Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

The Bible and a Hermeneutic of Suspicion

November 10, 2017

This blog is prompted by a column in my own denominational paper, entitled, “Hermeneutic of Suspicion,” by Melissa Miller (Canadian Mennonite, Oct. 23, 2017). The column is a remarkably forthright statement on a widespread view of Scripture in the Mennonite Church of North America, and it goes a long way to explaining why there are growing divisions between conservative “lovers of the Bible” and the liberal/progressive wing of the Mennonite Church and beyond.

Miller begins her column by recounting Paul’s teaching about all Scripture being inspired by God, which she, along with “many of you,” have “imbibed” in earlier years. It would seem that she has moved beyond this naïve position, as she goes on to give a brief history of the power struggles that led to the formation of our canon of Scripture, and that are thought to undermine their authority. Later in the column she expresses sympathies with an atheist friend of hers who simply cannot understand how an ancient book can be an adequate guide to contemporary ethical problems. And then Miller articulates her own “hermeneutic of suspicion” which she learned in seminary and from feminist and liberation scholars. The Old Testament, we are told, was written by writers who were male and privileged, and this will have shaped the stories that they wrote. All this is seen as casting some doubt on the authority of Scripture.

Miller concludes her column by suggesting that perhaps “suspicion” is too strong a word for “some lovers of the Bible,” and so perhaps “caution and curiosity” would be “more fitting” for those who have not advanced to a more enlightened view of Scripture. There is a condescending tone here, and indeed throughout her column, that I find troublesome. I also want to raise a question about Miller’s choice of “curiosity” as a more fitting substitute for “suspicion.” I fail to see the relation between these two concepts. Curiosity has a positive connotation, while suspicion has negative overtones. I am all for curiosity, and there is nothing to stop someone holding a high view of the authority of Scripture from being curious.

Miller goes on to claim that a hermeneutic of suspicion has led her to “a broadened appreciation for the Bible’s powerful message, particularly when interpreted by those who are weak, oppressed and marginalized.” I fail to see how a hermeneutic of suspicion can have these positive results. Curiosity can certainly lead to new insights, but not a hermeneutic of suspicion. Suspicion can only cast doubt on what we read, and in the end it undermines all meaning. This might not be entirely fair to Miller because she is drawing on a particular meaning of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which has some currency in the theological world. Theologians use this expression to refer to a critical understanding of the motivation of biblical writers and the contexts of dissension and dispute out of which their texts arose. But, caution is in order when dealing with motivation. I quite agree that coming to understand a text within its context and trying to understand what problems biblical writers were trying to address can help us to better understand what a text is saying, and what it might have to say to us today. But I fail to see why this needs to be seen as a critical task associated with suspicion. Trying to understand the context and problems that biblical writers were trying to address is a constructive task, and one that curious lovers of the Bible can take with utmost seriousness.

One of the central problems with a hermeneutic of suspicion is that it fails to be suspicious about its own methods. A hermeneutic of suspicion is self-defeating. It should be suspicious about its own method of suspicion. Further, as Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us long ago, doubt can only come after belief. We all need to start with belief and trust before we can practice doubt and suspicion. Indeed, a careful analysis of speech acts will reveal that trust must and most often does precede suspicion. I would encourage Miller to ask herself if she would ground her own communication with her friends, spouse, and children in a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” I am quite sure that she would advise against it. I’m confident she would say that such a foundation would lead to the destruction of the very relationships that she holds dear. What she fails to see is that a hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the Scriptures does the very same thing. What is needed is a hermeneutic of trust.

Sadly, Miller and other liberal biblical scholars have “imbibed” too much of a secular, postmodern, historicist, and deconstructionist approach to literary texts. Here it should be noted that this “school of suspicion” is no longer in vogue in the field of literary criticism. Perhaps Miller, along with other liberal biblical scholars should do some reading in the latest developments in the field of literary criticism.

Miller is also indebted to the writings of feminists and liberation theology. We are reminded that the writers of the Old Testament were male and privileged, and thus again what they have to say needs to be viewed with suspicion. Here again Miller fails to subject her sympathies with feminist ideology to critical scrutiny. To question what someone says because he is a male is not only a failure in logic, but also a betrayal of Christian faith and love. It is a failure in logic because it commits the ad hominem fallacy – attacking persons instead of their arguments. As Christians we are called to love, even our enemies, and we must also be very careful not to create artificial and unnecessary divisions. In the church there is neither male nor female, because we are all one in Jesus Christ, Paul reminds us (Gal 3:28). So let’s be careful here. I as a male would like to join hands with Melissa Miller in our common search for truth, also with regard to a proper approach to Scripture.

