Archive for May, 2012

Question-focused Christian Faith

May 14, 2012

There has been a growing emphasis on questions in our churches today.  “Question-shaped faith,” is the title of a provocative piece in a recent issue of the Canadian Mennonite.[i]  Troy Watson, the author, is pastor of a St. Catharines church tellingly named “Quest Christian Community.”  “Questioning one’s beliefs is also at the heart” of a recently established innovative church which meets at a downtown Kitchener hotel, says Brad Watson, pastor of the Nexus Centre.[ii]  A video series used in some churches is suggestively entitled “Living the Questions.”

This emphasis on questioning would seem to be closely associated with a postmodern approach to the Christian faith.  Troy Watson’s article is part of a regular column in the Canadian Mennonite, entitled “Life in the Postmodern Shift.”  Brian McLaren is one of the primary leaders of the postmodern shift in the evangelical Christian church today. The title of one of his recent books is significant:  A New Kind of Christianity:  Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith.[iii]

Clearly there is something healthy about this emphasis on questions.  The Christian faith does raise some questions that beg for answers.  The church should be a place where young people and adults can ask the questions they are facing with regard to their faith.  Without questions, the Christian faith is in danger of becoming stagnant and even dogmatic. Questioning helps us to avoid tunnel vision. We need to grow, and for that to happen we need to keep asking questions.  Asking open questions is also a key to leading engaging bible studies.[iv]  Over the many years that I have taught adult Sunday School, I find myself spending more time preparing the right questions that will stimulate good discussion and learning.  Of course, as a philosopher I love questions and critical thinking, and I like to think I have something to contribute to the church because I am a philosopher.

But, and this is a big But, there are also dangers inherent in the current emphasis on questions.  We need, first of all, to distinguish between genuine questioning and questioning for the sake of questioning.  Genuine questions and doubts needed to be treated seriously in the church. Indeed, we need to create an atmosphere in the church where our young people are allowed and even encouraged to raise the questions they are struggling with.  But questioning can become frivolous.  In my teaching career I have encountered students who ask questions simply because they find this entertaining.  Sometimes I cannot help but think their real motive is to impress everyone with their intelligence.  Questioning can become an end in itself.  This is what Paul has in mind when he describes some people as “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (II Tim 3:8).  Of course it is no accident that the emphasis on questioning is associated with postmodernism, which tends to have problems with the very idea of truth. Healthy questioning has a goal in mind – to find answers, to find truth, and to be more obedient to the truth of the gospel message.

We also need to remember that we can only ask questions if there first is something about which to ask questions.  Questioning is parasitic on something else – on the existence of a body of beliefs that are already given. Questioning presupposes a tradition already present that can be questioned.  You just can’t start with questions.  Believing comes before questioning.  Here an important question comes to the fore.  What is our attitude to the belief-traditions which we inherit? All too often I find questioners assuming a stance of superiority over tradition. Traditional beliefs are looked on with disdain.   The bible has a lot to say about the danger of pride.  All of us struggle with pride, but I think it is a special temptation of those of us who have benefited from a good education.  This is the problem Paul addresses in the first few chapters of his first letter to the Corinthian church when he talks about destroying the supposed wisdom of the wise, and the supposed intelligence of the intelligent.  Paul isn’t advocating anti-intellectualism here, because he himself was a scholar, and he goes on to talk about a genuine type of wisdom (I Cor. 2:6).  As Paul Gooch has argued, what Paul is really concerned about is the conceit of human knowledge.[v]  This also applies to the arrogance often surrounding the treatment of traditional beliefs as inferior simply because they are traditional.  Healthy questioning treats traditional beliefs with respect.  This surely is part of the meaning of the frequent Scriptural exhortation to honor our parents.  Honoring our parents includes honoring the beliefs they hold.  This does not entail that we should never question the beliefs of the previous generation.  But when we do, we should always do so with an attitude of indebtedness to the generations before us.

