Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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.)


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]


February 2, 2014

To accuse someone of indoctrination is generally considered to be a serious accusation, especially in educational circles.  In fact, for most educators today, indoctrination is considered to be the very antithesis of what our schools are all about – educating in accordance with principles of rationality, freedom, and respect for individuals.

Religious instruction is particularly singled out as falling prey to the sin of indoctrination.  Not only the church, but church-related schools and colleges are often criticized because they are indoctrinate.  Christian parents are also frequently charged with indoctrination because they seek to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

How can those of us who are concerned about Christian nurture and education reply to the charge of indoctrination?  I want to suggest three possible responses.

There is first of all a problem in understanding what is meant by the term “indoctrination”.  Educational philosophers are particular concerned about clarifying the meanings of words, and much has been written about the concept of indoctrination in the last few decades.  But, as yet there is far from general agreement as to the exact meaning of “indoctrination”.  This disagreement is significant in that it indicates that the concept of indoctrination used by critics is itself vague and incoherent.

Thus, in defending oneself against the charge of indoctrination, one strategy is to ask the person making the charge to define the term “indoctrination”.  One will invariably uncover much confusion and many inconsistencies.  None of the critics of Christian education, to my knowledge, have as yet come up with a clear and defensible definition of this term.  The charge of indoctrination is therefore really vacuous.

When critics accuse Christians of indoctrinating, they are really only giving vent to their feelings of disapproval.  They are doing no more than shouting “Boo.”  Rational defense against such expressions of emotion is not only futile but unnecessary.

One of the major problems in defining indoctrination is that most, if not all proposed examples of indoctrinative teaching methods turn out to be unavoidable.  Thus another way in which to respond to the charge of indoctrination is to ask for specific examples of what are considered to be indoctrinative teaching methods.  One can then show that these very same methods also arise in what are generally considered to be acceptable educational endeavours.

For example, Christian parents are often criticized for imposing a specific religious tradition on their children.  The problem with this charge is that imposition is unavoidable in teaching children anything.  Parents, teachers, or society at large necessarily determine which traditions children are initiated into.  It is simply unfair to single out religion as uniquely susceptible to this supposed “problem.”

The final response has to do with the frequently made assumption that indoctrination is necessarily limited to doctrines or ideologies.  It is further assumed that such doctrines or ideologies are only found in religion, and that indoctrination is therefore impossible in accepted areas of knowledge such as history or science.

Against this it can be argued first of all that there are no good reasons to limit indoctrination to doctrines.  But, even if this connection is allowed, it can be shown that doctrines, however defined, are found in all areas of knowledge.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in all areas of knowledge.

Therefore another way to defend oneself against the charge of religious indoctrination is to ask the person making the charge what he/she considers to be a characteristic of doctrines.  Then show how this characteristic is also found in history or science.

For example, the late British philosopher Antony Flew described doctrines as beliefs which are “either false or not known to be true.”  However, a study of the history of science shows that there have been and still are many beliefs held by scientists which have been shown to be false.  Science also rests on basic presuppositions like the uniformity of nature or the principle of causality that are simply assumed to be true and hence are not really known to be true.  Thus, indoctrination can also occur in science,  given Flew’s definition of doctrines.

There are some, in fact, who argue that indoctrination is very common in science.  Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, wrote:  “The dogmatism of science has become a new orthodoxy disseminated by the Media and a State educational system with a thoroughness and subtlety far exceeding anything of the kind achieved by the Inquisition.”

Of course many would reject Muggeridge’s put-down of science.  But it can be shown that science shares many, if not most of the supposedly negative features that lead some to call religious beliefs “doctrines”.  If therefore these “negative” features do not lead us to make the charge of indoctrination in the teaching of science, then I would suggest that we should also not use these same features to make the charge of indoctrination in the area of religious instruction.

This does not at all entail that indoctrination never occurs with respect to Christian nurture.  I do not want to dismiss entirely the charges of indoctrination made by critics against Christian education in homes and schools and colleges.  But what is needed first of all is a philosophically defensible and consistent concept of indoctrination.  Elsewhere I have argued that indoctrination should be defined as the curtailment of a person’s growth towards normal rational autonomy (Teaching for Commitment:  Liberal Education, Indoctrination & Christian Nurture (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).  The aim of all education, including Christian education, is to help children to grow towards intellectual maturity, and that includes helping them to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers.  There are limits to our being independent and rational, and hence my qualification of rational autonomy with the word “normal”.

There is research showing that initiating children into a primary culture is a key to helping children to grow towards normal rational autonomy.  So it is a mistake to think that parents who initiate their children into a particular Christian tradition are indoctrinating their children. As I have already argued, initiating into a particular and primary culture is inescapable.  It is only if parents or Christian schools fail, at the same time, to encourage children to become independent, rational, and critical thinkers (each qualified with “normal”) that they can legitimately be charged with indoctrination.  Sadly, that doesn’t always happens.  But I would suggest that it happens much less often than critics assume.

(This blog is a revised version of an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 16, 1982)



A Philosopher’s Journey with Christ: An Intellectual and Spiritual Autobiography

June 25, 2013

Why write an intellectual and spiritual autobiography?  Quite a few years ago, I read a book entitled Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers, edited by Kelly James Clark (IVP 1993).  The title of this book raises the question – is it common or uncommon to find philosophers who are Christian believers? The preface to this book notes that it was not that long ago that most philosophy departments in the Western world were very hostile to the Christian faith (1950s-1960s).  I began my philosophical studies in the latter part of that time period, and this no doubt prompted my interest in Clark’s book.  Indeed, I found the book to be an encouragement and an inspiration.  That is the power of personal narratives, and so I feel compelled to write my own story, hoping that it will encourage and inspire others as well.

I was in the middle of reading another book when I started writing this essay  – Religious Upbringing: Personal and Philosophical Essays, edited by Peter Caws and Stefani Jones (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010).[i]  This book is an anthology of essays, again written by philosophers, but most of them very critical of their fundamentalist religious upbringing, some describing it in terms of indoctrination, and even brainwashing. They also describe the pain involved in their journey towards “enlightenment” when they eventually chucked the faith within which they had been brought up.  As I was reading these stories, I could not help but think that there is a need for another book – written by philosophers who had a religious upbringing but who still adhere to the religion into which they were nurtured.  This essay is a modest contribution to this cause.  My hope is that sceptics will understand that there is another story that can be told, and that Christians and other religious adherents, especially younger Christian philosophers, will be encouraged and inspired to keep the faith.

My upbringing:

I was born on January 18, 1942.  My father was a teacher in a one-roomed school in a small village in south-western Saskatchewan.  Indeed, my father was my teacher for eight of the first nine years of my schooling.  Having one’s father as your teacher is not an ideal educational arrangement, especially if he is a strict disciplinarian. Sometimes other students expressed their resistance to my father’s discipline by taking it out on me.  I began my schooling early, due to my mother having to leave home for a period of time to take care of her mother who was ill.  I guess I was somewhat precocious because I was able to complete Grade One even though I only started half way through the school year at the age of five.  But I was never told that I was bright, what with my father as my teacher, and a mother who only completed six years of schooling. Besides, given the religious background of my home, you didn’t tell children that they were bright lest they become proud.

My parents belonged to a pietistic branch of the Mennonites who had their origins in the radical Anabaptist movement of sixteenth century Europe. The Mennonite Brethren broke off from the larger Mennonite church in Russia in the 1860s, and were more conservative and pietistic in orientation. I think it is fair to describe my religious upbringing as fundamentalist. I was “born-again” at the age of nine, largely due to a fear of not wanting to end up in hell.  Bible reading and prayer were a regular part of our family meal-time traditions, and of course I was taught the fundamentals of the faith in Sunday school and church which my family attended without fail.

Did my fundamentalist upbringing hurt my development in terms of becoming an autonomous critical thinker?  Not at all!  In fact, I believe my rather narrow upbringing was foundational to my becoming an independent and critical thinker.  Various writers have argued that growing up in a secure and stable primary culture is a key requirement for healthy development towards autonomy.  Indeed, there is empirical evidence to support this claim, contrary to the philosophers writing in Religious Upbringing, cited earlier in this essay.  It is these concerns about the relation between a religious upbringing and the development towards rational autonomy that are at the heart of my first “real” book which grew out of my Ph.D. dissertation:  Teaching for Commitment (1993).[ii]  But I am getting ahead of myself.

My philosophical career began rather early.  I can still picture a scene in our three-room house in Rhineland, another village in south-western Saskatchewan, where I began my schooling.  Our house was attached to the school, separated only by a door with a peep-hole in it so that the class could be monitored by my father or mother when needed. I can also remember as a child sitting on the steps to the attic, badgering my mother with questions as she was washing the dishes in the kitchen.  I suspect all this questioning, including questions about the Christian faith, caused my poor mother to worry about me.  Although she was an intelligent woman, her lack of formal schooling would no doubt have made her concerned about my insistence on asking hard questions.  It is this questioning which led to my childhood conversion, and which in the end led to my choice of an academic career in philosophy.

Science and the Christian faith:

My early academic interests, however, were not in philosophy but in the sciences.  I did well in the sciences in high school.  After graduating from the Swift Current Collegiate Institute in 1959, I received a scholarship to attend university, and so proceeded to the University of Saskatchewan to study science.  It was a very difficult year, in part because I was grieving my father’s death of the previous summer; in part because of loneliness; in part because I simply wasn’t mature enough for university; and in part because I was scared about what a university education would do to my faith. Indeed, my dear grandfather, a well-known Mennonite Brethren preacher, was opposed to my going directly to university from high school.  I survived the year, thanks in a large measure to the support of a Christian community on campus, that of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

It had always been my intent to study theology at some point.  Given the many difficulties I faced during my first year at university, I decided to spend a year at a church-related college to get some theological education.  I ended up studying at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in Winnipeg for three years, completing a theology degree in 1963.  During my first year I took every available course that involved a study of the books of the Bible, and thoroughly enjoyed getting a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Dr. David Ewert’s courses in particular showed me how careful scholarship and a love of Scripture can go hand in hand. It was during these years of study in theology and the history of the church that I developed some competence in the humanities – I nearly failed an introductory English course in my first year of university! After my three years at MBBC, I returned to the University of Saskatchewan to finish my science degree.  I did, however, take a course in philosophy during the first year of my return to university, and after that I was hooked.  I went on to complete an honours year at the University of Saskatchewen (1965-66), ending up with a double major in physics and philosophy.

