The Sad Story of Two Religious Cults Guilty of Faith-Healing Homicide

November 7, 2018

Review of In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Save Children from Faith-Healing Homicide, by Cameron Stauth (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012)

The story told by Cameron Stauth is sadly an unfinished story. But Stauth has captured what is perhaps the climax of the story, some important legal victories in the state of Oregon, which will hopefully play a part in ending the tragedy of hundreds of children dying at the hands of their own parents because they don’t believe in modern medicine, but in the power of prayer to heal. Stauth is the author or co-author of twenty-five books, including several national and international best-sellers.

Part One of the book begins by tracing the origins of two churches that are highlighted in the book, the Christian Science Church, and the Followers of Christ Church, two churches that practice faith-healing which in many cases leads to children dying unnecessarily. This historical overview is unfortunately too brief and it tends to over-generalize with regard to fundamentalist Christian churches. The Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening did much more than spawn bizarre and “ultra-secretive radical-fundamentalist” churches (p.2). The Awakenings also involved a revival of healthy religion.

The first and shorter part of the book deals with faith healing as practiced in the Christian Science Church. The Christian Science Church believes that disease is “a figment of the imagination, made real only by the belief” that it is real (p. 28). After all, it was Shakespeare who gave us this “postmodern” ditty: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as is quoted by Mary Baker Eddy in one of her books (p. 63). Part One of the book centers around Matthew Swan who was born on March 3, 1976, to academic parents who were members of the Christian Science Church. Sadly, Matthew died 16 months later, from bacterial meningitis, a condition that was in fact treatable. Matthew’s death affected his parents deeply, leading his mother, Rita Swan to lose interest in life as depression overwhelmed her (p. 40). But eventually she recovered, in part because she became aware that she was not alone in her grief. 1979 was the International Year of the Child and Rita discovered that children all over the world were suffering from any number of causes, including faith-healing abuse. So she dedicated her life to bringing the issues posed by Matthew’s death to public attention, writing The Last Strawberry, an eloquent reminiscence of Matthew’s life. The Matthew Project was transformed into a foundation called “Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty” (CHILD) (p.66). Rita is one of the heroes of this book – a testament to what one person with a strong commitment can do to bring about significant change in a democracy (p. 83).

How does one bring about change? Early on in her crusade, Rita knew what solving faith-healing abuse would require. “First, she needed to find a state with a weak shield law – or to successfully weaken one herself. Second, she needed a district attorney in that state who was willing to aggressively prosecute a prominent church, such as the Faith Tabernacle or the Followers of Christ. Third, that prosecutor needed to have a police force that had developed an inside source within the church: somebody who was trusted by the churchgoers, and willing to betray that trust” (p. 84).

All three conditions were eventually met in Clackamas County in Oregon, which was “the epicenter of faith-healing abuse in America,” and which also became the center for legal battles to overcome child abuse (p. 246). The third of Rita’s conditions for success was met in Patrick Robbins, the other hero of the book. Patrick was a member of The Followers Church, a church with a long history, having its origins in London England in the late 1600s. The Followers Church “had arrived in America almost three hundred years ago, had thrived throughout four Great Awakenings, and had nurtured the spirits of fifty generations” (p. 430). The Followers, together with the Church of the First Born, appeared to Rita Swan to be “the two most lethal churches in America … sharing harsh doctrines of medical avoidance, literal interpretation of the Bible, lifelong shunning of presumed sinners, and extreme fear of a brutally tortuous hell” (p. 249).

The bulk of the book tells the story of four cases of faith-healing abuse in Patrick’s church, and the legal battles surrounding these four cases. Patrick himself gradually loses faith in the church’s position on faith healing. He is very much aware what becoming an inside informant might cost him: “I’ll lose everything. My wife. My family. My job. My friends. I may even go to hell,” he says to the author during an initial interview with which the book begins (p. 1). In the end, however, Patrick is partially successful in changing the beliefs of his church, though the greater victory is no doubt the inroads he made in ending the tragedy of faith-healing abuse in America.

Of course, these aren’t the only churches that believe in faith-healing. In a groundbreaking study co-authored by Rita Swan and Rhode Island pediatrician Seth Asser, and published in the journal Pediatrics, the authors document 172 faith-healing deaths of children in America between 1975 and 1995. These included babies who in some cases were literally tortured to death. These deaths were associated with 23 different sects in 34 states. The study was designed conservatively to ensure its credibility, and Rita was sure it represented only the tip of the iceberg (p. 83). Some of the stories are difficult to read. How can parents be so cruel, so irrational, so subject to group-think, to sacrifice their own children in the name of church doctrine that is plainly silly?

One answer that comes up repeatedly in the book is that these people had been brainwashed. “There are so many deeply entrenched thought patterns that the ex-Christian Scientist has to unlearn,” says Rita Swan, when describing the difficulty she faced in extricating herself from the church (p. 64). “For 150 years, those patterns had been programmed into the brains of Christian Scientists with virtually no allowance for freedom of thought. Mary Baker Eddy had refused to allow preaching or teaching by anyone but herself, insisting that her adherents read forty-five minutes of specific passages from her book and the Bible each day, with a repetition of the same material by Readers at church every Sunday” (p. 64). Here we see some of the essential ingredients of brainwashing – a charismatic and controlling leader who does not allow subordinates to think for themselves. What is also significant here is that it is adults who are being brainwashed, not just children. Hence, the telling worry of Patrick about the Followers’ children, “who were almost as brainwashed as the adults” (p. 144). Of course, the parents in the Followers church kept insisting that their children were not brainwashed (pp. 224, 227). But then if the parents are themselves brainwashed, they are not in a very good position to assess whether their children are being brainwashed.

