Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Heterodox Yoder and the Mennonite Church Today

August 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth in a Pluralistic World

November 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Philosopher Examines Peter Enns

January 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

January 6, 2013

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Philosopher Examines Marcus Borg

September 27, 2012

 Review of

Borg, Marcus J.  The Heart of Christianity:  Rediscovering a Life of Faith

HarperSanFrancisco, 2003

 Why write a review of The Heart of Christianity when this book is already over a decade old?  I read this book because I wanted to come to a better understanding of Borg and the Jesus Seminar, a prominent group of scholars who have been searching for the historical Jesus (cf. xiii).  This book provides a good introduction to the theoretical and practical expression of this scholarship.  Further, the thinking of some of my good friends has been shaped significantly by this scholarship, and so again I felt I owed it to them to try to understand where they are coming from.  Friendship does have obligations!

The title of this book sounds promising.  It is always good to try to define the essence of something.  So I commend Marcus Borg for trying to define the heart of Christianity.  Borg also writes with clarity and passion – not something usually associated with scholars.  And who can object to an attempt to rediscover a life of faith?  Indeed, I found Part Two of the book, in which Borg is re-imagining the Christian life, to be inspiring and challenging in many places. But, nagging questions remain.  What is the foundation of these more practical exhortations?  Is the story of Borg’s historical Jesus – much abbreviated from that found in the gospel accounts – sufficient to support his account of the life of faith?

Early on in the book, Borg confidently asserts that we are undergoing a paradigm shift with regard to Christianity.  There is an earlier vision of Christianity, which “views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees the Christian life as centered in believing now for the sake of salvation later… Typically, it has also seen Christianity as the only true religion” (xii).  Then Borg introduces us to an “emerging paradigm” that has been developing for over a hundred years and is “the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism and cultural diversity” (xii).

Here it is important to note that when Borg talks about an earlier paradigm of Christianity, he is really talking about post-Enlightenment Christianity.  He informs us that the earlier paradigm likes to think of itself as “traditional” Christianity, but its central characteristics have developed since the Enlightenment (2,11).  However, I don’t think Borg is entirely consistent in making this distinction between traditional Christianity and post-Enlightenment Christianity.  Many of the things he finds objectionable in post-Enlightenment Christianity apply equally to pre-modern Christianity.  For example, Borg maintains that it is only in the last few centuries that the “literal factuality” of the biblical texts has been emphasized (56).  Not so, as I will illustrate later. So Borg is really critiquing both traditional Christianity and what he sees as a distorted form of Christianity that emerged after the Enlightenment.  Borg’s own emergent paradigm is in some ways in line with current postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment. But, as we will see, he also draws on Enlightenment critiques of traditional Christianity, when it suits his purposes.  So Borg’s emergent paradigm of Christianity is being offered as even more enlightened than post-Enlightenment Christianity.

Borg admits that the earlier paradigm still remains a major voice within North American Christianity, and is affirmed by fundamentalist, most conservative-evangelical, and many Pentecostal Christians (6).  On the other hand, the emerging paradigm has only quite recently become “a major grass-roots movement within mainline denominations” (xii).  It is “widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13). But again and again in this book, there is a confident assertion that it is this expression of Christianity which is emerging out of the darkness, as it were, and which will in the end win the day.

Borg’s book is in line with many other books whose titles are revealing:  A New Kind of Christian, by Brian McLaren (2001); A New Christianity for a New World, by Bishop John Shelby Spong (2001); The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle (2008); A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren (2010); and finally another recent book by Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity (2012).  These many confident calls for newness and change deserve our attention. What is this emerging paradigm of Christianity?  Why the need for a radical rediscovery of the Christian faith?  And are the confident assertions of the need for, and the inevitably of, change and newness justified?  This review will focus on Borg as one representative of this movement.  I am a philosopher, and so my focus will be on the philosophical assumptions underlying Borg’s revisioning of the Christian faith.