Before I focus on the philosophical part of my story, let me reflect a little on my background in science. I loved science.  It was precise, measurable, observable, and it produced clear-cut answers.  I absorbed the typical twentieth century attitudes towards science, attitudes that were shaped by the Enlightenment.  Science is objective – more on that later.  Science also gives us certainty and knowledge.  I still feel indebted to my science background.  I think it has helped me to avoid sloppiness in my philosophical thinking and writing.  But my scientific background also shaped my philosophical outlook.   It gave me a very healthy respect for empiricism.

Empiricism claims that knowledge must be based on the five senses.  I still believe this, at least in part. Although reasoning is important, and no good scientist could deny this, our rationality is ultimately rooted in the data we get via the five senses. All of us are fundamentally reliant on our five senses in acquiring the beliefs we hold.  Think of a child – fascinated with seeing, touching, feeling.  We as adults are no different.  When we demand of someone, “Prove it to me” – we generally mean, “Show me.”  That is the best way to clinch an argument.

Of course, empiricism seems to create a significant challenge to the Christian faith. God would seem to be beyond sense experience.  Small wonder that the so-called “Enlightenment,” with its devotion to reason and science, led to an increasing scepticism about religious faith.  David Hume, eighteenth century British empiricist, argued that any claims that could not be empirically proven should be banished to the flames.  German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, proposed that we deny the possibility of knowledge (i.e. scientific knowledge) in the religious sphere, in order to make room for faith. (My M.A. thesis explored Kant’s resulting notion of God.) Verification became one of the most important intellectual issues of the twentieth century.

The issue of verification was at the heart of logical positivist movement that began in the 1920s, and had its greatest influence from the thirties to the mid-fifties. But the influence of logical positivism extended well beyond this period, and I believe it is still very influential, contrary to the many philosophers who say that logical positivism is dead and buried.  I wrestled with the challenge of logical positivism to religious faith in my early studies in philosophy.  During my fourth year at university, we studied A.J. Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic (1936), and I couldn’t help but be impressed with Ayer’s verification principle: a genuinely factual statement must be empirically verifiable.  During my early years in teaching I even used as a text a major 552-page anthology on the topic of verification and religion in a second year course in the philosophy of religion.[iii]  And this was only one of four texts for this course!  I am still embarrassed about this colossal failure in adjusting the course to the abilities of my students.

But, where does the principle of verification leave God?  Are not most religious claims immune to empirical verification?  These questions were raising significant doubts about my Christian faith during my undergraduate studies in philosophy.  Indeed, it was during my fourth year at university that I experienced a crisis of faith, and was beginning to wonder whether intellectual integrity demanded a rejection of the Christian faith with which I had grown up.

The local chapter of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship held a Christian mission on the University of Saskatchewan campus that same year (1966), and the main speaker for this mission was John W. Montgomery, an historian, Lutheran theologian, and Christian apologist.  He was also invited to lecture in one of my philosophy classes and I was deeply impressed with his clear reasoning.  I asked if I could meet with him to discuss my doubts and also a paper I had prepared, “A.J. Ayer and Religious Knowledge,” which I was going to present to the philosophy club. We met and his first comment was, “This is a great paper. You should definitely go on in philosophy or theology.” I certainly needed this kind of encouragement at the time.  (Here is an example of a little word of encouragement playing a significant role in someone’s life.  I pray that I will have done this for other students in my own academic career.)

Montgomery also addressed my doubts concerning the verifiability of the Christian faith, highlighting the significance of the Word becoming flesh (John 1:1-11). God entered space and time in the person of Jesus Christ. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide empirical proof of God’s existence.  I also purchased Montgomery’s book, History & Christianity published by Inter-Varsity Press in 1964, which provides an outline of an historical argument for the existence of God.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the significance of the Incarnation as the foundation of the Christian faith.  For many people, especially philosophers, this foundation might seem rather flimsy, based as it is on contingent historical fact.  Indeed, this is in part what lies behind Paul’s claim that the preaching of Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1:23). But Paul goes on and dares to suggest that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Cor. 15:14).

It is this historical event that continues to be the bedrock of my Christian faith – God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  Of course there are additional issues that need to be addressed.  For one, are miracles like the virgin birth or the resurrection possible?  I have taught David Hume’s classic “refutation” of the possibility of miracles many times in my introductory philosophy courses, and each time I am amazed, and a little embarrassed, to find a brilliant philosopher like Hume, so obviously arguing in a circle.  I often refer to C.S. Lewis’s little book entitled Miracles (1947), for an illuminating and trenchant critique of Hume’s argument. The admission of the possibility of miracles finally hinges on a question of one’s worldview and the presuppositions that underlie one’s worldview. If the empirical world is all that there is to reality, then yes, the miracles of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are impossible. But the claim that reality is confined to the empirical world is itself a presupposition that stands in need of justification.  I will come back to presuppositions and their justification later.

There is one further insight in the philosophy of science that I have found most helpful in articulating and defending my Christian faith.  Harvard philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, in his analysis of “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” makes an interesting observation about the status of physical objects in science, as well as atomic particles and forces.[iv]  He suggests that the epistemological status of these entities in science is the same as that of the gods of religion.  I think Quine has got this right. Scientists posit entities such as atoms, electrons, and quarks that are not directly observable in order to explain what we do observe.  I believe it is helpful to think of the God of Christianity as a useful posit that helps believers to explain the world that we live in.  The sharp distinctions often made between science and religion are unwarranted, as I have argued elsewhere.[v]

Reason, philosophy and the Christian faith:

Why did I switch from science to philosophy?  It wasn’t easy to make this change.  Some members of my family were strongly opposed to my entering the suspicious field of philosophy.  But I was facing an increasing disenchantment with physics. Yes, there was something satisfying about the precise formula on a blackboard, but in what way did these formulae relate to existential questions about life and its meaning?  Learning about the laws of science seemed increasingly to be unimportant and superficial.  After all, science itself rests on philosophical assumptions, and it was these assumptions that I was finding increasingly intriguing.

My final course in the sciences was Physics 351 – an Introduction to Modern Physics.  I had told my professor that I was considering switching from physics to philosophy, and thankfully he sympathized with my divided loyalties.  He loved to tease the class by pushing the boundaries of science into discussions of philosophical assumptions underlying nuclear physics.  I loved these integrative excursions, and it made my transition to philosophy easier.  But Professor Montalbetti was a bit ahead of his time in recognizing that ultimately science is shaped by worldviews, and perhaps even theology!

In part, my enchantment with philosophy was also due the tensions it created with regard to my Christian faith.  I wanted to test my faith.  I wanted to see if it could withstand the challenges of rigorous thinking, and philosophy seemed to be the area where the challenge might be the hottest. My first philosophy teacher was an ex-Baptist, turned agnostic or atheist.  T.Y. Henderson loved to spend the first 15 minutes of many a philosophy class heaping ridicule on the Billy Graham column of the local paper, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, I believe it was.  I still remember one of the first philosophy essays that I wrote for him, in which I made a valiant effort to provide a rational defence of my Christian faith.  When I got it back, Professor Henderson had written the equivalent of another whole essay of comments in glaring red ink.  That was my first feeble attempt to integrate the faith of Athens and the faith of Jerusalem.

Another significant event in my intellectual development was the reading of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian (Allen & Unwin, 1957).  I still remember my hesitation in reading this book.  It remained on my shelves for quite some time before I mustered the courage to read it.  I was rather delighted to discover that the book wasn’t as threatening to my faith as I thought it would be.  The margins of my copy of this book are scribbled full of my rebuttals to Russell’s objections to Christianity.

Throughout my philosophical career I have struggled with the relation between faith and reason, and as I have already described in the previous section, my struggle nearly ended with a loss of faith.  My engaging in such a struggle rests on an assumption that needs to be brought to the fore, because it isn’t accepted by all thinkers, either Christian or non-christian.  My decision to go into philosophy and the resulting struggle with my faith presuppose that religious faith can and should be tested by reason. After years of struggle, I still hold to this. Sharp dichotomies between faith and reason, revelation and reason, or religion and science are problematic. In my opinion Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sharp distinction between faith and reason is fundamentally wrong-headed.  Similarly, Karl Barth was wrong in divorcing revelation from reason.

What are my objections to fideism, or religion based on faith alone, as exemplified in Wittgenstein and Barth: (a) It opens the door to irrationalism.  Once you open the door to irrationalism, you have nothing to say to someone who believes in Santa Claus, or Marxism, or Satanism. (b) A sharp compartimentalization between faith and reason breaks down – people who hold this position are always inconsistent. They inevitably do use reason at some point in their discussions of religion.  (c) I don’t think this position is in keeping with what the Scriptures teach. We are called to give a reason for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15).  We are called to love God with our minds (Matthew 22:37). Failure to think is a betrayal of our humanity. We are called to supplement faith with knowledge (II Peter 1:5). (d) Religious commitment without reflection leads to dangerous fanaticism. Paul at one point expresses concerns about such fanaticism on the part of some religious believers.  “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2).

Here an important theological objection is often raised by Christians themselves.  Is not Christian commitment based on faith?  Does not the writer to Hebrews suggest that faith is being certain of things we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)?  And does not Paul say that “the message of the cross is foolishness,” and that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate” (I Corinthians 1:18-19)?  I have wrestled long and hard over these questions, and was especially helped by a book by Paul Gooch, Partial Knowledge:Philosophical Studies in Paul (University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).  Gooch argues that Paul was not criticizing scholars and philosophers per se, but he was dealing with the problem of intellectual pride that is a very real temptation for scholars.  I have also come to see that the writer to the Hebrews is not in any way rejecting reason in favour of faith.  Indeed, he goes on to say that by faith “we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command” (Hebrews 11:3).  Faith involves understanding.  Further,  as I have often told my students, knowledge begins and ends with faith. We always start with presuppositions that are in one sense accepted by faith.  Or as Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century stated, it is always “faith seeking understanding.” And the conclusions we reach after careful empirical and rational investigation are never absolutely certain, and so we make a leap of faith even after we have reached tentative conclusions, just so we can get on with life.

Yes, it would seem that Paul is making a virtue out of the foolishness of the Christian faith.  However, Paul is in no way condemning wisdom or rationality generally since he goes on to suggest that Christians do indeed “speak a message of wisdom among the mature” (I Corinthians 2:6).  Instead, Paul is condemning intellectual conceit, wisdom which fails to acknowledge its dependence on God and His revelation of truth.  Paul himself was a master at debate and was constantly trying to provide a rational defence of his faith, even in the presence of philosophers (Acts 17:2, 17; 17: 16-34; 18:4; 19:8).  When Paul makes his defence before Festus, the Roman governor, his language is striking: “What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25).