A few other dimensions of brainwashing come to the fore in Patrick’s exchanges with his wife, Theresa, after the birth of their son. Patrick tries to engage in a rational conversation with Theresa about the possibility of taking their baby to a doctor if he should get sick, “but she just rattled off slogans” (p. 219). “Like all of the Followers, she’d been brainwashed since childhood, and even now it was reinforced almost every day – not in a cruel way, which he could discredit – but through limitless acts of kindness from people in the church. The crazy thing was, the Followers were good people, all of them victims of brainwashing themselves” (p. 219). Indeed, most of the Followers really didn’t know much about their religion, as Rita Swan observed later (p. 260). Their religiosity consisted of mindless repetition and had little room for understanding and creative thought.

Patrick’s reflections highlight one other important feature of brainwashing in the Followers church. It wasn’t done in a cruel way, but through acts of kindness. We see here also that brainwashing doesn’t only involve manipulation of the brain, as is sometimes assumed. Nor does indoctrination have to do primarily with the beliefs a person holds, as is so often maintained in the literature on indoctrination.(i) Brainwashing and indoctrination involve the whole person. And even acts of kindness can be a means of indoctrination and brainwashing.

A final dimension of brainwashing is highlighted in this book, and that is the demand for certainty. In a moving husband-wife conversation just after Theresa has announced for the first time that a break-up of their marriage is possible, Patrick tries to help Theresa think rationally and critically about their faith, but she simply cannot. Instead, she accuses Patrick of betrayal – “You didn’t hold fast” (p. 267). Patrick’s sister, who had left the Followers church much earlier, but returned after retirement to support Patrick, sums up a healthy intellectual and religious life: “As you get wiser … you see how mysterious life really is. Only the young and dumb … indulged in certainty” (p. 370). There is some truth to this assessment. The quest for certainty is dangerous.

Reading this book made me ask a few other questions about brainwashing and indoctrination that I had not really thought about before, despite my having written quite extensively on the subject. Is there perhaps a deeper problem underlying the phenomenon of brainwashing? Is brainwashing practiced and made possible because of a moral flaw within human nature? I do not want to pursue these questions here, but I do want to juxtapose the phenomenon of brainwashing with a review of what this book says about human nature.

In reading this book, I found myself overwhelmed with the perversity of human nature. And this despite the fact that this theme is not highlighted by the author. Indeed, to his credit, Stauth goes out of his way to be as generous as possible in describing the parents who sacrifice their children in the interests of their religious beliefs. Again and again we are reminded that these people were essentially good people. As already noted, Patrick describes the Followers as “good people” (p. 219). That is why it was so hard to get them convicted in court. One defense attorney would describe the Followers as “the most honest and endearing people I’ve met in a long time” (p. 261). But while reading this book, I had increasing difficulty in seeing the actors in this drama as good, honest, and endearing people.

Are parents who refuse to give their children necessary and easily obtainable medical treatment good people? Are parents who beat their children, to the point of killing them, in order to drive the devil out of them, good people (p. 173)? Are church members who use “bodily force to push people to hold fast,” good people (p.381)? I have difficulty characterizing as good people who openly tell lies in court under oath (pp. 93, 223).

Stauth does underscore the hypocrisy of the Followers of Christ. For example, parents would go to see a doctor when they themselves needed medical help, but they refused to do the same for their children (pp. 257, 329). Some of the Followers did take their children to doctors secretly, all the while espousing faithfulness to church doctrine and practice (p. 218). Again, I have to ask whether hypocritical people are good people?

Lest we think that moral perversity is only a characteristic of people belonging to churches such as the Followers, let me go on to highlight some moral defects of so-called “normal people,” people of the establishment, people who supposedly have not been brainwashed. Take for example the medical doctor, Dr. Janice Ophoven, called in as a witness by the defense in two of the important court cases described in this book (pp. 274-77, 343-46). Dr. Ophoven is America’s premier expert witness for the defense of child abuse, testifying at about seventy trials each year (p. 274). Ophoven’s fee is $400 per hour, plus expenses, often including travel time (p.276). The question I am forced to ask is, how can an intelligent doctor specialize in the defending parents who needlessly allow their children to suffer and die? Is this not also morally perverse? Has she too been brainwashed?

Then there are the politicians who facilitated faith-healing child abuse. Richard Nixon engineered passage of the state and federal religious-shield laws that gave faith healing the same essential legal status as medical treatment, and allowed Christian Science hospitals to bill Medicare at the same rate as medical hospitals (p. 35). Nixon’s mandates were endorsed by Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Subcommittee on health, who needed the money and votes of the Christian Science church members in his home state of Massachusetts where Mrs. Eddy had founded and headquartered the church (p. 36). George W. Bush took Nixon’s Southern Strategy to new lows, pandering to religious fundamentalism because it was politically expedient (p. 194). Again I ask are these politicians, and the many other governors who were guilty of the same kind of political expediency, good people? And, have they also been brainwashed?