What then, according to Borg, are some of the fundamental problems with the earlier paradigm and its links with traditional Christianity?  For one, the earlier form of Christianity has a distorted view of God (Ch. 4).  God is viewed as transcendent, a God “out there,” a supernatural “personlike being,” who occasionally intervenes in this world (65).  Borg prefers a God who is more intimately related to the world, and so he imagines God “as an encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is” (66).  Instead of “supernatural theism” he prefers “panentheism,” a term coined by Karen Armstrong to highlight the all-encompassing presence of the Spirit of God.  Now Borg is forced to admit that traditional Christianity has emphasized both the transcendence and the immanence of God, and also that Paul describes God as one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (66).  However, a little later Borg suggests that “supernatural theism in its modern form emphasizes only the transcendence of God” (69).  But this contradicts his earlier claim.  Traditional and orthodox Christianity has always emphasized both the transcendence and the personal presence of God.  So why this call for a new conception of God?  Borg informs us that “for many people supernatural theism is no longer compelling and persuasive” (69).  But is this a good reason for change?  Is truth determined by a majority vote?  There is a deeper issue underlying Borg’s objection to supernatural theism. Supernatural theism leads to an interventionist God.  Panentheism, by contrast rejects the language of “divine intervention” (67).  The real issue here has to do with the possibility of miracles.

Already in Chapter 1, the topic of miracles is introduced and “the miraculous” is identified as “central to the truth of Christianity” (9).  The earlier paradigm of Christianity interprets the Bible literally, we are told, and to a large extent this is “a literalism of the spectacular” (9).  By contrast, the emerging paradigm interprets the Bible as metaphorical (13).  “It is not bothered by the possibility that the stories of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are metaphorical rather than literally factual accounts (12-13).  I want to suggest that it is this rejection of the possibility of miracles in the name of science that is at the heart of the objections that Borg and his fellow scholars have with regard to traditional and the earlier version of Christianity. It is because of their rejection of miracles that they are led to discount the literal truth of much of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.  The miracle stories for them are only add-ons, invented by subsequent followers of Jesus to explain their devotion to him.

But what is so impossible about miracles?  Of course one expects scientific materialists to reject the possibility of miracles. And one can understand why skeptics like to appeal to David Hume’s classic 18th. century argument against the possibility of miracles. But unfortunately, David Hume’s argument begs the question.  It assumes that miracles are impossible because scientific laws are unbreakable.  But you can only know if scientific laws are unbreakable if you know that miracles are impossible.   Hume is arguing in a circle.  Here I would recommend C.S. Lewis’s little book, Miracles, for a readable refutation of Hume’s objections to miracles.

Scientific materialists too beg the question.  They assume that the material world is all there is, and thus God cannot exist, let alone break into this material world in order to do a miracle.  Now what is interesting here is that Borg is not a materialist.  His emerging paradigm clearly affirms the reality of God.  But as we have already seen, Borg’s God is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Instead of “supernatural theism” which allows for a God who can do miracles, Borg adopts “panentheism” which imagines God as an all-encompassing Spirit who does not intervene in this world.  But the description of this all-encompassing Spirit is left rather vague.  Indeed, Borg’s panentheism looks suspiciously like pantheism, which in turn is very much like scientific materialism.  Clearly on this account miracles are impossible.  But this again begs the question.  Why accept Borg’s arbitrarily defined God who cannot do miracles?

Borg goes on to say that he rejects the language of ‘divine intervention’, because of the “insurmountable difficulties” surrounding interventionism (67).  But what are these insurmountable difficulties?   Borg talks about not being able to provide “the explanatory mechanism for God’s relation to the world” (67).  Fair enough!  But is this a definitive objection to miracles?  Is reality determined by what we as human beings with our finite minds can comprehend?  Enough to believe that there is a God who created all things, including the laws of nature, and who therefore can choose to suspend these laws on occasion in order to do the miraculous.  Borg’s God is too small. In orthodox Christianity, God is both transcendent and immanent, and if so then God can intervene in this world, miracles are possible, and Jesus birth and resurrection can be taken literally, as was affirmed again and again in the early church.

Another area of conflict between early and emerging Christianity has to do with Christian exclusivism.  “The earlier way of being Christian was (and is) confident that Christianity is the ‘only way’ (3).  This position is undergoing change according to Borg, and the emerging form of Christianity typically rejects the idea that “[m]y religion is the only true religion” (3).  Indeed, emergent Christianity finds exclusivism and the rejection of other religions as “inadequate” or “unacceptable” (16).  Borg expands on this theme in the final chapter of The Heart of Christianity (Ch. 11).  Borg confesses that he can no longer believe the Christianity of his childhood that maintained that Christ is the only way to salvation (207).  “Indeed, if I thought I had to believe that Christianity was the only way, I could not be a Christian” (221).

