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.)

Committed Openness and Education

April 29, 2015

Over the many years that I have been researching and writing about education, influence, and persuasion, there is one conviction that has been growing, and it has to do with the importance of open-mindedness. Now open-mindedness is not the same as empty-mindedness. Indeed, there are no empty minds. Contrary to John Locke, our minds are not blank slates at birth. And as we mature, we cannot help but have convictions. We are always committed. But there is a desperate need to combine our commitments with open-mindedness. Committed openness is an important intellectual virtue.

Some readers might object to the very idea of combining commitment and open-mindedness. Surely “committed openness” is an oxymoron, if ever there was one. I disagree. Indeed, I believe this combination describes what it means to be a healthy human being. It also describes a healthy Christian mind. I am convinced that the goal of Christian education should be the cultivation of committed openness.

One of the problems with writing books is that once they are published you can’t change what you have written. If it were possible, I would change the title of my first book, Teaching for Commitment (1993). I would choose instead the title, “Teaching for Committed Openness.” Not that I didn’t deal with the issue of critical openness in my book. But, I think it would have been better to highlight both the concept of commitment and the concept of openness in the title of my book.

The Bible calls us to be both committed and open-minded.

We all know the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Lk.10:27). There is a propositional component to Christian commitment. Commitment includes conviction. Throughout the Scriptures, men and women with strong convictions are held up as ideals (II Tim. 1:5, 4:7). Paul warns against being like infants tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching (Eph. 4:14). Instead, as Paul exhorts us repeatedly, we are to stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that have been passed on to us (II Thess. 2:15; Titus 1:9).

The bible also calls us to be open-minded. After contrasting those who understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and those who don’t, Jesus says this about the latter group: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matt. 13:13). And then Jesus turns to his disciples and says this by way of contrast: “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (v. 16). Paul gives us a depressing analysis of human nature – men and women suppress the truth because of their wickedness (Rom. 1:18). Elsewhere, Paul suggests that the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (II Cor. 4:4). And God invites such people to open their minds and hearts to the God who said, “Let light shine out of the darkness” (v. 6).

The Scriptures also encourage us to be critical thinkers. Watch out that no one deceives you, Jesus said, as he predicted a falling away at the end of the age (Matt. 24: 4). Don’t believe every spirit, John tells us, but test the spirits (I John 4:1). The Bereans are described as being of more noble character than the Thessalonians, we are told in Acts 17, because they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (v.11). Nobility of character not only includes moral virtues but also intellectual virtues such as critical openness.

So we see both commitment and open-mindedness affirmed in the Scriptures. We therefore need to affirm both ideals. They are not contradictory. And Christian education must aim to cultivate this combination of committed openness in students.

Why is it that we today tend to think of committed openness as a contradiction in terms? I believe the roots of this error go back to the Enlightenment, with its pervasive suspicion about tradition and authority. Bruce Kimball, in his history of the ideal of liberal education shows how, since the Enlightenment, liberal education has been understood primarily in terms of liberating students from limiting traditions and narrow prejudices (1986). Implicit in this ideal of liberal education is a very negative assessment of the upbringing that children receive in the home where children are initiated into a particular language, a particular culture, and a particular set of beliefs. The purpose of a liberal education is therefore understood to involve liberating students from the narrow confines of their upbringing. Hence the emphasis on open-mindedness and critical thinking in education today. Liberal education is seen as the very opposite of teaching for commitment. Teaching for commitment is associated with indoctrination.

There are two problems with this ideal of liberal education. First, it is fundamentally wrongheaded to see parental upbringing and initiation into a particular culture and set of beliefs in such a negative way. Creating a strong primary culture for our children is one of the most valuable things we can give to our children. Healthy growth can only take place if children are given such a foundation. Secondly, this ideal of liberal education fails to do justice to the fact that liberation can only occur if children have first been initiated into a particular set of commitments and beliefs. Critical thinking is only possible if you first have something to be critical about. Doubt can only come after belief.

