The Universe Next Door: Seven Questions

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us–to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

~Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”*

In his book The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, James Sire defines a worldview as being “a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world.”  For most of us, our worldviews are held tacitly, subconsciously, unreflectively, such that if someone were to begin to probe too deeply into why we do what we do and think what we think and value what we value, we would discover that we hardly know what makes us tick.  But, as Matthew Arnold suggested, we occasionally get our heads above the mundane busyness of our workaday existences just long enough to begin longing to know “our buried life” and trace out “our true, original course.”

What’s life all about?  What’s worth living (or dying, or fighting) for?  What really matters?  How should we live our lives?  Is this all there is?

We all live out a network of implicit answers to such questions, though the answers our lives suggest are often rather less than inspiring: Yep, this is it.  Life is about being able to retire comfortably in Saint Aug’s.  We ought, therefore, to live our lives so as to experience as much pleasure as is possible without losing our jobs or being incarcerated.   (Such would appear to be the de facto worldview of the average pursuant of the American Dream.)

When we pause to reflect, however, many of us suspect that there are better answers to be had and more substantial lives to be lived.  But the question is Like what? 

To begin getting at some of the more substantive and coherent sets of answers on offer, Sire offers a schedule of probing (meta-)questions that can help us to get to the heart of things and that can get us started “tracking out our true, original course”:

  1. What is prime reality–the really real?  To this we might answer God, or the gods, or the material cosmos.

  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 comples machine, a sleeping god, a person made in the image 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 purpose 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.

To be sure, these are not the sorts of questions one usually raises in polite company.  Posing such questions, say, to your hairdresser or at a summer cookout is a surefire way to get people to think you’ve had a little too much sun.  And, of course, professional philosophers and scholars of various stripes may justifiably nitpick this particular schedule of questions, as well.  (That is, after all, what philosophers and scholars are best at.) Perhaps their focus on metaphysical and meta-ethical matters betrays a certain Western European bias.  Perhaps they are impossible to answer with any certainty and are, therefore, pointless to fuss about.  Perhaps.

Nevertheless, all of these reservations notwithstanding, I think Sire’s questions are helpful for beginning to look beneath the surface of our everyday comings and goings to see our various buried lives.  As a Christian minister, I think that learning to keep these questions in mind when talking to others is an invaluable skill for communicating the gospel, for they help us to begin thinking about what lies at the heart of things, and I think that that is Jesus.

Let’s say one is talking to a Republican who believes with all her might that justice is a matter of letting me keep what I earned, and also to a Democrat who believes in his bones that justice is a matter of all people having equal opportunity, even if that means some must give up some of what they have so that the have-nots can have a fair shot.  These two could easily go around and around on specific matters of policy, but the conversation will go nowhere unless their conflicting notions of justice are addressed.  And here the questions How do we know what is right and wrong? Just and unjust? become precisely the questions that need asking.  If one is a hard-bitten atheist and the other a Hindu, it’s an open question whether their notions of justice cohere with their other philosophical commitments.  If one is a Christian, one needs to ask whether one’s ideas about justice and politics are justifiable within the grand narrative of the Christian tradition.

For my money, these are great questions to ask ourselves and others if we wish to move beyond the dull superficialities and frivolities of “polite” conversation, and to begin to inquire into the mysteries of our hearts and to know whence our lives come, and where our lives go.  True love demands serious conversation.

*As quoted on p. 12 of Sire.

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2 thoughts on “The Universe Next Door: Seven Questions

  1. Just wondering: Would your penultimate paragraph work just as well without the political labels for the extreme stereotypes? I daresay more Republicans lean toward the other justice definition than most so-called liberals think. I’m reminded of Jonathan Haidt’s findings in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided b Politics and Religion.

    1. It almost certainly would, Ann. That paragraph was not intended as a slight on either party nor, for that matter, on either conception of justice (I think there’s more than a grain of truth in both). I really just wanted to raise the question of how we can even begin to adjudicate such disagreements without understanding them within their broader philosophical/theological context.

      If you think the post would be better served by generically referring to “Person X” and “Person Y,” I’d be open to emending it.

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