The Scriptures generally have a very high regard for the mind, culminating in the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).  Wisdom and knowledge are repeatedly praised and spoken of as treasures (Proverbs 1 & 2; II Peter 1:5-7; Philippians 1:9-10).  Myths and “cleverly invented stories” are repeatedly condemned (II Peter 1:16). It is evidence such as this that led John R.W. Stott to remind Christians that Your Mind Matters (1972), a classic short defence of the importance of rationality within Christianity, and a little book that I still have on my shelves. This does not mean that rationality is everything – there are limits to reason, as I have already suggested.

Philosophy, Practical Discipleship, and Piety:

I love philosophy and the exchange of arguments with fellow philosophers.  I love ideas and interacting with others about ideas.  I love teaching and seeing students respond to new ideas.  I love research and writing.  But I have also come to see the dangers of a preoccupation with intellectual life and philosophy.  An admonition of nineteenth century Danish Christian existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard has challenged me: “Christ did not appoint professors, but followers.” So has Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, who made this observation: “Pious scholars are rare.”  We are called to love God with our whole being – with heart, soul, strength and mind. Then there is the call to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). I have struggled with these calls to love and discipleship, and I don’t think I am alone. I believe academics are generally not very good lovers – lovers of God, or lovers of our neighbours. Somehow, the education we have received, and the entire educational enterprise seems to militate against love and old-fashioned piety.

We have received an education shaped by enlightenment ideals which have made us value being objective, instead of committed; detached, instead of loving; rational, instead of passionate. We have come to enjoy questions, instead of answers. Answers would spoil everything. They might just carry with them a call to be committed. Or, to use Max Weber’s prophetic description of the modern era, we have become specialists without spirit. We as academics seem to have difficulty blending academic excellence with piety, practical discipleship, commitment, and love.

This is not to say that the academic life and being a philosopher is entirely unrelated to being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.  I feel called by God to be a philosopher.  Wrestling with ideas is an expression of my being a follower of Jesus Christ.  But there is more to the Christian life than this.  We are also called to love God with heart, soul and strength.  We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves.  We are called to become more like Christ, to display the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).  I have had to work at finding this balance in Christian discipleship – loving God with my mind and loving God with my heart, soul and strength.

There is one particular dimension of this balance that deserves more comment.  As already mentioned, I grew up in a rather pietistic Christian environment.  As I read my early diaries I discover a strong pietistic strain in the expression of my early faith.  Strangely, this was combined in my life with a strong bent towards asking questions and arguing.  There is a tension here that I have had to work at resolving in my life.  Again, I found my study of Kierkegaard in graduate school helpful. Kierkegaard wrestled profoundly with the interrelation between objective and subjective ways of knowing the truth of Christianity.  Here is his definition of truth:  “the objective uncertainty, held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth available for an existing person” (Concluding Unscientific Postcript, 1844).  There is something right about this!  There is a deeper level of knowing, a knowing of the heart, as Pascal famously said.

I recall my time at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, when for the first time I was reading the bible as part of my academic studies.  And again, I loved it.  I was hungry for a better understanding of the books of the Bible, and I took every Bible course that I could.  But I also remember struggling with the relation of my studies to my times of quiet meditation, devotional reading of the Bible, and prayer.  In fact, were the latter even necessary, now that I was studying the Bible as part of my academic program?  I’m not sure I resolved this question entirely while I was at MBBC.  Once I was back at a secular university studying science and philosophy, the importance of a devotional life was again more obvious.

As I continued in my academic pursuits, I think I have come to a better integration of heart and mind. Most days I spend some time in the reading of Scripture, meditation and prayer. While teaching, I liked to begin my day with 10-15 minutes of devotional reading and prayer in my office – I felt it was important to “sanctify” the workplace.  I have found it useful to combine the reading of a portion of Scripture with a good commentary on the passage of Scripture I am reading.  As my mind is able to better comprehend the meaning of Scripture, I am led to worship, commitment and prayer. So for me piety is very intimately bound up with the exercise of my intellect, and I have become more comfortable with what I suspect is a rather unique kind of a blending of heart and mind.  As an academic it is all too easy to take a stance of sitting in judgment over the Word of God, critically analysing what is written.  At some point it is necessary to let the Word of God judge me.

One other experience deserves mention. I have already alluded to the intense struggle with my faith that I experienced during my fourth year at the university. Indeed, in my diary, I described November of 1965 as “the darkest month in my life.”  I was discouraged.  I lacked motivation.  I was ready to quit university.  I even failed a Physics exam! In the midst of my despair I cried to God.  It was during this time that I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience.  Indeed, I may even have spoken in tongues. I was in the home of an IVCF staff member, and must have been sharing the emotional turmoil I was going through.  We all knelt down to pray, and I kept on praying. I was so absorbed in prayer that eventually my hosts had to gently intervene, because they had to go to another appointment. I recall repeating the name of “Jesus” over and over again.  While in this trance-like state, I experienced an overwhelming sense of peace.  God, I am sure, was meeting some deeply felt needs of mine at the time. Perhaps man is more than a rational animal.  Over the years, this experience has also served to temper my criticisms of the charismatic movement in Christianity.

Reformed epistemology and a Christian worldview:

My philosophical outlook has been shaped to a significant degree by what has come to be known as “Reformed epistemology.”[vi]  Indeed, I often say that I owe my philosophical salvation to the Reformed philosophers who have built on the writings of John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper.  I was first introduced to this philosophical tradition by the writings of Francis Schaeffer in the late 1960s (see his The God Who is There, IVP, 1968).  I found Schaeffer’s overview of the history of ideas most instructive. He introduced me to the notion of presuppositions, underscoring the importance of penetrating to the underlying assumptions of a belief system in order to really understand it.  My wife and I even paid a visit to Schaeffer’s L’Abri retreat centre in Switzerland in 1968, during our one-year stay in Europe after our wedding.

Reformed epistemology challenges the notion of the autonomy of human reason.  Ultimately a person’s reason is shaped by a pre-theoretical faith commitment. It is the heart that determines the direction of human reason.  Our thinking is further very much influenced by our history, our environment and even our psychology, and so we need to give up the Enlightenment idea that rationality is all of one piece, that we all reason in the same way, and that all rational people will come to the same conclusion. Hence the appropriateness of the title of Alistair MacIntyre’s book: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).  Indeed, these insights of Reformed epistemology have been reinforced by any number of post-modern critiques of the Enlightenment.

This emphasis on presuppositions and the subjectivity of reason seems to lead to epistemological relativism and ultimately social constructivism. It is these problems that I have been wrestling with in the last few decades and have gradually come to adopt a position of critical realism.  While we can never access reality as it really is, there is still an objectively “given” reality that we are trying to comprehend, however incompletely, and against which our interpretations rub. We must therefore always be open to critically examining our present understanding of reality, in hopes of moving towards a better and more complete understanding.  While our thinking is shaped by our pre-theoretical faith commitments, we still live in a common world and there is still a baseline of commonness in the reasoning of ordinary people in ordinary life. I have found John Rawls notion of overlapping circles helpful in trying to do justice to both the uniqueness and the commonness of human rationality.[vii]

Regarding relativism and truth claims, I have found that confusion abounds when we fail to differentiate between the search for truth and Truth itself.  The human search for truth is relative – we are often forced to admit that we have got it wrong.  But Truth is absolute – eternal and unchanging. To pretend that we can arrive at absolute Truth is to be conceited.  But without absolute Truth as a goal, our search for truth becomes empty.  The Scriptures are, I believe, very clear on this.  Paul in his famous chapter on love stresses that we know only in part, that we only see the truth dimly. It is only when we escape the limitations of human rationality here on earth, that we will know fully and that perfect truth will be known (I Corinthians 13: 10, 12).

The limitations that surround our search for truth highlight the need to be open-minded, another theme that has been the focus of my attention in the last few decades.[viii]  Indeed, I believe open-mindedness is a key intellectual virtue.  But like all good things, this intellectual virtue can be distorted.  We can be so open-minded that we forget about the goal of coming closer to the truth.  We can be so preoccupied with the search that we forget the desperate human need of arriving at some settled convictions.  This danger is well illustrated in G. K. Chesterton’s description of H.G. Wells as a man who “reacted too swiftly to everything,” was indeed “a permanent reactionary” and never seemed able to reach firm or settled conclusions of his own.  Chesterton goes on:  “I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind.  Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”[ix]  Somehow we need to find a healthy balance between commitment and open-mindedness.

Over the years, I have also become increasingly concerned about an overemphasis on questioning and critical thinking that is so prevalent today in education, philosophy, and theology (e.g. the hermeneutics of suspicion).  French philosopher, René Descartes, is generally seen as the father of modern philosophy. Descartes should also be seen as the father of our current preoccupation with questioning and critical thinking.  Descartes begins his famous Meditations (1641), by acknowledging that from his earliest years, he has accepted many false opinions as true. This prompts him to systematically subject all of his former opinions to doubt in hopes of finding at least one belief that is absolutely certain. Unfortunately for Descartes, his one certain truth, “I think, therefore I am,” is not quite as certain as he thought it was.  Indeed, there are problems with the very goal of absolute certainty that drove Descartes’ methodological doubt.  It is also impossible to question or doubt everything.  You simply can’t start from scratch. There are a number of assumptions Descartes makes that remain unquestioned. The individualism that pervades Descartes’ approach can also be called into question.

