Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

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.

Truth in a Pluralistic World

November 21, 2015

The notion of truth is under siege today. In my 35 years of teaching philosophy at secular colleges and universities, there is perhaps no other topic that sparks as much debate as the question of the existence of truth. Any time I dare to suggest that there just might be such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”, I invariably encounter a battery of standard objections, outright disbelief, and even indignation. It is as though I had suggested that the earth is flat!

Students are not alone in rejecting the idea of truth. Most everyone today thinks of truth as subjective and relative. In other words, truth is thought to reside in me or in society, and it varies with individuals or societies. The idea of “absolute truth” which is the same for all, and which is independent of what you or I, or a society, believes, is thought to be absurd. It is all a matter of opinion. And, “my opinion is as good as yours”! How many an argument or debate concludes with the words, “Well, it’s true for me”? And there is nothing more to be said after that.

Some Contributing Factors
Why is the notion of relative truth so popular today? There are a number of reasons. Truth, it is thought, judges, polarizes and divides. People who hold to absolute truth are thought to be dogmatic and intolerant. What we need instead is open-mindedness, and this is thought to exclude any affirmations of truth. “Critical thinking” is the current buzzword in education. The resulting skeptical mindset again makes it difficult to believe in truth. One of the central functions of education is to cultivate the intellectual virtue of tolerance, and tolerance is thought to mean that one refuses to judge the beliefs of others. The democratic ideal has led us to believe that truth too is determined by popular vote. Or, in keeping with the democratic ideal of equality, we have come to believe that my belief must be as good as yours – all beliefs are equally valid.

Some time ago, a student of mine, very piously proclaimed that she didn’t have a right to tell anyone what to believe. What she also meant to say was that I as a teacher also didn’t have a right to tell her what to believe. Another student wrote, “What is truth to one person may not be truth to another.”

We live in what is often referred to as the postmodern era. Postmodernism, at its core, is a reaction to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had a strong faith in objective science and universal reason as the only means to discover truth. And truth should be the same for everyone. But today, even science is under attack. It is now generally acknowledged that no person can be as objective as was assumed when modern science first emerged during the Enlightenment. Postmodernists also maintain that “reason” is not the same for everyone. All thinking is shaped by the history, the social and economic background, and even the psychology of the thinker. Some, like Walter Anderson, who has written a book with the colourful title, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be, go so far as to suggest that we construct our own realities, and that we therefore live in our own unique worlds which each of us describes in his or her own unique language (see sidebar quote below). The result – there is no objective reality and there can be no such a thing as common, absolute truth.

It should come as no surprise that in this relativistic postmodern climate, any claims to religious truth are met with a good deal of skepticism. And any suggestion that Christianity might have a corner on the truth is thought to be sheer nonsense.

Some Problems with Postmodern Relativism
But postmodernists who carry their views to an extreme like Anderson, invariably contradict themselves. They are forced to concede that we can communicate with others who disagree with us, which would suggest that our languages are not quite as different as they assume. They also seem unable to avoid talking about their postmodern viewpoint as better than that of “old-fashioned” modernism. But, better in terms of what? Better presupposes a best! Maybe there is truth with a capital “T” after all!

The private worlds of extreme postmodernists also tend not to remain entirely private. My neighbour and I simply are not living in two completely different worlds. And that is why we can talk to each other! And that is also why I could teach at a Lithuanian college, as I had the privilege of doing a few years ago, and the students were quite capable of understanding the philosophical ideas I was trying to convey.

Human constructions of reality also seem to be subject to certain constraints – I simply can’t create a reality in which I don’t get a bump on my forehead when I run into a concrete wall. It seems that the notion of an objectively “given” reality is inescapable. Indeed, there is some justification for questioning the motivation behind the very idea of constructing one’s own reality – it smacks of human pride. The “real” world has an amazing way of humiliating postmodernist artificial constructions of reality.

We also seem to find it difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense. If all truth is relative, there really is no point in arguing with someone. We should simply listen to each other, and at most, be amused at the variety of positions that we hold. But we find it hard to do so. The reason for this is that we care about truth – and about error. If truth is relative to the individual, there would also be no point in searching for solutions to the problems that we face. Deep down inside, all of us are a little afraid that what we believe to be true just might not really be true, and thus the search for “real” truth continues.

Truth and the Search for Truth
I would suggest that the all-pervasive relativism of today rests on a fundamental confusion – a failure to distinguish between truth, and our search for the truth. It is obvious that our search for truth is subjective and relative. We often find that we have to change our minds about what we believe and even about what we have claimed to know. But this in no way suggests that truth itself is relative. Indeed, we change our minds precisely because we realize that we haven’t got the truth.

There is the famous Persian story of some blind men, each describing an elephant from his limited perspective. This story is often used to illustrate the subjectivity and relativity of truth. But we forget that the story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers who are not blind and who can therefore see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant. The story only makes sense if there is a real elephant out there, which someone can see and describe more fully. Partial truth only makes sense in the light of some notion of full truth. The recognition of error presupposes Truth with a capital “T”.

Many years ago, I was teaching an evening philosophy course which a number of adults from the community were auditing for interest sake. One of my students was a physician, an agnostic with whom I had already enjoyed many an argument. In this particular class, I was once again defending the notion of Truth with a capital “T”. And then this physician spoke up: “But your notion of Truth sounds suspiciously like your notion of God.” He was right of course, though I hadn’t made any reference to God in the discussion thus far.