Then there is the problem of privilege and power with regard to the writers of the Old Testament. Here Miller’s thinking reflects the spirit of the influential writings of Michel Foucault who claimed that all knowledge claims are rooted in privilege and power. The fundamental problem with reducing knowledge claims to power is that such reductionism is again self-refuting. If all claims to knowledge are merely (or even mainly) expressions of power, then Foucault’s own analysis of knowledge is just another expression of power. So, why bother listening to him? By the same token, Miller’s analysis of the Bible is also merely (or even mainly) an expression of modern feminist power, and so must be questioned as suspicious.

Miller also expresses some sympathies with her atheist friend who thinks that “an ancient book is woefully inadequate as a guide to ethics today.” I am convinced that much of the skepticism regarding the Bible within the Mennonite Church today has to do with its being ancient and outdated. But there are several problems with such a dismissal of the relevance of the Bible to our time. This approach falls prey to what I call “the fallacy of newness.” The old is seen as necessarily outdated and the new is seen as progressive. But old ideas might just be true! Further, many of us continue to find the Bible very relevant to our time. I enjoy teaching the ancient philosophers and find them amazingly relevant to contemporary society. Just last year I taught a course entitled, “Plato’s Republic: Then and Now.” My students and I found that Plato had a lot to say about the political problems we are facing today. Why then shouldn’t the Bible be able to speak to us today? Jesus repeatedly quotes from the Old Testament, obviously seeing it as authoritative and relevant to his time. We can and should do the same.

The Bible’s relevance also extends to the area of ethics. The God of the Bible is the creator of everything, including the ethical norms that he built into creation and which apply to all individuals and all societies for all time. We ignore or disobey these ethical norms at our peril. Many of the commandments of the Bible need to be seen as having universal and timeless application. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus clearly reaffirmed some of the commandments of the Old Testament and went on to say that “anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). Pretty strong words!

Many Christians, including Mennonites, like to believe that the New Testament emphasis on love supersedes the law of the Old Testament. But they forget that the admonition to love is itself a commandment, and Jesus links love with obeying his commandments (John 15:9-17). John bluntly says that anyone who does not do what Jesus commands is “a liar and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:4). And lest anyone gets confused on what this means, John continues: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands” (2 John 6). Paul also reminds us that the rule of love is in fact fulfilled in keeping the commandments (Rom 13:8-10). We are simply wrong in trying to create a disjunction between Jesus’ ethic of love and the ten commandments of the Old Testament. And both have relevance to our time. “Your word, O Lord, is eternal… Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you” (Ps. 119:91).

Thankfully, there is a more positive note in Miller’s column. Sadly this more constructive emphasis is undermined by the overall skeptical stance taken with regard to Scripture. Indeed, it is rather hard to reconcile Miller’s adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion with her hints of a more positive approach to Scripture. But positive hints there are, and I want to focus on these for a while and see how they can contribute to a more coherent and constructive approach to Scripture. Miller identifies herself as one of those “who value Scripture,” and who “trust the God-breath that worked through human hands and motivations to produce them and to guide us today.” Indeed! Here we have at least a partial acknowledgement of the Scripture as “inspired by God” and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness” (II Tim 3:16). It would seem that Miller treats this verse as something that she not only “imbibed” in the past, but that is still a current conviction of hers. So, why all the negativism? Yes, there is a human component to the writing of Scripture, but we must never forget the divine component. The writers of the books of the bible were somehow inspired by God.

Miller also points to Jesus, “whose self-giving love ethic is magnificently compelling, timeless and exactly the model needed for the world in any age.” Here Miller is recognizing that Jesus’ words which are in fact recorded in Scripture are in some way self-authenticating. Those who read the Bible with open hearts and minds will find it to be most compelling. But the self-authenticating nature of the Bible extends beyond Jesus’ love-ethic. Jesus also gave us a penetrating analysis of the human soul. “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils comes from inside and make a man unclean” (Mark 7:21-2). I find this to be a very accurate analysis of the recurring sinful inclinations of my own heart, and I need to be reminded of these words again and again. The writer to the Hebrews describes the word of God as “living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword,” and very much able to judge the “thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12-13). Again, Miller seems to acknowledge all this when she says that the teachings of Jesus “inspire, guide and disturb.” Indeed!

So there are at least the beginnings of a more positive and constructive view of the Bible in Miller’s analysis. Building on this, we need to start with a hermeneutic of trust rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion. Does this mean that we should entirely ignore a careful understanding of how the Scriptures came to us? Does this mean that we should ignore any critical approaches to Scripture? Not at all. But we need to maintain proper proportions. We need to engage in careful and critical analysis of the Bible at the right time and in the right place and in a proper manner. We also need to make sure that we build up the faith of others. Let’s recognize the dangers of hurting others when we engage in an indiscriminate over-emphasis on a hermeneutic of suspicion. With Paul Ricour, we need to move from a pre-critical to a critical to a post-critical hermeneutic when we read the Bible. We need to start with a hermeneutic of trust, move on to a hermeneutic of curious, careful and even critical study, and then move on again to a hermeneutic of trust and reorientation.

