Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Sin of Certainty

May 4, 2018

Review of Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016)

Peter Enns, Harvard educated, and now Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, is committed to doing theology at a popular level. The Sin of Certainty was written just two years after The Bible Tells Me So. Whereas the earlier book focusses on the bible, The Sin of Certainty focusses on us as readers of the bible. Both books challenge a traditional evangelical reading of the bible and understanding of the Christian faith. And both do this by devoting a good deal of space to raising questions and doubts about the stories of the bible.

In The Sin of Certainty Enns highlights how Darwinian evolution and archeology have made it look “more and more like the book of Genesis was wrong about science and history” (p. 38). German biblical scholars have caused “average churchgoers to lose their faith because it challenged their thinking about the Bible” (p. 42). We are also told that “the Bible gives conflicting moral guidance,” with regard to slavery, for example (p. 45). Chapter 3 is entitled, “ You Abandoned Me, God; You Lied,” and reviews how the Psalms highlight the fact that we are sometimes left “shaking our fist at God” (p. 61). Chapter 4 describes the preacher of Ecclesiastes and Job each facing “a major faith-crisis” (75). In Chapter 6, Enns reviews the responses he received to a blog he wrote in 2013, asking “What are your one or two biggest obstacles to staying Christian?” The responses fall into five categories: God being portrayed in the bible “as violent, reactive, vengeful, bloodthirsty, immoral, mean and petty”; the conflict between the Bible and science; the problem of suffering; the making of exclusive truth claims in a pluralistic world, and the many times “Christians treat each other so badly” (pp. 119-20).

There is of course a purpose behind Enns’ lengthy catalogue of problems that arise as Christians read the bible. The central purpose is to expose the sin of certainty. What is so sinful about certainty? “Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain healthy faith—these do not make for a healthy faith in God” (p.18). The desire for certainty is rooted in pride and fear of being wrong (p. 205). It is too focused on beliefs and a “preoccupation with correct thinking” (p. 18), which in turn creates a litany of terrible consequences including dogmatism and the mistreatment of fellow Christians (p. 142). What is needed instead of certainty and correct thinking is trust (pp. 22, 205). “That’s what this book is all about” (p. 24). That is also why the preacher of Ecclesiastes and Job are described as “Two Miserable People Worth Listening To” (p.73). They understood that we need to “[t]rust God even when you don’t know what you believe, even when all before you is absurd” (p. 80).

Now there is something right about Enns’ central thesis. We need to trust in God even when life’s experiences don’t make any sense. We can be too preoccupied with correct theological thinking. We can be too certain about our interpretation of the Bible. We can be too preoccupied with getting others to agree with us. And these extremes can distract us from the importance of trusting in God. But the reader needs to pay careful attention to the exact wording I have used in expressing my agreement with Enns. The word “too” is very important in the previous sentences.

Unfortunately, Enns’ position is not as carefully nuanced as this. At times he suggests that all certainty is sin (see the title of his book). Then later he qualifies this by suggesting that it is only a preoccupation with certainty that is sin (p. 210). At one point all preoccupation with correct thinking is declared wrong (p. 18). But a few paragraphs later Enns wants us to be “abso-posi-lutely clear” that “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about God or even seeking to think ‘correctly’ about God” (p. 20). Later we are told that in the Bible, “believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust” (p. 93). But then in the next section we are told that there is “nothing wrong” with confessing what you believe. “Faith, like belief, includes content—the what—but again, we can’t stay on that level” (p. 98). And then Enns returns to his more extreme position. “We see ‘faith’ throughout the New Testament, and it’s typically not about the content of what to think. It’s about trusting God—and acting on it.” (p. 98). With all this back and forth it is very hard to tell just what Enns’ position is. I suggest that Enns is either careless in his writing, muddled in his thinking, or just plainly inconsistent.

So how do we interpret this book? I want to suggest that despite the carelessness and inconsistencies, there is still an overall thrust to the book. The dominant emphasis is that certainty is sin (look again at the title of the book; see also pp. 19, 192, 204). As already noted, Enns spends a lot of time highlighting the problems that any careful reader of the Bible will encounter. He describes himself as “wired as an explorer. I value challenging older orthodoxies and gaining new insights” (p.193). Enns quite explicitly tells us that “the point of this entire book” is “that trust means letting go of the need to know, of the need to be certain” (p. 192). The concluding paragraph in the book suggests “that trust in God, not correct thinking about God, is the beginning and end of faith, the only true and abiding path” (p. 211). These are the dominant themes in the book, and in the remainder of this review, I want to focus on these overriding themes. Enns will no doubt disagree with my interpretation of his book and say I am missing out on his occasional qualifiers. But they are few and far between. It is time to focus on the central and overall thrust of the book.

Let’s start with the “sin of certainty.” Nowhere in the Bible is certainty described as sin. Indeed, such a description would seem to be contrary to what the Bible teaches in many places. Listen to Job, whom Enns holds up as someone who realized that what “we know or think we know about God might not be so certain” (p.87). In the midst of his agony, Job says, “I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25). The writer of Hebrews describes faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Luke explains his purpose in writing his gospel account of Jesus—“that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Paul repeatedly urges us to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught” (Titus 1:9; cf. 2 Tim 3:14). It would seem that certainty is not always a sin.

We also need to keep in mind that certainty is a matter of degrees, something that Enns fails to take into account. Is there a danger of being too certain about our Christian beliefs? Obviously! After all, we only see through a glass darkly; we only know in part (1 Cor 13:9, 12). So we need to be careful to avoid dogmatic assertions of what we believe. I think this is what Enns really wants to say. But he needs to be much more nuanced in describing the dangers of excessive certainty and he most certainly should change the title of his book.

Yes, we also can be too preoccupied with correct thinking, but again, we find that there is repeated emphasis on knowledge and correct doctrine in the Bible. Jesus warned about false prophets which will deceive many people (Matt 24:11). When Jesus was saying something that he thought was important one of his favorite expressions was, “Truly, truly,” or “I tell you the truth” (Matt 5:18, 26; Mark 3:28; Luke 4:24; John 1:51; etc.). Paul repeatedly prays that the love of new believers “may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Phil 1:9; Col 1:10). Peter warns about false prophets and false teachers who introduce destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). John encourages us to test the spirits to see whether they are from God, again because there are false prophets in this world. And John goes on to clarify the criteria of correct thinking – acknowledging that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. “This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 John 4:1-6). The Bible clearly teaches us that correct thinking is important. Enns’ position ultimately undermines the very idea of a search for truth, and that is a dangerous.

Enns disagrees and argues that faith “is not so much defined by what we believe but in whom we trust” (p. 22). As we have already seen, he makes the even stronger claim that in the Bible, “believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust—namely God” (p. 93). But these are simply a false claims. The biblical concept of faith (pistis) includes both belief and trust. The verb form of faith (pisteuō) is often followed by “that,” indicating acceptance of some substantive claims. For example, the writer to the Hebrews says, “By faith we understand that …” (Heb 11:3). Paul informs us that faith comes by hearing a message or the word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Similarly, “believe” is often followed by a “that.” Jesus warned the Jews, “if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:23; cf. Matt 9:28). In Acts, we are told that many who heard the message believed” (Acts 4:4). Clearly there is content involved here. Indeed, Paul repeatedly warns about the dangers of preaching “a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached” or receiving “a different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:6). We disregard the “what” of Christian faith at our peril. Trust that is not based on correct thinking is vacuous and unbiblical.

Enns draws an analogy between trust in God and personal relationships. He maintains that beliefs about a person are incidental to maintaining a relationship. Then he gives a specific example of his marriage which “is not based on accurate knowledge of each other we hold with confident certitude” (p. 23). I’m not so sure. I trust in my wife because I know a good number of things about her. It is not a question of either trust or knowledge. Trust and beliefs go hand in hand in healthy relationships and in our relationship to God. Indeed, Enns is forced to admit that beliefs about a person might be “helpful in deepening the relationship” (p. 22). And as we have already seen, he is also forced to admit that “believing is never empty of content” (p. 93). But here again, we are dealing with his penchant for contradictions. The predominant thrust of his book is to describe trust and beliefs as opposites. For example, we are told that in the New Testament, the words “believe” or “faith” are “about all-in trust, not something we believe about God or Jesus” (p. 99 -my emphasis). Indeed, Enns even suggests that the word “believe” “should be stricken from all of our Bibles and replaced with trust” (p. 112). I find it difficult to believe that a biblical scholar can make such an outrageous recommendation based on an obviously false claim.

In chapters 7 & 8, Peter Enns tells a personal story that I believe helps us to understand his treatment of faith, certainty, and trust. It is a story of his “dark night of the soul” (167), a time in his life when he wrestled with a family crisis created by a daughter who experienced anxiety and needed to be sent away for an extended period of therapy. Enns goes on to tell the story about the ending of his fourteen-year tenure as a seminary professor when his theological views were being questioned. It is these experiences that led Peter Enns to a deepening trust in God and an appreciation for the mystical side of Christian faith where we are called to share in Christ’s own sufferings (pp. 198-201).

I resonated with Enns’ story because I too have experienced a dark night of the soul, which also drove me to a deeper trust in God and intimacy with Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. But despite these somewhat similar experiences I have come to very different conclusions about faith, knowledge and certainty. Yes, experiences like this force us to lay down the need to understand everything (p. 201). And yes, experiences like this might even cause one to doubt. But I worry about Enns using these experiences to extol the virtues of intellectual doubt. “Doubt signals not God’s death but the need to die to the theology we hold to with clenched fists” (p. 160). In my experience it is precisely during the time when I was thrown into a long night of existential anguish and suffering that I most needed to hang on to my theology of a God who loved me and who suffered like me. Trust without correct beliefs is hollow. Further, it is important to distinguish between existential anguish and intellectual doubt which Enns describes as “sacred” and “God’s instrument” to bring us to trust (p. 164). “Doubt is divine tough love” (p. 165). Yes, God bringing us into suffering is tough love, and this will no doubt cause us to question God. But intellectual doubt itself is not divine tough love. The language here is again very misleading.

My fear is that many readers will be misled by these concluding chapters in which Peter Enns sounds quite orthodox and even evangelical. A careful reading of Enns will reveal that he is neither orthodox or evangelical. Listen to what Enns says about “the two pillars of the Christian faith,” the incarnation and the resurrection, which “express the mystery of faith” (p. 152). “Both are utterly beyond what is knowable by most every standard we use to know everything else: experience, observation, and testing. These mysteries are ‘known’ differently—only by trust” (p. 152). Yes, we can’t fully understand the incarnation and the resurrection, and so there is an element of faith and mystery involved here. But Enns is saying more than this. He is saying these two essential truths of Christianity are known “only” by trust and not by observation and testing. I’m sorry, but this sounds like blind trust. Indeed, Enns urges us to trust our “experiences” instead (p. 153). But blind trust and subjective experience are rather flimsy foundations for authentic Christian faith.

Orthodox evangelical faith says that the incarnation of Christ occurred in space and time and therefore was very much known by observation. Jesus, after the resurrection commissions his disciples to act at “witnesses” of all that they had seen and heard while they were with him (Acts 1:8). The word “witness” used in Acts is primarily a legal term which was frequently used in Greek to denote witness to facts and events. This meaning of “witness” continues to this day within the legal context, where witnesses, and sometimes “expert witnesses,” are called to give testimony in court cases. The apostles were commissioned to be expert witnesses to what they had seen and heard during their time with Jesus. Thus John opens his epistle with these words: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). And Paul dares to say that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). These are the claims of orthodox and evangelical faith. Sadly, Enns is unable to affirm these claims in the book under review, as well has in his earlier book mentioned in the introduction.

Of course, Enns will object by saying that I am too certain about what I believe, too preoccupied with correct thinking and proving that I have the right beliefs. But I wonder how certain Peter Enns is about his own critique of orthodox and evangelical Christianity. And is Enns not also very preoccupied with correct thinking and proving that he has the right beliefs? He has after all written two books to convince us that he has got it right and that we as evangelicals have got it wrong. I would further suggest that Enns needs to be more transparent about where he really stands. Inconsistencies might reveal a deeper problem. Jesus gave us this advice: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’ (Matt 5:37).

I cannot recommend this book. For a more coherent treatment of faith, knowledge and certainty, I would recommend Lesslie Newbigin’s classic, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995).


Heterodox Yoder and the Mennonite Church Today

August 14, 2016

Review of
Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder
(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012)

The Heterodox Yoder has its origins in Martens’ graduate work at Notre Dame. Since then, the author has been teaching Christian ethics at Baylor University.