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

In the last few decades I have also explored the notion of “worldview,” and more specifically a Christian worldview, and have been teaching courses on this subject since my retirement.[x]  I have already dealt with the notion of presuppositions which Reformed writers like to describe as pre-theoretical faith commitments at the heart of one’s belief system.  One of the difficulties I have been trying to sort out is to describe precisely how these pre-theoretical commitments relate to theoretical belief systems. In any case, these presuppositions shape our worldview, which in turn shapes our thinking in all areas. A Christian worldview maintains that God is sovereign over all aspects of reality, life, thought and culture.  I have been inspired by a statement made by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch journalist, politician, educator and theologian, who in the climax of his inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880 stated, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[xi]

This summarizes a long-held passion of mine for developing a uniquely Christian mind in all areas of human thought and endeavour. Here I am indebted to a book I read while I was still an undergraduate student, The Christian Mind, by Harry Blamires (1963). Another essay I discovered later in my career and which I found deeply inspiring was written by Alvin Plantinga, entitled “Advice to Christian Philosophers” (1984).[xii]  I have also found the notions of presuppositions and worldviews immensely useful in teaching, and in explaining why and how individuals come to disagree so profoundly about many things.  Sadly, the idea of a Christian worldview has been running out of favour among Christian scholars, and so I have published a number of articles defending this notion.[xiii]  Even more sadly, there are many Christian scholars who deny outright the very idea of a uniquely Christian perspective on their disciplines.  Hence my continued urging of Christian scholars to be faithful in following Jesus Christ in their academic careers.[xiv]

Family and church life:

I first met Maggie Friesen in 1963 while we were both attending the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. Her family, like mine, was of Mennonite background.  She was born in Alberta, but the family moved to Ontario when she was 12 years old.  Church-related colleges are a good place to meet!  We connected again a few years later when I was working at the Dominion Observatories in Ottawa during the summers, helping with seismic research.  This was still in my physics days.  After the completion of my B.A. at the University of Saskatchewan, I chose to go to McMaster University in Ontario to begin my graduate studies.  My very “rational” choice to go there was dictated in a large part by the fact that Maggie would be attending McMaster that year to complete her B.A. in English literature. We were married after our year at McMaster (1967), and soon after the wedding went to Germany where I had received a one-year exchange scholarship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst.

I’m sure it has not been easy for my wife to put up with an academically inclined husband who was a bit of a workaholic, and who was all too often absorbed in thought, especially while writing books. My wife had to bear a good deal of the burden of rearing our three children.  Although I was very much absorbed in my work, I loved (and love) our children, and did spend time caring for them, playing with them, and especially during the summers, enjoying camping holidays with them.  I am deeply indebted to my wife for her loyalty and support over all these years, and for creating a warm and stable home-environment for her children and husband.  Ours was a rather traditional household, with the husband being the breadwinner and the wife being the homemaker.  (My wife gave up teaching as a career when the first child arrived.)  This arrangement worked well for both of us, and we find no need to make apologies for being so traditional when it comes to gender roles.  Rearing children is surely one of the most important things that parents do, and we felt this required at least one of us to be at home. My children too have taught me much – not all learning is academic!

I grew up within a Mennonite Brethren church context and am deeply indebted to this church tradition for nurturing me in the Christian faith.  During graduate studies and early in my career various churches provided opportunities for me to exercise my gifts in teaching and preaching.  For most of my academic career I was actively involved in the Crestwood Mennonite Brethren Church in Medicine Hat where I often served as Sunday School teacher and preacher, and held a variety of leadership positions, including that of moderator and lay-minister. This is the church in which each of our three children was raised and baptized.  We have many good memories of this church.  Over the years my service in the denomination expanded to include writing for the Mennonite Brethren Herald and being on conference committees and boards.  I love preaching and have also spoken in various churches across Canada.  A highlight for me was a year of pulpit supply (2001-2) in the Seven Persons Community Church near Medicine Hat while this church was without a pastor.

Belonging to a specific church is not always easy.  Churches are not perfect because they consist of imperfect individuals whose basic credential for belonging to a church is the unmerited grace they can claim in Jesus Christ.  Most often I was the only philosopher in the church, and there were always some in the church who were suspicious of academics, and more specifically philosophers.  Anti-intellectualism has of course been very pervasive among North American evangelicals in past decades, as has been documented by Mark Noll,[xv] and this includes the Mennonite Brethren church. Indeed, I have had to listen to sermons where Paul’s seeming attack against scholars and philosophers in I Cor. 1-3 was used to criticize philosophy and philosophers, and I couldn’t help but feel that these sermons were very pointed, because I was the only philosopher in the church. So I have had to work at continuing to relate to those who were not academically inclined, and to love those who looked at me with suspicion. I have also felt called to counter the narrowness and dogmatism that is all-too-often present in evangelical churches, and to offer critique where I have felt this was necessary.

Sadly, the story of my church involvement in Medicine Hat had a rather difficult ending.  After some 25 years of active leadership in the church, I wrestled with what to do about an increasing resistance to my leadership.  I was seen as a traditionalist, holding the church back from progress and being relevant to our contemporary world.  I didn’t want to engage in a power struggle and felt Christ calling me to step down from leadership.  After a few years of decline in the church, I was asked to return to leadership, but discovered too late that I could do little to help the church. Thankfully, God led us to move away from Medicine Hat.  Over time, God has given me the assurance that I was acting in good faith and trying my best to solve a no-win situation.  God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.  I am learning to be satisfied with that.

What are some other lessons I learned from this painful experience? The church is imperfect. I am imperfect.  God still loves the church and wants us to continue to love the church.  Our trust is finally not in the church, but in God who is fully trustworthy.  Jesus is the head of the church, even of an imperfect church.  One needs to be patient in bringing about change in the church.  It is very difficult to sort things out when one is in the midst of a church crisis.  I also learned that academics don’t necessarily make the best church leaders.  I have a tendency to think that problems can be solved by putting things on paper, or writing up a policy, and this just isn’t enough!

This event was one of several other factors that contributed to a psychological crisis in my life.  I was also facing difficulties processing my loss of identity in retirement.  Turning 65 was not easy for me.  In the winter of 2006 we spent a semester at Lithuania Christian College (LCC), and this was a very stressful experience – in fact, I had one of the worst classes of my entire teaching career.  I had also thought of continuing to teach at LCC during the first few years of retirement, but after a semester there, we realized that this was not the right fit for me.  So, I was also facing a future with no concrete plans.  Then there was the uncertainty with regard to where we should live during our retirement years – we were thinking of a move to a bigger city.  All these factors contributed to high levels of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.  So, I had to learn the lesson of human vulnerability in a new way.  I spent many hours reading and meditating on the Psalms and other comforting passages of Scripture.  I also had a good physician, who gently persuaded me to accept the fact that I needed some anti-depressants.  I am thankful to a former student of mine, now a dear friend, who provided external counsel, and of course, I am also exceedingly thankful for the faithful support of a loving wife.  I got through this period somehow, and after a few years recovered full mental health.  God is good.

One final observation regarding my relation to the church.  After moving to Waterloo, Ontario in 2007, we spent a full semester visiting various Mennonite churches in Kitchener/Waterloo.  In the end we decided that there simply was no Mennonite Brethren church in the area where we felt comfortable.  So we joined the Waterloo North Mennonite Church (WNMC). In part this choice was dictated by our desire to find a church that was close to where we had bought a house.  We quickly felt very much at home at WNMC whose membership includes many academics and professionals.  The church also has a vibrant seniors group, and my wife and I provided two years of leadership to this group.  There is considerable diversity of theological opinion in the church with some tendencies towards liberal theology, and learning to navigate these has again been an interesting learning experience.  While in Medicine Hat I was considered too liberal, at WNMC I am viewed as ultra-conservative.  Perhaps that is exactly where I want to be theologically – somewhere in the middle! But this stance has led to my feeling somewhat isolated in the church.  Then again, perhaps this is what we as Christians should expect given that we are always longing for a better home (Heb. 11:13-16).

Graduate studies and the call to teach:

I have already written about my “rational” choice of McMaster University as the place where I began my graduate studies. The year at McMaster was a challenge because my background in philosophy was not that strong given my double major in physics and philosophy in my undergraduate studies.  Often during our seminars, I found myself struggling just to keep up with the discussion, and I very seldom participated in class discussions. Indeed, I was seriously questioning my going on in philosophy.

I remember one incident that helped to change my skepticism about my philosophical abilities.  I had presented a seminar on Wittgenstein’s mysticism and later talked to my professor who asked me what I would be doing after completing my M.A.  I told Dr. Shaloam that I was thinking of quitting philosophy. He was surprised and interrogated me further on this, and so I shared with him my ongoing doubts about my ability to do graduate work in philosophy.  He encouraged me to go on, because he felt that I was doing well.  I had presented two good papers in his class.  I needn’t worry about not contributing to class discussions because this wasn’t that important, and besides, the students who were actively involved in these discussions were probably talking about stuff they didn’t really understand.  Dr. Shaloam felt that I was a clear thinker. He confessed to being a slow thinker himself. He reminded me that lack of confidence was common among philosophers.  Wittgenstein is said to have asked Bertrand Russell whether he should go on in philosophy or whether he was simply a dunce.  It was this short conversation with my professor that played a significant role in encouraging me to continue in graduate studies in philosophy.

As already mentioned, after this year at McMaster we were married, and soon after the wedding went to Germany.  It was a wonderful one-year honeymoon, and during this year I completed my M.A. thesis on the concept of God in Immanuel Kant.  My wife was so kind as to type my entire thesis – 6 copies using carbon paper to make the duplicates.  During this year I was applying for jobs as I wanted a break from studies.  Surprisingly, despite an incomplete M.A., I got a sessional appointment at what was then Waterloo Lutheran University, thanks to the intervention of the Vice-President and Dean of Arts and Science, Dr. Frank C. Peters, a former instructor of mine at MBBC.  I still have painful memories of the many hours of preparation of lectures during my first years of teaching. Sometimes I even ended a lecture before the hour was up because I had come to the end of my notes.  Despite the challenges of teaching, I found teaching invigorating and sensed a calling to teach philosophy, and so after two years I began my Ph.D. studies at the University of Waterloo.

In the meantime, we had our first child – studying philosophy with a baby cradled on one’s knees is not easy!  But family responsibilities had a way of keeping my life balanced.  I started applying for jobs, in part because I was very conscious of my responsibility in supporting a growing family, but also because philosophy positions in Canada were scarce at the time.  Thus I did not hesitate to accept an offer from Medicine Hat College when it came, even though I had only completed one year of Ph.D. studies.  As a result, completing my Ph.D. was stretched out over the next ten years.  Initially I thought of the position at Medicine Hat College as transitional, hoping that I would eventually end up at a university.  However, jobs in philosophy were very scarce at the time, and given my late Ph.D., coupled with my years of teaching experience, I was not an attractive candidate for new positions in philosophy. So I ended up staying at Medicine Hat College for 36 years. God has a sense of humour!