I am sure that I will be dismissed by some as a narrow-minded fundamentalist, but let me assure the reader that I am not. As a philosopher, I love to think critically, and I am very much aware of the complexities of language. I, for one, do not accept the inerrancy of Scripture. This doctrine is itself an artificial construct of fallible human beings, developed at a particular time in history as a response to certain modernist tendencies in theology. As such it bears all the marks of an over-reaction. I reject the doctrine of inerrancy because its approach to the language of the Bible is too mechanical and too simplistic. I like to think of my approach to the authority of Scripture as being even higher than that of inerrancy. So I believe that all Scripture, though written by human beings, is “inspired by God” and is therefore eminently useful “for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness.” I believe that God has revealed himself in our Scriptures, and in Jesus Christ, who is in fact described in our Scriptures. We must not separate these two aspects of God’s revelation. And let’s not forget the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth” who continues to “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I (Jesus) have said to you” (John 14:17, 26).

Of course, there is much more that needs to be said by way of developing a theology of God’s revelation, and then spelling out how God’s word should be interpreted and applied to the contemporary world. But my main concern in this blog has been to critique skeptical approaches to Scripture that rely on hasty generalizations and simplistic slogans. Such an approach to Scripture cannot feed the soul. Instead of sitting in judgement over the Word we need to humbly place ourselves under the Word and let it judge us and also nourish us.

I conclude with some words from a prophet who warned about the coming of a famine, “not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” Then follows a description of men and women staggering from sea to sea, and wandering from north to south, “searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.” What is especially poignant about this desperate and hopeless search for an authoritative word of the Lord is that it is “the lovely young women and strong young men” who are fainting because of thirst (Amos 9: 11-13). I want to suggest that it is not only the young but also the middle-aged and older generations who are suffering from a famine of hearing the words of the Lord because of the widespread adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to our Scriptures. May God help us to move towards a more defensible and constructive appreciation of the word of the Lord as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus.

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Heterodox Yoder and the Mennonite Church Today

August 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes:
1. See my essay, “Question-focused Christian faith” on my blog, https://elmerjohnthiessen.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/question-focused-christian-faith/
1. Dintaman’s essay appeared in: The Conrad Grebel Review 10 (Spring 1992): 205-208; Mennonite Reporter, Oct. 19, 1992, 8; Gospel Herald, Feb. 23, 1993, 1-3; Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 5, 1993, 6-7; The Mennonite, May 11, 1993, 11-12.
3. “Revisiting ‘The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,’” The Conrad Grebel Review 13 (Winter 1995): 1-22. The essays here are written by Steve Dintaman, J. Loren Peachey, editor of the Gospel Herald, Richard Showalter, president, Rosedale Bible Institute, and Mitchell Brown, pastor, Evanston Mennonite Church.
4. Ibid., p. 2, 3.
5. Ibid., p. 5.

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

June 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Philosopher Examines Peter Enns

January 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review will appear in the Christian Courier, Feb. 23 or March 9, 2015. A longer review will also appear in the Evangelical Quarterly.)

The Ethics of Evangelism and Integral Mission

November 2, 2014

(This essay grew out of two presentations I made at the 5th. Global Triennial Consultation of the Micah Network, Thun, Switzerland, Sept. 10-14, 2012. A French version of this essay has been published in a book growing out of this conference: “Éthique de l’évangélisation et Mission intégrale”, in Le cri des chrétiens du Sud, Pour une Bonne Nouvelle incarnée dans des actes, Éditions « Je sème », sl, Dossier vivre n°34, 2013, p.83-103)

Western cultures have been shaped by the Enlightenment and its central liberal values of reason, autonomy, and tolerance. The Enlightenment made peace with “irrational” religion by relegating it to the private sphere. It is this inheritance that explains why evangelism is today viewed with a lot of suspicion. Christians engaging in evangelism are daring to enter the public arena and are further declaring the gospel to be public truth. I address this tension in my recent book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion (Thiessen 2011).(1) This essay is meant to provide a brief summary of my book, after which I will address the relation between evangelism and integral mission. I will then deal with the ethics of integral mission.

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. The book was written with two readerships in mind – skeptics opposed to religion and religious activity, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism. Writing for these two very different readerships is a challenge, particularly with regard to using language that will be understood by both. In the next section I treat two aspects of that challenge.