Liberal education, as traditionally understood, is therefore necessarily parasitic on something else, namely initiation into particular primary culture. In other words, liberal education is necessarily parasitic on teaching for commitment. Or, to use another metaphor introduced by Brenda Watson, nurture is the necessary “cradle” of (the liberating phase of) liberal education (Watson, 1987, 9). Of course, liberal education does not only consist of initiation into a particular primary culture. It doesn’t only involve teaching for commitment. There also needs to be liberation, opening up, broadening of horizons and encouragement to critically evaluate beliefs one is committed to. But such teaching for openness must be combined with teaching for commitment.

What about the worrisome charge of indoctrination? Teaching for commitment should not in itself be viewed with suspicion. I have argued that commitment is a good thing, and that initiation into a particular primary culture is an essential first component of a balanced view of liberal education. I believe the charge of indoctrination is made far too often, and that when it is applied to Christian education, it is often quite unjustified.

But, and this is a big but, we need to be careful. It is possible to take teaching for commitment too far. Teaching for commitment can be distorted into teaching for fanaticism. We can be too bold in initiating our children and our students into the particularity of a religious tradition. We can fail to give them the space to process and reject that which they are being initiated into. We can fail to expose students to anything beyond the Christian faith. And when we fail in these ways, we can legitimately be charged with indoctrination. I would suggest that indoctrination occurs when we fail to balance teaching for commitment with the liberation phase of liberal education.

Here another important question arises. What is the practical relationship between teaching for commitment and teaching for critical openness? When do we teach for commitment? When do we teach for critical openness? Does the one component simply follow the other? To some degree, yes. Teaching young children in the home consists primarily of teaching for commitment. But, even here, it is not only that. Two-year-olds, as any parent knows, ask many questions. They keep wanting to know “why?” But, given a healthy trust relationship, they accept a parent’s answers to their questions. What happens when children enter school at the age of 6 or 7 years of age? At this stage I believe the focus should still be primarily on teaching for commitment. That is why I believe in Christian schools for children from Christian homes. There needs to be continuity between the home and the school. Too much of a disconnect between the home environment and the school environment will be traumatic for children.

As children mature, there should be an increasing emphasis on broadening their horizons, and nurturing the ability to question and to think critically. But even here, there still needs to be some emphasis on teaching for commitment, and gaining a deeper understanding of the faith of their parents. The need for security, for being grounded in a particular commitment, and for having this reinforced by “plausibility structures” persists throughout a person’s life, according to Peter Berger (1969, 16, 22). At the same time, there should always be openness to critically evaluating our present commitments.

Much more could be said about the practical implications of the above analysis of the need for a balance between commitment and open-mindedness. For a more detailed consideration of these practical implications see my Teaching for Commitment (1993, Ch. 9).

By way of conclusion, let me highlight only one important implication. It is imperative that Christian teachers model this balance between commitment and critical openness. Here two sets of questions might be useful to help Christian teachers assess whether they themselves maintain this healthy balance.

Do you love God with the whole of your being, with heart, soul, strength and mind? Are you passionately committed to Jesus? Is following Jesus your ultimate concern? Is all of your thinking transformed by your allegiance to Jesus Christ? Are you committed to the Christian community that you are a part of? Do you love your neighbour as yourself? Do you regularly pray for your students?

Are you open to examining aspects of your commitment to Jesus? Do you find it easy to admit that you are wrong? Are you humble in your affirmations of truth? Are you slow to speak and quick to listen? Do you at least sometimes read magazines and books that run counter to your basic assumptions? Do you resist the temptation to unfriend your friends on Facebook who express opinions contrary to your own? Do you from time to time examine some of your fundamental presuppositions? Do you welcome others criticizing your convictions?

If you hesitated in giving a positive answer to some of these questions, then perhaps you should read this article again!

Works Cited
Berger, Peter L. 1969. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, NJ: Anchor.

