James W. Sire (1933-2018)

jim sire

The Christian world lost a wonderful scholar and apologist Tuesday night. And I lost a friend. James W. Sire passed into the more immediate presence of the Lord he so deeply loved on Tuesday evening.

I first came in contact with Jim’s ideas long before I ever met him. I was a college student at a leadership camp in 1974. One of our sessions was on this idea of “Christian world view.” One of the presenters shared material he had heard in a seminar with a university professor by the name of James Sire. He included seven “world view questions” that became a valuable tool whether reading a textbook on counseling psychology or talking with someone who was not a Christ-follower whose view of life I was trying to understand. His questions were:

  1. What is prime reality—the really real? To this we might answer: God, or the gods, or the material cosmos. Our answer here is the most fundamental. It sets the boundaries for the answers that can consistently be given to the other six questions. This will become clear as we move from worldview to worldview in the chapters that follow.
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?Here our answers point to whether we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit; or whether we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us.
  3. What is a human being? To this we might answer: a highly complex machine, a sleeping god, a person made in theimage of God, a naked ape.
  4. What happens to a person at death? Here we might reply: personal extinction, or transformation to a higher state, or reincarnation, or departure to a shadowy existence on “the other side.”
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Sample answers include the idea that we are made in the image of an all-knowing God or that consciousness and rationality developed under the contingencies of survival in a long process of evolution.
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong? Again, perhaps we are made in the image of a God whose character is good, or right and wrong are determined by human choice alone or what feels good, or the notions simply developed under an impetus toward cultural or physical survival.
  7. What is the meaning of human history? To this we might answer: to realize the purposes of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare a people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, and so forth.

Eventually, he added an eighth question as he understood that world view wasn’t simply about ideas but also how we lived and oriented our affections and commitments in light of them.

8. What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?

I was delighted a few years later when this list of questions on a handout was turned into a book, The Universe Next Door. By that time, I had begun working in collegiate ministry and this was one of my “go to” books as I engaged with people from all sorts of backgrounds, and as I sought to help Christian students confidently engage others with different ideas.

Meanwhile, Jim had left his teaching position to work for InterVarsity Press. Even before his own work was published, he played a key role in editing a number of the works the Press published by Francis Schaeffer. He served for a number of years as Senior Editor at the Press and played a key role in its growth in the world of Christian publishing. All during this time, he continued publishing his own works, including Scripture Twisting, Discipleship of the Mind, and one of my favorites that actually was mocked by Jimmy Fallon, How to Read Slowly (about which I subsequently wrote). He eventually published four more editions of Universe Next Door, selling over 350,000 copies. (I understand from an email I received from him in December that he was working on a sixth edition at the time of his death.)

That would be enough for many people, but not for Jim. His next career was as a campus lecturer. I had the privilege to host him several times at Ohio State, and what I appreciated was not only his winsome and witty engagements with students and faculty, but how he would delight in personal conversation with someone seriously questioning.

It was during this time that I had several opportunities to get to know Jim more personally. One year, I was assigned as one of the staff leaders in a seminar called “Agents of Transformation.” I had never gone through the seminar before. The person leading became ill just beforehand and the powers-that-be decided that they wanted me to lead the seminar. I would have been lost had it not been that Jim was with us that week as a “resource.” What so impressed me was how he supported me in leading sessions that he probably knew backwards and forwards while I was making it up as I went. We ended up having a marvelous time with the 40 students on hand, often just one step ahead. His humility and support was an incredible encouragement.

Jim never stopped learning and growing. Habits of the Mind and Naming the Elephant both reflected his own evolving and deepening understanding of the idea of worldview, and how we think. A couple of his last books, Why Good Arguments Often Fail and Apologetics Beyond Reason (review) reflected his experience as an apologist and a deepening understanding of the spiritual dynamics of engaging with people in their journey to faith.

We saw each other regularly over the last twenty years at our InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry meetings. Jim always cared deeply about the university world and our efforts to connect the love of God and the love of learning. One of the talks I remember him giving spoke about the divide between the humanities and the sciences, and his belief that this, too, was reconciled in Christ.

Because so many of Jim’s books had to do with topics related to the life of the mind, people may not have been aware of how much Jim loved God, and loved what he saw of God in the scriptures. He wrote a number of Bible studies and Learning to Pray Through the Psalms and Praying the Psalms of Jesus. In Learning to Pray Through the Psalms he wrote:

“How can I not begin without thanking our great God who inspired the psalmists and gave us those marvelous records of the prayers of the ancient Hebrews! This book is a meditation and an encouragement to meditation prompted by the texts of those who poured out their souls to God. So thanks quickly go to those hearty souls who wrote the psalms and displayed for us such a vast panorama of human thought and emotion, thus freeing us so many centuries later to bare our heart and mind before the God who fashioned us and intended us to be like himself.”

This man’s work touched the arc of my adult life. He helped build a publishing house with a sterling reputation for evangelical conviction coupled with fine scholarship. He engaged with countless seekers and sceptics. He gave valuable advice and support to a ministry seeking to reach the elite world of scholarship. And all of it was with grace, wit, and humility. And now he joins the “hearty souls” of the ages in the more immediate presence of the God to whom he spent his life pouring out his heart. Further up and further in, my friend!

6 thoughts on “James W. Sire (1933-2018)

  1. Bob
    Thank you for sharing this. Dr Sire always took time to answer my questions or my student’s question. He was truly a mentor of mine. He will be missed, but his Legacy is certain to continue to change lives for Jesus!

  2. Bob, I am very grateful for this reminder of his influence on us in InterVarsity and on me personally. Jim came to Eau Claire when I was staffing there to discuss New Age worldview and dialogue with students and faculty. Among all those books you mentioned which I also appreciate, Chris Chrisman goes to College was another one that had a huge impact on our staff. I have used Jim’s 8 questions and the Elephant book not only in a session for a track at camp and new staff training but also for a Hollywood Worldview series taught at church. Thanksgiving for Jim’s impact on my discipleship of the mind!

  3. Thank you for this tribute. I heard Dr. Sire speak when I was in college. He was there the same week Richard Dawkins was speaking, and he attended the Dawkins’ lecture, taking notes.

  4. Bob, thank you for this thoughtful tribute to my father! It’s so heartwarming to learn more about his professional interactions. Much appreciated!

    • Ann, I so appreciated your father’s writing, speaking, and editorial work at IVP. It was a privilege to work with him on several occasions and host him as a speaker. It meant a great deal that he took an interest in my work, and I know of many InterVarsity Staff who would say the same.

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