In order to make sense of the passionate search for truth that characterizes us as human beings, it seems that we are driven to talk about God’s all-encompassing view of truth, which will ultimately judge our limited and partial understandings of truth. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I believe in God! It is only in God’s light that I am able to see any light in this often dark and confusing world.

Religious Truth
What about religious truth? It is especially here where the arguments for subjectivity and relative truth would seem to be most appropriate. After all, there are many religions, each claiming to be the truth. But the fact that people differ, does not prove that they ought to differ. There was a time when there were conflicting opinions with regard to the shape of the earth. Some people thought that it was flat and some people thought it was round. But we all know that the flat-earthers got it wrong!

Clearly, differences of opinion with regard to religious matters seem to be more difficult to resolve. This is because religious questions have to do with the heart of our belief systems, and therefore they are more complex than scientific questions. Also, so much is at stake with religious questions, and thus we have more difficulty approaching these questions in an open manner.

But despite the seeming difficulties in coming to agreement on religious questions, there is still a correct answer to these questions, an answer which exists independently of what anyone believes. We may in fact only be able to settle the question in a conclusive manner at the end of time. Christians maintain that there will come a time when every person will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:11). Until then we have to live with a bit of ambiguity and try as best as we know how to get as close to the right answer as we can.

Exclusive Truth Claims
No doubt there will be some readers who will find the point I have made in the last paragraph quite unpalatable. Some may have agreed with my argument up until the last paragraph. But to talk of Jesus Christ as the only Lord – surely that is being terribly presumptuous. Indeed, it is Christianity’s claim to exclusive truth that is a stumbling block for many.

I quite agree that it seems rather arrogant for Jesus to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But what if what he says is true? Surely it is equally presumptuous to arbitrarily preclude this possibility. You might argue that it is not arbitrary. Other religions make similar claims to exclusive truth, and they can’t all be right. Again, I agree that if several religions each claim to be the only truth they can’t all be right. Remember the flat-earthers! Only one can justifiably make such a claim. But one of them might just be right.

Here I would remind us that making exclusive claims is inescapable. The nature of truth is simply such that we cannot help but make exclusive truth claims. If I think that I have got it right, then, if you disagree with me, I must think that you have got it wrong. Here it might be argued that a more eclectic and non-exclusive approach to religion is more generous and more tolerant. But, to claim that truth is found in all religions is still to make an exclusive claim – namely, that those who disagree with this are wrong. The eclectic and inclusive approach to religious claims is in fact very ungenerous and intolerant with regard to religions that make exclusive truth claims. We simply can’t run away from the problem. We have to face the question as to which claim to exclusive truth is in fact right.

No, it is not Christ’s exclusive claims to truth that is the problem. The real problem exists in the way in which finite and fallible human beings relate to claims like the one made by Jesus Christ. Christians need to take the words of their own Scriptures to heart: “For we know in part and prophesy in part… Now we see but a poor reflection” (I Corinthians 13:9, 12). As Christians we need to be more humble in our proclamation of the truth. After all, we can’t really take credit for the truth that we have found in Christ. And we don’t understand it as fully as we might. There is still much to learn!

On the other hand, for those who are still wondering what to make of religious truth, I would remind them that it is foolish to rule out Christ’s claims arbitrarily because they are exclusive. Instead, a more open approach to the matter is to take these claims seriously and to investigate as carefully and honestly as you can whether Jesus’ claims might in fact be true.

Some sidebar quotes:
Walter Anderson illustrates the different views of truth by telling the joke of three umpires having a beer after a baseball game. One says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way they are” (the Enlightenment view of truth which assumes there is a real world out there). Another responds, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way I see ’em” (the subjective view of truth). The third says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin’ until I call ’em” (the postmodernist denial of truth and reality). (Walter Anderson, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be)

“No seeing can be called serious which is without any clue. Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

“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.” (William James)

“If God held in his right hand the pure Truth, and in his left, the perpetual striving for Truth, and said to me, “Choose,” I would respond, “Give me the left, despite the danger of error; the pure Truth is for Thee alone.” (Lessing)

“An important part of our own commitment to one particular tradition or faith standpoint will be our desire to share this outlook with others, to testify to its truth, to express the universal intent attaching to it by exposing others to it, engaging in the humble task of persuasion not in order to suppress or curb the holding of other points of view, but in order that others might be free to consider ours and to explore the possibilities inherent within it as an account of the truth….[T]he condition under which such testimony or witness must be engaged in is a willingness to consider the views held by others, not because we are not confident in the truthfulness of our own perspectives, but precisely because we are, and because we are also more committed to truth than to our own accounts of it” (Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking).

(This article was first published in Encounter: A Mennonite Brethren Herald Special, Feb. 21, 1997, pp.14-18, and is here slightly revised.)

Thanksgiving and Pay-cheques

August 18, 2012

There once was a time, long, long, ago, when workers got real pay-cheques.  I rather liked receiving my official letter from Medicine Hat College each month with a large cheque in it.  I quite liked the subsequent bicycle ride to the bank to deposit my big cheque.  For a time I made it a practice to offer a prayer of thanks as I deposited my monthly salary.