A central reason for rejecting such exclusivism is the phenemonon of religious pluralism.  Borg, reflecting the thinking of many Westerners today, considers religious pluralism a new phenomenon – “We have never been here before” (209).  Absolutism too is seen as a product of modernism, a response of the Christian West to the threat of the emergence of secularism in the seventeenth century (212).  While there might be some truth to the claim that Western Christians are a little more aware of the world’s religious diversity, to suggest that we are facing a unique situation that calls for a radical rethinking of Christian faith is problematic for a number of reasons.  As Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished philosopher of religion of our time, has noted, Western Christians and Jews have known all along that there are other religions and that not nearly everyone shares their religion.  The ancient Israelites were clearly aware of the Canaanite religion, and Moses and other prophets warned against being misled by a foreign faith (cf. Deut. 18:14).  Jesus in the New Testament was very much aware of competing religions, and it is in this context that he made his claims to being the only way, the truth and the life (John 14:6; cf. Borg, 221).  Paul’s missionary journeys took him to very cosmopolitan cities within the Roman empire which were in fact religiously pluralistic.  The early Christians and the Christian martyrs were well aware of the fact that not everyone believed as they did.  So religious pluralism is not a new problem that Christians are facing.  And what needs to be emphasized is that it is within a context of religious pluralism that the Jewish prophets, Jesus, Paul and the church fathers affirmed the doctrine of exclusive truth.  Absolutism is simply not a product of modernity as Borg maintains (212).  And Borg is also wrong in suggesting that there are “relatively few” passages in the bible that uphold the notion of exclusive truth (221).  This notion runs throughout the Bible.

But how can Christians make exclusive claims to truth in the face of religious pluralism?  It is this question that is seen as the burning issue of Borg and many theologians, religious studies scholars, and philosophers of religion today. Indeed, Borg maintains that knowing about other religions and the people of other religions “have made it impossible” to believe in Christian exclusivism (220).  But, what is the problem?  Why should the fact of pluralism call into question the idea that there might be such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”?  All of us in our everyday lives encounter differences of opinion and yet we see no problem in claiming that some opinions that differ from our own are simply false. And if we are honest, we would admit that just because we think that opinions that differ from our own are false does not automatically make us irrational, intolerant or arrogant.  I would suggest that human beings are by nature epistemic absolutizers.  And there is nothing inherently wrong with this.  We need to assume that we have the truth in order to get on with the practical business of living.  I fail to see why claims in the area of religion should be any different.

I would further suggest that those who object to absolute truth claims invariably contradict themselves.  Borg himself objects to early versions of Christianity.  Yes, there are times where he tries to be careful not to say that one way is right and the other is wrong (18).  But the overall thrust of the book is that early Christianity is “anti-intellectual,” outdated, and wrong (15).  Emergent Christianity is where it is at.  Any truly enlightened Christian will climb on board. So one way is right, and the other way is wrong.  Indeed, any objections to exclusivism end up being exclusive in their own right.  Hear again what Alvin Plantinga says of the charge of arrogance often made against exclusivists: “The charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby:  Get close enough to them to use them against the exclusivists and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself” (“A Defense of Religious Exclusivism”).

Borg goes on to provide an account of the similarities and differences between religions, and to a large extent I agree with his analysis (215-19).  He then gives his own “testimony” as to why he adheres to a religious tradition and more specifically why he is a Christian (222-5).  “We need a path.  We are lost without one.  Community and tradition articulate, embody, and nurture a path…. Religious community and tradition put us in touch with the wisdom and beauty of the past.  They are communities of memory.”  And why specifically a Christian community and tradition?  Because for Borg, this is familiar.  It is his home.  “Its worship nourishes me; its hymns move me; its scripture and theology engage my imagination and thought; its practices shape me.” This is an inspiring account of why Borg is a Christian!  And then he once again addresses the issue of pluralism and exclusivism, arguing that “we do not need to feel that our home is superior to every other home in order to love it” (224).  The problem here is that most people, most of the time, do feel that their home is superior to every other home, that is if they are honest. Borg gives us a moving account of why he is a Christian.  What he fails to realize is that it there is nothing in his account which is incompatible with a humble exclusivism.  Indeed, some honest introspection would reveal that deep down inside Borg is a humble exclusivist. We all only see through a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12).