Kimball, Bruce A. 1986. Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Thiessen, Elmer John. 1993. Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Watson, Brenda. 1987. Education and Belief. Oxford: Blackwell.

(This article was first published in Christian Educators Journal, Vol. 51, #1, October, 2011, pp. 23-6, and is here slightly revised. It is based on a presentation I made at the 2010 OCSTA Educator’s Convention. For an expanded version of this article, see “Teaching for Committed Openness,” in Cultivating Inquiry Across the Curriculum, ed. by Kim A. Winsor. Lexington, MA: Lexington Christian Academy, 2008, pp. 159-185. See also my chapter, “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.)

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.)

The Ethics of Evangelism and Integral Mission

November 2, 2014

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

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

I had three basic objectives in mind when I wrote the book – to defend evangelism against a variety of objections, to defend evangelism more generally, and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. The book was written with two readerships in mind – skeptics opposed to religion and religious activity, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism. Writing for these two very different readerships is a challenge, particularly with regard to using language that will be understood by both. In the next section I treat two aspects of that challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Stories about Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom

September 5, 2014

Review of
Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom: Personal and Philosophical Essays.
Edited by Peter Caws & Stefani Jones, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Many years ago Oxford philosopher, Richard Hare, suggested “that many of the dark places in ethics might be illuminated if philosophers would address themselves to considering the question, ‘How should I bring up my children?'” Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom represents an interesting and unique attempt to address this question. Eleven philosophers share stories of their religious upbringing, and then reflect on this and draw some moral lessons. Each of the philosophers was brought up religiously, though in varying degrees of narrowness and strictness – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, Mennonite, and Muslim. Each of them also broke free, in one way or another, from the religious upbringing that was “imposed” on them as children.

Some of the stories are sad. A few of the contributors describe actually being beaten by their parents as they showed signs of growing apostasy (pp. 72, 201). The co-editors of this volume, one growing up in a family which belonged to the Exclusive Brethren, a nineteenth-century offshoot of the Church of England” (p. 214), and the other as a Mormon in Provo, Utah, each highlight the withholding of love and affection as a means of discouraging their growing skepticism about the religion into which they were nurtured (pp. 207, 210, 234). The path to freedom for many of the contributors to this volume was a long and painful process. A few of the stories in this anthology describe less severe religious upbringings, with less painful journeys to greater freedom. The journey of Glen Pettigrove, for example, “was not a sudden, acrimonious rejection of religion or even of Christianity,” but rather a gradual shift from a fundamentalist Wesleyan and Baptist upbringing, to a more liberal Presbyterianism (135-6). This shift was hardly noticed by most of those who were responsible for his upbringing, and when noticed, was met with a loving and supportive response. Interestingly, Pettigrove’s contribution to this anthology is the only one that gives “a qualified defense” of religious indoctrination (p. 136).

Nearly all of the essays use the term “religious indoctrination” to describe their upbringing. But what does this term mean? Sometimes indoctrination is described simply as the passing on of religious beliefs from parent to child, or from one generation to the next (p. 217). The editors consider such “limited indoctrination” as not necessarily posing a moral problem (p.4). But most of the essays consider any sort of indoctrination, however mild, to be morally blameworthy (cf. Hirst, p. 174). Tasia Persson even equates indoctrination with brainwashing (Ch. 6, p. 112). Another odd usage of the term is introduced by Irfan Khawaja, brought up as a Muslim, who talks about “self-indoctrination” (Ch. 2, pp. 27, 32).

Clearly there is some confusion surrounding the meaning of religious indoctrination, as the editors themselves admit in their introduction (p.3). It is unfortunate that nearly all of the writers completely ignore the extensive literature on the concept of indoctrination that has emerged over the years in the philosophy of education. (see, for example, my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Co-published by Gracewing, Leominster, U.K.) 1993.) Only Glen Pettigrove’s essay draws on this literature, and in my opinion this essay gives the most insightful analysis of the meaning and moral assessment of indoctrination.