At one point I was invited to teach at a Christian college, but in the end I decided against this. I felt called to teach philosophy at secular colleges and universities.  Indeed, I interpreted this call to teach in a setting where most of the students are non-christians, as a call to be a missionary. Over time I became increasingly comfortable about being open about my own Christian commitment in the classroom.  I experimented with different ways to declare my commitment.  Sometimes I told my students that I was a Christian in the very first lecture of a new course.  One problem with this approach was that it put some students who were very hostile to religion on guard and it took some time to win their trust.  At other times I waited until well into the course to become more open about my Christian commitment.  Whatever approach I used, sooner or later I made it a point to openly declare my Christian commitment, and to warn my students (with a smile) that they were stuck with a Christian philosopher and that my commitment would color everything that I said in the classroom.

I don’t think it is possible to be neutral within the classroom. Nor is it desirable.  Having a professor who teaches from and for commitment is much more interesting for students.  Indeed, I believe integrity demands openness about our ideological commitments, especially in a subject area like philosophy. Teachers committed to atheism or Marxism will of necessity influence their students in the direction of atheism or Marxism, no matter how hard they try to be neutral and objective.  I have therefore been puzzled when, very occasionally, a colleague of mine expressed concerns about my approach to teaching from and for commitment in the classroom.  These same critics had no problem being very open about their atheist or Marxist leanings in the classroom.  Surely it is inconsistent then to object to a Christian being open about his faith in the classroom.  Of course, my atheist and Marxist colleagues might not see this as an inconsistency because they view their positions as academically respectable, while my Christian commitment is seen as merely a personal belief.  I would argue, however, that the notion of what is academically respectable is itself subjective, and that a case can be made for giving a Christian worldview the same epistemological status as a Marxist or atheistic worldview.

Obviously there are some professional and ethical constraints to being open about one’s faith in the context of philosophy lectures in a secular classroom.  Within this pluralistic context, the Christian faith has to be presented as one option among others. I have also always tried to create an atmosphere in the classroom where differing points of view can be openly discussed and criticized.  And I have tried to be fair in presenting the differing points of view on any topic.  I have also tried to be very sensitive to the power-imbalance inherent in a professor-student relationship. There is always the danger of abusing one’s authority in the classroom.  I therefore kept telling my students that they could disagree with me and get an “A” grade. Towards the end of my career I even encouraged students to call me by my first name.  After all, I was still a learner like them, so why not level the playing field?

Teaching from and for commitment is, I believe, quite in keeping with the goals of a liberal education.  The sharing of a teacher’s religious convictions, if done in the right way, can lead to further learning on the part of students.  It can help students to become rational and critical thinkers as they examine their own convictions about religion.  It can also help students understand the nature of healthy commitment, especially with regard to beliefs that are controversial.  With proper modeling, students also learn how to influence others in an ethical manner concerning the beliefs they hold dear.

Teaching at Medicine Hat College:

Medicine Hat College (MHC) had just moved to a brand new campus when I arrived in 1971.  MHC is a two-year college, offering two years of university-transfer courses and a variety of technical/vocational programs.  I was located in the department of humanities and social sciences, and since I was the only philosopher at the college, I had to become a generalist.  I taught a wide variety of introductory and second year courses in philosophy, and also had to teach a number of courses for the different vocational programs at the college. This combination of teaching challenges forced me to clarify and simplify ideas so students with no previous background in philosophy could understand the sometimes abstract and complex ideas in philosophy. I am still grateful for the philosophical and pedagogical discipline provided by this experience.

I love teaching, and consider myself to be a good teacher.  In course evaluations, students would often comment about my enthusiasm for the course material, my encouragement of  their participation in discussion, and my willingness to help them.  I always had an open-door policy with regard to office-hours, and was pleased when students took advantage of this.  Often the conversations extended well beyond course-related matters, as students shared personal struggles or asked about the bigger questions they were facing about life and its meaning.  Teaching for me wasn’t just about philosophy – it involved mentoring and caring for the whole student.  Invariably, there were a few students who would often engage with me after class, or whose visits to my office were more frequent, and I cherished these deeper relationships with what I called “my disciples.”  I was also able to counsel many students who were Christians and who after discovering that I was a Christian professor would share their struggles with the Christian faith. During my 36 years of teaching at MHC, I taught over 4,000 students and had about 100 “disciples”.

An introductory ethics course always was my favorite. In this course I challenged the rampant relativism in student attitudes towards ethics, and explored various foundations for objective universal ethical norms.  I always included an exploration of a Christian foundation for ethics in the course, and pointed to some of the unique aspects and advantages of such a foundation.  Of course, in good philosophical tradition, and in keeping with the pluralistic nature of a secular college, I also subjected this approach to critique.  In the concluding lecture of this course, I issued a very personal challenge to students to live the moral life.  I also explored the difficulties inherent in accepting this challenge, including the problem of moral failure.  And then, very briefly, I mentioned the need for forgiveness when we experience guilt as a result of moral failure.  I concluded by suggesting two options, either self-forgiveness or a super-cosmic Forgiver. You could usually hear a pin drop during this final lecture of my ethics courses.

On the final exam of my ethics courses I often added a Postscript:  “It is one thing to know what is right and wrong.  It is quite another thing to do the right and avoid the wrong.  Thus it might be better to see the final examination of what you have learned in Philosophy 249 as taking place throughout the rest of your life.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), our testing procedures are not able to evaluate this aspect of what you may have learned in Philosophy 249.  The instructor suggests an annual self-examination!” One student, a Muslim girl, told me after the exam that she appreciated the added note. Another student, in an evaluation of one of my ethics courses wrote, “This was a great class, Dr. Thiessen.  Unfortunately you opened my conscience up; is there another class I could take so I can shut it off!”  Unfortunately, I didn’t offer such a course, because I believe in teaching for commitment.

I took early retirement – four years before the mandatory retirement age of 65. Why?  I was increasingly feeling trapped at Medicine Hat College.  I also was not enjoying teaching as much as I used to.  For one who had always taken pride in teaching and doing it well, it was difficult to admit that the long-standing thrill of teaching was no longer there.  There were a number of factors behind this gradual erosion of my interest and excitement in teaching.  Medicine Hat College was undergoing a major shift in identity in the 1990s, becoming more and more of a technical/vocational school, with our department increasingly becoming a service department, providing courses for various programs.  For example, in my final year, I taught informal logic to a class of police and security students, an ethics course for massage therapists, and a biomedical ethics course for nursing students.  And these students were often very resistant to humanities courses, seeing them as peripheral to their programs.  In addition, many of these students were weak academically – the entrance requirements for some of these programs was lower than for the university transfer program, and besides, the college had an open door policy with regard to admissions.

It also seemed to me that students were increasingly less serious about their studies.  Most of them had jobs and so studying was something they did only if they had some extra time. In my final semester, out of 112 students total, I had 12 students who missed more than 10 classes, and another 29 students who missed between 5-9 classes over the semester, and this despite the fact that attendance counted for 10% of their overall grade in my classes. More broadly, I came to realize that I was no longer proud of the place where I worked.  Another reason for my early retirement was burnout. The teaching load at colleges is much higher than that at universities.  In a typical semester, I was teaching five courses, which involved four different course preparations. Given my commitment to having students do a lot of writing in my classes, I was repeatedly marking over 100 papers and other assignments throughout the semester. And I believe in giving detailed comments on assignments so students can learn from their mistakes.  I was working 10-12 hours per day, and was feeling more and more like a teaching machine. I had very little or no time for research and writing, which I needed to do for my own sanity.  I was also hoping to do some overseas teaching at the end of my career, and so I needed to make room for these dreams. I have already dealt with a final non-academic reason for retiring – the difficulties we were facing in our church.  So after 32 years at Medicine Hat College, I took early retirement, though I continued to do some contract teaching for the college in the next few years, in between my overseas teaching stints.

How did teaching philosophy at a secular college fit into the ideal of being a disciple of Jesus Christ? I had to wrestle with this question throughout my career.  Given my evangelical Christian background, I was inclined to justify my teaching career in terms of providing opportunities to give witness to Jesus Christ. Teaching philosophy within a secular college or university provides a unique opportunity to do so, by breaking down barriers students have to considering the Christian faith, and sometimes outright advocacy, though there are obviously limits to what can be done in the classroom.[xvi] Occasionally, students would come to my office where I could be more explicit about sharing my faith.

But is one’s work merely a context in which one can fulfill one’s true calling as a Christian to spread the Good News?  This is the position held by many evangelical Christians and advocated in an article I still have in my files, written by a prominent leader of my denomination, “Your Work is Not Your Calling” (Mennonite Brethren Herald, 1971).  I have come to disagree with this understanding of work and one’s career.  It rests on a bifurcation of life into the sacred and secular, and leads to a trivialization of the endless hours one spends at work and in one’s career.  It violates Paul’s clear teaching that whatever we do should be done to the glory of God (Col. 3:16). Thankfully evangelicals have come to a healthier understanding of work in the last decade or so, with many books being written underscoring the importance of work as a form of worship.[xvii]  My thinking on this topic has been expressed in several sermons I have preached, some of them making reference to Ephesians 6:5-9, where I believe we get a good foundation for a theology of work in Paul’s instructions to slaves: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord.”  Work well done for the Lord has value in and of itself.

Research and writing:

While at the beginning of my career I had vowed to focus on teaching, I was surprised to discover that I also loved to write, and that my stuff did indeed get published.  So another area of Christian service for me has been in the area of writing.  I have written a good number of articles and book reviews for the Mennonite Brethren Herald, and for two years served as a regular columnist for my denominational paper (1980-82).[xviii] Despite the very heavy teaching load at Medicine Hat College, I managed to find time also to do some academic research and writing

The first major writing project was the completion of my Ph.D. dissertation, “Indoctrination, Education and Religion: A Philosophical Analysis,” completed in 1980.  I can still remember my elation about distilling a paper from my dissertation and getting it published in the Journal of Philosophy Education in 1982.[xix]  My second full-year sabbatical was spent at Oxford University, as a sabbatical visitor at Mansfield College (1985-6).  I spent this year beginning work on converting my dissertation into a book which was eventually published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1993.[xx]  The central thesis of the book entitled, Teaching for Commitment, is that the charge of indoctrination often leveled at religious parents and schools is unwarranted.  Indeed, children need to be brought up within a narrow primary culture in order to grow towards autonomy.  So Christian nurture is quite compatible with goals of liberal education, though even those goals need to be qualified somewhat in order to be philosophically defensible.  For example, the ideal of autonomy typically appealed to by liberal educators is quite unrealistic, assuming perfect rationality and complete independence. But as I have already pointed out, our rationality is limited, and we are by nature interdependent creatures.  Hence my introduction of the notion of “normal autonomy.”