Evangelism and Ethics
First, what word should be used to identify the central focus of my book – “evangelism” or “proselytizing”? Christians prefer to talk about evangelism, the meaning of which can vary from “evangelism is social action,” to evangelism is “announcing the gospel to non-Christians with a view to faith and conversion.” Another word that is sometimes used as a synonym for evangelism is “proselytizing.” The dictionary definition of “proselytism” refers only to conversion from one opinion, creed or party to another. My use of the term “proselytizing” throughout the book was based on the conviction that this term was more familiar to my “secular” readership. However, in Christian circles proselytism has come to be associated with “evangelistic malpractice,” or the use of coercive techniques to achieve conversion.(2) In ecumenical circles ‘proselytism’ has also come to mean “sheep-stealing.” In this paper, I will for clarity’s sake, use only the word, “evangelism,” treating this as a neutral term from an ethical point of view, and then acknowledging that evangelism can be done either in an ethical or an unethical manner.

I have already suggested that “evangelism” also has a range of meanings. In my book – and in this essay – evangelism will be understood in its narrower sense as giving verbal witness to the gospel with a view to conversion. Another term sometimes used by Christians as a synonym of evangelism is “proclamation.” This word too can be used to refer both to verbal proclamation, and to living out the Lordship of Jesus Christ in everything that Christians do, including relief, rehabilitation, development, working for justice, and environmental care. (I will use the term “social action” as an abbreviation for the broader collective meaning of proclamation.) This paper begins with a focus on the narrower meaning of proclamation or evangelism, and I will later deal with these notions within the context of social action.

The second challenge I faced in writing for two very different readerships, involves the question, what ethical framework would I use to deal with the ethics of evangelism? Obviously, for us as Christians, ethics or the definition of right and wrong are rooted in God and in God’s word, especially God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.(3) In a way, nothing more needs to be said about providing an ethical framework for Christians. But, when talking with others who don’t share our faith, I believe it is important to try to find an ethical framework that we as Christians share with unbelievers. Why do I believe in the possibility of some common ground between believers and unbelievers when it comes to ethics? First, because of my faith in God as Creator of all that exists. God created laws – both physical laws and ethical norms. So a careful and open-minded study of nature will lead to a discovery of these laws. This has led various theologians to stress the notion of natural law as accessible to both believers and unbelievers. Secondly, God also created human nature, and so we find Paul arguing that Gentiles who don’t have the law nevertheless have the requirements of the law written in their hearts (Rom 2:14). I believe we are all born with a moral compass, which can be distorted, but never entirely silenced. Thirdly, I appeal to the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics, and as again providing a common ethical framework for both believers and unbelievers.

It was Immanuel Kant, in the eighteenth century, who gave us the modern and secular version of an ethical theory based on the dignity of persons. Kant repeatedly appeals to the absolute worth of human beings who are rational and free. This leads him to argue that we should always treat human beings as ends in themselves, never simply as a means to an end. Historically, this emphasis on the dignity of human beings has led to an ethics formulated in terms of rights and duties. Some feminist writers have reminded us of the limitations of rights-based ethics. I therefore believe a better approach to ethics is to combine an emphasis on the dignity and worth of persons with an emphasis on love and care for persons.

As Christians we can provide a theological foundation for this appeal to the dignity and care of persons. The most fundamental reason for respecting the dignity of the human being is that each person is created in the image of God. We are also called to love our neighbor, and so care for persons is also foundational to ethics. My hope is that all (or at least most) people will accept the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics. This gives rise to two foundational principles for dealing with the ethics of evangelism.

Dignity criterion
Ethical evangelism is always done in such a way as to protect the dignity and worth of the person or persons being evangelized. Evangelism becomes unethical when it reduces the potential convert to the status of an object or a pawn in the evangelism program of any church or Christian organization.

Care criterion
Ethical evangelism must always be an expression of concern for the whole person and all of his or her needs – physical, social, economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. To care only for the salvation of the souls of persons is unethical. It involves an objectification of a part of the person and as such violates that person’s dignity.

Objections to Evangelism
There are many today, including some scholars, who would condemn most or even all evangelism as immoral. Objections to evangelism can be divided roughly into two categories.(4) First, some of the objections are empirical in nature. For example, it is argued that efforts at evangelism have harmful consequences for individuals and for society as a whole. Some critics argue that evangelism leads to resentment, hatred, disunity in society, and even holy wars. Sadly, there is some truth to these empirically-based objections. But, we need to be fair. All too often, claims about the harmful consequences of evangelism involve sweeping generalizations with little or no concern about concrete evidence. Critics also tend to load the dice by talking about fanatic, irrational or aggressive evangelists. And what about the counter-evidence – the countless individuals who have received relief from guilt after responding to evangelists’ proclamation of the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Then there are the religious revivals that have led to significant moral improvement in societies.