It is no accident that the postmodern emphasis on questioning likes to stress what is new.  The titles of some of Brian McLaren’s books are telling: A New Kind of Christian (2001), and A New Kind of Christianity (2010).  If the central focus is on questioning the beliefs one has inherited, then of course “truth” can only be found in that which is new.  Here again, we need to be careful not to overreact against the new.  The world is changing, and so the good news of the gospel must constantly be reapplied to the newly emerging context within which we live. But we need to be careful not to become too preoccupied with that which is new.  Just as we need to guard against the idol of traditionalism, so we must guard against the idol of newness.  We need a balance.  McLaren in fact expresses a better balance in an article he has written, entitled “A New Kind of Old Christian.”[vi]  Yes, indeed!  But why then focus on newness once again by giving his more recent book the title, A New Kind of Christianity?  Of course this is good marketing, but faithful Christians are more concerned about faithful representations of the gospel, even in the titles they choose for their books.  Our model here should be Jesus who at one point describes the good teacher as one who “is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasurers as well as old” (Matt. 13:52).

There is another worry that I have about our current preoccupation with questioning in the church.  Questions always arise out of a certain context. Questioning is not a neutral activity.  Questions arise because the person raising the questions has been sufficiently influenced by another set of beliefs to prompt this person to call into question the beliefs he/she formerly held. And sadly, in such questioning, this agenda-driven context is all too often not made transparent.  The ten questions that Brian McLaren addresses in his more recent book are not only calling into question the long-standing answers that have been given in the history of the orthodox Christianity. They also arise from a “new” theology that stands apart from traditional Christian beliefs. To his credit, McLaren has been fairly open about the post-modern agenda that drives his questioning.

Not so in the video series referred to earlier, “Living the Questions,” being used in some churches in their Sunday school program.  The title of the series is problematic for a number of reasons.  It gives the impression of an open and invigorating exploration of the Christian faith.  But it is not long into the series when one discovers that some basic Christian doctrines are being called into question – the resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, and the Trinity.   The main participants in the video series are scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar, and their sympathizers, and it is their agenda that is being promoted with all the boldness that typically accompanies the academy. And we are also informed that the consensus of scholarly opinion is moving in their direction.  Indeed, one is given the strong impression that anyone holding traditional views is simply naïve.  How arrogant!  Scholarship is significantly divided on the questions being raised in this video series.  There are many well-established theologians with first-rate scholarly qualifications who strongly disagree with the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar.  At the very least the video series should acknowledge this.  An open-minded presentation of the issues would present scholarly evidence on both sides of the issues being raised.  A question also needs to be raised as to why any church with an orthodox confession of faith would use such an agenda-driven video series as part of its Sunday school curriculum. One final problem with the title of the series.  It doesn’t say, “Living with Questions.”  Instead, “Living the Questions.”  The problem here is that questions cannot in themselves provide a foundation for living.  We can only live on the basis of answers, however tentative these might be.

Here another problem arises.  The questioning pose has a humble air about it.  It is people who claim to have “answers” that are seen as arrogant and dogmatic.  Clearly there is a danger of arrogance and dogmatism in claiming to have answers.  But this danger also applies to those singing the praises of questioning, as I have already shown.  It is high time that we recognize that there is such a thing as liberal fundamentalism, with all the negative associations typically built into the notion of fundamentalism.  And to stigmatize those who are honest enough to claim to have answers is to be involved in unfair caricaturing.  The apostle Paul, for example, in his classic description of love, goes on to remind us that we only see through a glass darkly, we only know in part (I Cor. 13:12).  That sounds pretty humble to me, and it can describe those who claim to have answers.  Indeed, I would suggest this is the position of most theologians who adhere to traditional theological beliefs.

It is therefore disingenuous for Brian McLaren to give the impression that he is taking the high ground when he claims, in an introductory chapter of his more recent book on ten questions that are transforming the faith, that his aim is only to provide “some provisional, preliminary, incomplete, but promising responses that I’ve cobbled together or gleaned from others on the journey” (p.22).  Oh how humble this sounds! But there is more!  “Responses, please remember, are not answers:  the latter seek to end conversation while the former seek to stimulate more of it” (p.22).  Really!  A fair portrayal of the history of theology will reveal that providing answers in theology most often has gone hand in hand with stimulating conversations and ongoing revisions to theology.  But there is even more to McLaren’s tirade against answers:  “Remember, our goal is not debate and division yielding hate or a new state, but rather questioning that leads to conversation and friendship on the new quest” (p.23).  This is caricaturing and posturing at its worst.  Debate does not necessarily lead to hate.  There are many theologians who disagree strongly with the answers other theologians hold, but who are still the best of friends. Questioning simply does not have a purchase on conversation and friendship.  And it is simply hypocritical to reject “answers” when McLaren’s caricaturing and posturing is very much rooted in an assumed answer – a postmodern theological position.