Finally, what about the broader Christian church? Should they not be exercising some form of discipline on churches that are obviously doing what is terribly wrong and quite contrary to orthodox Christian doctrine? Stauth, in his conclusion, hints at this problem when describing Rita Swan, who in her crusade against the crime of faith-healing abuse, experienced much personal abuse herself “from fundamentalists, lobbyists, legislators, decade after decade, with barely a penny of help from a vast American religious community that should have revered her” (p. 435-6). Is the broader Christian church too morally perverse and brainwashed?

The story overall is a very sad story. But surprisingly, it ends on a positive note and offers a message of hope. There is of course the final victory in a series of court cases in Clackamas County in October of 2011. This victory will hopefully begin to change the trajectory of laws in America in a direction that will end the religious shield laws that protect children from parents who blindly believe in faith healing. There are scenes of Rita Swan, and Patrick Robbins, and the detectives and attorneys in Clackamas County, celebrating their modest victories. But perhaps the most positive and hope-inducing part of this story has to do with individuals who were transformed. There is of course Patrick and his sister Emma, who grew up within the narrow and distorted influence of the Follower’s church, yet somehow managed to free themselves from this background, despite the pressures to conform. Brainwashing doesn’t always succeed! Then there is the miracle of Patrick and his sister learning to forgive their family and their church (see esp. p. 317). And finally there is the Followers’ church in Clackamas County where a growing number of members begin to doubt the Church and study the Bible for themselves (p. 371). Towards the end of the book Patrick and Ella put on a picnic for their like-minded friends in the church, and Patrick gives an inspiring reinterpretation of the Christian story that includes grace and compassion and freedom (pp. 385-7). Healing and healthy religion is possible!(ii)

This book deserves to be widely read. It provides an in-depth look at a phenomenon that should be of special interest to church leaders and cult specialists. Researchers should be forewarned that there are no footnotes. Indeed, at times I could not help but ask whether the author was indulging in too much editorial license, especially when describing the feelings and motivations of some of the key actors in this drama. Stauth also has a tendency to sensationalize. For example, he has this to say about the courtroom scene: “The single most horrifying element of a criminal courtroom is that most of the people in it are having fun, making money, feeling important, and thinking about their plans” (p. 423). This is a huge generalization, but is it grounded in fact. Having said that, it is very apparent that this book is based on extensive research, and is in the main factual. It is a sad story, but one that needs to be told, and I commend Stauth for telling the story so well.

(i)See my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1993. (see especially pp. 234, 295n12).

(ii) Elsewhere I have argued for “committed openness” as characterizing healthy religion. See for example my “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.

(This review was published in the International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, pp.70-4)

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A Philosopher Examines the Exchange between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright

September 28, 2018

A Review Essay of
Borg, Marcus J. and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (HarperOne, 1999)

Why write a review of The Meaning of Jesus when this book is already nearly two decades old? I have for quite some time been trying to understand the divide between liberal and conservative Christians. I see myself somewhere in the middle of this theological spectrum. For most of my life I have been part of the Mennonite Brethren Church, a conservative and evangelical branch of the Mennonite family of churches, and interestingly, within this context I was viewed as somewhat liberal by some of the members. I have of course been aware of a more liberal segment of Christianity, and more recently have been attending a rather liberal Mennonite church, though my wife and I did not realize this when we joined the church. I am therefore trying very hard to understand my present church, most of whose members probably find me very conservative. What better way to understand my past and present contexts than to read The Meaning of Jesus, the cover of which includes this statement, “The Leading Liberal and Conservative Jesus Scholars Present the Heart of the Historical Jesus Debate.” While I will be doing some theology, my focus will be philosophical in nature. I want to believe that this approach might add something to the many reviews that have already been written about this book.

What is immediately noteworthy in the Introduction to this book is that it begins with this statement: “THIS BOOK HAS grown out of a friendship.” Indeed, The Meaning of Jesus is a wonderful example of respectful dialogue and disagreement. The Introduction also informs us that this project began with shared eucharistic worship, continuing with morning and evening prayers as Borg and Wright shaped the framework of the book during five days of planning (p. viii). So despite deep differences, Tom and Marcus (first names are used throughout the book) see themselves as worshipping the same Lord. The book is divided into eight parts, each containing a chapter by each author in which they try to articulate their positions and their differences about questions such as: How do we know about Jesus? What did Jesus do and teach? The Death of Jesus; God Raised Jesus from the Dead; Was Jesus God? The Birth of Jesus; He Will Come Again in Glory; and finally, Jesus and the Christian Life.

What I especially appreciated about this book is that both Borg and Wright make a concerted effort to articulate and defend their differences, particularly in the last two chapters. What these differences are will become clear in the course of this review. Here I will only identify one important area of disagreement. Although admitting that there is a small historical core to the gospels, Borg interprets much of the gospels as metaphorical in nature, as “history metaphorized” (p. 5). Wright interprets most of the gospels as historical in nature, while admitting that a small part of the gospels contains metaphors, for example, the parables.