The second and more common kind of objection to evangelism is conceptual in nature. It is often argued that there are certain characteristics of evangelism that make it immoral by its very nature. Some critics feel that persuasion is in itself immoral. Others focus more specifically on religious persuasion and argue that this is immoral because of the uncertainty or irrationality of religious claims. Still others maintain that evangelism is arrogant and intolerant. Some critics question the motivation behind evangelism. Then of course there is the charge that evangelism is coercive by its very nature. I argue that each of these objections against evangelism is unsound, based on problematic assumptions and questionable definitions, as I illustrate below with respect to coercion. Blanket condemnations of all evangelism, or claims that evangelism is inherently unethical, are simply unwarranted. This does not at all mean that these charges are never appropriate. The history of the Christian church is littered with evangelistic malpractice, including the use of coercive techniques or force to achieve conversion. This calls for repentance. At the same time, we can and should defend ourselves against criticisms to the effect that ethical evangelism is impossible.

A Positive Defence of Evangelism
As Christians we are called to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. The gospel is good news. To evangelize is therefore a good thing. But how does one defend evangelism to unbelievers? I argue that persuasion, including religious persuasion is an essential part of the human makeup.(5) Much of our conversation involves persuasion, and our efforts to persuade cover a wide variety of issues, including religion. Persuading others about our convictions is an essential part of our own dignity. Trying to persuade other persons of the error of their ways is also a way to honor others. Indifference is in the end an insult to others. John Stuart Mill, in his classic defense of liberty, argues that proselytizing is a healthy phenomenon, because it encourages controversy and discussion on “subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm,” and which therefore enable even ordinary persons to rise “to something of the dignity of thinking beings” (Mill 1978, 33).

My defense of evangelism is not meant to rule out the possibility of there being unethical methods of evangelism. We can neither approve of evangelism generally nor condemn it outright, as is sadly all too often done. Instead, we need to pay more attention to developing criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. In my book I devote two chapters to analyzing and defending fifteen criteria to define ethical evangelism.(6)

Criteria to Distinguish between Ethical and Unethical Evangelism
I have already considered the first two criteria, dignity and care, in my treatment of the foundation of ethics. One important dimension of treating people with dignity involves respecting their freedom to make choices. Four of my criteria have to do with coercion, which is a frequently made charge against evangelism and proselytizing. While I believe that some evangelistic approaches are coercive and hence immoral, I believe the charge of coercion is not as easy to substantiate as is often assumed. Of course, if one starts with the assumption that all human actions are determined, it follows that all evangelistic efforts are coercive and hence immoral. But this begs the question. Besides, a deterministic worldview precludes moral evaluation. I prefer to talk about degrees of human freedom, and hence degrees of human responsibility. But as soon as one admits to degrees of human freedom, it becomes more difficult to define what is coercive. Indeed, the problem of vagueness pervades charges made against cult recruitment. This does not mean that the charge of coercion can never be made. I argue that it is better to deal with cases of suspected coercive evangelism on a case-by-case analysis. However, I believe some broader types of coercive evangelism can be identified.

It is helpful here to distinguish between four categories of coercion – physical, psychological, social, and inducements to convert. These four categories lead to four criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. The latter two categories are more closely related to the interface between evangelism and Christian aid/development and so I will treat these later. Physical coercion is the easier criterion to define. Some vagueness is unavoidable in defining the other criteria, although in each case there are extremes that should be seen as obviously morally offensive.

Physical coercion criterion
The freedom to make choices is central to the dignity of persons. Ethical evangelism will therefore allow persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion. Evangelism involving the use of physical force or threats is unethical.

Psychological coercion criterion
Stated as a general principle, ethical evangelism avoids psychological manipulation. There are various ways in which evangelism can be psychologically manipulative. (a) Christians engaged in evangelism should avoid intense, repeated and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about conversions. (b) Care must be taken to avoid exploiting vulnerability. This becomes especially important when dealing with children, young people, vulnerable adults, and individuals facing personal crises. (c) Excessive appeals to emotion and fear must also be avoided.

Another set of criteria has to do with epistemic concerns, such as rationality, truth, and the way in which we present our claims to truth.

Rationality criterion
Evangelism involves persuasion to convert. Ethical persuasion includes the providing of information in order to make such a decision. It also includes giving reasons for the proposed change of heart and mind. Evangelism that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical.

Truthfulness criterion
Ethical evangelism is truthful. It seeks to tell the truth about Christianity. It is truthful also with regard to what it says about other religions. Integrity characterizes the ethical evangelist. Evangelism accompanied by hidden agendas, hidden identities, lying, deception, and failure to speak the truth should be condemned as unethical.