In this book, Martens attempts a survey and reinterpretation of John Howard Yoder’s writings. Martens departs from some standard and sympathetic interpretations of Yoder’s work by scholars like Craig Carter and Mark Thiessen-Nation. Martens faults these standard accounts of Yoder for focusing mainly on his classic texts, The Politics of Jesus, and Witness to the State. In defending his critical assessment of Yoder, Martens makes a point to take all Yoder’s writings into account. Though still somewhat sympathetic with Yoder, and admitting his indebtedness to him, Martens uncovers a trajectory in Yoder’s thought which he finds troublesome, and ultimately leads him to label Yoder as heterodox.

Martens’ criterion for orthodoxy is “the Christian affirmation of the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ as a historical person and as a revelation of God” (p.2). Traditional interpreters of Yoder would argue that the central thrust of Yoder’s writings was precisely to preserve “the particularity or uniqueness of Jesus Christ against the acids of Constantinianism, modernity, or any number of other threats to Christianity” (p.2). Martens begs to differ.

In his introduction Martens suggests that a good way to understand Yoder’s lack of orthodoxy is to examine his way of doing theology as found in his Preface to Theology (2002). In this work, Yoder outlines different modes of doing theology, and specifically rejects the mode of “dogmatic theology” which he defines as “the interpretation of the statements made by or implied in the classic Christian creeds” (p.2). Instead, Yoder adopts the mode of “historical theology” which is concerned with how Christian convictions came into being. His approach to doing theology throughout his corpus is “inductive and historical,” watching how theology evolved in the early Christian church (filtered through the sixteenth-century Anabaptists), and from that drawing conclusions about how to do theology (p.3). This sounds like an “Is-Ought Fallacy” to me, and Yoder’s historicism has all the marks of full-blown relativism. But I won’t pursue these philosophical points here.

So, yes, Yoder wants to affirm the particularity of Jesus Christ as affirmed by the early church, but his anti-creedal and historicizing approach leads to a radical reinterpretation of the theology of the early church primarily in ethical or political terms. Indeed, “the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a form of secular sociology (at worst)” (pp. 3-4). This, according to Martens is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this unorthodox interpretation of Jesus has been very influential in the Mennonite church today, as I will suggest by way of conclusion later.

Throughout his writings, Yoder wrestles with the question of how Christians relate to and witness to the world (p.12). Indeed, as Martens observes, Yoder is haunted by the charge of sectarianism and his desire to make the gospel relevant and communicable becomes “overriding and, at times, obsessive” (p.139). At one point he suggests the use of “middle axioms” which help to translate the gospel message into language that the world will understand (p.75). But he finds problems with this approach, and in the end middle axioms are rendered obsolete (p.136). Indeed, we already see the shape of his final thinking in his earlier book, The Christian Witness to the State (1964), where “the implicit witness of the church is elevated to direct witness” (p. 136). Then in The Politics of Jesus (1972), the gospel of Jesus is translated into political language, language that the world already understands.

By the end of his writings, Yoder is no longer worried about the church communicating a message, according to Martens. Instead, gospel witness has been transformed into the church itself being witness by virtue of its modelling a new political reality. No need for evangelism! The medium is the message (p. 136). In his “New Humanity as Pulpit and Paradigm” (1997), Yoder says “actions proclaim.” Again in a later work, “First fruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People” (1997), Yoder introduces the sacraments as “marks of the church” that make evident the unity of the message and medium of the first Christians. But, by the end of this essay, Marten’s argues, the sacraments are no longer marks or attributes of the church but “sample civil imperatives” (p.137). For example, baptism is no longer discussed as “a sign of [a believer’s] cleansing from sin,” but as a reconciliation between Jew and Gentle, male and female, etc.. In other words, baptism is fundamentally about the political ideal of egalitarianism (p. 137). The eucharist is all about socialism. Dialogue under the Holy Spirit now functions as the ground floor of democracy (p. 138). Thus essential elements of Christian faith and practice get translated into thoroughly secular terms, which of course the world does understand.

So, what is the culmination of decades of theological and ethical reflection on the part of Yoder? We end up with “a Jesus who has become merely an ethico-political paradigm” (p.142). Indeed, Yoder falls in line with modern theologians who have reduced the gospel to a secular ethic – Kant, Harnack, Ritschle, and Rauschenbusch (p. 142). What is so misleading is that the language of Yoder and some of these theologians often “seems” orthodox. They use the same concepts as orthodox Christians, but the meaning has changed in a fundamental way. Christ as Lord and Savior is translated into political terms, and no longer refers to a person’s inner transformation and willingness to be make Christ king of his or her life. Key dimensions of orthodoxy, such as spiritual development, divine mystery, propositional confessions of faith, “are as important as wrapping paper” which can be thrown away once the package itself is opened, to use Yoder’s own metaphor (p.144). Martens does not want to call Yoder a heretic, though he admits that Yoder was openly critical of orthodoxy and worked hard to differentiate himself from its concerns and claims (p.144). Instead Martens chooses the softer term, “heterodox,” though in my opinion there is very little difference between being heterodox and being heretical.

Reading Martens’ critique of Yoder has raised two questions for me, that I believe merit further research. First, to what extent has the Mennonite church today been influenced by Yoder? Martens doesn’t really pursue this question. I certainly found Martens’ survey of Yoder’s thought helpful in understanding trends within some segments of the Mennonite church today. All too often I hear the gospel being largely reduced to political and social causes. Like Yoder, many in the Mennonite church seem to be embarrassed about using biblical language to describe sin and salvation. We are so preoccupied with being relevant, with being understood in today’s society that we like to secularize biblical language. Jesus is no longer a divine Saviour who died for our sins, but a moral teacher and an inspiring example to follow. We prefer to talk about sexual health rather than the biblical commandments regarding sex. The “spirit of God” is reduced to a democratic majority vote! We are embarrassed about evangelism as proclamation. Like Yoder we have made the medium the message. Our actions are supposed to convey our message. The creeds are not important – we like to question them.(1) Like Yoder, many Mennonites today see them as mere wrapping paper to be discarded at our convenience. And thus we have confessional anarchy in the Mennonite Church today. Martens suggests that Yoder would have been comfortable with the label, heterodox (p. 144). Many Mennonites today would seem to view being heterodox as a badge of honor. We are Yoder’s disciples, it would seem.

If the above analysis is true, if Yoder has influenced the Mennonite church more than we realize, then we need to pay attention to Martens’ suggestion that the trajectory of Yoder’s thinking has led us in a direction which “can cripple and corrupt Christianity in very troubling ways” (p.147). And this leads to my second question. Are we as a Mennonite church open to hearing this prophetic voice in the church? Will Paul Martens’ critique of Yoder be read and carefully considered? Will we pay attention to other writers who have provided warnings about the direction of Yoder’s thought? Martens himself identifies two such writers, A. James Reimer and Tom Finger, the former arguing that Yoder essentially ignored “theological orthodoxy,” and the latter that Yoder almost uniformly eliminates any form of the transcendent from his theology (p. 143). Are we listening?

In a footnote Martens refers to another essay that created quite a stir in Mennonite circles – Steve Dintaman’s 1992 short essay, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision” (p.147).(2) Martens refers to this essay in the context of reflecting on his own experience of eventually recognizing the dangers of reducing the Christian faith “into just another form of ethics or series of practices” (p.147). Martens expresses long-standing sympathy with Dintaman’s analysis of the spiritual impoverishment that results from a Yoderian interpretation of the Christian faith. This prompted me to reread Dintaman’s essay as well as a series of follow-up essays published three years later.(3) Dintaman expresses surprise at the volume and the intensity of positive responses his earlier essay generated. He received some eighty letters, in addition to phone calls, personal visits, and letters to the editor in the magazines which carried his essay.(4) Of course, there were also negative reactions, afraid that Dintaman’s critique rested on “a total embrace of Luther and/or pietism and/or evangelicalism.” (5) But perhaps, as Dintaman himself suggests, there is another way – a marriage of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism. That is surely at the heart of the Evangelical-Anabaptist networks that are currently forming in North America. Are we listening to the prophetic voices in the Mennonite church today?

1. See my essay, “Question-focused Christian faith” on my blog,
1. Dintaman’s essay appeared in: The Conrad Grebel Review 10 (Spring 1992): 205-208; Mennonite Reporter, Oct. 19, 1992, 8; Gospel Herald, Feb. 23, 1993, 1-3; Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 5, 1993, 6-7; The Mennonite, May 11, 1993, 11-12.
3. “Revisiting ‘The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,’” The Conrad Grebel Review 13 (Winter 1995): 1-22. The essays here are written by Steve Dintaman, J. Loren Peachey, editor of the Gospel Herald, Richard Showalter, president, Rosedale Bible Institute, and Mitchell Brown, pastor, Evanston Mennonite Church.
4. Ibid., p. 2, 3.
5. Ibid., p. 5.

Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age – a review

June 26, 2016

Review of
Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age,
by John Fletcher
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2013.

The Christian church in North America today, including the evangelical church, is rather embarrassed about doing evangelism. In part this is due to fact that the history of the Christian church is littered with obviously immoral approaches to evangelism, from which we want to distance ourselves. But, as John Fletcher points out in the conclusion to his book, perhaps there is a more telling and current reason for our embarrassment about evangelism. We have accommodated to contemporary liberal pluralism, and thus do our utmost to be “pleasingly tolerant, faithful-but-non-fanatic” (p. 309), as per the portrait found in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (2010). “Indeed, so great is the desire to ‘leave everybody else alone,’ so painful the self-inflicted wounds of awkward/offensive/presumptive evangelism, that most self-identified evangelicals rarely evangelize at all, at least not with any frequency” (p. 305). And yet, as Fletcher reminds us, evangelicals should engage in outreach. That is part of what it means to be an evangelical, as Fletcher points out in an early chapter, which provides a helpful analysis of what it means to be an evangelical (Ch. 2). Indeed, Fletcher frequently expresses his admiration for evangelical evangelism, even though he is an outsider.

This raises the question as to why a Professor of Theatre at Louisiana State University, and “a liberal, gay, ex-Southern Baptist, United Methodist” (p. 5), would write a careful analysis of evangelical approaches to evangelism. Fletcher interprets evangelism as a kind of theatrical performance, an “activist performance,” which he uses as an umbrella word to describe a host of other popular and scholarly terms that each touch on some aspect of the kind of performance that he studies – political theater, theater for social change, street theater, people’s theater, community-engaged theatre, theatre of the oppressed, or applied theatre/drama (Ch. 1, p. 18). I found trying to understand evangelism from this perspective to be not only refreshing but also illuminating in that it serves to highlight aspects of evangelism that are easily missed by those immersed in the evangelical mindset.

Fletcher also dares to suggest that progressive left activists have something to learn from evangelicals and their approaches to evangelism (pp. 311-13). Evangelicals are committed to inviting others to a better way, a better worldview, and they engage in evangelism because they believe that their message is in the other’s best interests. Evangelicals, while respecting the deep convictions of others, are willing to challenge them with their own convictions. Some evangelistic approaches also stress the need to understand their target audiences. Worldview assumptions need to be understood to be challenged. “Evangelicalism’s conversionist orientation – imperfectly realized as it may be – offers a reminder that democratically minded activism must always include an element of attraction and empathy with the enemy” (p. 312). Fletcher concludes Chapter 2 with this generous comment: “In a time of cynicism and diminished hopes, in a time of partisan polarization, in a time of desperation and apathy, I am envious of evangelicals’ faith in activism” (p. 45).

The bulk of Preaching to Convert is devoted to a careful analysis of various approaches to evangelism as practiced by evangelicals, who are described by Fletcher as “a heterogeneous collection of communities and individuals who unit in constantly seeking out, innovating, defining, theorizing, criticizing, reacting to, refining, combining, experimenting with, discarding, and realizing this ever-expanding, ever-deepening repertoire of techniques for changing the hearts, minds, and souls of those around them” (p. 309). Chapter 3 examines personal evangelism as proclamation – the “soul-winning” tradition of door-to-door evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” presentation innovated by Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the stop-strangers-on-the-street dialogic evangelism promoted by Ray Comfort in his “Way of the Master.”

In Chapter 4, Fletcher examines a number of evangelicals who have become critical of interpersonal evangelism that limits itself to proclamation. Indeed, multiple congregations across the United States have taken up the “Confessions of a Sinful Church” strategy, where they publicly apologize for “ugly evangelism” (pp. 124-8). Instead of confrontational approaches to evangelism, some evangelicals advocate approaches that involve friendship, careful listening, countering anti-Christian presuppositions, and apologetics. Chapter 4 takes up Jim Henderson’s “Ordinary Attempts,” Greg Koukl’s conversational apologetics, and Greg Stier’s “ideavirus” approach. Each of these approaches draw from the work of Francis Schaeffer who counseled evangelists to spend time trying to understand the worldviews of non-Christians before they tried to persuade them of Christian Truth.