What are some areas of agreement? Borg and Wright are both committed to the rigorous study of the historical origins of the Christian faith. They are both committed to the vigorous practice of the Christian faith. And they both believe “that these two activities are not, as is so often supposed, ultimately hostile to each other” (p. viii). They both stress the importance of understanding Jesus as a first-century Palestinian Jew (p.235). They are largely in agreement on the interpretation of the second coming of Jesus (chs. 13 & 14). Perhaps somewhat surprising, there is also considerable agreement about what an understanding of Jesus means for the Christian life, a topic dealt with in the final two chapters. Then again, perhaps this should not surprise us because the practical application of the gospels grow out of the interpretation of the events recorded in the gospels. Indeed, Borg and Wright largely agree on the meaning of Jesus.

This point of agreement is noteworthy, especially for Christians who find themselves torn between the liberal and conservative poles of the theological spectrum. We can for the most part still agree on what the story of Jesus means for us in our day to day lives. This is why many conservatives, including myself, find ourselves appreciating and learning from liberal theologians like Borg, including his popular book, The Heart of Christianity (2003; see my review at https://elmerjohnthiessen.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/a-philosopher-examines-marcus-borg/). We can agree about the meaning of Jesus, despite our not agreeing on various details concerning the factuality of the gospel accounts.

This brings us to a fundamental question: Does the meaning of Jesus depend on the factuality of the gospel accounts of Jesus? Borg argues, no. “Independently of their historical factuality, the stories of the canonical Jesus can function in our lives as powerfully true metaphorical narratives, shaping Christian vision and identity” (p. 14). Wright agrees in part. For example, the stories of the prodigal son or of the good Samaritan have meaning, even though these are merely parables (p. 216). But what about the story of Jesus himself, the miracles he performed, and especially the resurrection? It is here where Wright disagrees with Borg, arguing that the metaphorical meaning of stories about Jesus are finally “dependent upon the story’s reporting a particular historical occurrence” (p. 216 – my emphasis). To illustrate this point Wright uses an analogy of a stone dropped in a pond which causes waves and ripples. “Take away the stone” (i.e. Jesus resurrection in space and time), “and you wouldn’t have any waves, not even a ripple” (p. 217). Here I agree with Wright. Meaning without history will finally evaporate into thin air. I don’t believe in a Santa Claus kind of Christianity. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our faith is futile, as Paul argues (1 Cor. 15:14). Here I would recommend Carlos G. Prado, Illusions of Faith: a Critique of Non-Credal Religion (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendal/Hunt, 1980).

There is another important “seeming” agreement between Borg and Wright that deserves separate treatment. Already in the Introduction we are told that they both “acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as Lord” (p. viii). In a later chapter dealing with “Jesus before and after Easter,” Borg boldly affirms his agreement with Wright that “Jesus is the Christian messiah” (p. 55). But here we need to be very careful as to how we interpret Borg’s affirmations. Borg does not believe the pre-Easter Jesus was the Messiah or that Jesus understood himself as the Messiah (p. 53). Jesus was just another human being, “not different in kind from us but as completely human as we are” (p. 148). It is only after Easter, that the Christian community attributed messianic qualities to the pre-Easter Jesus (p. 55). Why? Not because he actually rose from the dead, according to Borg, because he does not believe in miracles. Not because the pre-Easter Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, because to do so would raise questions about his mental health (p. 146). No, the post-Easter Christian community began to ascribe divinity to Jesus because of their memories of him, their devotion to him, and their ongoing “experience” of him (p.148). So, Jesus is not really the Messiah, for Borg. Messiahship is something that is attributed to Jesus by the post-Easter Christian community and also by other believers in subsequent history. It is because of ongoing personal experiences of the divine, that we today treat Jesus as the messiah (pp. 135, 148). It is we who confer divinity on Jesus. I therefore suggest that it is very misleading to think of Borg as agreeing with Wright on who Jesus really is. They disagree profoundly, and I would have liked Wright to be much more explicit about this disagreement.

This leads me to a more general characterization of the exchange between Borg and Wright in this book. I have already suggested that this book is a good example of respectful dialogue and disagreement. But, perhaps this strength has a downside. Friendship and respect might cause each of the participants to be too nice to each other. While they articulate and give reasons for the positions they hold, and also articulate where they disagree, there are many times when I would have liked to see more robust argument. In his final chapter Wright admits that in articulating his disagreements with Borg his approach is “often more oblique than head on” (p. 217). I would have liked to see less obliqueness and more butting of heads.

The misleading nature of Borg’s affirmation of Jesus as a messiah, leads me to highlight a more general problem of language distortion by Borg and other liberal theologians. Borg often sounds orthodox. He says Jesus is the Christian messiah, as we have already seen. He talks about Jesus as “the embodiment or incarnation of God” (p. 146). He suggests that “in Jesus we see what God is like and what a life full of God is like” (p. 235). He declares Easter to be “utterly central to Christianity,” and agrees with Wright that the claim, “God raised Jesus from the dead,” is “the foundational affirmation of the New Testament” (p. 129). Borg also defines the Christian life as “a relationship with God as revealed in Jesus Christ” (p. 241). But all these claims are quite misleading.