I also have concerns about Troy Watson’s analysis of the reasons why religious institutions discourage questioning.  They do so, Watson argues, as a means of control.  He quotes Noam Chomsky who describes such control as limiting the spectrum of acceptable opinion but then allowing for lively debate within that spectrum.  We also discourage questioning, Watson argues, because of fear and the desire to keep the peace.  Now there is some truth to this analysis.  The only problem is that these reasons for discouraging questions apply to all institutions, including the academy.  Our universities too limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion and then only allow for lively debate within that narrow spectrum.  I also find this to be an accurate description of the musings of liberal theologians, the Jesus Seminar, and postmodernists.  We need more integrity in assessing the reasons why all of us are a little protective of the beliefs that we hold.

I conclude with an historical note and want to suggest that our contemporary preoccupation with postmodern questioning is really a very “modern” phenomenon.  There is more continuity between postmodernism and modernism than most people realize!  French philosopher, Rene Descartes, is generally seen as the father of modern philosophy.   Descartes should also be seen as the father of the questioning fad in the church today.  Descartes begins his famous Meditations (1641), by acknowledging that from his earliest years, he has accepted many false opinions as true. This prompts him to resolve “that if I wished to have any firm and constant knowledge in the sciences, I would have to undertake, once and for all, to set aside all the opinions which I had previously accepted among my beliefs and start again from the very beginning. … I will therefore make a serious and unimpeded effort to destroy generally all my former opinions” (translated by Laurence J. Lafleur).  After systematically doubting all his beliefs, Descartes discovers one truth that is absolutely certain, his famous “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes’ approach has been subject to much serious criticism in the history of philosophy. Unfortunately for Descartes, his one certain truth is not quite as certain as he thought it was.  And if his one certainty is dubious, then Descartes is left drowning in a sea of uncertainty, a possibility he himself describes in the second meditation. Indeed, there are problems with the very goal of absolute certainty that drove Descartes’ methodological doubt.  It is also impossible to question or doubt everything.  You simply can’t start from scratch. There are a number of assumptions Descartes makes that remain unquestioned.  There is also a strong individualism that pervades Descartes’ approach.

What is the alternative?  We need to recognize the importance of the community in coming to know, including the community of past generations.  We need to acknowledge that we can only question if we have first been given something to question.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us, “The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.” Questioning and critical thinking is dependent on our first being initiated into a particular tradition of thought.  A conservative posture is therefore the appropriate response to tradition. We should cherish the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations. This does not preclude critical thinking and questioning.  As fallible and sinful creatures, we always need to be open to re-evaluating what we believe.  But this should done carefully, assessing beliefs and assumptions one by one, not by a wholesale rejection of everything we believe.  Our epistemological stance should be one of committed openness.  We should be honest and admit the “answers” that we tentatively hold at the present time.  At the same time, we should be open to critically evaluating these answers, always with a view to discovering more complete answers and coming closer to the truth.  We also need to be patient, realizing that we will only know fully and completely in the eschaton, when we will see Jesus face to face.

[i] “Question-shaped faith,” by Troy Watson.  Canadian Mennonite, Feb. 6, p.13.

[ii]  “A different kind of Sunday service,” by Liz Monteiro, Waterloo Region Record, Nov. 19, 2010, p. D7.

[iii] Published by HarperOne, 2010.

[iv] See a description of a recent seminar for pastors, chaplains and congregational leaders of the Mennonite Church, Eastern Canada, “Catching the spark … Carrying the light:  Facilitating Dynamic Bible Study,” in the Canadian Mennonite, Feb. 20, 2012, p. 16.

[v] See Paul Gooch, Partial Knowledge:  Philosophical Studies in Paul. University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

[vi] Leadership, Winter, 2005, 26(1).