My next sabbatical was spent in two locations.  In the fall of 1993, I taught at Lithuania Christian College, a newly established liberal arts college in a country which had just gained its independence from the Soviet Union.  I consider this a highlight of my teaching career – helping students experience genuine freedom of thought after years of communist indoctrination. The winter semester of this sabbatical was spent doing research at the Stapleford House Education Centre, Nottingham, England. Here I worked on my second book that expands the defense of religious education to include a response to a variety of objections to religious schools and colleges. In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges was published in 2001, again by McGill-Queen’s University Press. One aim in my academic writing has been to bridge the divide that all too often separates the Christian from the secular mind.  I am thankful to McGill-Queen’s University Press for publishing my first two books, despite the fact that the thesis of these books was quite anti-establishment in the educational world.  I was also pleased when a Christian educationalist, in a review of my first book for Christian Week, suggested that my work “set a new standard for Christian apologetics for Canadian authors” (April 12,1994).

My third book dealing with the ethics of evangelism, was begun during my fourth and final sabbatical which again was spent in two locations, the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto, and the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, at the University of Victoria.[xxi]  I again contacted McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Roger Martin, one of the editors, was very supportive of the project. Unfortunately, our attempt to get a subvention to cover some of the publication costs from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program was unsuccessful, and without this, MQUP did not feel it could publish my book. So, after 2 ½ years of consideration by MQUP, I had to start from scratch in looking for a publisher.

In my continued search for an academic publisher, I sent a letter of inquiry to Columbia University Press.  The editor expressed interest in the manuscript, although she did have a query about my approach.  “Our program takes a specifically religious-studies point of view; if you are taking a strong advocacy position, the book might be more appropriately published by a press with a theology list or a religious press with an academic division such as Eerdmans or Baker.” The editor seemed satisfied with my response to her query, and invited me to send her the manuscript. After forwarding the manuscript to two of her advisers in religion at Columbia, she wrote back a month later and said the book was not appropriate for their press. “This is not a reflection on its scholarship but rather, as I suspected on its advocacy (despite the philosophical arguments).”  I suspect that what she really was saying was that I was not advocating the right position.  It also confirmed my growing suspicion that the real problem in finding an academic publisher for my book was that it was being vetted by scholars in religious studies who tend to advocate inter-religious dialogue as a substitute for proselytizing.  Again, I found myself going against the stream of established opinion in academia, and hence my problems.

A colleague at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Belgium where I was teaching in the winter of 2009 encouraged me to submit the manuscript to Paternoster Press in the United Kingdom.  I did so and very quickly received an expression of interest from Robin Parry, the editor. However, he asked me to cut the manuscript by 40% and make a few other changes.  Reducing the manuscript by 40% seemed like a formidable challenge, but in the end I appreciated the demand.  Indeed, I believe my previous two books would have been considerably improved if my editors had been brave enough to demand cuts.  In the end I only achieved a 25% cut, but Robin Parry was satisfied with my revisions and accepted the manuscript for publication. Robin was also successful in finding a co-publisher for the book – InterVarsity Press. So finally, after five major revisions of the manuscript, this book got to see the light of day, and with two publishers.

The Ethics of Evangelism can be seen as an extension of my previous two books.  All of my books deal with the problem of religious influence and persuasion.  My earlier books focused specifically on influence and persuasion in the educational context.  The problem of indoctrination is typically raised with regard to the young in the home and in the school classroom.  The problem of proselytizing or evangelism is at the same time a broader and a narrower topic.  In my latest book I am looking at religious persuasion of individuals and groups of any age, but the persuasion I have in mind has the specific objective of leading someone to a religious conversion.  I had three basic objectives in mind when I wrote the book: to defend evangelism against a variety of objections, to defend evangelism more generally, and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. This book was again written with two readerships in mind: skeptics who are opposed to religion and religious persuasion, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism.

The above story about the difficulties of getting my last book published leads to a final consideration of my intellectual and spiritual autobiography.  Perhaps the most difficult part of my career as a Christian academic has had to do with the call to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ.  For me this has come to the fore especially in an important part of academic life – applying for various kinds of research grants and fellowships.  An essential part of this process is to have one’s proposals for such awards vetted by referees.  It is a good process, and generally it leads to helpful comments on one’s work.  But at times biases come to the fore as I have experienced on a number of occasions.

In one case a referee chose to speak on behalf of other Canadian academics in my field, informing me that “some scholars, both in philosophy and in religious studies, regard [Thiessen] as dogmatic, inflexible, and narrow in training and perspective.”  He went on: “It is true that in certain ways Thiessen marches to the beat of a different drummer than most of his colleagues in Canadian philosophy of religion and religious studies.”  This same referee went on to encourage me “to adhere to a philosophical approach to [my] subject, and to avoid casual excursions into theology and other disciplines.”  Another referee expressed concern about my “consuming research interests and studies,” which all seemed to focus on the defence of religion.  And then this: “Could he overcome his own personal religious convictions and concentrate on developing philosophical arguments that could compel and stand against any critical inquiry simply because they represent philosophical thinking at its best.”  This very same comment appeared again in a later evaluation of an application for a SSHRC grant.  I suspect it was the same person.

Well, I didn’t get that grant, nor the earlier fellowship.  While I would be the first to admit that there may be some very good academic reasons as to why I didn’t get them, and while I am also prepared to admit that some of the criticisms made in these reports may have some justification, I do have a problem with their cutting edge.  There are anti-Christian biases out there, and they hurt.  After reading these reports, I had to swallow hard a few times, pray a little, do some introspection, and ask myself the hard question as to whether there was some legitimacy to some of the criticisms. But, in the end I needed to move on, still marching to the beat of a different drummer, and still writing on topics that I felt called to write about.  I also had to remind myself that insofar as these comments represented an anti-Christian bias, I needed to accept them as inevitable consequences of my Christian commitment.  After all, Christ has called us to share in His sufferings, and that includes philosophers who are followers of Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:11; I Peter 2:21).

My journey with Christ as a philosopher has been challenging, but deeply satisfying, both intellectually and spiritually. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything. My journey isn’t over yet. With Paul, I continue to press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me (Phil. 3:12). I recommend a journey with Christ to whoever might read this story.



[i] My review of this book is found in Studies in Religion, June, 2013, Vol. 42, pp. 262-4.

[ii]  See endnote #20 for publishing details.

[iii] Malcom L. Diamond and Thomas V. Litzenburg, (eds.).  1975. The Logic of God:  Theology and Verification. Bobbs-Merrill Press.

[iv] Willard Van Quine “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” found in his book, From a Logical Point of View, 1953.

[v] See my Teaching for Commitment, 1993, ch. 4. (see endnote #20 for details)

[vi] This is a view of knowledge first enunciated by Calvin and further developed by Dutch philosopher and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, and Dutch philosopher, Hermann Dooyeweerd. I am probably the only Mennonite scholar in North America who owns all four volumes of Dooyeweerd’s dense A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, first published in Dutch in 1935-6, and translated into English in 1969. This does not mean that I have read all four volumes, though I have appreciated a summary of Dooyeweerd’s thought as found in L. Kalsbeek, Contours of Christian Philosophy:  An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought (Wedge, 1975).  Today’s foremost representative of Reformed epistemology is Alvin Plantinga, whom I have encountered at several conferences. Other writings within this tradition that have influenced me include George Mavrodes, Belief in God:  A Study in the Epistemology of Religion (Random House, 1970), Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1976), and William P. Alston’s essay “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” (1982), later expanded into a book, Perceiving God (Cornell University Press, 1991).

[vii] John Rawls. 1987. “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus”. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 7(1):1-25.

[viii] “Religious Education and Committed Openness,” in Inspiring Faith:  Studies in Religious Education, ed. by Marius Felderhof, Penny Thompson, and David Torevell.  Hampshire, England:  Ashgate Publishing. 2007. pp. 35-46. “Teaching for Committed Openness,” in Cultivating Inquiry Across the Curriculum, ed. by Kim A. Winsor.  Lexington, MA:  Lexington Christian Academy. 2008.  pp. 159-185.  An abbreviated version of this essay appeared in Christian Educator’s Journal, Vol. 51, No.1, 2011, pp. 23-6.

[ix] Quoted in my Teaching for Commitment, p. 152. (see endnote #20 for details)

[x] Here I am indebted to David Naugle’s book, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans, 2002), and two books which I like to use as texts in my courses: The Transforming Vision:  Shaping a Christian Worldview, by Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton (IVP 1984/2009) and Creation Regained:  Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters (Eerdmans, 1984/2005).  I have also used James W. Sire’s Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept as a text (InterVarsity Press, 2004).  More recently Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholemew have published Living at the Crossroads:  An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Baker Academic, 2008).

[xi] Quoted in Richard J. Mouw’s, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011, p. 4).

[xii] Alvin Plantinga. 1984.  “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1(3):253-71.

[xiii] For some of my articles defending a Christian worldview see: “In Defence of Developing a Theoretical Christian Mind: A Response to Oliver R. Barclay,” The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible and Theology, Vol. 64, #1, January, 1992, pp. 37-54; “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.  Vol. 79, #2, 2007, pp. 133-152;  “Educating our Desires for God’s Kingdom,” Review article on Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, by James K.A. Smith. (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2009), in Journal of Education and Christian Belief.  Vol. 14, #1, 2010, pp. 47-53.

[xiv] See the articles referred to in the previous endnote as well as my chapter entitled, “Curriculum After Babel,” in Agenda for Educational Change, edited by John Shortt & Trevor Cooling.  Leicester:Apollos, 1997, pp. 165-80.  See also my article, “Temptations Facing the Christian Academic,” inDirection: A Mennonite Brethren Forum, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 2008, pp. 60-70.

[xv] See for example, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark A. Noll (Eerdmans, 1994).

[xvi] For a treatment of this problem see my essay entitled, “Evangelism in the Classroom,” in the Journal of Education and Christian Belief (Fall, 2013, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 221-41).

[xvii]  I was helped especially by Os Guinness’s book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Nelson, 2003).

[xviii] I also served as a member of the Community Editorial Board of The Waterloo Region Record for two years after my retirement (2008-10).

[xix] “Indoctrination and Doctrines,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 16, #1, 1982, pp. 3‑17. Reprinted in Critical Perspectives on Christian Education, edited by Jeff Astley and Leslie J. Francis. Leominster: Gracewing, 1994, pp. 376-96.

[xx] Teaching for Commitment:  Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture.  Montreal & Kingston:  McGill-Queen’s University Press; and Gracewing, Leominster, U.K., 1993.