Borg does not believe that Jesus is the Messiah (with a capital “M”). Borg always uses a lower case “m” when referring to Jesus as messiah (e.g. p. 55). At most he calls Jesus a “Spirit person,” by which he means that Jesus was a Jewish mystic, who had a deep awareness of God (p. 60). Interestingly, “Spirit” is capitalized, which again is very misleading because for Borg, Jesus is just a human being who is called a Spirit person because he “knew the immediacy of the sacred in his own experience” (p. 64). To use the language of incarnation is also misleading because Borg quite explicitly says that in using this word he does not mean that Jesus was “a visitor from elsewhere, sent to the world by god ‘out there’” (p. 148). Instead, when referring to the incarnation, Borg is suggesting that Jesus is somehow “the embodiment” of the God “who is everywhere present” (p. 148). Forget John’s description of the incarnation as the Word becoming flesh, or the idea of God sending his Son into the world (John 1:14; 3:16-17). We also need to look carefully at the language Borg uses to describe Easter. “God raised Jesus from the dead” is only a “foundational affirmation” of the post-Easter Christian community who have come to experience Jesus as a living reality and have made him Lord (pp. 135-6). God didn’t really raise Jesus from the dead – this is just a metaphor (ch. 8).

I suggest that there is something very wrong about using the language of orthodoxy to articulate a very unorthodox interpretation of the Christian faith. It is not only misleading, it is deceptive. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, encouraged integrity in our speech. “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matt 5:37). I would suggest that Borg and other liberal theologians should be more explicit in telling us that they do not accept the traditional meanings given to concepts like the incarnation and the resurrection. Better still, they should give up this language entirely and invent new concepts so that people will understand that they are departing from orthodox faith. Sadly, all to many orthodox Christians are fooled by the misleading language of liberals like Borg. Reader, be aware.

I now wish to identify some important logical fallacies in Borg’s analysis. Wright draws attention to the danger of “false either-or distinctions” (p. 103). I find Borg repeatedly guilty of the fallacy of either-or thinking. For example, he thinks Jesus must be either human or divine (pp. 7-8). But orthodox Christians say Jesus is both human and divine. Borg tends to dichotomize factuality and meaning. Christological metaphors “are confessions of faith, not statements of verifiable fact,” Borg argues (p. 153 – my emphasis). But surely christological claims can be both a confession of faith and a statement of verifiable fact, as Wright notes (pp. 24-7, 123, 227). Surely, conservative theologians can affirm factuality and also acknowledge additional meanings that arise from the facts surrounding the life of Jesus. Indeed, there is meaning to be found in the facts themselves, as Wright notes (p. 217). We are not faced with choosing between fact and meaning. We can affirm both fact and meaning.

Another example of either-or thinking occurs in Borg’s description of popular-level Christianity through the centuries which he claims has seen God as “out there” and not “here” (p. 147). I’m not sure this is a fair characterization of popular Christianity. But more to the point, it is perfectly consistent to say that God is both out there and here at the same time. It is also a mistake to characterize the incarnation in terms of God being here for thirty years, but otherwise not being here (p. 147). Again, orthodox Christians want to say that God is here even after Jesus’ ascension.

Another error Borg makes concerns the reasons he gives for rejecting the historicity of some of the events recorded in the gospels. For example, he has “little historical confidence” in the events reported between the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, because Jesus’ followers had fled and were not around to witness these events (p. 87). But as Wright points out, there were other witnesses around, and in the excitement surrounding the Passover, eyewitness reports would quickly pass on to others (p. 95).

Borg’s rejection of the possibility of miracles is also problematic. Borg objects to miracles because he does not accept “a supernatural interventionist model of God and God’s relation to the world” (p. 66). Why? Borg explains in a footnote: “it presumes that God is ‘out there’ and not normally here” (p. 259n35). But as I have already argued, this commits the either-or fallacy. I would further suggest that this involves a misinterpretation of the nature of miracles, a misrepresentation which is then easy to criticize. This is to commit a straw-man fallacy. Further, if God is the creator of all that is, surely he can from time to time intervene in his creation. And he doesn’t have to consult Marcus Borg as to when he does so, as Borg seems to demand (p. 259n35)! I also find Borg contradicting himself when he describes Jesus’ healings as “marvels” that are “inexplicable” (p. 67). Surely this begins to sound as though the healings were miracles. I will suggest later that Borg’s problems with miracles might rest on a deeper worldview issue.

There is another serious fallacy in Borg’s thinking that needs to be highlighted. Borg has the annoying habit of prefacing many of his claims by referring to “the majority of mainstream scholars” (pp. 81, 90, 149, 179). He also likes to draw attention to the fact that opposing views are held by just a “relatively few” scholars (pp. 4, 237). There are several problems here. First, where is the evidence for these numerical assessments? These are empirical claims that need to be backed up by concrete data. Secondly, the language is loaded. Who doesn’t want to belong to the majority or the mainstream? Thirdly, truth is not determined by majority vote. Interestingly, Borg himself acknowledges this in a footnote (p. 261-2, n6). Why then the repeated reference to numbers? Fourth, there are eminent scholars who disagree with liberal scholars like Borg, and it is not just a “relatively few.” Borg’s repeated appeals to the majority of mainstream scholars commits the fallacy of appeal to improper authority. When good scholars disagree, we can no longer appeal to authority. Period!

