Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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

June 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth in a Pluralistic World

November 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The absolutely true, meaning what no further experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge.” (William James)

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Philosopher Examines Reza Aslan, Zealot

February 13, 2014

A Review of

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

Random House, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Offensiveness of Religious Persuasion and Evangelism

June 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This blog is an expanded version of a blog which first appeared on http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/06/the-offensiveness-of-evangelism, June 8, 2012)

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

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

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

[iv] Ibid, p.110.

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

Question-focused Christian Faith

May 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iii] Published by HarperOne, 2010.

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

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

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

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

April 8, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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