I move on to another issue addressed in Chapter 3, where Borg boldly states that “the Bible is at the heart of Christianity” (47).  “To be a Christian means to be in a primary continuing conversation with the Bible as a foundation for our identity and vision.  If this conversation ceases or becomes haphazard, then we cease to be Christian” (47).  These are bold claims.  Indeed, I can’t quarrel with these assertions. But, we must be careful not to be fooled by traditional sounding language.  In fact Borg’s understanding of the Bible is very different from that of traditional Christianity.  Borg is worried about the biblical literalism and the emphasis on biblical infallibility, historical factuality and moral and doctrinal absolutes that characterize traditional Christianity (43). He offers us instead an understanding of the Bible that is “historical,” “metaphorical,” and “sacramental” (44). Here again we must pay careful attention to the way in which Borg uses certain words.  When he talks about the Bible as historical he does not mean that the Bible is giving us factual history.  Instead, he sees the Bible as “the product of two historical communities, ancient Israel and the early Christian movement” (45).  The Bible simply tells us how our spiritual ancestors understood and experienced God. The Bible is not “absolute truth” or “God’s revealed truth,” but “relative and culturally conditioned” (45).  And then this blunt statement: “As such, it is a human product, not a divine product” (45).

Strangely, Borg goes on to say that he is not denying that the Bible is “inspired by God” (46).  I find it very difficult to reconcile this statement with his earlier claim that the Bible is not a divine product.  This sounds contradictory.  Borg is also guilty of caricaturing the traditional Christian position as to the status of the Bible.  While he occasionally admits that some traditional Christians hold to a soft kind of literalism (8-9), in the main he characterizes them as adopting a hard kind of literalism where every word of the bible is to be taken literally. I don’t believe this is a fair characterization of most Christians, as it is rather obvious that the language of the Bible is multifaceted, sometimes literal, and sometimes metaphorical.  Again, Borg at times admits this (49), but then goes right on to maintain that “much” of the language of the Bible is metaphorical.  How much?  He also goes on to dismiss the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as not literal, but metaphorical.  Why?  At bottom, his reason for such dismissal rests on his rejection of the possibility of miracles, a point I have already dealt with.

There are in fact very good reasons to believe that the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection should be taken literally.  Luke’s gospel is the result of careful investigation of reports that were handed down to him by the first eye-witnesses of Jesus (Lk. 1:1-4).  John stresses that the gospel being proclaimed was based on that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched” (I John 1:1).  Paul highlights the factual nature of the tradition he is passing on, and specifically underscores the Jesus’ physical appearance to many after his resurrection (I Cor. 15:1-8).  And Peter reminds his readers that the good news didn’t involve “cleverly invented stories” but was instead based on eye-witness accounts of Jesus (II Peter 1:16).

Borg maintains that an emphasis on the literal-factual interpretation of the Bible is a modern phenomenon, a reaction to the Enlightenment (12, 56).  This is plainly false.  The early church clearly interpreted the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection as literal and factual.  Of course, they also understood that are parts of the Bible that are metaphorical.  Some of the language of the Bible is poetic in nature, and for that reason should not be taken literally. So we need to take great care in distinguishing between poetic and literal language in the Bible.  We need clear criteria to make this distinction.  And we need to avoid Borg-like generalizations to the effect that “much” of the language of the Bible is “obviously metaphorical” (49).  Indeed, exactly the opposite is true.  Much of the language of the Bible is historical in nature, and the gospels accounts and Acts are clearly meant to be taken literally.  Unfortunately, Borg does not, in this book, spell out the criteria he uses to discredit the literal-factual nature of much of the Bible. But he does identify himself as “a historical Jesus scholar” (xiii).   This is not the place to evaluate the criteria used by scholars of the Jesus Seminar to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sayings of Jesus.  Various scholars have identified significant problems in the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar, and their work is today rejected by many prominent theologians.