In the third section of the book Fletcher studies two large-scale, more traditionally “theatrical” evangelical performance forms. Chapter 5 focuses on the community/church-based staging of “hell houses” and judgement houses” as a way of reaching the unconverted. Chapter 6 examines the Creation Museum, a multi-million-dollar combination of science museum and discovery-fun-center based around a strictly young-earth creationist viewpoint. Often considered to be exemplars of evangelical backwardness and anti-intellectualism, Fletcher suggests they are best understood as community based productions that accomplish vital work for the producing communities in terms of reinforcing their beliefs, even as they strive to reach the unconverted.

Chapter 7 examines the way in which mega-churches have used seeker-sensitive worship services to attract new members. The chapter begins with an intriguing question raised in a video produced by Richard Reising’s company, Artistry Labs: “What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? A Parable” (p. 221). Chapter 8 is somewhat of an odd fit for this book, and Fletcher concedes this point to some extent. The focus of Chapter 8 is on organizations like Exodus International, which are dedicated to helping homosexuals find healing. Here the focus is not on changing someone else, but on individual conversion. In this chapter Fletcher analyzes the controversies surrounding the effectiveness of gay cures, and the resulting spectrum of positions on LGBT people within evangelicalism.

I found Fletcher’s survey of each of these evangelical performances to be thorough and often insightful, uncovering the assumptions underlying each approach and doing some good comparative analysis. Indeed, his careful analysis belies his status as an outsider. This is in part due to his background as “a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church” and his knowing “from firsthand experience what it is to evangelize” (pp. 12-13). Fletcher is also not afraid to use the works of evangelical scholarship, though he is careful to note and account for interpretive slants that might exist. Interestingly, he draws attention to a “comparable warping in many ostensibly ‘neutral’ works on religion, works that can sometimes dwell more on the author’s distance from faith than on the beliefs and believers being studied” (p. 12). This is very definitely not a weakness of Fletcher’s own analysis. Though he engages in criticism, I found his criticisms to be on the whole fair, and meeting his aim of “critical generosity” (p. 36). At times he quite deliberately defends evangelicals and evangelistic methods against unfair criticisms. It is only in his chapter on homosexuality that his language occasionally becomes a little strident.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview of evangelical practices of outreach. Though a book of scholarship, it is very readable, and further, fascinating for anyone interested in evangelical approaches to evangelism.

A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013. 500 pages, Paperback

The title of Jonathan Haidt’s book is well chosen. This is a book that touches on ethical reasoning, political analysis, and religious faith. There is, however, an ambiguity in the main title. The “righteous mind” can refer either to a mind that thinks about that which is right, or it can refer to a self-righteous or dogmatic mind. Haidt intends both meanings. The overall thrust of this book is to explain how and why liberals and conservatives are so divided about politics and religion, and also how this divide can be overcome. What is missing from title of this book is that it is written from the perspective of evolutionary social psychology.

As a philosopher, I found Part I of this book most intriguing – “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second.” Haidt is here challenging much of the history of philosophy that presumes that we are fundamentally rational creatures. For example, Plato assumed that reason ought to control the passions. This kind of thinking was reinforced during the Enlightenment which postulated a universal and objective reason. According to Haidt, we are not as rational as we think we are. We are governed more by intuition and instinct than by reason. Here we must be careful not to see intuition and instinct as inferior to reason. Both are “cognitive” according to Haidt. There are two kinds of cognition, intuition and reasoning. Intuition refers to the hundreds of rapid, effortless decisions and moral judgments that we all make every day (p.53). Many of these are automatic. Only some of them surface as full-blown emotional responses.

Haidt provides a useful illustration to help us understand these two kinds of cognition. He first used this analogy his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006). Try to imagine a rider on a huge elephant. The rider symbolizes the rational part of human nature, our controlled processes, including “reasoning-why.” The large and lumbering elephant stands for the automatic processes of human nature, including emotion, intuition and all forms of “seeing-that” (p. 53). For Haidt, it is our automatic processes that run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years (p. 53).

The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future and can therefore help the elephant make better decisions. More importantly, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next” (p.54). In evolutionary terms, once human beings developed language and began to communicate with each other, “it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm” (p. 54). So, the rider serves the elephant. Reason is the servant of intuition. “Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president” (p.106).

I think Haidt has got it right. We are not as rational as we think we are. We approach many new situations or new ideas with our minds already made up. This has huge implications for how we think about education, or how we think about influencing or persuading others, a subject that I have been preoccupied with for much of my career. We need to pay much more attention to the way in which our thinking is shaped by non-rational influences – social media, movies, culture, propaganda. We seldom change our minds because of rational persuasion. As Haidt puts it, “if you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants” (p. 57). At a personal level, we influence people more by displaying warmth and empathy than by rational argument.

Haidt’s analysis is also helpful in understanding churches. Every church has a distinctive culture that is simply a given. It is this pervasive church culture that determines not only the atmosphere of the church but also the decisions it makes. Decisions are largely made automatically in light of the culture of the church. It is very hard to challenge the culture of the church and the decisions that come out of such a culture. Rational persuasion is really of little value. Here again, one needs to learn how to talk to the large and lumbering elephant. Contrary positions need to be expressed with gentleness, and love, and prayer, and with lots of patience. Maybe over time, over a long period of time, one might bring about a small shift in church culture.

Our moral judgments too are not fundamentally rational in nature, according to Haidt. Here he draws on eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume, who argues that morality is grounded in the emotions, though Haidt prefers to talk about social intuition rather than individual emotions. Emotions are only one type of intuition. Here again, the bulk of our moral judgments are intuitive, automatic, and elephant-like. Moral reasoning comes mainly after the initial intuitive moral judgments have already been made, and has the purpose of rationalizing our intuitions, and communicating them to others, particularly in terms of enhancing our reputation. Haidt comes very close to talking about moral intuitions as innate (pp. 153, 178, 325). Here his evolutionary theory gets in the way. As a Christian, I maintain that God has implanted in us certain moral intuitions, so that we instinctively know that some things are right or wrong (cf. Romans 2:14-15). Of course Haidt can’t admit this because he doesn’t believe in God. Further, he deals with morality at a descriptive level, and tries very hard to avoid prescription.

In Part II Haidt goes on to critique the dominant moral theories of a very small subset of the human population – Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic Western societies (forming the acronym WEIRD). WEIRD societies favor the values of utilitarianism and justice. Haidt argues that there is more to morality than harm and fairness, the values favored by liberals. Other important values include care, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. These are values that tend to be emphasized by conservatives. Chapter 7 attempts to justify these values as part of an evolutionary process – adaptations for human flourishing. The value of care evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. The value of fairness evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. The value of loyalty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. The value of authority evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. The value of sanctity evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of facing threats of various kinds, and has the effect of binding groups together. The value of liberty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of resisting bullies and tyrants.

Part III involves an extended treatment of the groupish tendencies of human nature. Evolutionary theory has more recently accepted the notion that natural selection can work at multiple levels, and can include both individuals and groups. Religion plays a key role in creating community, an essential component for human survival. Contrary to the current crusading atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, Haidt is quite sympathetic with religion.

The book ends with a final look at the increasing polarity between liberals and conservatives, arguing that in part these polarities are genetically based. “People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals. They tend to develop certain ‘characteristic adaptations’ and ‘life narratives’ that make them resonate – unconsciously and intuitively – with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left” (p. 365). People whose genes have given them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with grand narratives of the right. What to do about this polarity? Haidt pleads with both sides to listen and learn from each other. In fact the two sides compliment each other. A healthy society needs both liberals and conservatives. But he especially urges liberals to recognize that conservatives are better at creating and preserving moral and social capital that are essential to any society. “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy” (p.342). I admire Haidt, a former liberal, for having the courage to say this. I also appreciated his observation that liberals tend to be more dogmatic and narrow-minded than conservatives. So true, but all too often denied by liberals!

I conclude with some comments about the evolutionary perspective from which this book is written. As a Christian I am not entirely hostile to evolutionary theory. I am quite willing to go where the evidence leads me. I believe scientific evidence and biblical revelation point to a position of theistic evolution. Haidt, though more sympathetic to religion than most atheists, in the end interprets religion from an evolutionary perspective. Religion gives expression to our social nature (ch. 11), and captures the sacred (higher than I) dimension of our value system (pp. 173-4). At times Haidt is very careful to provide empirical support for his evolutionary theory. But especially when dealing with religion as a means of creating community, his analysis becomes increasingly speculative. It seems his evolutionary framework drives his interpretation, with or without empirical evidence.

This book provides a good example of how scientific theory relates to empirical evidence. Ultimately, theory needs to be grounded in the empirical. But we can never approach the empirical without some theoretical framework. Hence, the hermeneutical circle. How do we get out of this circle? First, by admitting that there is a problem. Further, a good scientist will always be open to having his/her interpretive framework challenged by empirical data that don’t quite fit the interpretative framework. The danger for a scientist who adopts an evolutionary theory, is that he interprets empirical data from the perspective of his assumed evolutionary perspective, and then lets nothing change his interpretive framework.

Let me give one example. Haidt is very careful to ground his interpretation of moral cognition as intuition in examples. So far, so good. Intuitions are then interpreted as adaptations of the human animal that have evolved over time, and that then become entrenched as automatic moral responses to certain situations. Again, this conclusion seems to be grounded in evidence. But there is a bit of an interpretive leap of faith here. As a Christian I interpret these moral intuitions as innate, as instincts that God has implanted into human nature. This interpretation is surely as plausible as an evolutionary interpretation. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, Haidt at times flirts with the notion of innateness. All that is needed to convert his interpretative theory into a Christian theory is to add the notion of God. Of course, I need to provide some additional evidence for preferring my interpretative framework, but that would take us far beyond the scope of this paper. Haidt clearly doesn’t want to adopt my Christian interpretive framework, because he is so thoroughly committed to his evolutionary interpretive framework. What would change Haidt’s mind? As we have already seen, rational argument will not be of much help. But perhaps the rider might look into the distant future, and entertain alternate scenarios, and this might eventually nudge the elephant closer to a genuinely religious interpretative framework.

Let me say a bit more about Haidt’s approach to morality. I find his position with regard to the nature of morality rather confusing. As an evolutionary social psychologist he is operating primarily at a descriptive level. His six foundational moral matrixes are descriptions of the values that people in fact do appeal to. As already noted, liberals tend to focus on liberty and equality. While conservatives have a broader moral matrix that includes loyalty, authority, and the sacred as importance values. But, as is the tendency of social scientists, Haidt doesn’t limit himself to description. He flirts with prescription. For example, Haidt argues (at least implicitly) that we ought to think in terms of all six moral foundations. He argues that liberals, especially, ought to be more open to conservative values. He decries the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. The book concludes: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out” (p. 371). Yes indeed, but this comes very close to being a prescriptive conclusion. Haidt is saying that we ought to get along. Here again I believe Haidt needs to draw on Christian insights to overcome his confusion with regard to the descriptive/prescriptive divide. In the Christian canon of Scripture, God clearly issues prescriptions, the best example of which are the giving of the 10 commandments. But these commandments are not given arbitrarily. They are in fact given to us for our own good (Deut 6:3, 18). They work. If you want a healthy society, follow God’s laws. Or to draw on Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, God created man and society so that they have evolved in such a way that following the six moral matrixes will in fact lead to a healthy, well functioning society.

And what about the issue of moral relativism. Haidt is in fact very confusing here. At times he quite specifically adopts a relativistic stance (p.368). At other times, he quite specifically says he is not a relativist (pp.132-3). He wants to say that his six pillars of moral values are in fact the right way to make decisions. He comes very close to saying that these are objective moral values that all human beings should adopt. He correctly suggests that while these values are objective and universal, the way they are applied to different cultures will in fact be different (p.31). Here again I agree. There is some truth to situational relativism. But let’s not be so hesitant to admit that there are some core values that are built into nature that all people everywhere ought to follow. Again, I prefer a Christian interpretive framework which maintains that God created the world in such a way that the following of certain norms will in fact lead to flourishing societies.

As a philosopher, I often have difficulties appreciating books written by social scientists. As a Christian I also frequently have problems with overly dogmatic assertions of evolutionary scientists. I did not encounter these problems in reading Jonathan Haidt. Despite its confusions, this book deserves to be read.