Let me illustrate the above problem by looking at some of the assumptions underlying Borg’s methodology. Borg’s treatment of the historical Jesus is very reliant on a hypothetical “Q” document, a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings thought to be the source of material found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Here we need to be reminded that postulating a Q document is speculative, and not all scholars agree on the idea, as even Borg admits (pp. 11-12; 236). This does not mean that we can simply dismiss the idea, because there might still be indirect evidence of such a document. But, much more caution is surely in order here. Borg also assumes that Mark’s gospel is more accurate because it was written earlier. While I think there is some justification for this rule, the principle on which it rests is by no means always justified (p.20). Borg’s assumption that the post-Easter Christian community deliberately introduced changes to Mark’s gospel in light of developing traditions is also very speculative in nature. Wright goes so far as to suggest that some claims about the gospel accounts being a retrojection of later Christian theology are invented “out of nothing” (p. 101). Indeed, there are dozens of different proposals about how to analyze the forms of the early Christian tradition, and “none commands widespread agreement” (p. 21). So if I am allowed to introduce the numbers game, there are many esteemed scholars who, along with Wright, reject Borg’s majority claims about developing traditions. We are back to the problem of deciding whom to believe when authorities disagree. We simply cannot appeal to authority when authorities disagree. Instead, we will have to look at the arguments themselves.

The above considerations point to a more general problem with Borg’s methodology. His arguments all too often involve deductions from a-priori assumptions. I find Wright’s inductive methodology to be much more satisfactory. Wright gives us the following description of his approach to the study of Jesus: “The research, after a period of total and sometimes confusing immersion in the data emerges with a hypothesis, a big picture of how everything fits together” (p. 22). And then the hypothesis is tested against three criteria: Does it make sense of the data as they stand? Does it have an appropriate level of simplicity, or even elegance? Does it shed light on future areas of research? (p. 22). This is historical scholarship at its best. And Wright does a good job of showing that his analysis meets these three criteria.

Borg raises an objection to Wright’s methodology, suggesting that his method of hypothesis and verification might be seeking to incorporate data that are not really data (p. 237). But this objection presupposes Borg’s own highly speculative interpretation of developing traditions that I have already shown to be problematic. There are further gaping explanatory holes in Borg’s analysis of the Easter event and the post-Easter Christian community. He is vague on what actually happened at Easter. He dismisses the empty tomb as “irrelevant” (p.130). He dismisses the accounts of the appearances of Jesus as metaphorical when they could more easily be interpreted as factual in nature. He cannot explain what transformed a frightened group of disciples into bold proclaimers of a risen Christ. Borg cannot explain the phenomenal growth of the church in the first century. I concur with Wright that the behavior of the disciples and the growth of the early church can only be adequately explained by the factual resurrection of Jesus Christ in real time and space.

There are other problems. Borg’s careful analysis of who Jesus is, even to the point of calling Jesus a “Spirit person” (with a capital “S”) leaves one questioning why this doesn’t lead to the conclusion that Jesus was in fact the Messiah (with a capital “M”). In fact Borg specifically objects to making this inference, arguing that it was the post-Easter community that ascribed messiahship to Jesus (p. 57). But this is a circular argument, resting on an assumption that I have already shown to be problematic. Borg also describes Jesus as a healer, but he can’t explain Jesus’ power to heal because he rejects the possibility of miracles (pp. 66-68). He treats the passion predictions in Mark as post-Easter creations because Jesus’ death was a shock to his followers and a shattering of their hopes (p. 81). A much better explanation is that Jesus’ followers had a Jewish misconception of what the Messiah would do, and that is why they had trouble believing that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

There is another deeper problem with Borg’s methodology that needs to be highlighted. In his treatment of the identity of the pre-Easter Jesus, Borg informs us that he is drawing on a cross-cultural study of religious personalities, admitting, and perhaps even taking pride in the fact, that the language he uses here “is not specifically biblical” (pp. 9, 60, 230). In his final chapter, Borg gives us two reasons why he prefers a cross-cultural approach to studying Jesus. The first is that for the past 25 years his audience has been mainly “quite secularized and pluralistic college and university students,” and he has found “a comparative religions approach” to the study of Jesus to be an effective pedagogical strategy (pp. 230-1). I suggest that Borg is here confusing what might be forced on him by virtue of teaching within a secular and pluralistic setting, from what is the best approach to studying Jesus. I too have taught within a secular and pluralistic setting for most of my career, and have had to adopt a more secular and pluralistic approach to teaching philosophy, but am not at all convinced that this is the best approach to doing philosophy. (For a more detailed treatment of my approach to teaching, see Chapter 9, “Evangelism in Professional Life: the Academy,” in my latest book, The Scandal of Evangelism, Cascade Books, 2018). Indeed, in my teaching I have made it a point to share my own convictions from time to time, and have found my students very attentive to my occasional moves to a more confessional approach to teaching. I believe neutrality is impossible in teaching, as it is in a scholarly study of Jesus. I would suggest Borg has something to learn about a more confessional approach to doing theology.