Today it is harder to be thankful.  Computerization of workplaces and the financial industry has led to deposits being made automatically. One hardly notices these monthly deposits.  Now that I am retired I don’t even have to work in order to have cheques deposited into my account.  There are so many deposits coming in that I nearly feel that I should hire an accountant in order to keep track of them all.  There are the government pensions, CPP and OAS, payments made to me simply for being old – amazing!  Then there are my two work pensions. These will keep coming every month until the day that I die.  Then there are deposits from my current teaching and research contracts, and the occasional interest deposit.  All of these just keep being added to my bank account, month after month.  It is so easy to take all this for granted.

And there’s the rub.  It is all too easy to take these automatic deposits for granted.  I believe this creates a spiritual problem for us as Christians.  Taking something for granted represents a failure to acknowledge the God who is ultimately the generous Giver of all our pay-cheques.  Can we take credit for our intelligence or our skills that make it possible for us to get a job? No.  Can we take credit for the opportunities to work?  No.  Can we take credit for our health that enables us to continue to work?  No.  Can we take credit for living in a land of relative stability and peace that makes regular employment possible? No.  All of these are gracious gifts from our heavenly Father.

God, speaking through Moses, warned the Israelites about taking things for granted after they arrived in the land of promise.  You will be tempted to say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deut 8:17-18).

Remember to thank God, next time you look at your bank account and see those deposits that are really not all that automatic.

(This article first appeared in the “Reflections Newsletter” of Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Aug. 2008.)

The Offensiveness of Religious Persuasion and Evangelism

June 18, 2012

The topic of evangelism made national headlines in Canada recently.[i]  It all started with a Grade 12 student in Nova Scotia wearing a T-shirt in school boldly emblazoned with the words, “Life is wasted without Jesus.”   William Swinimer continued to wear his yellow T-shirt after the vice-principal at his school asked him not to do so because some students had complained that they found the message offensive.  William’s refusal to obey led to a series of in-school suspensions and finally a five-day at-home suspension.  The normally shy 19-year-old refused to comply even if it might mean permanent suspension and the loss of the rest of the academic year and his chance of graduating.  “I believe this is worth standing up for – it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion.”

The regional school board initially supported the actions of the school administration, with Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake maintaining that repeated defiance of school authorities was justified grounds for suspending William Swinimer.  The school board issued a statement clarifying that “students may choose to wear clothing that embraces their beliefs.  However, it is expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others’ beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.”

The nationwide debate ignited by this incident is most revealing.  It can be interpreted as involving a conflict of rights.  This is how Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake described the problem: “We absolutely support students’ rights to express their beliefs, but we absolutely support students’ rights to not have their own beliefs unreasonably criticized.”  But does a T-shirt with the message, “Life is wasted without Jesus,” involve unreasonable criticism of other people’s beliefs?  Indeed, is it even fair to suggest that this message involves criticism of the beliefs of others?  The vice-principal of the school even went so far as to suggest that the message on the T-shirt spewed “hate talk.”  The absurdity of this assessment doesn’t even deserve comment.  I’m not even sure Swinimer’s message involves criticism of the beliefs of others.  The students at the school were divided on this question, with some saying that the T-shirt message was simply expressing the personal beliefs of William Swinimer – “I believe that life is wasted without Jesus.”   Indeed Swinimer is quoted as saying, “I don’t do it to be disrespectful or to put down anyone else’s beliefs.”  Clearly Nancy Pynch-Worthylake and some other students didn’t interpret the message this way.  But, maybe they are the problem.  Maybe they need to develop thicker skins.  Surely if someone tells me that they believe life is not worth living without Pepsi, I shouldn’t take offense because I do not like Pepsi.  People are also not entirely consistent in the way in which they take offense, as Swinimer himself pointed out.  He wondered why his T-shirt became so controversial when he had seen other students around the school wearing T-shirts with slogans like “Hail Satan.”  Is it Christians who are being picked on?

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that there is at least an implicit criticism of other beliefs in the message of William Swinimer’s T-shirt.  Indeed, I believe that any evaluative statement entails an implicit judgment on contrary statements.  We are now left with the claim of the school board that students have the right not to have their own beliefs “unreasonably” criticized.  But, what is so unreasonable about the implicit criticism of other beliefs by making a simple statement like, “Life is wasted without Jesus”?  I suspect that what lies behind this judgment is a hidden assumption that all religious statements are unreasonable, and hence all implicit criticisms of other beliefs are similarly unreasonable.  But this is in itself a rather unreasonable position to hold, resting on a host of assumptions that need to be and can be critiqued.  We need a more generous definition of what it means to be reasonable.  Here the late John Rawls has something to teach us with his notion of “burdens of judgment,” introduced to help us to cope with the deep differences of belief within a society.  Rawls maintained that we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt with regard to the reasonableness of our differing beliefs.  We need a spirit of generosity allowing that reasonable persons may affirm differing reasonable doctrines.   Both those who believe that life is wasted without Jesus, and those who don’t, need to see each other as reasonable persons who can give reasons for their implicit and explicit criticisms of beliefs contrary to their own.