Review Article on James K.A. Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

April 22, 2015

(Published in The Evangelical Quarterly, Vol.87, No. 2, 2015, pp.169-75)

Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood by James K.A. Smith
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 186 pp. pbk.$19.99
ISBN 978-0-8010-3973-7

It is important to see how the sub-title of this book answers the question asked in the main title. Smith provides the link in his Preface: “My thesis is that Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort, precisely because of the biblical understanding of creation and creaturehood” (12). So one purpose of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is to counter the deep suspicions about relativism held by many Christians.

But there is another agenda underlying this book. Already in the Preface, Smith suggests that “this book has a constructive project of advancing a ‘Christian pragmatism’ and exploring the implications of that for theology and ministry” (12). Indeed, in the final chapter of the book where Smith provides an exposition of the George Lindbeck’s postliberal understanding of religion and doctrine, Smith describes what seems to be a quite different agenda of his book. “[M]y engagement with pragmatism could be seen as a more explicitly philosophical path to a similar account of the relationship between practice and theory, worship and doctrine” (152). This book therefore also needs to be seen as providing a philosophical framework for Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, expressed in his books, Desiring the Kingdom (2009), and Imagining the Kingdom (2013) (cf.152, n3).

Despite its Christian orientation, much of this book focuses on an exposition of philosophers who are not Christian. Like its predecessor, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), the book under review belongs to “The Church and Postmodern Culture” series which Smith himself edits. The explicit purpose of this series is to draw lessons from postmodern writers for the church. Both books makes much of following Augustine’s spirit of “looting the Egyptians” – “stealing philosophical insights from the pagans and putting them to service in worship of the Triune God” (11).

Most of Who’s Afraid of Relativism? is devoted to an exposition of three pragmatist philosophers. In Chapter 2, Smith analyses Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “meaning as use.” Smith argues that meaning and truth are more a matter of “know-how” which precedes knowing-that, and which is always found in the context of community (60). Chapter 3 explores Richard Rorty’s project “to get philosophy to own up to its –and to our – contingency and historicity” (78). Smith enjoys teasing out the meaning of Rorty’s controversial claim that truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying (84). Smith agrees with Rorty because ultimately epistemology comes down to “the ethnography of a particular people” (85). Robert Brandom, reviewed in Chapter 4, provides a critical extension of Wittgenstein’s and Rorty’s ideas, by focusing on “conceptual pragmatism” or “rationalist pragmatism” (121). For Brandom, reasoning and justification are fundamentally social practices, which in turn provide a context for some accountability (130, 145). It should be noted that each of these chapters (as well as chapter 1) includes an analysis of a film to help students picture the issues under discussion (13).

In the final chapter, Smith is more explicit in working out the implications of the previous three chapters for Christian theology. He does this by exploring the ideas of George Lindbeck’s landmark book, The Nature of Doctrine (1984). Here Lindbeck articulates “a ‘postliberal’ understanding of religion and doctrine that is fundamentally pragmatist in its account of theological meaning while at the same time fundamentally missional in its understanding of the church’s task of proclamation in a post-Christian culture” (152). It is communal religious practices, not doctrines or personal experiences, which are primary in Lindbeck’s interpretation of religion (159). The book concludes with a fascinating account of the implications of Christian pragmatism for apologetics. Smith maintains that “postliberal apologetics is invitational, not demonstrational” (175).

Interestingly, Smith admits that the apologetic strategy of Christian pragmatism is quite similar to that of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology (174). I find this interesting because Smith is very critical of Plantinga in the beginning of the book (25-9). Perhaps Smith’s Christian pragmatism isn’t quite as different and radical as he thinks. But on the whole, Smith’s account of Christian pragmatism, based on his exposition of the four writers examined in his book, is clear and illuminating, though somewhat repetitious.

I raise two further evaluative points. The first has to do with Smith’s and Lindbeck’s emphasis on religion (and Christianity) as being “a matter more of initiation than of information, a matter of know-how before it ever becomes a matter of know-that” (159). This point is made repeatedly in the book and is of course in keeping with Smith’s earlier books. But, I have serious doubts about giving know-how the priority Smith gives it. I also question whether knowing-how always precedes knowing-that. We are not only doers but also thinkers, and sometimes thinking precedes doing. Jesus obviously considered knowing-that important because he spent much of his time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines. A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine. Indeed, in most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application. A biblical approach, I believe, requires a balance between doctrine and practice.

Secondly, I would call into question Smith’s basic strategy of “stealing philosophical insights from the pagans.” Smith advocates a review of these “pagan” philosophers as “an exercise in self-examination prompting us to remember and retrieve core convictions of Christian orthodoxy” that “we have effectively forgotten in modernity” (32, 36). But surely a better way for Christians to retrieve their core convictions is to start with the Scriptures. I worry about “bringing Rorty to church because he has something to teach us” (32). I would rather bring the church and its message to Rorty. He is after all an atheist, and thus it comes as no surprise that Smith is forced at times to suggest that Rorty’s atheism is incidental to his pragmatism (104, 100, n 25). But maybe his atheism is a logical outworking of his initial pragmatist premises. There is a danger in starting with “pagan” philosophers. As Alvin Plantinga has reminded us, we need to have more courage as Christian philosophers to set our own agendas and to develop our thinking on the basis of Christian resources. I suspect Smith would agree with Plantinga on this, so perhaps Smith needs to write another book which argues for Christian pragmatism from a specifically biblical perspective.

I shift now to a second major thrust of Smith’s book – the themes highlighted in the title and sub-title of the book. Who’s afraid of relativism? I have already alluded to Smith’s answer to this question. According to Smith, Christians shouldn’t be as afraid of relativism as they tend to be. Indeed, according to Smith, a Christian understanding of human nature entails a kind of relativism. Smith’s appreciation of the pragmatism of Wittgenstein, Rorty and Brandom is in part based on the fact that they give us “a scrupulous philosophical account of the contingency, dependency, and sociality that characterizes human creaturehood” (36). Indeed, they give us “an account of knowledge and truth that remembers and re-appreciates the implications of a biblical doctrine of creation” (36). Later in the book Smith argues that our claims to knowledge and truth are always “relative” in some special sense, namely, “related to something or Someone, relative to, say, a context or a community” (179). I am largely in agreement with all this, though it should be noted that the word “relative” in the above quotation has a slightly different meaning than “relativism” as traditionally understood. The Scriptures are very clear about our status as created and social beings. And I agree that our claims to knowledge and truth are therefore in some special sense relative.

But, Smith doesn’t stop here. Indeed he seems intent on defending relativism as traditionally understood in terms of denying objective reality, absolute truth, objective values, and universal reason (15). Chapter 1 begins with a bold critique of Christian writers who have objected to postmodern relativism and anti-realism. J.P. Moreland, D.A. Carson, and Joseph Ratzinger are chastised for their “reactionary dismissals” of relativism (16). Christian Smith’s attack against social constructionism and his defense of moral realism also come under criticism (19-25). Even Alvin Plantinga is criticized for unfairly attacking postmodernists as anti-realists (25-9).

To help us understand Smith’s sympathies with relativism we need to return once again to his analysis of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom, now focusing on the issue of relativism/realism. Throughout these chapters, we find Smith challenging correspondence and representational models of truth and knowledge, which are assumed by realists and by those who believe in absolute truth. Wittgenstein argues that “meaning – even ostensive or referentialist meaning – is ultimately dependant upon the conventions of a community of practice” (47). Hence his notion of “language-games” which highlights the practical context in which our speech makes sense (46). For Wittgenstein correspondence is ultimately conventional, by which he means that the connection between words and the world is contingent and a matter of agreement between language users (52). A central thrust of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) is to counter some bad habits in the history of philosophy, namely thinking that knowledge has to mirror reality (74). “So rather than looking to ground truth as correspondence, we do better to see truth as ‘warranted assertability’ – truth as ‘what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying’” (84). Indeed, truth is more “a matter of ‘what is good for us to believe’ rather than the metaphysical acrobatics of ‘contact with reality’” (84). Brandom too stresses the social dimension of rationality and justification (119). Brandom admits that our “folk” vocabulary about the world tends to be stated in representational terms, but he is trying to articulate “an account in nonrepresentational terms of what is expressed by the use of explicitly representational vocabulary” (142-3).

The statements in the above paragraph sound very relativistic and also seem to reject realism. However, there is another strand of thought in these writers and here things become rather confusing. At times Smith points out that Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom want to say that there is more to knowledge and truth than social construction, that there is an outside world out there that pushes back on our constructions of knowledge and truth. I will limit myself here to Rorty by way of illustration. We are told that Rorty clearly affirms that “we all inhabit a shared world that pushes back on us – the shared environment with which we ‘cope’” (88). But then, a few pages earlier, Smith states that Rorty wants “to disabuse us” of thinking that language “represents” the world, “hooks onto” the world, or “corresponds to” the world (85). But surely this statement contradicts the previous one. Of course Smith and Rorty will reply that I am locked into a representational/correspondence paradigm which is precisely what they want to get rid of (26, 74-85). But I would counter that you cannot debunk the notions of representation or correspondence without ending up with full-blown relativism, a relativism where “anything goes” (100). We must also never forget that language which is embedded in “communities of practice” can be misguided, and the only way in which to account for such errors is by making reference to something beyond social constructions of knowledge and truth.

In his exposition of Rorty, Smith makes an interesting concession that begins to address the fundamental problem I have identified in Smith’s defense of pragmatic relativism. Smith concedes that the idea of our living in a shared world that pushes back on our claims to knowledge and truth “is (at best) nascent and understated” in Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (88, n15). Yes, indeed! And this is also a problem running throughout Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism? The focus is on describing the human dimension of making claims to knowledge and truth. And parallel to this, there is a tendency to understate talk about the existence of a reality independent of the knower. Indeed, at times there is outright denial, as for example, when Smith describes Rorty as not taking recourse to magical appeals to “the way things are” (89). But without such appeals, I believe we are indeed lost in a sea of relativistic human constructions of knowledge and truth. Of course, the problem here is that there are difficulties in giving an account of this extra-linguistic reality and the way in which our language corresponds to this reality. Indeed, this is the point that Smith and his pragmatists highlight ad-nauseum. They therefore focus on describing the human dimension of knowing and truth-claiming, and I will concede that they do a fairly good job of this. But if this description is not balanced with an equal emphasis on the existence of a reality independent of the human knower, we have a very incomplete analysis of knowledge and truth.

I would suggest that an underlying problem in these accounts of knowledge and truth is that they fail to distinguish clearly between the human search for and articulation of truth, and Truth itself. I am quite prepared to admit that the human search for knowledge and truth is “relative” to some degree. But this claim needs to be separated from the notion of Truth as an absolute ideal, as something we are striving for. We need a concept or an ideal of absolute truth to remind us of the relativity of our own claims to truth. As William James puts it, “The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no further experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge” (Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI, 1907). That comes pretty close to what Paul says about our only knowing in part, but there will come a day when we will know fully (I Cor. 13: 5,7).

The above distinction between the human search for truth and Absolute Truth helps to put into perspective what Smith and his pragmatist philosophers do with regard to truth. Smith argues that he hasn’t run into too many postmodern theorists “who actually go around saying “there isn’t any such thing as truth” (27). Instead, “it would be better to say that they offer us deflationary accounts of truth. They explain truth in terms other than our (realist) habits incline us to” (27). In the final chapter, Smith once again explains his approach: “a pragmatist account of meaning and knowledge does not preclude referential claims; it just accounts for those claims differently” (166). Brandom is cited as giving us a refined way of making sense of this. Brandom suggests that “the representational dimension of propositional contents should be understood in terms of their social articulation” (142). But what is really going on here? Representation and truth are being located within the language of the community.

Now I agree that there is something right about this. At a very practical level, truth claims need to be seen as “commodities traded in a community of practice,” to quote Rorty (85). In other words, there is something to be said for Smith and his pragmatists locating truth within the realm of the human search for truth. But if this is all that we have to say about truth, then we are indeed left with full-blown relativism. In order to escape relativism, we have to introduce the notion of correspondence with reality. We also need to introduce another dimension of truth – an ideal of Absolute Truth toward which we are all striving in the midst of our feeble attempts to give truthful accounts of the world we live in. I would suggest that Smith and his pragmatists are doing much more than giving us “deflationary accounts” of truth. Ultimately, they are undermining the very notion of truth.