Borg’s second reason for adopting a cross-cultural approach to understanding Jesus is that many people in mainline churches “are experiencing a crisis of confidence about the meaning and truthfulness of the Christian tradition” (p. 231). The older understanding of Christianity (“literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, exclusivistic, and after-life oriented”) has ceased to be compelling to millions of members of mainline churches (p. 231). For these people “the experience of the sacred across cultures has a credibility that a focus on a single religious tradition does not” (p. 231). This begs the question as to whether universality should have priority over particularity. Earlier in the book, Borg sums up his approach: “I want Jesus to be an attractive figure” (p. 82). Interestingly, he goes right on to tell us that attractiveness cannot be a criterion for making historical judgments. Yes, indeed! But this is the approach taken by Marcus Borg, and I believe it is fundamentally flawed. The aim of the Jesus scholar should be to give us the most accurate account of the historical Jesus, quite apart from what the “itching ears” of the readership want to hear (2 Tim 3:3). I find Wright much more careful in trying to tell it like it is.

But there is more to Borg’s approach that I find worrisome. I want to suggest that Borg’s understanding of Jesus arises from a contaminated worldview – a strange mixture of a Christian and secular worldview. Early in the book, Borg shows us that he is very much aware of the importance of worldviews, and he gives us a clear contrast between a secular and a religious worldview (p. 9). He confesses that for a prolonged period of his life, the modern and secular worldview served as the final arbiter of what should be taken seriously (p. 10). In his thirties, he became aware of how uncritically, unconsciously and completely he had accepted a modern and secular worldview, and he underwent a conversion of sorts, in which the sacred became real, and he could once again take God seriously (p. 11).

I want to suggest that Borg’s conversion was incomplete. He is still hanging on to many elements of a modern and secular worldview. His preference for a cross-cultural approach to the study of Jesus is just one example of his continuing adherence to a secular worldview. His catering to the modern mindset is another indication. I also cannot help but think that his rejection of miracles rests on residual secular and mechanistic assumptions. What is needed here is some worldview purification. A proper understanding of Jesus must grow out of a radical Hebrew and Christian understanding of the world, everything in it, and everything that happens in it. Only this will give us a proper reading of the gospels. Here again I find Wright’s treatment to be more consistently based on a biblical and Christian worldview (see esp. pp. 118, 124).

Finally, I want to suggest that Borg’s solution to the decline of mainstream liberal churches won’t work. He blames the older and traditional understanding of Christianity which assumes that doctrines are important, and that a good part of the gospel accounts need to be taken literally. Unfortunately, there is research suggesting that it is precisely the dismissal of orthodox beliefs that underlies the decline of mainstream liberal churches. See for example a recent study by David M. Haskell, Kevin Flatt and Stephanie Burgoyne, “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” in the Review of Religious Research, Volume 58, Issue 4 (December 2016).

I conclude on a more personal note. Borg leaves us with a human Jesus who did not really rise from the dead. Yes, a story of a very human Jesus who lived a good life and challenged the establishment might inspire admiration and even some imitation, but it simply will not sustain a vigorous commitment to following him to the cross. And a human Jesus doesn’t inspire worship. I believe in a Jesus who was the real Messiah, with a capital “M”. I simply could not live with the illusion of Borg’s messiah. History metaphorized is not enough. With Wright I maintain that the “deeply important, metaphorical dimensions of the (gospel) stories work, ultimately, only if the basic thing they are describing actually happened” (p. 123).

With Wright, I believe the gospel accounts of Jesus give us a core of accurate historical material about Jesus. How one treats the gospel accounts of Jesus is of course part of a larger question of how one treats the bible as a whole. Here I will admit that I have shifted considerably over time. I have come to appreciate the fact that the books of the bible were written by human beings living in particular contexts. I have come to appreciate the importance of a contextual reading of the bible. But my approach to the bible is very different from Borg who approaches the gospels (and the bible) with a good deal of skepticism, a hermeneutic of suspicion, which, as Wright notes, can all to easily degenerate into a hermeneutic of paranoia (p. 18, cf. pp.47, 87, 215). Like Wright, I prefer starting with a hermeneutic of trust. This does not preclude critical thinking, but we must be careful to introduce doubts only if we have good reasons to doubt. I also distance myself from Borg’s view Scripture as a purely human document, describing the human search for God (p. 239). The Bible is both authored by humans and divinely inspired. I still have a high view of “the authority of Scripture,” a phrase which is best interpreted as a shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture” (Wright, The Last Word). The Bible has the ring of truth. It continues to speak to me. And as a philosopher, I find it gives me the most coherent and satisfying worldview possible.

Like Borg and Wright, I too grew up in a traditional and conservative church environment (p. vii). My theology too has changed over time, especially as I have had to face the intellectual challenges that arise in the field of philosophy. But rather than causing me to react (or even overreact) to my conservative roots, I have found myself reaffirming them, though hopefully in more a more nuanced and mature way. I cannot live with the theological rigidity that often characterizes the fundamentalist theological mindset. But sadly, all too often I find rigidity and closed-mindedness also characterizing those who pride themselves in being theologically liberal and progressive. Because I consider an honest search for truth to be very important, I join Wright in rejecting both conservative fundamentalism and liberal fundamentalism. It is after all the truth that shall make us free (John 8:32). And so I remain somewhere in the middle of the theological spectrum, an orthodox evangelical Anabaptist Christian passionately seeking the truth and enjoying the ever-growing richness of the Christian faith.