Though not always entirely consistent, several writers astutely point to a fundamental problem with viewing all indoctrination as morally blameworthy. Children are by their very nature dependant, vulnerable, and impressionable. Stefani Jones, draws on Simone de Beauvior, and her use of the term “impinging” to describe the influence of parents on children who are dependent and vulnerable (208). Such “parental impinging” is not only inevitable, but also “absolutely necessary” for a child’s healthy development towards maturity, according to Jones. Indeed, as various philosophers of education have argued, children need to grow up in a secure and stable primary culture in order to develop into autonomous individuals. And, as is conceded by Raymond Bradley, despite his objections to growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, it nonetheless “gave me something tough to chew on, something to cut my teeth on intellectually (p.50). So maybe a narrow religious upbringing is an asset rather than a liability. Initiation into a primary culture is not itself a rational process, as Pettigrove argues, drawing on Wittgenstein, Gadamer and Mead, and this does not make such initiation morally problematic (p. 143). Growth towards rational autonomy is necessarily parasitic on children first being initiated into particular language-games and traditions typically given to them by their parents. It is therefore wrongheaded to characterize such initiation as morally problematic, or to label it indoctrination, understood in a pejorative sense.

But we still need to distinguish between justified and unjustified ‘impinging’ in parent-child relationships. Jones goes on to argue that “the degree to which parental impinging is justifiable is directly correlated to whether or not the impinging is aimed towards opening future possibilities for children or shutting them off” (208; cf. Hirst pp.169-75). I would only add that this is a gradual process and that it must also include the gradual enabling of children to critically evaluate their past upbringing, and the increasing release of parental control so that children can exercise their growing autonomy. On this account, religious indoctrination, understood as a pejorative term, involves the failure of parents and their religious community to combine the initiation of their children into a religious tradition with encouraging and facilitating the growth of their children towards autonomy. Clearly, on this account, the sad stories referred to earlier are indeed cases of religious indoctrination, understood in its pejorative sense.

Another confusion in these essays concerns the status of children with regard to autonomy. Tasia Persson, for example, describes even the child as having a right to autonomy, or as reaching, at some point, a “minimal rational capacity” (pp. 121, 127; cf. 149, 209). But, children are simply not adults. Nor do they suddenly achieve a minimal level of autonomy. Children grow towards autonomy. Interestingly, Persson gets beyond the either-or characterization of childrens’ autonomy in her conclusion when she asks whether it is possible for evangelical parents to fulfill their obligations to nurture their children in the faith and at the same time to respect their autonomy. She answers this question in the affirmative, reminding evangelicals that in a biblical worldview, choice for God is intended to be a free one. Hence evangelical parents “would do well to ensure that their children are given the chance to make autonomous choices by allowing them to develop the capacity for rational decision-making” (p. 131). Here you have a developmental approach to autonomy, which makes it possible to parents to give their children a religious upbringing and at the same time to gradually free them to make up their own minds about the faith into which they were nurtured. On this account, some of the critiques of the religious upbringing the authors received are unjustified, or at least softened

Such a combination of nurturing faith and nurturing autonomy at the same time is indeed possible, and is perhaps more achievable than most of the contributors to the book under review acknowledge. This collection of essays would have been stronger if it would have included a few more stories that would have illustrated this possibility. In the Introduction, the editors claim that they selected “a good representation of the variety of personal experiences, philosophical analyses, and religious orientations we encountered” (p.3). I believe a few stories of religiously committed philosophers who retained the faith into which they were nurtured should have been included in this anthology. Occasionally I felt the contributors to this volume were a little too preoccupied with giving vent to all their objections to the religion within which they were brought up (e.g. Bradley, Ch.3). Several writers also hint at another question that could have received more attention (Overall p.22; Dupont, p.93; Enns, p. 184): Is growing up in a skeptical home or a liberal university environment indoctrinatory? Nevertheless, this volume is a valuable contribution to answering the question, “How should we bring up our children?” and should be of interest to philosophers and practitioners of education, teachers in religious education, ethicists, and scholars in the religious studies.