Perhaps a few more comments about absolute truth are in order. Already in Chapter 1 Smith objects to those who are critical of relativism by introducing the notion of absolute truth (16). He expresses concerns about those who offer as an antidote to relativism “claims to ‘absolute’ truth” (16). Indeed, he suggests that we should be just as afraid of “absolutism” as we are about relativism. At one point he even suggests that “claims to ‘absolute” truth might be almost diabolical” (115). Again in the Epilogue, Smith argues that “it borders on idolatrous hubris for humans to claim absolute truth” (180). Indeed, he draws a comparison between attempts “to pretend to the Absolute” and the fall of Adam and Eve (180). But Smith is guilty of the same “frequent and sloppy use” of “claims to absolute truth” as he accuses those opposed to his position (29). Christian philosophers who appeal to absolute truth as an antidote to relativism are not saying that humans can reach absolute truth. They are not attempting “to pretend to the Absolute,” whatever that might mean. All they are saying is that we need an ideal of absolute truth to act as a regulative principle which then explains how we are often mistaken in the claims that we make. I would further suggest that it is social constructivists who exemplify the sin of Adam and Eve. Instead of listening to God, the source and foundation of all Truth, they feel that they themselves can create truth.

I want to point to another disturbing feature of Smith’s treatment of relativism which comes to the fore particularly in Chapter 1, where he lists a number of Christians opposed to relativism and social constructivism and anti-realism – everyone from youth pastors to university presidents to Christian scholars (15-29). The language Smith uses here is often strident and sarcastic. He chastises Christians for their “reactionary dismissals and caricatured fear-mongering” of the “monster” of relativism (16). Sadly, Smith himself can’t seem to avoid caricaturing when he describes Christian critics of “postmodern relativism” as only being able to utter the words “with a dripping sneer” (16). He even compares the “Rorty scare” to “the red menace,” which gives rise to “philosophical McCarthyism” (17). He critiques Christian Smith’s “rather naive invocation of the need to recover a ‘referentialist’ account of language” when he “seems blithely unaware of the force and features of the pragmatist critique of reference and representation” (25). That sounds like an ad-hominem argument to me. One nearly gets the impression that James K.A. Smith is the only enlightened Christian philosopher around. Indeed, Smith takes great pride in being “the keeper of lost causes” and of having “a habit of affirming what other Christians despise” (11). I would like to see a little more intellectual humility here. And I would remind Smith that sarcasm and caricaturing do not reveal a Christ-like spirit.

Who’s afraid of relativism? It all depends – to use a phrase that Smith is fond of (15, 179). If by “relativism” we mean that the search for knowledge and truth must take into account our contingency, our creaturehood, and our being part of a community, then I agree, we should not be afraid of relativism, though I think it better not to use the word “relativism” to describe these aspects of human nature and its relation to epistemology. After all, we are finite, fallible and sinful people, and so our search for truth bears the marks of relativism. But if we try to give an account of epistemology “without recourse to magical appeals to ‘the way things are’,” as does Smith (89), then I believe we should be very afraid of relativism. Knowledge and truth are not just social constructions. Indeed, the sin of Adam and Eve was precisely to think that they could create truth. Individuals can be mistaken. Communities of practice too can err, a problem that Smith fails to acknowledge. To focus primarily on human dimension of knowing, as does this book is very misleading. More, it is dangerous. I cannot recommend this book to the Christian students for whom it is written.

A Philosopher Examines Peter Enns

January 3, 2015

The Bible Tells Me So …: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It, by Peter Enns
New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014. 267 pages, cloth.

I resonate with Peter Enns’ personal story which he reviews briefly in Chapter 1 of this book. For a long time I believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. But increasingly, I found this standard evangelical doctrine dying the death of a thousand qualifications. Like Enns, I couldn’t simply ignore the questions I was facing (p.19). But unlike Enns, I come out rather differently at the end.

The book under review can be seen as a popular summary of Enns’ earlier and controversial book, Incarnation and Inspiration (2005). I was intrigued with its thesis. The bible, like Jesus, must be interpreted as having both divine and human origins. Over the years I have become more willing to admit that the bible was written by fallible human beings. And yet, I also want to say that the bible is inspired by God.

In The Bible Tells Me So, Enns maintains that the bible is primarily a record of “ancient journeys of faith,” and these journeys then become “models for us on our own journeys” (pp.24, 77). My worry here is that this description of the bible is very human centered. Where is God in this description? And what about revelation? I want to say that the bible is both human and divinely inspired. Without an equal emphasis on the divine we are simply left with the feeble spiritual gropings of human beings who create their own gods.

The first big issue of the book concerns Israel’s invasion of Canaan (ch. 2). Enns explains why this chapter is “so dreadfully long” (p.66). It is because the Canaanite genocide is a key problem for “sincere readers of the bible” and “contemporary atheists” (p.67). But sincere readers of the bible don’t need an exhaustive description of Israel’s barbarous conquering of Canaan. Or, is Enns mainly concerned about gaining credibility with contemporary atheists?

Enns gives another reason for his preoccupation with Israel’s extermination of the Canaanites. He uses this story to drive home a key point for understanding many other parts of the Old Testament: “the ancient Israelites’ tribal mentality about themselves, their world and their God is reflected in what they wrote” (p.67). The chapter concludes with Enns’ solution to the embarrassment we feel about God telling the Israelites to kill the Canaanites: “Canaanite genocide is … not a historical account of something about God” (p.70). “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites” (p.54). According to Enns, the Israelites only believed that God told them to do so. Note again how human centered all this is.

“God likes stories” – the heading of chapter 3. But stories of the past are always told for a purpose – “to persuade, motivate, and inspire” (p.76). They are built on “imperfect memories,” and there is a good deal of “creating” and “inventing” going on to accomplish this purpose, with little concern about the original story being true (p.75). But, recounting past events cannot provide encouragement to people living in the present if the past events never happened. Enns also falls prey to the either-or fallacy. He assumes that Israel’s stories of the deep past cannot be written with both purposes in mind – to record the past, and to help us to cope with the present (p. 112). Further, there are limits to creative license, and Enns needs to pay more attention to defining these limits. If we allow too much creative license, we will end up with the entire Old Testament as fiction.

Enns reminds us repeatedly that we must not impose modern criteria of historiography on ancient texts. “Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority” for biblical writers, according to Enns (p.79). This doesn’t mean that biblical writers were “trying to pull a fast one” or that they were being “sloppy.” Such accusations arise out of “modern thinking relying on modern rules of history writing” (p.94). But where is the evidence for these claims? I would suggest that ancient biblical writers were concerned about historical accuracy. Enns also assumes that we moderns are more “enlightened” than the ancients, and therefore we have more rigorous rules for history writing. This is post-Enlightenment nonsense.

We move on to the story of Jesus, the focus of chapters 5 and 6. Enns goes out of his way to highlight how “utterly new and unexpected” the story of Jesus was (p.194). “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED on Good Friday and raised from the dead on the third day, on Easter Sunday” (p.196). It nearly sounds as though we are here finally dealing with real history. But Enns focuses instead on how difficult it would have been for a first-century Jewish audience, shaped by its ancient story, to accept an executed and resurrected messiah (p.196).

So what do the New Testament writers do to overcome this problem? They reinterpret the Old Testament writings so that they point to a messiah who suffered, died, and was raised from the dead. Jesus himself engaged “in a bit of creative biblical interpretation” to make the Old Testament point to himself (p. 169). The Gospel writers too “do some creative reading” of the Old Testament (p. 205). Paul too had “to rethink and transform his tradition and his scripture” (p. 225). But there are limits to the creative reading and transformation of the scripture. Maybe, just maybe, the Old Testament does in fact point to Jesus. Here again, Enns fails to make room for genuine revelation and prophecy.

We are still left with the question as to whether Jesus was actually crucified and resurrected. I expect the crucifixion is an historical event for Enns – hence the capital letters in the quote noted earlier. But what about the resurrection? Enns tends to skirt the question of the historicity of Jesus in the concluding chapters. To get his views on this question, we have to go to an earlier chapter (ch. 3). Here we are again told that if we read the bible as a book that has to get history “right”, then “the gospels become a crippling problem” (p.89). Why? Because the Gospel writers give us very different portraits of Jesus, each one offering his own perspective. Most scholars, we are told, think that Matthew “created” some of the scenes surrounding Jesus’ birth to “shape” his story (p.83). Enns also suggests that trying to create a harmony of the four gospels so as to yield one true and coherent story is a mistake (p.85). Instead, Christians get at the real Jesus by “faith” (p.85).

There you have it. The story of Jesus too is a record of subjective experiences, and is accepted on faith. What is so misleading is that in the final chapters Enns gives the impression that he is treating the story of Jesus as history. Even in his earlier treatment, he contradicts his rejection of harmonizing the gospels by suggesting that Matthew, Mark, and Luke “are likely following the flow of history more than John” (p. 80). Really! I thought any attempt to read the gospels as a way to get history right was a mistake (p. 89). You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Peter Enns.

Enns reminds us repeatedly to read the bible on its own terms. “[Y]ou can’t just make the bible mean whatever you feel like making it mean. You have to stick with what the text says”(p.168). I agree. Unfortunately, Enns does not follow his own advice. Indeed, at one point he says, “we’re all free to put the pieces together as we think best” (p.86). So, each to his own! A truly post-modern and relativistic approach to the bible! If you don’t like the gospel according to Peter Enns, create your own.

Enns sums up and gives us some practical advice in the final chapter. We need to accept the bible for what it is “with wrinkles, complexities, unexpected maneuvers, and downright strangeness” (p.232). “This Bible is worth reading and paying attention to, because this is the Bible God uses … to point its readers to a deeper trust in him” (p.232). “The Bible is God’s Word” (p.236). Some good advice. And, I like the God-centredness here – finally! Unfortunately, much of Enns’ earlier analysis undermines the possibility of accepting the bible as God’s word. I therefore cannot recommend his book.

(This review was published in the Christian Courier, March 9, 2015. A longer review was published in the Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 88, #2, 2016/17, pp. 63-7.)

Some Stories about Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom

September 5, 2014

Review of
Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom: Personal and Philosophical Essays.
Edited by Peter Caws & Stefani Jones, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Many years ago Oxford philosopher, Richard Hare, suggested “that many of the dark places in ethics might be illuminated if philosophers would address themselves to considering the question, ‘How should I bring up my children?'” Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom represents an interesting and unique attempt to address this question. Eleven philosophers share stories of their religious upbringing, and then reflect on this and draw some moral lessons. Each of the philosophers was brought up religiously, though in varying degrees of narrowness and strictness – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, Mennonite, and Muslim. Each of them also broke free, in one way or another, from the religious upbringing that was “imposed” on them as children.

Some of the stories are sad. A few of the contributors describe actually being beaten by their parents as they showed signs of growing apostasy (pp. 72, 201). The co-editors of this volume, one growing up in a family which belonged to the Exclusive Brethren, a nineteenth-century offshoot of the Church of England” (p. 214), and the other as a Mormon in Provo, Utah, each highlight the withholding of love and affection as a means of discouraging their growing skepticism about the religion into which they were nurtured (pp. 207, 210, 234). The path to freedom for many of the contributors to this volume was a long and painful process. A few of the stories in this anthology describe less severe religious upbringings, with less painful journeys to greater freedom. The journey of Glen Pettigrove, for example, “was not a sudden, acrimonious rejection of religion or even of Christianity,” but rather a gradual shift from a fundamentalist Wesleyan and Baptist upbringing, to a more liberal Presbyterianism (135-6). This shift was hardly noticed by most of those who were responsible for his upbringing, and when noticed, was met with a loving and supportive response. Interestingly, Pettigrove’s contribution to this anthology is the only one that gives “a qualified defense” of religious indoctrination (p. 136).

Nearly all of the essays use the term “religious indoctrination” to describe their upbringing. But what does this term mean? Sometimes indoctrination is described simply as the passing on of religious beliefs from parent to child, or from one generation to the next (p. 217). The editors consider such “limited indoctrination” as not necessarily posing a moral problem (p.4). But most of the essays consider any sort of indoctrination, however mild, to be morally blameworthy (cf. Hirst, p. 174). Tasia Persson even equates indoctrination with brainwashing (Ch. 6, p. 112). Another odd usage of the term is introduced by Irfan Khawaja, brought up as a Muslim, who talks about “self-indoctrination” (Ch. 2, pp. 27, 32).

Clearly there is some confusion surrounding the meaning of religious indoctrination, as the editors themselves admit in their introduction (p.3). It is unfortunate that nearly all of the writers completely ignore the extensive literature on the concept of indoctrination that has emerged over the years in the philosophy of education. (see, for example, my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Co-published by Gracewing, Leominster, U.K.) 1993.) Only Glen Pettigrove’s essay draws on this literature, and in my opinion this essay gives the most insightful analysis of the meaning and moral assessment of indoctrination.