Humility criterion
Ethical evangelism is characterized by humility. Evangelism becomes unethical when it becomes arrogant, condescending, and dogmatic in the claims being made.

Sadly, Christians are not always exemplary in displaying the epistemic virtues of rationality and humility. They forget that they “only know in part” when evangelizing (I Cor. 13:12). Sometimes they are also not honest about their evangelistic intent. For example, Perry Glanzer has documented the story of a failure to be entirely truthful in a major missionary/educational endeavor prompted by an invitation by the Russian Ministry of Education in the early 1990’s, when evangelicals from America were invited to come and instruct Russian public school teachers on how to teach Christian ethics. In the main, the 1,500 people recruited to help train teachers in Russia were not educators, and had not been trained to teach Christian ethics, but were in fact missionaries intent on using this opportunity to evangelize and plant churches, leading Glanzer to conclude that the enterprise was “ethically problematic” (Glanzer 2002, p. 196).

A criterion that deserves to stand on its own has to do with motivation. Of course it is difficult to assess someone else’s motivation so perhaps the application of this criterion is best left for self-assessment.

Motivation criterion
The primary motivation for ethical evangelism is love for God and love for humanity. Ethical evangelism grows out of genuine concern for the other person’s well-being, and his or her assumed need to hear the truth as understood by the evangelist. With unethical evangelism, on the other hand, ego-centric motives such as personal benefit and reward, personal reassurance resulting from being able to convert another person to one’s own position, personal domination over another person, and personal satisfaction about growth of one’s own church, become dominant.

Another stand-alone criterion having to do with identity is fairly self-explanatory.

Identity criterion
Ethical evangelism will take into account and show some respect for the communal identity of the person being evangelized. Evangelism which completely disregards the dignity of the individual as rooted in his or her social (or religious) attachments is immoral.

The following two criteria try to capture what is right about the liberal virtues of tolerance and pluralism. It is important here to note how these criteria differ from traditional understandings of tolerance and pluralism. I am quite deliberately distancing myself from notions of tolerance and pluralism that assume a relativistic understanding of truth. Tolerance has to do with putting up with something that you don’t like. To preclude all criticism of beliefs is in fact to be intolerant. What is important is to respect persons even though one disagrees with the beliefs they hold. And one must also protect the right of others to share their beliefs even though one disagrees with them.

Tolerance criterion
Ethical evangelism treats persons holding beliefs differing from that of the evangelist with love and respect. While it does not preclude fair criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, it treats the same with respect, and avoids hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews.

Golden Rule
Ethical evangelism operates under the assumption that others have the right to share their faith as well. It is immoral to assume or to work towards a monopoly of the evangelism enterprise.

I conclude my analysis of criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism with a criterion that is particularly important given the passion for evangelism among evangelicals.

Results criterion
Results, success in persuasion, or church growth, while welcomed, should not be seen as
primary goals in evangelism. A pre-occupation with results, success, or church growth, when evangelizing, is unethical.

Evangelism and Integral Mission
There has been some discussion among Micah Network members about the relation between evangelism (understood as preaching/proclaiming the good news) and Christian aid/relief/development and working for justice (or social action). The oft-quoted definition of ‘integral mission” from the 2001 “Micah Network Declaration on Integral Mission” suggests that there is a close link between evangelism and social action.

It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.(7)

But does this mean that Christian social action and verbal proclamation of the gospel, always occur “at the same time?” Some members of the Micah Network have argued that this is a misinterpretation of integral mission, and have called for further nuancing of the declaration so as to avoid such misinterpretation.(8) There would seem to be some confusion with regard to the relation between evangelism and social action. Further, there are repeated demands by governments and government agencies that evangelism and social involvement be separated. In fact faith-based non-governmental development organizations (FBNGDOs) have accommodated such a separation by calling on workers in the field to abstain from explicit evangelism.

Clearly, it is possible to distinguish between aid/relief/development and verbal evangelism/proclamation, both at a conceptual and at a practical level. At the same time, each must be seen as a legitimate expression of the mission of God. Jesus called his disciples both to preach the good news and to heal the sick (Luke 9 & 10). Paul in his description of the “cosmic Christ” talks both about “reconciling” to himself “all things,” and about reconciling individuals to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19, 22). As followers of Jesus Christ, we are therefore bound to say that in some sense, the ideal is that Christians and the church are engaged in both social action and evangelism. While each penetrates the other, yet in their core meaning, they can be distinguished, and thus there is a need to ensure that overall and in the long run, the church maintains a balance between these two aspects of Christian mission.