Emma Teitel brings to the fore another reason for considering William Swinimer’s T-shirt offensive.[ii]  He is not being “discreet” but “rude.”   Religious beliefs are “far too precious to flaunt” and should be kept private, according to Teitel.  Another on-line critic uses more colorful language: “Bloody Jesus freaks…they just can’t keep it to themselves! They just have to be IN YOUR FACE!”  Ah yes, if only we could keep religion restricted to the closets of private homes, or, if we must, to mosques, churches, and synagogues.  What is rather strange here is that we don’t demand this of other similar sorts of value declarations.  We seem to have no problem with the flaunting of commercial messages in the form of advertising.  Billboards and T.V. ads are very much IN YOUR FACE!  Why single out religion as something that needs to be kept private?  It seems a little unfair.  And there are some real problems with the private/public distinction appealed to by Teitel and other liberals who so desperately want to keep religion out of the public sphere. It is very difficult to keep anything completely private.  No, I don’t think Teitel really believes that religious beliefs are too precious to flaunt.  She simply disagrees with religious beliefs and she dares to flaunt her own anti-religious sentiments in a national weekly magazine. How rude!  How indiscreet!

But there is more to Teitel’s tirade against the T-shirt episode. “There is a great difference between cherishing a belief and wielding it like a weapon,” Teitel argues.  Now this is really quite serious.  Teitel goes on to multiply analogies, one of which involves the inappropriateness of pulling out a revolver at the dinner table if your guests are pro-gun control.  Another on-line critic was a little less dramatic: “The problem, for me, with religious people is that they get so righteous and full of themselves that they think they have a duty to impose their beliefs.”  Ah yes, the old skeptical sawhorse of coercion applied to evangelism.  But surely we have stretched the notion of coercion beyond recognition if we apply it to a message written on a T-shirt of a normally shy teenager.  Other students are perfectly free to simply ignore the message.  They can even look away.  Or they could choose to tell William that they disagree with his message.  And to talk about a message on a T-shirt as a kind of weaponry borders on the absurd, unless of course one is drawing on the insights of French postmodernist Michel Foucault who interprets all truth claims as “fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations.”  But if so, then this also applies to Teitel and her company of critics.  The weapon analogy is ultimately self-refuting.  So perhaps we should tone down the rhetoric.

So what was all the fuss about?  Given the weakness and even the absurdity of the arguments used against William Swinimer, it is not surprising that the school administration and the board, after consulting with a human rights activist, backed away from their controversial decision.  However, they tried to save face by scheduling some follow-up “open dialogue” on how students can express their beliefs “in a complex multicultural school environment.”  Sadly, William’s father did not let his son participate in this dialogue.

The reader might also be wondering whether this incident deserves the attention that I have given it.  I believe this case is significant because it illustrates some deeply held suspicions in our society against all forms of Christian evangelism or proselytizing.  These suspicions also surface in the academy.  Take for example, Canadian philosopher, Jay Newman, in his important study entitled, Foundations of Religious Tolerance:  “We usually do not like the people who come to convert us.  We often find them arrogant, ignorant, hypocritical, meddlesome…. [M]any forms of missionary activity and overassertive ‘witnessing’ accompany, foreshadow, and promote more radical forms of religious harassment.  There is something essentially intolerant about the missionary, the proselytizer.”[iii]  Newman concludes: “Most religious proselytizing tends to promote resentment.  Resentment promotes intolerance, which in turn promotes barbarism.”[iv]   I have argued elsewhere that these arguments are not as strong as is generally assumed.[v]  We are all indebted to William Swinimer for his bold demonstration of ethical evangelism.

(This blog is an expanded version of a blog which first appeared on, June 8, 2012)

[i] I am drawing on the following accounts of this case:  Bev Ware, “Nova Scotia school to debate religious T-shirt controversy,” Globe and Mail, May 4, 2012;  Sarah Boesveld, “Suspended Nova Scotia student defiantly wears T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 4, 2012;  and Megan O’Toole, “N.S. school backs off from ban of student’s T-shirt with pro-Jesus message,” National Post, May 5, 2012.

[ii] Emma Teitel, “A Tiring Tempest in a T-shirt,” Maclean’s Magazine, May 21, 2012, p. 12.

[iii] Jay Newman, 1982. Foundations of Religious Tolerance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 88-9.

[iv] Ibid, p.110.

[v] See Elmer John Thiessen, The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Philosophical Defense of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion.  Paternoster and IVP Academic, 2011.

Human Nature and the Future

June 6, 2012

Is human nature essentially good, or bad, or a bit of both?  It is in answering this question that the differences between Christian and secular thought often come into sharp focus.  The choice one makes here influences nearly all of one’s thinking, whether in the area of education, psychology, sociology, politics, or even economics.  It also shapes the way one thinks about the future.

The Christian narrative maintains that God first created human beings as “very good,” but sadly this goodness was seriously tainted by the fall of Adam and Eve.  The fall did not, however, entirely eliminate the goodness of God’s creation, including human nature. The original goodness of human nature still shines through.  But our sinful nature is still very real.  So the correct answer to the question I started out with is that human nature is both good and bad. There are some people, including Christians, who want to downplay the badness of human nature.  Others forget about the goodness that remains in human nature despite our tendency to sin.