Though not always entirely consistent, several writers astutely point to a fundamental problem with viewing all indoctrination as morally blameworthy. Children are by their very nature dependant, vulnerable, and impressionable. Stefani Jones, draws on Simone de Beauvior, and her use of the term “impinging” to describe the influence of parents on children who are dependent and vulnerable (208). Such “parental impinging” is not only inevitable, but also “absolutely necessary” for a child’s healthy development towards maturity, according to Jones. Indeed, as various philosophers of education have argued, children need to grow up in a secure and stable primary culture in order to develop into autonomous individuals. And, as is conceded by Raymond Bradley, despite his objections to growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, it nonetheless “gave me something tough to chew on, something to cut my teeth on intellectually (p.50). So maybe a narrow religious upbringing is an asset rather than a liability. Initiation into a primary culture is not itself a rational process, as Pettigrove argues, drawing on Wittgenstein, Gadamer and Mead, and this does not make such initiation morally problematic (p. 143). Growth towards rational autonomy is necessarily parasitic on children first being initiated into particular language-games and traditions typically given to them by their parents. It is therefore wrongheaded to characterize such initiation as morally problematic, or to label it indoctrination, understood in a pejorative sense.

But we still need to distinguish between justified and unjustified ‘impinging’ in parent-child relationships. Jones goes on to argue that “the degree to which parental impinging is justifiable is directly correlated to whether or not the impinging is aimed towards opening future possibilities for children or shutting them off” (208; cf. Hirst pp.169-75). I would only add that this is a gradual process and that it must also include the gradual enabling of children to critically evaluate their past upbringing, and the increasing release of parental control so that children can exercise their growing autonomy. On this account, religious indoctrination, understood as a pejorative term, involves the failure of parents and their religious community to combine the initiation of their children into a religious tradition with encouraging and facilitating the growth of their children towards autonomy. Clearly, on this account, the sad stories referred to earlier are indeed cases of religious indoctrination, understood in its pejorative sense.

Another confusion in these essays concerns the status of children with regard to autonomy. Tasia Persson, for example, describes even the child as having a right to autonomy, or as reaching, at some point, a “minimal rational capacity” (pp. 121, 127; cf. 149, 209). But, children are simply not adults. Nor do they suddenly achieve a minimal level of autonomy. Children grow towards autonomy. Interestingly, Persson gets beyond the either-or characterization of childrens’ autonomy in her conclusion when she asks whether it is possible for evangelical parents to fulfill their obligations to nurture their children in the faith and at the same time to respect their autonomy. She answers this question in the affirmative, reminding evangelicals that in a biblical worldview, choice for God is intended to be a free one. Hence evangelical parents “would do well to ensure that their children are given the chance to make autonomous choices by allowing them to develop the capacity for rational decision-making” (p. 131). Here you have a developmental approach to autonomy, which makes it possible to parents to give their children a religious upbringing and at the same time to gradually free them to make up their own minds about the faith into which they were nurtured. On this account, some of the critiques of the religious upbringing the authors received are unjustified, or at least softened

Such a combination of nurturing faith and nurturing autonomy at the same time is indeed possible, and is perhaps more achievable than most of the contributors to the book under review acknowledge. This collection of essays would have been stronger if it would have included a few more stories that would have illustrated this possibility. In the Introduction, the editors claim that they selected “a good representation of the variety of personal experiences, philosophical analyses, and religious orientations we encountered” (p.3). I believe a few stories of religiously committed philosophers who retained the faith into which they were nurtured should have been included in this anthology. Occasionally I felt the contributors to this volume were a little too preoccupied with giving vent to all their objections to the religion within which they were brought up (e.g. Bradley, Ch.3). Several writers also hint at another question that could have received more attention (Overall p.22; Dupont, p.93; Enns, p. 184): Is growing up in a skeptical home or a liberal university environment indoctrinatory? Nevertheless, this volume is a valuable contribution to answering the question, “How should we bring up our children?” and should be of interest to philosophers and practitioners of education, teachers in religious education, ethicists, and scholars in the religious studies.

(A condensed version of this review was first published in Studies in Religion, June, 2013, 42:262-4)

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

June 10, 2014

Review of
Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark A. Noll
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011

How fares the evangelical mind? Mark Noll’s new book is a follow-up of his earlier The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). In a postcript updating his earlier assessment, Noll informs us that if he were to attempt another full-scale historical assessment of evangelical scholarship “it would have a different tone – more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems, more concerned with theological resources than with theological deficiencies” (153).

Christian scholarship must be centered in Jesus Christ, according to Noll. Chapter 1 therefore offers an overview of the main assertions about the person and work of Jesus Christ as found in the bible and the early creeds. Noll’s christological focus breathes some new life into the long-standing Reformed creation/fall/redemption paradigm as a foundation for Christian scholarship. Christ is the creator of all things. In Him all things hold together. Therefore Christ is the foundation of all wisdom and knowledge. And it is Christ who will finally reconcile to himself all things (26-7; Col. 1:13-20; 2:1-3).

There can be no greater motivation to engage in Christian scholarship than such a christological focus (ch. 2). For believers “to be studying created things is to be studying the works of Christ,” and there is nothing in such studies that can in principle, lead us away from Jesus Christ (25). In Chapter 3, Noll tries to show how Jesus Christ provides some general guidance to Christian scholarship. For example, he maintains that christology “provides a sure antidote to the moral diseases of the intellectual life” (61). As followers of Jesus Christ, Christian scholars should be “humble, charitable, self-giving, and modest” (64). Indeed!

Some of the other suggestions Noll makes in chapter 3, however, seem to me to be more problematic. For example, Noll makes much of the dual nature of Christ. He argues that the “doubleness” of Christ should make Christian scholars more accepting of the paradoxical and the mysterious in their disciplines (45, 49, 64). While I agree with this advice, I am not sure it should be deduced from the fact that Christ was both human and divine. Surely this application follows more directly from the doctrine of human fallibility, which in fact Noll touches on elsewhere (61, 78). Similar problems arise in Noll’s defense of empiricism as the better way to come to know the world (51-2, 117-20). The repeated response to unbelief in the gospel accounts, “come and see,” surely does not in itself prove that we should use a “come and see” approach in doing science. While I agree with Noll’s later emphasis of the importance of empiricism in science (ch. 6), I think this conclusion is better grounded in the doctrines of creation and incarnation, which in fact Noll hints at in places (25, 35). At times it seems Noll makes his christological emphasis carry more weight than it is able to.

Noll is well aware of the “risks” involved in becoming more specific about a christological approach to study (65). When dealing with the doctrine of atonement as “A Theological Principle to Frame Scholarship” (ch. 4), he is therefore careful to describe his six suggestions as “possibilities” (71). In the final chapter he reminds the reader that his aim is “not to recruit scholars for particular programs or a specific set of conclusions about their disciplines” (147). The aim is instead to inspire evangelical Christians (and others) to think more deeply and seriously about how Christ might shape their particular disciplines.

Three chapters work out the implications of Christology for three different disciplines. Noll is more confident about the conclusions he draws about history in chapter 5 – this is after all his specialty (147). Chapter 6 provides an instructive historical and theological analysis of tensions that have been thought to exist between science and scripture, including the question of origins. Chapter 7 examines christology as a foundation for biblical studies. Here Noll draws on Peter Enns’s controversial book, Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005). Noll agrees with Enns that just as Christ was both human and divine, so we need to affirm both the human origins and the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.

I would certainly recommend this book for all educators and academics. While questions can be raised about some of Noll’s attempts to work out the implications of christology for the life of the mind, many of his suggestions are helpful, and his overall challenge to make Jesus Christ central to academic life is refreshing and inspiring.

[This review was first published in Journal of Education and Christian Belief, 2012, 16(1):118-20]

A Philosopher Examines Reza Aslan, Zealot

February 13, 2014

A Review of

Aslan, Reza, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Random House, 2013

The title is engaging. The writing is clear. The book is very readable. And the thesis is quite simple. Jesus of Nazareth was one of many Jewish zealots in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E., who were fomenting revolts against Rome. The main reason for Jesus’s crucifixion was treason against Rome. This true historical account of the life of Jesus was suppressed by his Christian followers a few decades later, when the gospels were written. The reason for such suppression – the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Christians and the writers of the gospels were trying to downplay the insurrectionist character of Jesus’s life because they were trying to distance themselves from the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E., which prompted the Roman fury that followed. Thus Jesus was painted instead as a spiritual leader, as one who died for our sins and taught us to love our enemies. The resurrection of Jesus was also fabricated in order to make the revised story more compelling. The Christ of the early Christians, and of most Christians today, is very, very different from the historical Jesus.

Aslan’s thesis is not new. S.G.F. Brandon, among others, argued essentially the same thesis in 1967, in Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester University Press). Historical-critical scholarship has for a long time separated the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. Pope Benedict XVI, in his forward to the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (Image, 2012), describes the development of historical-critical scholarship. As this scholarship advanced, “finer and finer distinctions between layers of tradition in the Gospels, beneath which the real object of faith – the figure [Gestalt] of Jesus – became increasingly obscured and blurred.” This has produced “the impression that we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him.”

So how do I as a philosopher respond to Aslan’s argument? Philosophers demand articulation of first premises, rationality, consistency, and clarity in argument. (This is not to say that philosophers always practice what they preach!)

Aslan makes a very significant statement early in his book. “For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it” (p. xx). I appreciate Aslan’s frank admission that there are eminent scholars who disagree with his over-all position. This leaves the reader with a problem, however. What does one do when eminent scholars disagree? At the very least, one should be on guard against coming to a hasty and definitive conclusion about this book. It is not the last word. Other prominent scholars disagree strongly with much of Aslan’s argument, as can be seen in some early reviews of this book.

Aslan claims to have constructed his narrative upon what he believes to be “the most accurate and reasonable argument,” based on his “two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history” (p. xx). Now two decades of research is not a very long time. This book is not a product of a life-time of research. And the reader is left to wonder whether Aslan has looked carefully at the well-attested, well-researched, and authoritative scholarship that refutes his own narrative. For example, Aslan makes no mention of the work of Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College, London, professor of biblical interpretation, and the first non-Catholic to receive the prestigious Ratzinger Prize, set up as a kind of Nobel Prize for Theology. Burridge specifically answers the attempt by scholars to separate the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of faith” by showing that the gospels, were very much like the biographies written in the Greco-Roman world (e.g. Isocrates’ Evagoras, or Plutarch’s Lives). But these ancient biographies, while not biographies in the modern sense, were still intended to give us factual accounts of these figures.

Burridge’s careful comparison shows that we need to take the gospels more seriously as giving us an accurate historical account of Jesus (see Burridge’s What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, Eerdmans, 1992, and his Four Gospels, One Jesus? Eerdmans, 1994). Aslan’s claim that the gospel writers were not at all concerned about “uncovering facts, but of revealing truths,” is therefore problematic (p. 31). Not only does Aslan fail to respond to Burridge’s argument, there is very little by way of responding to any other evidence or arguments that go counter to his own interpretation. All too often Aslan simply makes claims to the effect that “most scholars” agree, or he refers to “the consensus view” of scholars (pp. xxi, 83, 141). This not only contradicts his earlier claim regarding a divided scholarship, but it also makes the reader wonder whether there has been a decided bias in Aslan’s own research.

There is another way in which Aslan betrays his earlier statement, and this has to do with the language he uses in the book, which is often dogmatic and strident. Here are some examples: He describes Luke’s account of some early episodes in Jesus’s life as “fabulous concoctions of the evangelist’s own devising” (p.35). The gospels’ description of Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man who had to overcome his own doubts about putting Jesus of Nazareth to death is labeled “pure fiction” (p. 47). The common depiction of Jesus as an apolitical preacher and peacemaker who loved his enemies and turned the other cheek is “a complete fabrication,” according to Aslan (p. 120). The gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, “this final, most significant episode in the story of Jesus of Nazareth is also the one most clouded by theological enhancements and flat-out fabrications” (p. 154). The “theatrical trial before Pilate” is described as “pure fantasy” (p. 156). Many more examples of Aslan’s use of dogmatic and strident language could be provided. This is not the language of careful scholarship. Aslan’s rhetoric fails to acknowledge that there are other eminent scholars who disagree with his interpretation of Jesus. Good scholarship is more humble in its declarations.

Of course, the use of such dogmatic and strident language is based on another assumption that underlies the entire book, and that has to do with the reliability of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Aslan is quite skeptical of the historicity of the gospel accounts. In his introduction, he tells us that “the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus’s life” (p. xxvi). This certainly contradicts the statement made by Luke at the beginning of his gospel, where Luke describes his task as one of “investigating everything carefully” so as to provide “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” based on accounts handed down by “eyewitnesses,” so that the reader might know the “truth” about Jesus (Lk. 1:1-4). Of course, Aslan would dismiss this statement. He specifically says the gospels “are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him” (p. xxvi). Instead, “they are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events that they describe” (p. xxvi). But this assessment is based on his own reconstruction of life of Jesus and so begs the question.