[xxi] The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing Persuasion. Crownhill, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press; and Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

[xxii] My thanks to Dallas Miller, a former student, and Gary Colwell, a former colleague, both friends of mine, who read a draft of this autobiography and made many helpful suggestions.

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).


Doing God in Education

December 10, 2012

Review of

Doing God in Education, by Trevor Cooling, London, Theos, 2010, 74pp., ₤ 10 (paperback), ISBN 13 978-0-9562182-3-0, Open access,

This short and lively report examines the controversial question of how religious beliefs should be dealt with in schools in Britain today.  Trevor Cooling proposes an alternative to the widely accepted approach of objectivity and religious neutrality in education.

Chapter 1 begins with a reference to Paul Hirst’s influential 1972 article entitled, “Christian Education: a contradiction in terms.”  Hirst’s assumptions about the secularization of knowledge, and universal rationality permitted only an objective study about religion(s).  Religious belief was also not allowed to provide a basis for “an educational ethos,” nor was it permitted “to have a shaping influence on the curriculum” (17).  The reader of Doing God in Education is quickly brought to current expressions of this position as found, for example, in the writings of the British Humanist Association.  Humanists have partnered with other minority religious groups in Britain, insisting on fairness in education in a religiously pluralistic democracy.  They view religious belief as a private matter and therefore maintain that schools should “be strictly neutral with regard to religious matters” (22).  Children should be informed about the various religions, so that they can make up their own minds, but they should not be indoctrinated into any one religious belief system.

Cooling objects to this approach because it is not neutral and is in fact unfair.  It treats religion as irrelevant, irrational, “toxic clutter” which hampers growth towards autonomy. Ultimately, it privileges a secular and humanist set of beliefs.  He argues in chapter 2 that the very notion of a neutral curriculum is in fact an impossible one.  All thinking rests finally on “beliefs,” interpretative frameworks, worldviews, or faith.  Even “shared values,” which are commonly thought to be a key to binding communities together, are not neutral, but subject to differing interpretations.

Cooling goes on to provide a detailed case study in chapter 3, showing how even the teaching of modern foreign languages is not neutral.  Drawing on the work of David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill (The Gift of the Stranger, Eerdmans, 2000), Cooling shows how teaching the German language can (and should) move beyond teaching the technicalities of German grammar, vocabulary, and linguistic skills, to helping students to reflect on their own values, attitudes and behaviors as they interact with a native speaker in spiritually and morally significant ways (47).

What does the rejection of neutral knowledge and the embracing of the idea that interpretive worldviews underlie all knowledge entail for education?  Religious beliefs will now not be seen to be irrelevant clutter.  Rather, beliefs and worldviews will be seen to “constitute the heart of education” (32). Education now becomes “a process where we each learn to reflect on the interpretations we make and the beliefs we hold as we construct our own understanding of the meaning and purpose of life” (32).  With this approach both religious and non-religious worldviews are “treated as resources to be tapped in the cause of pupil well-being and flourishing, not as problems to be confronted and marginalized” (44).

In common schools, with a diverse student population, fairness will demand that students will encounter various religious and non-religious interpretations of all subjects taught.  Even mathematics instruction can (and should) move beyond learning that 2 + 3 = 5.  For example, teaching pie-graphs can include the teaching of empathy and gratitude as students wrestle with constructing a time pie-chart of the activities of a mother in an African village (44).  Science too will be taught in such a way as to put it into “its social, historical, philosophical, ethical and religious context (49).  This is because even science is not worldview neutral.  An atheistic worldview is not the only rational understanding of the relation between religion and science. This will further entail that creationism cannot simply be dismissed as a religious theory which doesn’t belong in the classroom (48-50).

Cooling’s argument also has implications for the long-standing and controversial requirement of compulsory worship in state education in the UK.  In 1988 attempts were made to revise the English and Welsh law to make school worship more acceptable in light of the growing pluralism within British society. But the proposed compromise, suggesting that all pupils take part in a daily act of worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character,” resulted in a “complex and bewildering cacophony of legislation and guidance” which busy head teachers found impossible “either to understand or to implement” (51).  After some consultative conferences held in 1997, a more inclusive approach has been proposed.  Instead of compulsory worship, regular assemblies are to be held to promote “reflection on values, beliefs and the spiritual dimension of life” (52).  Cooling finds this approach problematic, arguing that there is still an underlying bias against religious worship as “by definition an inappropriate activity in any educational context” (52).

Cooling prefers the approach taken in Scotland since 2005, but it is difficult to understand why this is the preferred approach because here too you have school worship defined in terms of promoting a vague kind of spirituality (52).  I would suggest that there is no adequate solution to compulsory worship in state common schools within a religiously pluralistic society.  The secularization of compulsory assembly times is inevitable – Scotland may simply be just a bit further behind in this process than England and Wales.  The underlying problem here is the notion of education being shaped by an established state church or by a Christendom model of the church. (Disclosure: I write as a Canadian and an Anabaptist Christian, who finds the notions of a state church or Christendom to be outdated relics.)

What about moral education (chapter 4)?.  Cooling correctly highlights the problem of trying to reach a pragmatic consensus about moral values.  We simply cannot come to agreement as to what constitutes human well-being (58).  Further, even the values that we might agree on are interpreted differently in differing worldviews or religions (29).  What is needed therefore, according to Cooling, is to see differing worldviews/religions “as a potential resource that contributes social capital through promoting the common good” (58).  He goes on to talk about “harnessing the power of public theology,” drawing on Miroslav Volf who brings theological insights into situations of conflict (59).  Other religious or non-religious traditions could be similarly encouraged to do public theology. One slight worry I have here has to do with the notion of a common good, because Cooling has earlier underscored the difficulty of coming to agreement on common values.  Can we, or can we not agree on the common good?  This needs a clearer answer.

How do teachers operate within the context of modern pluralistic common schools, given Cooling’s worldviewish approach to education?   Cooling provides some helpful suggestions in the section on “professional conduct” (61-3).  Teachers cannot pretend to be neutral, given Cooling’s approach.  “Neutrality amounts to practical atheism” (61).  Instead, the teacher’s faith needs to be seen as an educational resource, but, and this is a big but, the expression of that faith needs to be “carefully managed in light of the sensitive and complex context of the modern school” (61).  For one thing, proselytizing must be ruled out as inappropriate in “an inclusive and fair classroom” (61).  While there is something right about this, I believe this needs more careful nuancing.  After all, if neutral teaching is impossible, is not proselytizing somehow inescapable for humanist and religious teachers alike?

Cooling draws on some principles found in the Code of Practice published by the RE Council of England and Wales in 2009.  First teachers need to practice reciprocity, behaving in relation to other people’s beliefs as they would hope others would behave towards their own beliefs (61-2).  There also needs to be “a clear understanding of and commitment to the shared goal that is being pursued” (62).  Teachers as professionals will display dispositions such as “integrity, openness, authenticity, empathy, honesty and trustworthiness” (63).  Cooling also highlights the concept of “courageous restraint.”  The practice of courageous restraint requires that teachers be willing to stand back from what is naturally their first priority in order to respect the integrity of other people.  It further involves being willing to let fairness temper their advocacy of truth, being willing to accept that the truth they personally hold dear is contestable in wider society, and also welcoming the expression of points of view by pupils that they might even think to be wrong-headed (63).   This is not the same as neutrality, according to Cooling, because courageous restraint does not treat personal beliefs as private and irrelevant, but as a resource that needs to be openly and professionally used in the classroom. While I found this discussion refreshing, there are problems lurking in the background.  How much restraint should be exercised?  And again, can teachers agree on a “shared goal” in education, and will all teachers actually accept the list of dispositions that Cooling identifies as essential to professional conduct with regard to sharing beliefs and worldviews in the classroom?

Chapter 4 concludes with a brief treatment of faith schools.  Clearly, one implication of the central argument of this book is that faith schools have a place in a pluralistic society (64). If beliefs and worldviews “constitute the heart of education” (32), then faith schools cannot simply be dismissed because they are defined by a particular religious worldview.  All education and all schools are colored by a worldview.  Cooling goes on to defend faith schools adopting policies of student admission and teacher recruitment that favour those committed to the particular religious worldview of the school.  Against humanist objections to faith schools on the grounds that they are discriminatory, Cooling argues, “There is a ring of absurdity to a position which maintains that faith is integral to the school’s ethos and then insisting that the community cannot recruit the people who understand and can create that ethos” (65).  However, Cooling does concede that faith schools should try to become more inclusive, adopting selection criteria for students and teachers that balance the need to create a distinctive religious ethos with the need to ensure diversity in the school.  Creating a faith-inspired hospitable culture in such schools will again require courageous restraint. But, how much restraint will be required?  At what point will policies of inclusivity undermine the distinctive religious ethos of faith schools?  Will not the adoption of selection criteria that ensure diversity within a faith school not eventually lead to the school simply becoming another common school?  These are not easy questions to answer.

Doing God in Education is a fine example of academic scholarship being applied to current debates in the public realm.  Theos is to be commended for publishing works like this, which provide commentary on social and political arrangements from a distinctively Christian theological framework.

[This review was first published in Journal of Beliefs and Values, 2012, 33(1):134-8]

Universities, Freedom, and Tolerance

July 3, 2012

Christian organizations are having a difficult time on some of our university campuses these days, and I believe it will only get worse.

It would be very different if our universities were genuinely liberal institutions that acknowledged the fact of pluralism, and that tried somehow to accommodate the deep differences of beliefs held by individuals and groups of individuals.  Such accommodation is at the heart of liberalism, and should also be characteristic of a liberal education that is supposedly offered at our universities.

Instead, some of our universities are increasingly becoming institutions that will not tolerate any deviation from the religion of secularism. By “secularism” I mean an ideology that will not brook any practice or promulgation of God in the public square, an ideology that pushes traditional religious belief and practice into the private sphere where it can supposedly do little “harm.” Sadly, universities committed to secularism are increasingly becoming bastions of illiberalism and intolerance.

As I am writing this blog, the LGBTQ community at the University of Waterloo is planning a protest against a speaker at a prestigious annual Pascal Lectureship Series at the university. Dr. Charles Rice, professor at Notre Dame University, a legal scholar, and a devout Catholic, will be speaking on natural law. What the protesters find so objectionable is his referring to homosexual behavior as a “moral disorder.”  There have been several recent incidents at Canadian universities where events had to be cancelled because of angry student protests against the invited speaker.  And of course there is an epidemic of growing regulations against Christian groups on campuses and the outright banning of Christian organizations at some American universities.