Jesus had this to say to some religious leaders of his day who had difficulty admitting their own sinfulness:  “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-2).  I like to quote Jesus’ words when dealing with the problem of human nature in my ethics courses at college and university. But my students seldom appreciate this rather bleak assessment of human nature.  Why?

The view of human nature held by my students, along with many people in our society, has been shaped by the Enlightenment.  Eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant said, “In man there are only germs of goodness.” This kind of optimism about human nature continues to this day, and is expressed so well by A.S. Neill, influential British educator, who founded the well-know Summerhill school, based on the principle that children should be allowed freedom to be themselves.  Neill too is perfectly clear:  “Self-regulation implies belief in the goodness of human nature; a belief that there is not, and never was, original sin.”  Neill here reflects the orientation of many today who do not want to face up to the evil within them.  In fact, this refusal to face up to our true nature is simply one more indication of our evil nature.  We prefer to deceive ourselves about our moral condition rather than face the truth (see I John 1: 8).

Christians are always in danger of betraying a biblical understanding of human nature.  This danger is also present when interpreting the future.  We are tempted to become what R.M. Weaver calls, “hysterical optimists,” where our faith in human nature makes us believe that things will get better and better in society.  Evolution is always seen as upwards.  This faith in man’s goodness also makes it difficult for us to acknowledge the reality of the deepening moral crisis in our society, and the possibility of complete moral disintegration.

Os Guinness, in his book Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror (HarperCollins, 2005), suggests that Americans were unprepared for 9/11 because of a failure to appreciate the sinfulness of human nature.  They have been influenced too much by the liberal progressive idealism that has been so pervasive over the past 200 years, Guinness argues.

Some time ago, I read Dietrich Neufeld’s A Russian Dance of Death: Revolution and Civil War in the Ukraine (trans. By Al Reimer, Hyperion Press, 1980).  Reading this diary, describing the terror and suffering inflicted on the Mennonites in 1919-1920 by anarchists, Reds and Whites, all of whom were still ordinary human beings, is a healthy antidote to any hysterical optimism.

Of special significance is the fact that the Mennonites were totally unprepared for these events.  They “remained blissfully unresponsive to the danger signals around them.”  I would suggest that in part, their failure to read the signs of the times was due to their not fully acknowledging the evil nature of human beings.

Neufeld goes on to describe the Mennonites themselves as “complacent and self-centered.”  “They understood the Revolution only insofar as it was advantageous to them.”  In other words they were also blind to the evil within their own hearts, which was in fact part of the cause of the suffering inflicted on them by others.

Jesus encouraged us to be careful to read the signs of the time correctly (Matt. 16:3).  Are we doing this, or are we letting false doctrine blind us to the possibility of imminent disaster?  There are some voices suggesting that we are just a step away from moral and economic chaos and collapse.  Will our society then also be transformed into a dance of death?  Or, will our supposed civilized decency prevail and prove to be more than just a thin veneer?  The answer to these questions again depends in part on our answer to the question as to what is in the heart of man and woman.

Proper discernment will make possible adequate preparation.  Here we would do well to examine the Old Testament prophets, many of whom predicted times of crisis, urging the people of God to repent of their own greed and injustice which was the cause of the ongoing judgment. At the same time the prophets kept reminding them that God was ultimately in control.  They also kept appealing to a remnant to remain faithful to God.  The prophetic message then and now is that there is still hope even in the midst of chaos and crisis.

(This blog is adapted from an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Aug. 27, 1982)

A Critical Review of James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic, 2006)

April 8, 2012

(Published in The Evangelical Quarterly,  83.4, 2011, 347-351)

This book is part of a series, “The Church and Postmodern Culture,” that James Smith himself edits.  The series is intended to allow “high-level work in postmodern theory to serve the church’s practice” (p.9).  Smith describes the books in this series “as French lessons for the church” (p. 10). It is difficult to miss the positive spin given to postmodernism in these statements describing the series, and in the very title of Smith’s own contribution to this series.  Indeed, efforts at accommodating postmodernism seem to be rather widespread among Christian philosophers and theologians. The reader of this review should be forewarned – I have some grave misgivings about such accommodation.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? has its origins in lectures Smith gave to the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in the summer of 2003. These origins help to explain why the book is in fact a very readable introduction to postmodernism.  Three chapters of this book are devoted to examining a central idea in the thinking of each of the three postmodern thinkers highlighted in the title of the book. All too often, these central ideas have been treated like bumper sticker slogans by Christians, Smith maintains (p.22).  The ideas are taken out of context and thus misinterpreted.  Smith’s aim is to “demythologize” postmodernism and to show that each of these central ideas “have a deep affinity with central Christian claims” (p.22).

Chapter 2 deals with Derrida’s famous claim, “There is nothing outside the text,” made in one of his first books, published in 1967.  In making this claim, Derrida is centrally concerned with naïve attempts to get “behind or “past” texts.  Such attempts are futile, Derrida argues because all our experience is always already an interpretation (p. 39).  The world itself too “is a kind of text requiring interpretation” (p.38).  “[W]hen Derrida says there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language (p. 39).  We simply can’t ever get past texts and interpretations to things “simply as they are” (p. 42).  Given this emphasis on interpretation, we can see why Derrida has been a motivating force behind the preoccupation with hermeneutics in the church today.

