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!

In Defense of Reading Slowly

It has often been said that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

How to read slowlyThe other night on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Fallon did a piece he called his “Do Not Read” list, probably parodying all the reading lists circulating this time of year. True confessions, we caught this, although I was dozing when Fallon included on his list How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire. My wife succeeded in waking me up just in time to see a close in shot of the book. Fallon’s comment was, “It’s actually a pretty good book. I’ve been reading it for years. I’m only on page 4 but so far, so good.” You can catch the video here and the part on Sire’s book is at the 2:02 mark.

James Sire is actually a good friend whose book Apologetics Beyond Reason I reviewed recently. So I got a laugh out of this for different reasons than most of the audience. I’m also hoping How to Read Slowly saw a spike in sales because of Fallon, that his publicity actually helped. It has been many years since I read this book and it is actually one of the best books on reading I’ve read, better, and more accessible, in my opinion, than Mortimer Adler’s more famous How to Read a Book. I’m relying on memory as well as the Amazon “table of comments” preview (I lent the book out to someone who knows when and it has not found its way back to my library) but here are some reasons this should be on your “To Be Read” list:

1. This is a book about reading better, not faster or more. Sire introduces to the process of engaging books with our minds and entering into the world of the author. He has been one of the leading exponents of thinking “worldviewishly” and one of the things he does is help us look for cues to the underlying premises in whatever we read–what is the view of ultimate reality, the really real, what are the author’s assumptions about human beings and the human condition, what’s wrong with the world and is there any remedy, where is history going, if anywhere, and so forth.

2. Sire wants us to read both sympathetically and critically. He wants us to really understand authors on their own terms, and yet also critically engage their “worldview” in light of our own (and perhaps in the process clarify our worldview as well).

3. As a former English professor, he gives us cues on reading different genres of literature from non-fiction to poetry, as well as how we might read “contextually” to better understand the world of the author, or the world the author is creating in the work.

4. Throughout this, as well as in other works, Jim illustrates his points from a variety of written works. More than once, his use of these has intrigued me enough to seek out those books for myself. I would likely not have come across Stanislaus Lem otherwise, for example.

5. Somehow, Adler’s book seemed to make reading a chore, as helpful as many of his suggestions were. Sire’s book stoked my love of reading and enriched it. His concluding chapter gets at the essence of “better reading” in talking about what to read and when.

Sire inspired me in my own reading life, particularly to engage books more deeply and thoughtfully, and to savor the richness of good books and to allow myself to be changed and enlarged by those encounters. So I hope the publicity, whether through Fallon, or this blog might acquaint an new generation with slow reading. I even hope Jimmy Fallon might get beyond page 4!

 

Review: Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing

Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing
Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing by James W. Sire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is everything.
Therefore there is a God.
Either you see this or you don’t.

This epigraph at the beginning of James W. Sire’s latest book captures the “apologetic” for the Christian faith that Sire proposes. In the course of the book, he rings the changes on this syllogism, substituting for “everything” the terms “literature” and “the music of Johann Sebastian Bach” among others.

What he addresses here are the limits of reason to “prove” the existence of God or indeed to convince someone of the truth of the Christian faith. Using his own life story as an illustration, he contends for a “messy” approach to apologetics that is neither deductive or inductive but rooted in the idea that there are “signals of transcendence” that we might encounter wherever we look that point us to God and which are made sense of by the narrative of creation, fall and redemption we find in the story of scripture.

He begins with his encounters with Cartesian philosophy and the autonomy of human reason and the ultimate futility and implicit nihilism that results when human reason is pursued to its logical conclusions illustrated in the works of science fiction writer Stanislas Lem. There is a conundrum is using autonomous reason to articulate the futility of autonomous reason that in itself is a signal of transcendence. But where does one start?

Instead of reason as a starting point, Sire argues that the only place to begin is with God. That is, we don’t begin with what we can know, or epistemology, but rather with being itself, or ontology. We begin with God to know everything else (and either we see this or we don’t!). Sire proposes a threefold argument from this starting point:

1. An argument from God, not to God.
2. An argument from everything to God.
3, An argument from our personal experience — direct perception of God.

The remainder of the book is an unpacking of this argument from the world of literature and the arts interwoven with his personal experience. He begins with a literary theory of the work of authors in creating a “secondary world” that, when done well, points us back to the “primary world” in which we live. Thus, whether the writer believes in a God or not, Sire argues, he or she cannot help but signal the transcendent in their work. He illustrates this with both the works of a Christian, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the work of Virginia Woolf. If there is indeed a God, we cannot create a world that is reflective of Primary reality without also pointing back to God and opening oneself to the possibility of directly perceive the reality of God. He then illustrates this with the fictional account of a bereaved professor from a fictional college in Ohio that seemed to me reminiscent of A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Auken.

The concluding chapter moves from our perception, our seeing of God, to the story Sire believes makes the most sense of what we perceive of God and the rest of Primary Reality. He invites the reader to move beyond the signals to the One signaled, narrated in the Christian scriptures and centering in on Jesus Christ, who incarnated the reality of God.

I should confess at this point that I am at least a casual friend of the author. He has spoken on several occasions at collegiate ministry functions I have hosted. We have teamed up as program staff at student conferences. So there is no question of me being a sympathetic reader of his work. The argument he makes is one with which I would concur. But a couple of comments are probably in order.

As I’ve interacted with questioners about the Christian faith, I often find myself asking, “do you want there to be a God?” and “if I were to give reasonable responses to your questions, would you consider becoming a Christian?” I’m well aware that others see the same reality I do and just “don’t see” or don’t want to. Sire really doesn’t address the question of “what about those who don’t see?” And perhaps there is nothing to be said but to commend them to God in our prayers.

The other comment is that Sire argues from literature throughout the central part of this book. This is beloved ground for him and there will be others who appreciate the subtleties in the literature he cites. It is a world I am increasingly coming to enjoy. Yet I realized a great many do not know this world or are even put off by it. I don’t think there is a good response for this except to say to follow the thread of the argument, which connects to everything, and not simply everything in literature.

Sire’s book comes out of a career of teaching, writing, and serving as a traveling apologist. It reflects great wisdom in understanding both the messiness of apologetics and the reality that it will often be those signals of transcendence and our perception of them that will lead to faith. But as he has written, either his readers will see this, or they won’t.

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