Sometimes circumstances are such that we as Christians will find ourselves preoccupied with social action. This should be seen as a perfectly legitimate expression of the mission of the church. We boldly engage in this somewhat one-sided approach to Christian mission because Christ calls the church to be involved in feeding the hungry, and overcoming poverty and exploitation. We also realize that even while we are engaged primarily in social action, our work cannot help but further the cause of evangelism, because the two can’t be entirely separated. Recipients of our aid will realize (over time) that we are doing this for the sake of Christ. Indeed, when asked why we are engaged in the same we will be honest in explaining our motivation. The truthfulness criterion considered above also applies to Christian aid and development.

At the same time, we must allow for the possibility that we as Christians will sometimes find ourselves focusing primarily on evangelism or verbal proclamation, because this too is an expression of obedience to God and the imitation of Jesus Christ. Again we realize that even while we are engaged primarily in verbal proclamation of the gospel, we will still be calling people to love and repentance in all areas of life, and thus our verbal proclamation will have social consequences.

Christian aid workers therefore need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in evangelism, and Christians committed to evangelism need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in social action. At the same time, both groups will recognize that it is impossible to entirely separate aid from evangelism. Hence, the notion of integral mission. I want to move on now to consider some unique dimensions of the ethics of evangelism within the context of relief and development.

Ethics of Integral Mission
Steve Bradbury, in a recent chapter on “The Micah Mandate,” suggests that The Micah Declaration lacks any acknowledgement of the sensitivities and ethics of evangelism in contexts of human vulnerability and dependence. He suggests that this may be due to the brevity of the declaration, or perhaps because of its original purpose and intended audience. He then identifies a problem that needs to be addressed.

All development and humanitarian programs necessarily involve transactions between people of greater or lesser dependence on the one side, and those who are the conduit for essential resources or services on the other. Within the context of these transactional relationships there is an inevitable imbalance of power, regardless of how much care is exercised and regardless of the humility or otherwise of the development or aid workers.(9)

So how does one address this imbalance of power? One of my criteria relating to coercion attempts to answer this question.

Social coercion criterion
While acknowledging that some degree of power and control is inescapable in evangelism (and Christian aid and development), excessive expressions of power, or the exploiting of power-imbalances when evangelising is unethical.

Clearly there is again some vagueness in this criterion. This is simply unavoidable. What can be done to overcome excessive levels of power-imbalance? I concur with Bradbury that FBNGDOs should be working in partnerships with local churches.(10)

Closely related to the problem of power-imbalance is the problem of exploiting vulnerability when engaged in Christian relief and development. Humanitarian aid cannot but create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert. Indeed, any Christian kindness, even ordinary friendship, has this “problem.” But is there really a problem here? We are human beings influenced by all kinds of factors, and it is impossible to isolate completely one aspect of our nature from another. Humanitarian aid provided by Christians (or atheists), will create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert to Christianity (or atheism). A degree of psychological pressure or inducement to convert is inescapable in humanitarian efforts. I think it is therefore important for Christian aid agencies and workers to admit this. Again, we need to be truthful about what we are doing. At the same time, there comes a point where it is clear that the inducements to convert are carried to an extreme. My next criterion of ethical evangelism identifies the extreme and then goes on to respond to less obvious cases of inducements to convert.

Inducement criterion
Evangelism accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, or privileges, is unethical. In situations where providing medical care, humanitarian aid, or education is in some way linked with evangelism, the greater the need, the more sensitive the person(s) engaged in social aid/development must be to the danger of exploiting that need, and thus inducing to convert. In situations where physical needs are overwhelming, evangelism should be kept entirely separate from the activity of responding to these physical needs. A further requirement is a high standard of transparency. Persons engaged in social aid/development must make it clear that they are not trading medical or humanitarian aid for conversion. There is no quid pro quo. The person being evangelized must therefore be given a clear sense that it is perfectly acceptable for him or her to accept aid, or medical help, and yet refuse any persuasive appeals to convert.

Here is an example of what I consider to be unethical integral mission. Christian groups who combined relief efforts and evangelism in response to the tsunami disaster in Asia in December of 2004 came under severe criticism in the media. I believe this criticism was justified. To evangelize in the context of extreme physical needs is simply inappropriate. It involves an exploitation of extreme vulnerability and therefore is unethical (Thiessen 2011, p. 167).