What is curious here is that at times Aslan does draw on the gospel accounts in order to substantiate his argument. For example, after decrying Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s lineage and miraculous birth as “fantastical,” he nonetheless draws on the gospel accounts, including Luke’s, in order to show that Jesus was a disciple of John (pp. 83-89, cf. pp. 73f, 113-4, 144f). This is quite puzzling. How can Aslan treat the gospel accounts as reliable some of the time when he has made the general statement early on in his book that the gospels are not, and were never meant to be, historical documents about the life of Jesus?

Further, if the gospels are sometimes reliable, then we need to be given a clear idea of the criteria that are to be used in assessing when they are and when they are not reliable. Here matters become even more puzzling. Sometimes Aslan requires corroboration from non-gospel accounts (e.g. Josephus, pp. xxv, 31, 82, 85,). Sometimes historical reliability seems to be dependant on the fact that all four gospels say the same thing (p.73). Sometimes the reverse is the case – the fact that only one of the gospels says something makes the claim authentic (p.117). In the end, one is left with a strong impression that these judgments are rather arbitrary. It would seem that Aslan judges the gospel accounts to be reliable if what they say is in keeping with his overall argument (see esp. p. 85). But this is special pleading. It has all the makings of the “Gospel according to Aslan.” And there are some reputed scholars who dispute Aslan’s gospel!

Fundamental to Aslan’s overall argument is the wedge he tries to create between “Jesus the man” and “Jesus the Christ,” between the historical Jesus, and the Jesus manufactured by the community of faith pp. xxvi, 120, 134). Aslan’s assessment of the gospel accounts of Jesus’s arrest, trail and execution is as follows: “Factual accuracy was irrelevant. What mattered was Christology, not history” (p. 154). Here Aslan commits a basic logical fallacy, known as the either-or fallacy. The either-or fallacy creates a disjunction when in fact both claims can be true at the same time. One does not have to choose between either “Jesus the man” or “Jesus the Christ.” Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ may in fact be the same person. The Jesus described by the community of faith may in fact be the same as the historical Jesus. Indeed, this is what is claimed by orthodox Christianity, and there are many reputed scholars who defend orthodox Christianity.

The either-or fallacy comes up repeatedly in this book. For example, Aslan argues that it was the faith community which fabricated the argument that it was the Jews who killed the messiah, when in fact it was the Romans who killed Jesus for insurrection (p.150f). But, why can’t both the Jews and the Romans be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus? Aslan maintains that the promise of the Kingdom of God was a central theme and unifying message of Jesus’s brief three-year ministry (p. 116). But, then he argues that the Kingdom of God for Jesus was not purely celestial or eschatological, but a real earthly kingdom (pp. 117-18). But, again why can’t the Kingdom of God be both eschatological and present here and now, though only partially realized? And we must also not rule out the possibility of Jesus’s kingdom being both spiritual and political in nature. Earthly rulers have never liked Christians making spiritual claims because they see even this as threatening their earthly rule.

Aslan’s treatment of miracles in Chapter 9 is confusing and disingenuous. There are times in this chapter and the rest of the book where Aslan seems to accept the gospel accounts of Jesus’s miracles as real (pp. 111f, 112f, 130f). But in the beginning of Chapter 9 Aslan is very clear about ruling out the very possibility of miracles. “To the modern mind, the stories of Jesus’s healings and exorcisms seem implausible, to say the least” (p. 104). And a little later Aslan again comments on the modern mindset, suggesting that Jesus’s status as an exorcist and miracle worker “seem unusual, even absurd” (p. 107). Indeed, it is the question of miracles that “forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper, the scholar and the seeker” (p. 104). There we have it. It is only the seeker or gullible worshipper who believes in miracles. The enlightened scholar and historian reject their very possibility. Aslan goes on to say that “there is no evidence to support any particular miraculous action by Jesus” (p. 104). Why is all evidence ruled out? Because according to Aslan’s enlightened worldview, miracles are impossible. That is his real position.

Aslan is forced to concede, however, that there is a lot of “accumulated historical material confirming Jesus’s miracles” (p. 104). This claim is again very misleading. It seems as though Aslan is accepting the gospel accounts of Jesus’s miracles, but he is really only treating these as fabricated accounts of Jesus’s “reputation” as a miracle worker (p. 105). Indeed, he goes on to link miracles with “magic” and “tricks,” on par with other the many other magicians and medicine men who were wandering Judea and Galilee at the time (pp. 102, 105). Indeed, in ancient Palestine, the unenlightened simply couldn’t distinguish between magic and miracles (p. 111). So for Aslan, the miracle stories of Jesus “were embellished with the passage of time and convoluted with Christological significance, and thus none of them can be historically validated” (p. 104). This conclusion is a huge generalization, that rests on Aslan’s overall strategy of separating the Jesus of history and the Christ of the Christian church, and thus again begs the question.

It is this same strategy that Aslan uses to discredit the resurrection of Jesus in Chapter 13. For Aslan the “only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely” is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century, and that Rome crucified him for doing so (p. xxviii). Aslan has a lot to say about the crucifixion. But the resurrection is a non-event. Why? The notion of a man dying a gruesome death and then returning to life three days later “defies all logic, reason and sense” (p. 174). In other words, the resurrection is again impossible.

How then did the Christian community come to believe in the resurrection? Again, we see the tired strategy of Aslan coming to the fore. Something was needed to transform “Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter” (p. 171). The apostles themselves were severely limited in their ability to bring about such a transformation as they were farmers and fishermen, “illiterate ecstatics whose certainty in their message was matched only by the passion with which they preached it” (pp. 171, 167). But this characterization of the I.Q. of the apostles is unsupported, and is at least in part known to be false.

Aslan also fails to explain how these apostles became so certain about their message and so bold in their proclamation. Aslan makes much of the fact that it was diaspora Jews, Hellenists, who were more sophisticated and urbane, better educated and wealthier, who transformed Jesus message into a universal message that would be more appealing to those living in a Graeco-Roman milieu (pp. 180f). But again, how could these sophisticated and educated Jews be misled by farmers and fishermen who supposedly manufactured the resurrection out of thin air?

Behind all of these fanciful explanations of the invention of the resurrection of Jesus lies a much deeper issue that needs to be faced. Aslan believes that the resurrection and the other miracles that Jesus did are impossible – they defy all logic, reason, and common sense. But, this is a metaphysical claim. It is a starting presupposition which is in fact very difficult to prove. Indeed, Aslan does nothing by way of trying to prove this very important proposition. He just dogmatically affirms it. It therefore becomes just as much an item of faith as Aslan attributes to Christian believers. I would recommend that Aslan and his many followers read some sophisticated defenses of the possibility of miracles. For a popularized argument, there is nothing better than C.S. Lewis’s little book entitled simply, Miracles.

If there is one thing philosophers are concerned about it is consistency in argument, and this raises a another problem I have with Aslan’s revisionary account of the life of Jesus. He repeatedly contradicts himself. For example, he argues at length that Jesus’s trial before Pilate is “a fabrication,” or “pure fantasy” (pp.148, 156), but sandwiched in between these pages he admits that a brief audience with Pilate might just be conceivable (p. 152). Aslan also finds the account of Jesus trial before the Sanhedrin to be “full of contradictions and inconsistencies,” so much so that they “cast doubt on the historicity of the trial before Caiaphus” (pp. 156f). But, then a page later, he suddenly concedes that “there may be a kernel of truth in the story of the Sanhedrin trial” (p. 158). These, and there are many other contradictions that could be cited, make it very difficult to follow Aslan’s account. It is often simply incoherent.

The book ends rather abruptly. After two final chapters involving a radical reinterpretation of Paul, which to my mind exaggerates the differences between Paul and the apostles, Aslan concludes that “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history” (p. 215). “That is a shame,” according to Aslan, because he hopes that his study of the historical Jesus has revealed “that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man – is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in” (p. 216).

I find this conclusion to be quite astounding. What is so compelling and praiseworthy about an uneducated zealot who failed? There were, after all, a good number of zealots in Jesus’s day who similarly failed, as Aslan repeatedly points out in his book, but we don’t find these zealots to be compelling and praiseworthy. If you strip away all the features associated with the “Christ” of the gospels and of Paul’s writings, there really is very, very little left to believe in. Indeed, it seems a little odd to “believe in” a failed zealot who has been dead for over 2,000 years, just as it would be odd to talk about Guy Fawkes or Rosa Luxemburg as worth believing in. I would suggest that Aslan’s conclusion only begins to make sense if you draw on the features of Jesus the Christ, whom he has rejected.

Plato, long ago, gave some wise counsel when he encouraged any thinker to go where the argument carries one. Aslan has difficulty doing this. He is in fact drawing on borrowed capital. Aslan’s early evangelical faith hasn’t quite left him (cf. pp.xvii-xix). He needs it to make his historical Jesus praiseworthy. His conclusion should in fact be that we should forget about Jesus of Nazareth, a zealot who was a complete failure. Indeed, if Aslan were true to his basic modernist and scientistic assumptions which rule out miracles and the resurrection, he should become an atheist. I would suggest that is what Paul had in mind when he argued that if Christ has not been risen, then the Christian faith is in fact futile. “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” (I Cor. 15:17, 32).

With all these problems, it might be asked why I even bothered to read the book, let alone write a review of it. The book deserves some attention because so many people are reading it. After all the book was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for a while. Also, I fear that this book will be read by many Christians who will accept its claims at face value. I would urge readers not to limit your reading diet to scholars like Reza Aslan. There are after all well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative scholarly treatments of the life and times of Jesus which dispute much of Aslan’s own account. Openmindedness would suggest that these too deserve a careful reading.

Educating our Desires for God’s Kingdom (Review Article)

January 6, 2013

[THIS ARTICLE is an extended review of James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), first published in the Journal of Education and Christian Belief (Vol. 14, No.1, 2010, pp.47-53), and here reprinted with permission from the publisher.]


Keywords:  worldview, worship, Christian education, pedagogy, philosophical anthropology, social imaginary, cultural formation


Christian education is centrally concerned with the teaching of a biblical worldview.  This has been the mantra of many Christian educators for several decades now.  But it has increasingly come under attack in the last while.  Strangely, some of the most forceful criticisms are coming from scholars who have their home in the Reformed tradition, the originators of Christian worldview education.[i]  James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is the latest offering in this emerging literature.  Perhaps it is even stranger that some of us who do not belong to the Reformed tradition feel called to defend Christian worldview education against this barrage of attacks.[ii]

A few years ago, I taught a course on “Worldviews and the Christian Mind” at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, a graduate theological school in Leuven, Belgium.  One of my part-time students, educated in business and now involved in sales, found my position on the Christian mind “very strange.”  Until now he had been dualist, he told me, and thus he had some difficulty appreciating my idea that “work could be a form of worship.”  He was excited about working on his major paper for the course – a Christian approach to economics and business.  After the last class he described my course as “revolutionary” for him.

David Naugle (2002), another current defender of worldview thinking, describes his first exposure to reformed theology and how his gradually deepening understanding of the Christian worldview transformed him. “From then until now, my imagination has been captivated by this biblical vision of the world.”   This vision has also shaped his mission to students, many of whom, when discovering the creation/fall/redemption scenario, “undergo a significant transformation at the root of their being and in the fruit of their lives (pp.xx-xxi).”

This has also been my experience, and so I make no apologies for defending a model of education that I have found to be inspiring and transformative, not only for myself, but also for my students. I have also found it a key to teaching and being a witness to God’s truth within the secular college/university environment where I have spent most of my career.  This does not mean that this model might not require some fine-tuning.  But I do not believe it deserves the sustained attack it receives in Desiring the Kingdom.  It would be a tragic mistake if we took up Smith’s suggestion that “we consider a (temporary) moratorium on the notion of ‘worldview’” (p.65).

Let me first provide a paragraph-summary of the book.  Smith holds as axiomatic that “behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology” (p. 27).  We are not primarily thinking animals, but loving, desiring, affective, imaginative and liturgical animals (pp. 34, 37).  Smith objects to an over-emphasis on rationality and correct ideas that he feels are a part of the Reformed model of Christian worldview education (pp. 31-2).  Education is not primarily about information, according to Smith, but about the formation of our desires (p. 18).  What is needed therefore is a “pedagogy of desire,” a pedagogy “that aims below the head; it requires the pedagogical formation of our imagination” (pp. 25-6).  Such a pedagogy will focus not on ideas but on formative practices which involve our bodies (p.24).  Hence, worship, and not worldviews, is the key to Christian education and the formation of students who will desire the kingdom of God.