(A condensed version of this review was first published in Studies in Religion, June, 2013, 42:262-4)

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

June 10, 2014

Review of
Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark A. Noll
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011

How fares the evangelical mind? Mark Noll’s new book is a follow-up of his earlier The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). In a postcript updating his earlier assessment, Noll informs us that if he were to attempt another full-scale historical assessment of evangelical scholarship “it would have a different tone – more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems, more concerned with theological resources than with theological deficiencies” (153).

Christian scholarship must be centered in Jesus Christ, according to Noll. Chapter 1 therefore offers an overview of the main assertions about the person and work of Jesus Christ as found in the bible and the early creeds. Noll’s christological focus breathes some new life into the long-standing Reformed creation/fall/redemption paradigm as a foundation for Christian scholarship. Christ is the creator of all things. In Him all things hold together. Therefore Christ is the foundation of all wisdom and knowledge. And it is Christ who will finally reconcile to himself all things (26-7; Col. 1:13-20; 2:1-3).

There can be no greater motivation to engage in Christian scholarship than such a christological focus (ch. 2). For believers “to be studying created things is to be studying the works of Christ,” and there is nothing in such studies that can in principle, lead us away from Jesus Christ (25). In Chapter 3, Noll tries to show how Jesus Christ provides some general guidance to Christian scholarship. For example, he maintains that christology “provides a sure antidote to the moral diseases of the intellectual life” (61). As followers of Jesus Christ, Christian scholars should be “humble, charitable, self-giving, and modest” (64). Indeed!

Some of the other suggestions Noll makes in chapter 3, however, seem to me to be more problematic. For example, Noll makes much of the dual nature of Christ. He argues that the “doubleness” of Christ should make Christian scholars more accepting of the paradoxical and the mysterious in their disciplines (45, 49, 64). While I agree with this advice, I am not sure it should be deduced from the fact that Christ was both human and divine. Surely this application follows more directly from the doctrine of human fallibility, which in fact Noll touches on elsewhere (61, 78). Similar problems arise in Noll’s defense of empiricism as the better way to come to know the world (51-2, 117-20). The repeated response to unbelief in the gospel accounts, “come and see,” surely does not in itself prove that we should use a “come and see” approach in doing science. While I agree with Noll’s later emphasis of the importance of empiricism in science (ch. 6), I think this conclusion is better grounded in the doctrines of creation and incarnation, which in fact Noll hints at in places (25, 35). At times it seems Noll makes his christological emphasis carry more weight than it is able to.

Noll is well aware of the “risks” involved in becoming more specific about a christological approach to study (65). When dealing with the doctrine of atonement as “A Theological Principle to Frame Scholarship” (ch. 4), he is therefore careful to describe his six suggestions as “possibilities” (71). In the final chapter he reminds the reader that his aim is “not to recruit scholars for particular programs or a specific set of conclusions about their disciplines” (147). The aim is instead to inspire evangelical Christians (and others) to think more deeply and seriously about how Christ might shape their particular disciplines.

Three chapters work out the implications of Christology for three different disciplines. Noll is more confident about the conclusions he draws about history in chapter 5 – this is after all his specialty (147). Chapter 6 provides an instructive historical and theological analysis of tensions that have been thought to exist between science and scripture, including the question of origins. Chapter 7 examines christology as a foundation for biblical studies. Here Noll draws on Peter Enns’s controversial book, Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005). Noll agrees with Enns that just as Christ was both human and divine, so we need to affirm both the human origins and the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.

I would certainly recommend this book for all educators and academics. While questions can be raised about some of Noll’s attempts to work out the implications of christology for the life of the mind, many of his suggestions are helpful, and his overall challenge to make Jesus Christ central to academic life is refreshing and inspiring.

[This review was first published in Journal of Education and Christian Belief, 2012, 16(1):118-20]