I conclude with a few comments on the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism.”(11) While I am largely in agreement with this Statement, I do have some problems with its “unequivocal” affirmation of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGO’s in Disaster Relief, which says that “aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint” (Section #3). I believe a qualification needs to be made here. The giving of aid cannot help but make the recipient sympathetic to the religious or political standpoint of the aid-giver. The real issue therefore is one of exploiting aid in order to bring about political or religious conversion. The additional sentences of the relevant part of the Code of Conduct being referred to spells this out: “Humanitarian aid will be given according to the need of individuals, families and communities. Notwithstanding the right of Non Governmental Humanitarian Agencies to espouse particular political or religious opinions, we affirm that assistance will not be dependent on the adherence of the recipients to those opinions. We will not tie the promise, delivery or distribution of assistance to embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed.” This I can heartily endorse.

There is a final problem in the ethics of integral mission that deserves some comment. I have argued that if we look at the work of Christians and the church in terms of the big picture, and over the long haul, we should be involved in both evangelism and social activity. I have also acknowledged that there will be circumstances that might limit our engagement in evangelism. For example, FBNGDOs sometimes face government constraints and even prohibitions with regard to evangelism. How should Christians respond to such regulations and restrictions?

I agree with the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism” that it is not possible to dissociate what we are as Christians from what we do. Therefore, in seeking official entry to serve the needy in countries that restrict Christian activity, Christians should be very open about their Christian identity and motivation. At the same time, while foreign agencies should be careful to be transparent in their official relationship with any government, it should be recognized that it is often difficult for local organizations to operate in the same way.

I also believe that it is possible for Christians to accept the restrictions placed upon them by certain governments that prohibit them from taking the initiative in sharing their faith with those they are serving. Steve Bradbury makes a useful distinction between “programmatic” evangelism and the informal sharing of deeply held “spiritual” beliefs, a distinction that has been used as a guide by TEAR Australia.(12) I would also argue that governments have no authority to stop Christians from truthfully explaining their faith when asked to do so. If someone asks Christian aid workers why they are serving, then they should be able to say that it is out of obedience to Jesus Christ and in response to his love. If government regulations of a country are such that they do not allow Christians to explain their faith when asked why they are engaging in aid and development, then I seriously question whether FBNGDOs should be engaging in aid and development in this country.

Ethical evangelism is possible. So is ethical integral mission. May we as Christians be faithful to our Lord’s calling to both evangelism and social action.(13) May we also be committed to doing both in an ethical manner.

References:
Bradbury, Steve. (2012). “The Micah Mandate: An Evangelical View.” In Mission and Development: God’s Work or Good Works, ed. Matthew Clarke, 103-122. London & New York: Continuum.

Glanzer, P. (2002). The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Mill, J.S. (1978/1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Thiessen, E. J. (2011). The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion. Milton Keynes, U.K., Paternoster; and Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
————————
Endnotes:
(1) In doing the research for my book, I discovered that little had been written about the ethics of evangelism. Since the publication of my book, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue released a major statement on the ethics of evangelism entitled, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” http://www.worldevangelicals.org/pdf/1106Christian_Witness_in_a_Multi-Religious_World.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013)
(2) See for example, http://www.micahnetwork.org/sites/default/files/doc/library/proselytism_policy_statement.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013.
(3) The ethics of evangelism is in fact specifically addressed in the New Testament. Jesus decisively rejected the use of all types of coercion in establishing his kingdom when he was tempted at the beginning of his public ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). He instructed his disciples to respect the freedom of individuals to reject the gospel message they preached (Luke 9:5). Paul too advocated sincerity of motive and truthfulness when spreading the good news (II Cor. 2:17; 4:1-2).
(4) In my book I devote three chapters to defending evangelism or proselytising against about a dozen objections (Thiessen 2011, chs. 3, 4, 5).
(5) This more positive defense of evangelism is found in Chapter 6 of my book (Thiessen, 2011).
(6) See Chapters 7 & 8 of my book (Thiessen, 2011). These criteria are summarized in Appendix #1 of my book (pp. 234-7). In this article I am offering a slightly revised version of these criteria, and am substituting “evangelism” for “proselytising” which were treated as synonyms in my book. I am well aware of the limitations of defining ethics in terms of principles, but I believe the attempt to do so still has some merit.
(7) http://www.micahnetwork.org/sites/default/files/doc/page/mn_integral_mission_declaration_en.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013)
(8) See for example, Steve Bradbury (2012, pp.112-13).
(9) Bradbury (2012, p.113).
(10) Bradbury (2012, p.118) See also http://tilz.tearfund.org/webdocs/Tilz/Topics/DRR/Publications/The%20local%20church%20%26%20its%20engagement%20with%20disasters.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013)
(11) See footnote #2 for details.
(12) Bradbury (2012, pp. 117-18).
(13) I want to thank Daniel Hillion and an anonymous reader for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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)

Indoctrination

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).

Conclusion:
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.

[xxii]

Endnotes:

[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.

Thanksgiving and Pay-cheques

August 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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