There is one more problem with Borg’s treatment of the Bible.  Borg maintains not only that much of the language is metaphorical, but that metaphorical language can be true (49-50).  Again, there is something to be said for the claim that truth can be conveyed by metaphor.  Poetry can convey profound truth.  A novel can give us a truthful depiction of reality. Indeed, I find Borg’s analysis of some of the deeper meanings conveyed by the stories of creation, and Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection to be quite illuminating.  But, and this is a big BUT, there is nothing incompatible with claiming that these stories are factually true and that they also convey deeper meanings. Indeed, Borg is simply mistaken when he suggests that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the stories distracts from their meaning (53).  An Easter sermon that proclaims the historical veracity of Jesus’ resurrection can be, and in evangelical circles, most often is combined with an affirmation that Jesus lives and wants to be Lord even today – Borg’s own interpretation of the meaning of the Easter stories (54).  Indeed, the Christian hope of resurrection after death is dependant on taking literally Jesus own resurrection from the dead, as Paul argues so eloquently in I Cor. 15:12.  Paul goes on: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (v. 14).  Metaphors simply cannot provide the comfort and hope that Christians need at funerals.

One final evaluative point.  Again and again I find the language Borg uses to be very misleading.  For example, early in the book Borg maintains that in his emerging paradigm he “strongly affirms the reality of God, the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the importance of a relationship with God as known in Jesus, and our need (and the world’s need) for transformation” (17).  But, Borg has radically altered the traditional understanding of each of these themes (17).  Let me focus here on one of these – the centrality of Jesus (Ch. 5).  Borg argues that Christianity finds the primary revelation of God in a person, namely Jesus, the Word made flesh (80).  He declares the following as the central meaning of the incarnation: “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life” (80).  He even declares Jesus as more important than the Bible in disclosing who God is (81). This sounds so orthodox! I can agree with all of this.

But in the next section we discover that Borg is using orthodox language in a very unorthodox way.  We are informed that the traditional way of interpreting all of this “no longer works for millions of people, both within and outside of the church” (82).  To interpret Jesus as literally performing miracles, being born of a virgin, and rising from the dead, and claiming to be the only way of salvation is “not only unpersuasive, but a barrier to being Christian” (81-2).  Here again, we discover that truth is to be determined by popular vote, including the vote of those outside the church! And again Borg gives us a metaphorical interpretation of the life Jesus.  We need to distinguish between a “pre-Easter Jesus,”  an itinerant and wise teacher, and a “post-Easter Jesus,” a Jesus still in the grave, but who is reinvented by the disciples and given supernatural powers.  We are told that to emphasize the divinity of Jesus in fact undermines the utterly remarkable human being that he was” (83).  This needs some argument!  And again we are told that a literal reading of Jesus is a distraction and a stumbling block to understanding the true metaphorical meaning of his life, works, and words (86).  I have already argued that this is a false claim.  And once again we are reminded that “a strong majority of mainline scholars” do not believe that Jesus speaks of himself as the Messiah, the Son of God or the Light of the world (86, cf. 92).  But note, not everyone, even among mainline scholars, agrees with Borg and company. Indeed, there are eminent scholars who disagree with Borg and the Jesus seminar, and who find the distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus to be based on arbitrary criteria.  But what is perhaps more disturbing is way in which Borg and company use conventional language and then rob it of its conventional meaning.  This is at best misleading, and at worst outright deception.

Running throughout the book is a contrast between two paradigms of Christianity, an early and an emerging vision of the Christian tradition and the Christian life.  Early in the book, Borg informs us that the emerging paradigm “is widely shared among theological and biblical scholars and increasingly among laity and clergy within mainline denominations” (13).  Borg and other scholars advocating the emerging paradigm at times are very confident that the emerging paradigm is correct one and that it will eventually win out (see esp. Phyllis Tickle).  This is presumptuous.  Yes, at times Borg tries to bridge the differences between the two paradigms (16-18).  In good postmodern fashion, he informs us that “there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being Christian” (17).  Sadly, this is contradicted in the very next sentence when Borg informs us that “there are some wrong ways of being Christian,” one obvious example being a group like the Ku Klux Klan (17).  I quite agree!  But, you can’t have it both ways!  And the overall thrust of Borg’s book is that his emerging paradigm is the right way to understand Christianity and the Christian life. I believe that he has got it wrong.

What we have here is not the gospel of the New Testament, or the gospel of the early apostles, but a gospel according to Marcus Borg.  While his book attempts to define “the heart of Christianity” he has in fact ripped the heart of out of Christianity, and there is nothing left but a story of a good man, part fictional, and part historical.  While such stories can be inspirational, they are hardly the stuff one would live for or die for.  And Borg’s gospel simply will not sustain the practical challenges of living the Christian life which he so passionately tries to articulate in Part Two of his book.  But to argue this point would require another essay!