Our universities should be places where individuals and groups (including professors) should be free to promote and defend their ideas.  We have something to learn from John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of the freedom of thought and expression, including the propagation of religious beliefs (evangelism), in his On Liberty. The freedom to propagate beliefs is of benefit to humankind, says Mill, because without it, human beings may be deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. To silence the evangelist because he or she may be in error is to make the very questionable assumption of infallibility, according to Mill. Even if false beliefs are being propagated, society still benefits because the propagation of error stimulates thought and discussion, without which individuals and society as a whole are in danger of falling into “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”  Indeed!

Of course, there are unethical ways to propagate beliefs – a topic that Mill only hints at.  Unfortunately, there are many today who believe that the propagation of beliefs, especially religious beliefs is, by its very nature, immoral.  I believe such a wholesale condemnation of the propagation of beliefs, or persuasion, or evangelism is fundamentally mistaken, as I have argued elsewhere (See The Ethics of Evangelism, Paternoster & IVP Academic, 2011).   Instead, we should pay more attention to distinguishing between ethical and unethical ways of propagating beliefs or evangelism.

Universities should be places where the propagation of beliefs, however weird and wonderful, is encouraged.  Universities should also welcome a variety of groups and organizations on campus, including LGBTQ, and Christians (in all their variety), and even New Religious Movements.  May we be roused from our “deep slumber” before it is too late.

(This blog first appeared on the InterVarsity website, April 25, 2012,

God in the Classroom: a Review Article

December 22, 2011

God in the Classroom:  The Controversial Issue of Religion in Canada’s Schools

Lois Sweet

Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1997, ISBN 0-7710-8319-X

pp.xv + 272,  $29.99

This is an important book which is bound to prompt much fruitful dialogue on the relation between religion and schooling in Canada.  The author, a journalist by profession, won an Atkinson fellowship in 1995-6, which gave her the opportunity to travel across the country (and to Europe) in order to gain first hand experience as to how religion is handled in our schools.  As well she was able to discuss the matter with a wide variety of Canadians of many beliefs and backgrounds.  The publication of this book was preceded with a five-part series in the Toronto Star as well as a two-part documentary on CBC-TV’s “The National Magazine.”  Both drew a huge response, a sign that Canadians are hungry for more discussion of this issue.

Sweet admits that she would never have dreamed that she would write a book like this a decade ago (p.9).  She describes herself as a secularist, but one who has come to recognize the significance of the religious experience (pp.213, 11).  Her book is prompted by a concern about our society which has somehow lost sight of the spiritual dimension to life (p.6).  And religion is denied and/or ignored in our schools (p. 239).  Sweet describes her son, now at university, discovering for the first time that Western civilization was based on religion.  “Nothing in his previous thirteen years of study had given him an inkling of that” (p.213).  A tragedy, indeed, and somewhat odd, given that schooling in Canada evolved from a decidedly Christian bias, as Sweet explores in Chapter 2.

It is this neglect of religion in our state-maintained public schools that has prompted a growing number of religious groups to set up their own schools – there are about 1,200 religiously-based schools that belong to the Federation of Independent Schools in Canada (pp. 6, 27).  Clearly the formation of religious schools is one way to address the problem of the neglect of religion in education, which is the overriding concern of the book.  But a major thrust of the book is to reject this option.  What Sweet proposes instead is a serious overhaul of our public school system.  Her central thesis is that given the pluralism that now characterizes Canada, we need, somehow, to accommodate religion in our public (common) schools.

Sweet defends her two-pronged thesis by drawing on the anecdotal experience of students, teachers, parents and educators.  The many stories are fascinating and at times moving.  This book will therefore appeal to a lay-readership.  But I would hope that academics will still read the book, even though there is little here by way of drawing on theoretical treatments of the problem.  Even when referring to experts in the field such as John Hull and Will Kymlicka, preference is given to comments made while interviewing them in person.  And there are no footnotes.

What reasons lie behind Sweet’s rejection of religious schooling as a way to bring religion back into education?  Chapters 4 & 5 record her impressions from visits to a number of religious schools (Sikh, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical).  A primary concern is that such schools are socially divisive and foster intolerance (ch.1).  Sweet also worries about the indoctrination that occurs in religious schools.  She is also very concerned about the lack respect for children’s and teacher’s rights in such schools (ch.9).   “[P]arents don’t have the ultimate authority over their children,” according to Sweet, “there is a need for the State to act in the interests of children” (p.178).

Sweet is further concerned that these religious schools will destroy our state-maintained system of public schools. Indeed, she also rejects the separate school system, i.e. Roman Catholic schools which are fully funded in several Canadian provinces (pp. 48, 103, 108f, 122f, 248, 252).  The ideal for Sweet is one, and only one system of state-maintained public schools.  But this will require a radical overhaul of the secular orientation that now pervades these public schools. We need somehow to bring religion back into the classroom.  If this is done, Sweet maintains, many religiously moderate parents would be much less motivated to put their children into independent religious schools (p.239)

However, according to Sweet, reintroducing religion into the classroom cannot involve the initiation of children into a particular religious dogma – an approach that was in fact rejected as unconstitutional in a 1988 Elgin County court case (pp. 13, 33).  Instead of indoctrination, we need multi-faith education about religion, along the lines of a 1994 memo from Ontario Ministry of Education (pp. 218ff.).  Sweet also recommends that a certain limited number of holy days of each Canada’s recognized religious groups be recognized through school closings where numbers warrent, using them as points of discussion (ch.10).

And above all, schools must take seriously the cultivation of religious literacy (pp. 10, 228, 239).  We need to acknowledge religious difference, and actually educate children about those differences in the classroom.  Here Sweet draws on comments made by John Hull in an interview in which he describes the approach of religious education in Great Britain (pp.224-8).

The journalistic approach taken in this book has its dangers.  While every effort is made to be fair, and the generalizations made are most often accurate, biases do emerge.  For example, much is made of the supposed denial of rights of children in religious schools in a chapter which begins with an emotively laden description of a spanking of a first-grader at an Alberta school (ch.9).   But, to link this episode with ritual genital mutilation, and to suggest that such physical abuse is responsible for violent criminal behavior in later life is simply absurd (p.170).  Contrary to Sweet, children at religious schools are generally loved for and cared for, and are viewed as having all the basic rights that she so much prizes.  Clearly there are different understandings of what is required to bring up children to be moral citizens, and we must be careful not discount the approach taken by religious schools, when, by her own admission, a major concern of many parents is precisely the failure of our public schools in this area (pp. 6, 64, 98).

A fundamental weakness arises from Sweet’s reliance on a traditional distinction between indoctrination and education.  She admits there is controversy regarding proper definitions of these terms (pp.149f), but unfortunately she rather dogmatically trots out the usual mantras concerning what these terms means. Indoctrination involves narrow initiation into a particular religious tradition.  Genuine education, by contrast, involves tolerance of dissent, autonomous thinking and behaving, and the celebration of diversity (pp.102, 159).  But, Sweet is forced to admit that the graduates from religious schools which she interviewed have become confident, critical and open citizens, who actively contribute to society at large.  The basic problem with her analysis is that she fails to do justice to the fact that nurture into a particular tradition is a necessary foundation for growth toward autonomy.  Narrowness necessarily precedes openness (see my Teaching for Commitment, Gracewing & McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).

Interestingly, Sweet implicitly acknowledges this point in other contexts.  She is very sensitive to “the politics of recognition,” which Charles Taylor sees as the key to living in a multicultural society (p.14).  She tells a moving story of a Jewish mother who clearly identifies the seeming paradox – the more she helps her daughter to understand who she is, the better she will be able to live with others (pp.110f).  She is quite frank in acknowledging that we might have something to learn from the structure of schooling in the Netherlands where over 80% of all the schools are publicly funded religious schools (ch. 7; p.128).  Here it seems that recognizing differences has facilitated healthy integration as well as tolerance.

Sweet is also very cognizant of recent developments in epistemology.  She acknowledges that neutrality is impossible (p.7).  She realizes that there is an element of faith in every area of human study (p.212).  She approvingly refers to Postman’s End of Education in which he argues that schools have to serve some god – some story or narrative that provides a sense of meaning, continuity and purpose to life (p.150).  A secular system of education is still a value system that competes with those that are religious (p. 113).

But, these epistemological considerations as well as her sympathies with the politics of recognition support a system of educational pluralism.  However, as we have seen, Sweet is strongly opposed to religiously based schools.  And this makes the overall thrust of the book somewhat puzzling, because much of her analysis would seem to point in the direction of religious schools as a way of accommodating the interplay between religion and education

Even in the final chapter she gives us a glowing account of a unique Logos Alternative Program in Edmonton, Alberta, where five Christian schools operate under the public school umbrella.  But Sweet speaks favourably of this approach only because these schools are part of the public system of education and are housed in existing public schools which allows the children to interact with other children in the regular public program (pp.241-4).  In the end, she is still worried about their promoting “a limited kind of one-sided learning” (p.244).

What Sweet fails to realize is that the multi-religious approach to cultivating an appreciation for religion is not without its own problems.  Knowledge of other religious traditions does not in and of itself foster tolerance.  And she fails to face up to the fact that public (common) schools cannot ever make up for, or overcome, the lack of religious literacy and the religious intolerance that is fostered in the home.  The multi-faith approach to religious literacy, I would suggest is yet another expression of Enlightenment faith in universal reason. It rests on the assumption that it is possible to get an understanding of religion generally without becoming committed to a particular religion.  It allows us to participate in “the religious quest” while keeping religion at a distance (p. 8).  But this will hardly do justice to the concern of many religious adherents who value the importance of particular religious commitments.  And it is a fundamental error to associate all particular religious commitments with excessive sectarianism (pp. 17, 36, 165).

In the end, it would seem that Sweet is still captive to a secular faith-story which makes it impossible for her to go where the wind of her argument really carries her. And while she worries about the indoctrination that occurs in our public schools when religion is systematically avoided (pp. 211ff., 222), she fails to worry enough about the liberal educational tyranny that is still inherent in her multi-faith approach to religious education, and which she wants to impose on all citizens via a monolithic state-maintained system of education.

This is a preprint of an article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 19, #2, Oct. 1998, pp. 251-4. [copyright Taylor & Francis]; the article in  the Journal of Beliefs & Values  is available online at:

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.)