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Christian Worldview. Sire’s “Naming the Elephant” Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 24th, 2021


Despite the seeming levity of the name, James Sire’s book Naming the Elephant provides an in-depth investigation into the concept of the worldview. For purposes of discussion, he begins the book with a basic definition of the term as “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.” These presuppositions are formed before we have a chance to apply logical or theoretical knowledge to our definitions and continue to be refined as we grow. Our understanding of ourselves in large measure depends upon our worldview and the level to which we adhere to the principles established within that view. This is the argument Sire brings forward in his book as he attempts to explain both how our worldview is formed and why knowledge of it is important, particularly when we begin interacting with people who do not share our same worldview.

Main body

Although we have no real rational reasons for holding to the presuppositions we’ve formed which constitute our basic worldview, we remain committed to them to a greater or lesser extent throughout our lives. This is significant because we tend to judge ourselves and others based upon how well the ideas or beliefs contained in this view are upheld. According to Sire, there are two primary elements of a worldview. The first of these is that there must be a primary foundation or prime reality and the second is that the question of a worldview originates in a pre-theoretical context. The prime reality refers to the answer we give when we have run out of answers. This is illustrated by the story Sire gives regarding the title of the book. According to the myth, a young boy asks his father what is holding up the world. The father, pressed for answers, gives first a camel, then a kangaroo, then, to forestall any further questions, asserts that it is an elephant all the way down. The prime reality is that element that we refer to when we attempt to consider the first thing. This essentially boils down to how we define the Elephant, whether it is God or Nature, Science or some other possibility. The fact that he is using an old story believed to have originated in India suggests that the concept of the worldview is an old concept as well as one that has appeared throughout history in many cultures and belief systems. Our worldview is thus formed upon this primal instinct that there is something there before we’ve even had time to consider what that something might be or how we might relate to it.

Perhaps the most important element of the book for me was the listing of the seven questions that help us define our worldview. This appears within the first chapter. The first question is, of course, the question of how one determines to name the elephant. Following this, we must identify just how we ourselves relate to the world around us and what that world is comprised of. These ideas are formed from our earliest childhood and thus undeniably have a pretheoretical base. Another important question that begins to plague the growing child is a conception of how human beings differ from other elements around them, what makes them special above the plants and other animals. With our first experience of death, we undoubtedly begin to seriously question what might happen to us after we die – an answer provided to us, many times, by our belief systems but one that must inevitably be struggled with on a personal level before any true belief can emerge. Even young children are capable of questioning why they are capable of knowing things that their pet cat or dog cannot comprehend. As they grow, too, there is inevitable questioning regarding what is right or wrong and why is the course of human history important. Regardless of whether we actually think about these issues, we must come to a conclusion about them at some level of our being as we navigate our way through the external world. In addition, whether we’ve thought about them or not, these conclusions necessarily influence the way we define ourselves and others. Finally, our foundational answers regarding these questions, again regardless of whether we’ve consciously given them any thought or investigation, serve to inform us regarding every other belief or principle we form in life.

The chapters of the book progress logically from this broad definition through to a more in-depth definition and investigation. Essential elements of defining a worldview are defined by Sire as resting on where one places primary action between being or knowing in identifying which one informs the other. Sire also considers it important to understand the difference between theoretical and pre-theoretical knowledge. In terms of real-life application, Sire talks about how various means of defining one’s worldview manifest themselves in life, such as through rational thinking, basic way of life, or through the master story. In his concluding chapter, Sire illustrates why an understanding of one’s worldview is essential to understanding how one’s approach to the world might affect what one sees, understands, and holds as important or significant.


It is hard not to agree with Sire regarding the importance of understanding and analyzing one’s own worldview is an important element in learning about oneself. The nature of the questions he poses in Chapter 1 reveals how fundamental these concepts are to our development of personal identity and yet they remain relatively unknown to the adult. At the same time, though, they form a great deal of how we approach the world around us and can perhaps even be the cause of great personal internal issues as we engage in activities that violate some fundamental principle within our worldview. Although Sire seems to approach the question from a mostly Christian perspective, it is noted that the concepts of the worldview have probably been identified within other traditions and belief systems as well. Sire’s own work is prefaced by an old story believed to have originated in India and Sire comments that these issues are frequently called into question when one encounters someone expressing a different worldview. This suggests that every time two cultures came together, whether in peace or in war, the concept of the worldview was encountered and developed to some extent.


Sire, James W. (2004). Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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