Smith tries to answer Christian critics who are concerned about the subjectivism implicit in Derrida’s “prison” of interpretation.  Derrida seems to deny that there is an objective world out there.  Smith however argues that Derrida is not advocating “a kind of linguistic idealism” (p. 42).  But, it is difficult to see how this can be reconciled with such radical claims as “there is nothing outside the text,” or with Smith’s suggestion that the world itself is an interpretation.  I believe Smith tends to confuse some key concepts in trying to reconcile Derrida’s claim with a Christian worldview.  I quite agree that as human beings we are stuck with interpretations of reality.  But is there a reality beyond our interpretations?  What is needed here is a clear distinction between the human search for knowledge and truth, and truth itself.  Smith is particularly fuzzy in his uses of the notion of objectivity.  True, as human beings, we can never approach reality in an objective manner.  But is there an objective world out there?  Yes.  Is truth an objective ideal?  Yes.  Any failure to give a resounding affirmative answer to these questions is to yield to postmodern subjectivism, which is fundamentally at variance with a Christian worldview.  But listen to Smith:  “There is no uninterpreted reality, no brute facts passively sitting there to be simply and purely seen.” (p. 54).   This is fundamentally wrongheaded.  There is a world out there, and there would still be one even if there were no human interpreters of this world. I have no quarrel, however, with the next sentence: “Rather we see the world always already through the lens of an interpretive framework governed by ultimate beliefs” (p. 54).  Yes indeed.  But here we are talking about the human search for knowledge and truth.  And we must never confuse this search with the object of our search.  God has created a real world out there for humans to discover.  To suggest that there is nothing outside of the text is to lock us all in the prisons of human interpretation.

Chapter 3 deals with Jean-François Lyotard’s claim that postmodernism is “incredulity towards metanarratives.”  This again would seem to go counter to orthodox Christianity, which surely is a metanarrative par excellence.  Not so, argues Smith.  Lyotard is not objecting to big stories – grand, epic narratives that tell an overarching tale about the world (p. 64).  Instead, for Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomena: “they are stories that not only tell a grand story … but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason” (p. 65). Metanarratives according to Lyotard  are “false appeals to universal, rational, scientific criteria – as though they were divorced from any particular myth or narrative” (p. 68).  The problem here is that we as human beings cannot ever get outside of our own narrative.  Scientists too function under the rubric of a narrative that cannot itself be legitimated by science. Thus, for the postmodernist “every scientist is a believer,” according to Smith  (p. 68).

As Smith notes, all this is very much in keeping with the presuppositionalism of Reformed epistemology (p.69).  All knowing begins with faith.  The problem with Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives (and also with presuppositionalism) is that if you push these insights too far you end up with what is known in philosophy as “the incommensurability of belief systems.”  Each of us thinks within the framework of his/her own narrative, paradigm or presuppositional framework, and thus we simply cannot communicate with one another.  This extreme position flies in the face of ordinary experience.  We can communicate with others despite our differing narratives, paradigms or presuppositional frameworks.  Further, Christians maintain that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore are to some degree similar with regard to their epistemic capacities.  We also have access to the same general revelation.  This point is often expressed theologically in terms of the notions of “natural law” or “common grace.”  Obviously, those who reject a Christian view of human nature and reality will interpret this commonness differently to some degree.  But some kind of an appeal to a common reality, and some degree of commonness in evaluating beliefs, seems to be inescapable for all human knowers.  Therefore Lyotard, and Smith, and the postmoderns, are fundamentally mistaken.  They are overreacting to the rational/scientific paradigm.

Smith is quite right that the postmodern argument that all knowing is faith-based opens up some space for Christian witness in a postmodern world (p. 73).  We too have a story to tell (p. 76).  But Christians want to do more than just tell one story among a plurality of stories that are ultimately considered to be equally valid, given Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives. Christians also want to say that ours is the best story, indeed the true story.  And in order to do that we need to do some “modernist” apologetics which appeals to “universal reason,” all of which suggests that we need to be careful not to cozy up too closely to Lyotard and the French postmodernists.

Michel Foucault and his claim that “power is knowledge” is the focus of Chapter 4.  Foucault’s history of prisons, published in 1975, isn’t really about prisons, but about the way in which society as a whole reflects a prison (p. 85).  Foucault uses Nietzsche’s metaphor of archaeological digging to describe what he is doing with regard to our knowledge claims.  In Smith’s words,  “he digs beneath the surface of what goes around as objective truth to show the machinations of power at work below the surface” (p. 86).  Foucault’s genealogy “intends to show that modernity’s claims to scientific objectivity or moral truth are fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations” (p. 87).

Smith’s treatment of Foucault is rather confusing.  While at times he interprets Foucault as not wanting to identify knowledge and power (p. 85), there are a number of places where it is rather difficult not to see them as identical (pp. 85, 87,96, 100).  There is also confusion as to how to evaluate power.  At times Foucault is interpreted as saying we should not evaluate power, while at other times power is in fact evaluated as bad (pp. 91, 87).  Indeed, Smith admits that Foucault’s analysis of power is open to two very different interpretations (pp.95-99).  Interestingly, Smith prefers to interpret Foucault as a closet liberal and thus deeply modern (97-9).  If so, one wonders why he is treated at all in a book on postmodernism!  Given this interpretation, Smith challenges Foucault’s negative assessment of power, together with the implicit appeal to an Enlightenment notion of the autonomous self (p. 101).

