct attitudes are taken to the metaphysical question of the nature of reality under the general framework of the New Age: (1) the occult version, in which the beings and things perceived in states of altered consciousness exist apart from the self that is conscious, (2) the psychedelic version, in which these things and beings are projections of the conscious self, and (3) the conceptual relativist version, in which the cosmic consciousness is the conscious activity of a mind using one of many nonordinary models for reality, none of which is any "truer" than any other.

11. Postmodernism:

1. The first question postmodernism addresses is not what is there or how know what is there but how language functions to construct meaning itself. In other words, there has been a shift in "first things" from being to knowing constructing meaning.

2. The truth about the reality itself is forever hidden from us. All we can do is tell stories.

3. All narratives mask a play for power. Any one narrative used as a metanarrative is oppressive.

4. Human beings make themselves who they are by the languages they construct about themselves.

5. Ethics, like knowledge, is a linguistic construct. Social good is whatever society takes it to be.

6. The cutting edge of culture is literary theory.

12. As we read various thinkers and discuss ideas throughout the semester, try to identify the worldviews that they express.


God and Philosophical Discussion

1. We are engaged in the process of articulating, deepening and thinking through our worldviews. (The fancy word, if you want to impress people, is Weltanschauung <sing.> or Weltanschauungen <pl.>.) We want our worldviews to be coherent, consistent, comprehensive and correct.

2. When we reflect philosophically, we reflect on some belief or on some item proposed for our belief. We start our philosophical reflection with the worldviews we already hold. Our philosophical reflection involves (in part) bringing our worldviews to bear on the belief or proposed belief which we are considering. Notice that, for some people, belief in God is part of their worldview and, for other people, belief that God doesn't exist is part of their worldview. Thus, people may find themselves using their beliefs about God when they engage in philosophical reflection. In fact, it may be necessary for such people to include their religious beliefs in the process of philosophical reflection.

3. Is this legitimate? I can see no a priori reason for saying that, as a general principle, it is illegitimate. So, it seems legitimate for people to include their religious beliefs in the process of philosophical reflection. This is not to say that there might not be occasions when it would be illegitimate to appeal to religious beliefs while engaged in philosophical discussion--for example, when a particular religious belief is itself the object of reflection, it seems illegitimate to use that belief in the process of reflecting on that belief. But, of course, this seems to hold true for all beliefs, whether or not they have to do with God.

4. This does not mean that one cannot challenge worldviews which include beliefs about God--e.g., the belief that God does exist or the belief that God does not exist. We should challenge each other to be consistent and careful in our philosophical reflection on our worldviews. Moreover, honest challenges to our worldviews must be answered honestly.

5. So, we will not adopt "neutralism" in this class. Neutralism is the view that we can do our philosophical reflection only on the basis of beliefs that are (relatively) universally shared and (relatively) non-controversial. (It isn't even clear what such beliefs are or whether they would provide a sufficient basis for sustained philosophical reflection.) Since religious beliefs in general and theistic beliefs in particular are not universally shared and are certainly not non-controversial, to adopt a neutralist position would be to privilege non-theism. It would also put me in the position of having to be dishonest with my students; I would be pretending that I did not have religious beliefs. It also creates the impression that philosophy is a kind of game. I will not do this. All beliefs which are part of one's worldview may be brought into play; all may be subject to challenge by those who do not share the worldview. The only obligation is to challenge honestly and to respond honestly; this involves striving for consistency in one's worldview.

6. Since this is a Catholic (and, hence, Christian) institution, it seems to me perfectly acceptable for the Christian students (and instructors) to appeal to their religious knowledge as they formulate responses to philosophical questions. This appeal probably does not take the form of citing some creedal statement as if it would resolve a philosophical difficulty, but it might take the form of including creedal statements among the data with which the student works to formulate an answer. And of course, what the Christian may do is also available to the Hindu, the Jew or the Muslim. We want to avoid short-circuiting reflection by citing sacred texts, but we also want to avoid demanding that theists (e.g.) constantly have to prove the truth of their religious commitments. One would short-circuit reflection by acting as a misological fideist. (Sounds impressive, eh? I'm really doing my best to give you your money's worth in terms of impressive-sounding terminology.) A fideist is one who appeals to faith as the basis for a belief/claim. A misologist is one who distrusts reason and argument, and who therefore refuses to engage in reasoned discourse. (The term is stolen from Plato's Phaedo.) So, a misological fideist is one who refuses to offer reasons or even consider the need for/possibility of offering reasons for religious claims. For example, a misological fideist might say that God exists and refuse to enter into any conversation about why one should believe this to be true. A rational fideist, on the other hand, might hold that certain religious claims (even such basic religious claims as that God exists) are not susceptible of rational demonstration, but that there are reasons which can be adduced in support of the claims; such a fideist would hold that reasoned discourse is appropriate with respect to religious claims, but would hold that such discourse may not be dispositive of such claims.

7. Finally, we should remember that there is a difference between including one's religious beliefs in one's efforts to work on one's own worldview, and using those religious beliefs to convince someone else of the truth of something (e.g., one's worldview) when that someone else doesn't share those beliefs. (Sorry about that terribly complicated sentence.) What I mean is something like this: our beliefs come into play in different ways in different contexts. If I'm trying to convince someone else of the truth of some belief, then I will need to appeal to common ground and try to move from that common ground to the target belief. (This is a process we might call worldview conversion.) If the person with whom I'm speaking does not share my religious beliefs, then it is no good appealing to them in order to try to convince this person of the truth of some other belief. On the other hand, if I'm working out what I think about some idea, then it is perfectly appropriate for me to bring into play my religious beliefs--even if other people don't share those beliefs. (This is a process we might call worldview construction.) But this is not some peculiar feature of religious beliefs: this holds true of all beliefs. In order to convince someone of some of my mathematical beliefs about denumerably infinite sets, it does no good to appeal to my beliefs about infinite sets if the person to whom I'm talking does not even believe that infinite sets exist. So, there's a difference between the activity of worldview construction/articulation and the activity of worldview conversion (i.e., where one is trying to convince someone else to accept/convert to one's worldview).

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Copyright 1998 by David H. Calhoun and Brian B. Clayton.  This page last updated on May 28, 1998.