I concur with much of Smith’s careful articulation of his philosophical anthropology in Chapters 1 & 2.  Drawing on Martin Heidegger, Smith maintains that for the most part we don’t think about a world of objects. Rather we feel our way around the world and are involved in it as traditioned actors (pp. 49-50).  We are fundamentally creatures of desire or love (p. 55).  Our desires are always directed to an ultimate vision of the good life.  This ultimate vision of the good life is better seen as a “picture” which is communicated to us most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays and novels (p. 53).  I agree that children, in particular, come to accept a vision of the good life, largely unconsciously, simply by being initiated into various practices that are an expression of this vision of the good life.  As adults, various practices serve to reinforce this vision of the good life.[iii]  Smith draws on Charles Taylor’s notion of a “social imaginary” to highlight the social nature of our affective, non-cognitive “understanding” of the world (pp. 63-71).  In Chapter 2 Smith provides a more careful analysis of how embodied practices shape our desires.  Of particular significance are “liturgies” which are “ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire” (p. 87).

In Chapter 3, Smith provides a fascinating analysis of contemporary culture “through the lens of worship” (p. 89).  The mall is seen as a representative site for the liturgy of consumerism.  Then there are the rituals and ceremonies of nationalism in our schools – each day students stand for the national anthem and/or recite the Pledge of Allegiance, thus creating in them a sense of loyalty to the nation “that threatens to trump other ultimate loyalties” (p. 104).  Smith also describes universities as “Cathedrals of Learning,” with their own rituals of baptism (Frosh week) and commissioning (graduation). Christians must be on guard against these powerful secular liturgies that shape our imagination.  Instead, we need to have our hearts shaped by Christian worship.

Chapter 5, “Practicing for the Kingdom:  An Exegesis of the Social Imaginary Embedded in Christian Worship,” is therefore described as the heart of Smith’s book (p. 131).  It is a long and interesting “first” analysis of the “essential,” “universal,” “transcultural” and “common” criteria of Christian worship (pp. 152-4).  This is of course to claim an awful lot, and I for one, could not help but wonder whether this analysis would not be more accurately described as an exegesis of worship as found in various high-church traditions.  This raises the additional question as to why the practice of worship in these historical traditions should be seen as normative.

I have a further problem with the overall agenda that underlies Smith’s 60-page analysis of the essential elements of worship.  In the chapters both preceding and following Chapter 5, Smith highlights his agenda of wanting to give priority, in Christian formation, to embodied practice over theoretical knowledge.  The church was a worshipping community before it got its doctrines in order, or articulated the elements of a Christian worldview, says Smith (p. 135).  “Christianity is not only (or even primarily) a set of cognitive, heady beliefs; Christianity is not fundamentally a worldview” (p. 216).  Instead, what Christians think and believe grows out of what Christians do.

Yes, but we must be very careful whenever we suggest that one thing comes before another, or that one thing is more important than another.  Perhaps doing and thinking are equally important.  Perhaps worship and worldview need to be combined.  Perhaps doctrines were more important to the early church than Smith allows.  Jesus spent a lot of time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines.  A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine (e.g. II Tim. 4:2-4).  In most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application.  Indeed, one of the worship services of the early church included such a long sermon that one of the members fell asleep and died from the resulting fall. After raising this unfortunate worshipper from the dead, Paul continued preaching until daylight (Act 20:7-12).

Smith would no doubt respond that he doesn’t want to rule out entirely the formative power of sermons and ideas, or a Christian worldview (see pp. 11, 63, 191, 216).   Indeed, his analysis of the essentials of worship include includes several idea-focused ingredients – reciting of the creed, reading of Scripture, and the sermon (pp.190-3, 194-7).  But even these elements function more as practices, something we do, performances that shape our imaginations, and that ultimately are “a means of grace” (pp. 190, 197, 135).  For Smith, “The practices of Christian worship function as the altar of Christian formation, the heart and soul, the center of gravity of the task of discipleship” (p. 213).  Here again I wonder whether he is claiming too much.  Formal Christian worship in this narrow sense simply will not carry Smith’s agenda of fostering a genuine “desiring” of the kingdom of God.  The bible is full of warnings about the failure of worship to transform hearts (e.g. Is. 1).  History confirms this.  Various high-church traditions which have been strong on worship, have had rather mixed results in producing radical followers of Jesus Christ.  It was the Anabaptists, to cite just one alternative example, who produced passionate Christians, and they were strong critics of Catholic worship and stressed instead discipline and discipleship.  Jesus reminded us that we can go through worship routines, and still remain far from God (Mark 7:6-7).

Smith recognizes the problem and offers the beginning of an answer to this objection, promising to address this issue in more detail in a later volume (p. 208, #115).  But to suggest that Christian worship might fail because parishioners are too influenced by secular liturgies begs the question, because Smith’s claim is that Christian worship can serve as counter-formation to the powerful secular liturgies we are immersed in by virtue of our living in this world.  In the end, I believe that much of Smith’s emphasis on the efficacy of Christian worship in Christian formation hinges on a sacramental view of worship – God’s grace is dispensed via the elements of worship  (pp.135, 150, 208).   Smith’s argument will therefore carry less weight for anyone who does not share his sacramentalism.[iv]

More problems emerge when all this is specifically applied to education, particularly in a short, final chapter.  Smith sees Christian universities “as extensions of the mission of the church” (p. 220).[v]  A central objective of the book is “to re-vision Christian education as a formative rather than just an informative project” (p.18).  It would seem that Smith’s overall thesis would entail that Christian universities should spend more time in formal worship.  Chapel services would seem to be the most important formative feature of a Christian university.  But, surely we have long seen that this is not enough, and Smith tries to disassociate himself from this implication (p.343).  And yet, given his overall emphasis on formal worship as the key to educating our desires, it would seem to follow that chapel worship should be a key to Christian education.  Indeed, at one point in the final chapter Smith comes close to admitting this when he says that “campus worship becomes an integral element of the academic project of the Christian university” (p. 225).  While I agree that campus worship is important, I believe Smith makes formal Christian worship carry too much of the agenda of Christian formation, not only in higher education, but also in relation to church life generally.

Smith might respond by suggesting that I have overlooked another aspect of his overall argument.  As we have already seen, Smith deals more generally with habits, embodied practices, or “formative practices” as playing a role in directing our desires (p. 24).  Formal worship is one kind of formative practice, but it is not the only kind.  Thus, it is significant that already in the concluding section of the chapter describing the essentials of formal Christian worship, Smith shifts his focus and describes some ancillary practices beyond Sunday worship that also serve to educate the desires (pp. 207-214).

In the final chapter dealing specifically with education, Smith focuses more on this broader notion of  “Christian practices” (p. 223).  Indeed, the penultimate section of the final chapter, entitled “Reconnecting Body and Mind:  Embodied Learning,” contains some fascinating suggestions regarding embodied learning (pp. 228-30).  For example, an advanced seminar in contemporary continental philosophy, investigating the theme of hospitality as found in the work of Levinas and Derrida, could require students to adopt intentional practices of hospitality throughout the semester.  I quite agree that such practical assignments could make a significant contribution to forming the imagination and shaping the character of students (p. 228).  Indeed, such “formative practices” might be just as effective, perhaps even more effective, than formal worship.  But again, why then the strong emphasis on Christian worship as being “the center of gravity of the task of discipleship” (p. 213)?

I return to another major theme in Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith believes that the teaching of a Christian worldview is not that important for Christian education.  Yes, occasionally he is careful to qualify his position by suggesting that he doesn’t want to reject worldview talk entirely, or that he is merely opposed to a distorted form of worldview talk (pp. 11, 13, 24, 63).  But the overall impression given in the book is that there is something wrong with conceiving of Christian education in terms of teaching a Christian worldview.

This assessment is reinforced by the sheer frequency of critical comments made about the Christian worldview model of education throughout the book.  (The list of references would be long!)  Then there is the “either-or” language used by Smith.  For example, he offers his “person-as-lover” model as an “alternative” to the “person-as-thinker” model (p. 62).  Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices” (p. 220).   He describes his approach to education and the worldview approach as “two very different understandings of education” (p. 44).  Smith at one point also calls for a temporary moratorium on the notion of “worldview” (p.65).  And in the final chapter dealing specifically with education, the reader is hard pressed to find any significant role that a Christian worldview could play in Smith’s analysis of Christian education.  Smith’s overall project is seriously weakened by his near complete rejection of the notion of a Christian worldview as important for Christian education.  I further believe such a rejection is entirely unnecessary.

Smith’s analysis would be much stronger if he understood his project as one of “refining” the Reformed worldview model of education.  All the Reformed thinkers that I have read put faith and pre-theoretical commitment at the core of any worldview, as Smith himself acknowledges at one point (p. 25).  Indeed, I find Smith’s analysis of worship to be a helpful way to describe this pre-theoretical core at the heart of any worldview.  I would agree that there is a danger of Christian educators placing too much emphasis on the ideas of a Christian worldview.  But this is a danger only.  It is not an inherent weakness in the Christian worldview model of education.  Smith is simply mistaken when he maintains that, “worldview talk has misconstrued the nature and task of Christian education because the operative notion of worldview at work there has been tied to a stunted, rationalist picture of the human person” (p. 32 ).  The Reformed notion of worldview need not, and most often, has not been tied to a stunted rationalist picture of the human person.

Healthy worldview education can play a significant role in shaping the Christian imaginary and in Christian formation (see my examples in the introduction).  Smith’s attack on Christian worldview education, particularly in the last chapter, rests largely on a caricature of such education.  It is simply unfair to suggest that an emphasis on Christian perspectives in education entails resistance to Christian formation (p. 219 #6).  It is unfair to suggest that Christian worldview education domesticates the radicality of the gospel, and turns out professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do (p. 218).  In the Christian worldview courses that I have taught, my aim has always been to show how radically the gospel changes all spheres of thought and practice, and to inspire students to take up the challenge of being obedient and radical Christians in their later professions.

My criticisms thus far point to a deeper problem still.  Smith correctly maintains that ultimately pedagogy is rooted in philosophical anthropology.  He argues that “we inhabit the world not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it” (p. 47).  But, why can’t we inhabit the world as both thinking and affective creatures?  Smith does at times advocate a more holistic view of human nature (pp.39, 57), but in the end he tends to be nearly as reductionistic as the rationalists he criticizes.  I would suggest that we are both desiring and rational animals.  It is not one or the other.  A biblical anthropology combines heart and mind.  Contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience research shows that the cognitive and non-cognitive areas of our brains are much more interconnected than previously thought (cf. p. 60).  While I agree that we are fundamentally lovers and worshippers, the biblical notion of love and worship includes our entire being – loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind (Mark 12:30), and worshipping God in everything we do (Phil. 3:17).

So, what then should Christian education look like?  We need a balance between educating the desires and educating the mind.  We need a balance between teaching the ideas essential to a Christian worldview, and forming the desires that are at the heart of a Christian worldview.  We need Christian worship (a liturgical formative practice), as well as the inculcation of habits of obedience to Christ (formative practices in the broader sense).  Only such education will lead to the formation of genuinely transformed lives of students at Christian schools, colleges and universities.


Jacobsen, D. & Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen (Eds).  (2004).  Scholarship & Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Naugle, David K. (2002).  Worldview:  The History of a Concept.  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2002) pp. xx-xxi.

Thiessen, E.J. (2007).  Refining the Conversation: Some Concerns about Contemporary Trends in Thinking about Worldviews, Christian Scholarship and Higher Education. The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible And Theology, 79(2):133-152.

Walsh, B.J. (2000).  Transformation:  Dynamic Worldview or Repressive Ideology. Journal of Education & Christian Belief , 4(2):101-114.

Wolterstorff, N. (1980). Educating for Responsible Action. Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans.



[i] Nicholas Wolterstorff  (1980) has expressed concerns about worldview education as not being concerned enough with praxis.  Brian J. Walsh (2000) addresses some reservations about the notion of a Christian worldview.  In the fall of 2004, a conference provocatively titled, “After Worldview:  Christian Higher Education in Postmodern Worlds,” was held in Michigan. The roster of presenters at this conference included a number of Reformed scholars.

[ii] See for example, my response (Thiessen 2007) to Jacobsen and Jacobsen (2004), an anthology critiquing the Reformed approach to scholarship and education.

[iii] Although Smith does on occasion mention developmental factors (e.g. p. 56), I believe more attention needs to be paid to how formative practices function differently for children and adults.

[iv]  I also wonder whether Smith’s defense of the importance of worship rests on a confusion of revelation and sacrament (cf. p. 149).

[v] Smith is mainly concerned with higher education, though he points out that many of the same issues and concerns arise in K-12 education (pp. 18n3; 217n4).