What cannot be denied is that for Foucault there are always some networks of power underlying knowledge claims, and that these networks are indeed very powerful (p. 85).  Here a basic question emerges which Smith tends to skirt.  What does the “reduction” of knowledge to power entail for epistemology (cf. pp. 85, 96)?  The fundamental problem with power interpretations of knowledge is that they are self-refuting.  If all claims to knowledge are merely (or even mainly) expressions of power, then Foucault’s own analysis of knowledge is just another expression of power.  So, why bother listening to him?

Now I concur with Smith that Foucault has something to teach us about the many kinds of disciplinary mechanisms in our society that form individuals into the kinds of people that the power-brokers want, e.g. consumers or sexual animals (pp. 103-5).  But I worry when Smith, in a section entitled, “Taking Foucault to Church,” suggests that we need to “stand him on his head” (p. 103).  What Smith proposes is that we apply Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary mechanisms to the church. We need to be engaged in “counterformation by counterdisciplines” (p. 105-7).  But what does this really look like?  How much power can and should the church exert in making disciples?  Surely the church needs to be sensitive to the problem of exerting too much power over individuals.  It simply will not do to distinguish good discipline from bad discipline by its goal or end, as Smith attempts to do (p. 102).  Even if discipline and formation is directed toward forming individuals to worship God, if the disciplinary practices used are excessive, it is wrong.  The end does not justify the means.  Smith’s attempt at drawing some lessons from Foucault for the church are therefore fundamentally misguided.

The final chapter is devoted to a description of a postmodern or emergent church that expresses the ideals of Radical Orthodoxy.  What Smith seeks to achieve here is a “meshing” of the central claims of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault with the insights from the Christian theological tradition (p. 116).  What is puzzling here is that Smith objects to the “correlationist” tendencies he finds in both emerging and evangelical churches (pp. 123-4).  In other words, he is objecting to the tendency of churches to try to correlate what they are thinking and doing with the findings of the secular sciences, thereby trying to make Christianity intelligible or rational to a given culture. The problem here is that this is precisely what Smith is doing with regard to postmodernism.  His is also an apologetic of sorts – he is trying to show that Christian theology “meshes” with the claims of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault.  “Meshing” and “correlation” are synonyms, and if Smith objects to the latter, he should also object to the former.

I also have problems with the very idea of a “postmodern church.”  There is only one catholic church, at the head of which is Jesus Christ.  Smith would agree with this and indeed appeals to George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic, which he sees as addressing catholic (with a small “c”) Christians (p. 133).  But, why then the repeated references to the notion of a postmodern church?  Is it because it sounds new and novel and avant- garde (p. 109)?  Smith would no doubt claim that I am being unfair to him here, because in his final chapter he is arguing for a recovery of tradition.  Unfortunately, the relation between the new and the old remains fuzzy.  I agree that a fundamental challenge for the church today is to be the church in today’s postmodern culture.  But this does not require that the church itself be postmodern, or that it should adopt postmodern ideas.  This is a form of academic worldliness that Jesus and Paul condemned.

What has Paris to do with Jerusalem? (p.10).  Much less than Smith avows.  I quite agree that the church might be able to learn something from the French postmodernists.  But before we do so we need to engage in a careful and critical analysis of postmodernism.  Sadly, Smith himself engages in bumper-sticker sloganeering in his all-consuming desire to draw French lessons for the church.

Christians in Academia and the Call to Suffer

November 20, 2011

Christians in the academic world necessarily suffer.

Jesus described his followers as cross-bearers.  Suffering is seen as an integral part of Christian experience.  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11).  We are to remember that no servant is greater than his master.  “If they persecuted me they will persecute you also…. If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15: 20, 18).

There is a dimension of Christian suffering which we tend to overlook because we think of persecution and suffering primarily in physical terms.  Suffering also includes mental suffering – hate, insults, and false accusations.  Although all Christians experience (or, at least should experience) this kind of mental suffering, there are some of us who are called to endure this kind of suffering in a particular way.  Mental suffering is especially the lot of Christians involved in academic pursuits.  Christian students, teachers, and university scholars are called to serve God especially with their minds.  They seek to affirm Christ as the source of all truth.  They seek to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).

But Christ and the cross are foolishness to the worldly-wise, and thus Christian academics often experience contempt, ridicule and even hatred from their secular colleagues.

Sensitive Christian academics suffer when they read an attack on the Christian faith. They suffer when their secular colleagues reject or even ignore Christian answers to the problems of society. They may also suffer in terms of failure to achieve academic promotions or in getting their work published.

There is another aspect of the suffering of the Christian mind that is most often not seen in this light.  Thinking Christians are peculiarly vulnerable to the problem of doubt.  They hold a minority position and this isn’t easy.  Most of their secular colleagues disagree with many of their cherished beliefs, and often vigorously so.  And thus arises the agony, the anguish, and the mental torture of doubt.

This kind of doubt needs to be interpreted as a kind of suffering, and not as a sin, as is so often done in Christian circles.  The young Christian student experiencing doubt in a hostile university environment should not be condemned, but rather encouraged to endure this kind of suffering for Christ’s sake.

C.S. Lewis, well-known Cambridge literary scholar, and one of the greatest Christian apologists of his time, once described what it had cost him to be a Christian while at Oxford University: “His liberal and rational friends, he explained, did not object to his intellectual interest in Christianity; it was, they agreed, a proper subject for academic argument and debate; but to insist on seriously practicing it – that was going too far.  He did not mind being accused of religious mania, that familiar gibe of the natural man; what he was unprepared for was the intense hostility and animosity of his professional colleagues. Within the academic community, he unexpectedly found himself an object of ostracism and abuse” (in C.S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher, by Carolyn Keefe, Zondervan, 1979).

Lewis related those hurtful personal memories as part of a sermon he gave, in which he was trying to encourage those who were finding living the Christian life difficult.  In this sermon he also spoke of what Jesus endured on our behalf: misunderstanding, loneliness and finally betrayal and death.

The Easter message can also serve as a source of encouragement to the Christian student and scholar as they endure suffering for Christ’s sake.  We are called to share Christ’s sufferings (I Peter 2:21). Suffering for Christ is a privilege.  We are to rejoice and be glad when we suffer for Christ (Matt. 5:12).

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, April 9, 1982, and is here slightly revised.)




August 28, 2011

(This letter to the Editor was written in response to a City Council proposal to open several off-leash dog parks in Waterloo.  The Waterloo Region Record, Aug. 6, 2011, A10)

Another accommodation for dog-lovers – an off-leash dog park, so dogs can run freely as they were meant to do.  But, should we even have dogs in the city?  And why do we have dogs?  Not only one, but two or three dogs per family.

Perhaps we keep them for security reasons.  A dog barking in a house or a yard certainly has a way of discouraging a would be burglar.  But, have we deteriorated so far in our society that we need dogs to protect our property?

Perhaps we need dogs for personal safety.  I am sure that a woman feels a lot safer walking in an isolated park if she has a large dog with her.  But again, isn’t this a sad commentary on our society.

Perhaps we need dogs for companionship.  Given the depersonalization of our society, our reliance on virtual relationships on the internet, there is nothing like a dog right beside you, wagging its tail furiously, asking for your attention, and giving you all the attention that you crave.

I want to dare to suggest that our love of dogs is a symptom of a sick society.  Perhaps we need to spend some time addressing this sickness before we create off-leash dog parks in our fair city.

On Academic Arrogance

February 21, 2011

The know-it-all attitude of the undergraduate student at a university; the willingness to expound at great lengths on any and every subject on the part of the graduate student; the confident airs put on by the college or university professor – all of these are examples of academic arrogance. Academic arrogance is unfortunately all too common, and is enhanced, no doubt, by the attitude that persists in our society that the university-educated person or the educated professional are somehow superior to those who have received only a high-school education.

Arrogance is of course everybody’s problem, but it would seem that the academic is particularly susceptible to this vice. It is most significant that the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was  called a tree of  “knowledge” (Gen. 2:17). The essence of the original sin consisted of man and woman arrogantly telling God, “I know better than you. I think the fruit looks good and I will trust my own senses, my own reason, rather than take you at your Word.” And, ever since, arrogance tends to accompany our claims to knowledge, or even just the pursuit of knowledge (cf. Rom. 1:21-2; II Cor. 10:4-5).

Academic arrogance is wrong, first of all, because there is little reason for it. No matter how brilliant, or how well educated one might be, one’s knowledge is really very puny. Although humans have made great strides in science, there is still much that we do not know. Thus, it is rather appropriate that several scientists have published a book entitled, The Encyclopedia of Ignorance.

Academics also don’t really have an edge over the “simple-minded” in terms of avoiding problems of closed-mindedness, bigotry, or self-deception. Faddishness is common among intellectuals too – just browse through some academic journals and you will observe the frantic chasing after some intellectual fad that appears suddenly, and then just as quickly passes from the scene.

Knowledge is no guarantee of virtue; education is no cure-all for the ills of society, as is so often assumed. There is just as much, if not more, immorality on our college and university campuses, as elsewhere. It may perhaps be cloaked in more sophisticated forms, but sophisticated evil is still evil.

Academic arrogance is not only wrong because it is without much foundation, and hence really un-academic; it is also wrong because of its religious significance. It involves rebellion against God. The Christian academic therefore must be particularly on guard against the sin of arrogance.

Humility is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the truly Christian mind. Christian scholars are careful to maintain an attitude of humility before God, who is their supreme authority. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7; Isa. 33:6).

Christian academics always acknowledge God as the source of all truth. They see themselves, not as the creators, but as the discoverers of truth.

The Christian mind is always aware of its limitations. Christians should always be careful not to give the impression that they have all the answers. We don’t! We only know in part. We only see through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13: 9,12).

Christian teachers are always a little surprised that they are called to teach.  After all, what have they got that they have not received as a gift from God?

Christian scholars do not shy away from trying to explain their profoundest insights to the layperson, and welcome the criticism this makes possible.

A Christian apologetic has a modest air about it. Our witness should always involve a humble proclamation of the gospel.

For the Christian academic, the discovery of truth should lead to worship (cf. Rom. 11:33-36). Worship is the antidote to all kinds of arrogance, including academic arrogance.

(This blog first appeared as an article in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Oct. 23, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)