I thank Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright for helping me to better understand my theological self.

The Sin of Certainty

May 4, 2018

Review of Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016)

Peter Enns, Harvard educated, and now Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, is committed to doing theology at a popular level. The Sin of Certainty was written just two years after The Bible Tells Me So. Whereas the earlier book focusses on the bible, The Sin of Certainty focusses on us as readers of the bible. Both books challenge a traditional evangelical reading of the bible and understanding of the Christian faith. And both do this by devoting a good deal of space to raising questions and doubts about the stories of the bible.

In The Sin of Certainty Enns highlights how Darwinian evolution and archeology have made it look “more and more like the book of Genesis was wrong about science and history” (p. 38). German biblical scholars have caused “average churchgoers to lose their faith because it challenged their thinking about the Bible” (p. 42). We are also told that “the Bible gives conflicting moral guidance,” with regard to slavery, for example (p. 45). Chapter 3 is entitled, “ You Abandoned Me, God; You Lied,” and reviews how the Psalms highlight the fact that we are sometimes left “shaking our fist at God” (p. 61). Chapter 4 describes the preacher of Ecclesiastes and Job each facing “a major faith-crisis” (75). In Chapter 6, Enns reviews the responses he received to a blog he wrote in 2013, asking “What are your one or two biggest obstacles to staying Christian?” The responses fall into five categories: God being portrayed in the bible “as violent, reactive, vengeful, bloodthirsty, immoral, mean and petty”; the conflict between the Bible and science; the problem of suffering; the making of exclusive truth claims in a pluralistic world, and the many times “Christians treat each other so badly” (pp. 119-20).

There is of course a purpose behind Enns’ lengthy catalogue of problems that arise as Christians read the bible. The central purpose is to expose the sin of certainty. What is so sinful about certainty? “Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain healthy faith—these do not make for a healthy faith in God” (p.18). The desire for certainty is rooted in pride and fear of being wrong (p. 205). It is too focused on beliefs and a “preoccupation with correct thinking” (p. 18), which in turn creates a litany of terrible consequences including dogmatism and the mistreatment of fellow Christians (p. 142). What is needed instead of certainty and correct thinking is trust (pp. 22, 205). “That’s what this book is all about” (p. 24). That is also why the preacher of Ecclesiastes and Job are described as “Two Miserable People Worth Listening To” (p.73). They understood that we need to “[t]rust God even when you don’t know what you believe, even when all before you is absurd” (p. 80).

Now there is something right about Enns’ central thesis. We need to trust in God even when life’s experiences don’t make any sense. We can be too preoccupied with correct theological thinking. We can be too certain about our interpretation of the Bible. We can be too preoccupied with getting others to agree with us. And these extremes can distract us from the importance of trusting in God. But the reader needs to pay careful attention to the exact wording I have used in expressing my agreement with Enns. The word “too” is very important in the previous sentences.

Unfortunately, Enns’ position is not as carefully nuanced as this. At times he suggests that all certainty is sin (see the title of his book). Then later he qualifies this by suggesting that it is only a preoccupation with certainty that is sin (p. 210). At one point all preoccupation with correct thinking is declared wrong (p. 18). But a few paragraphs later Enns wants us to be “abso-posi-lutely clear” that “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about God or even seeking to think ‘correctly’ about God” (p. 20). Later we are told that in the Bible, “believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust” (p. 93). But then in the next section we are told that there is “nothing wrong” with confessing what you believe. “Faith, like belief, includes content—the what—but again, we can’t stay on that level” (p. 98). And then Enns returns to his more extreme position. “We see ‘faith’ throughout the New Testament, and it’s typically not about the content of what to think. It’s about trusting God—and acting on it.” (p. 98). With all this back and forth it is very hard to tell just what Enns’ position is. I suggest that Enns is either careless in his writing, muddled in his thinking, or just plainly inconsistent.

So how do we interpret this book? I want to suggest that despite the carelessness and inconsistencies, there is still an overall thrust to the book. The dominant emphasis is that certainty is sin (look again at the title of the book; see also pp. 19, 192, 204). As already noted, Enns spends a lot of time highlighting the problems that any careful reader of the Bible will encounter. He describes himself as “wired as an explorer. I value challenging older orthodoxies and gaining new insights” (p.193). Enns quite explicitly tells us that “the point of this entire book” is “that trust means letting go of the need to know, of the need to be certain” (p. 192). The concluding paragraph in the book suggests “that trust in God, not correct thinking about God, is the beginning and end of faith, the only true and abiding path” (p. 211). These are the dominant themes in the book, and in the remainder of this review, I want to focus on these overriding themes. Enns will no doubt disagree with my interpretation of his book and say I am missing out on his occasional qualifiers. But they are few and far between. It is time to focus on the central and overall thrust of the book.

Let’s start with the “sin of certainty.” Nowhere in the Bible is certainty described as sin. Indeed, such a description would seem to be contrary to what the Bible teaches in many places. Listen to Job, whom Enns holds up as someone who realized that what “we know or think we know about God might not be so certain” (p.87). In the midst of his agony, Job says, “I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25). The writer of Hebrews describes faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Luke explains his purpose in writing his gospel account of Jesus—“that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Paul repeatedly urges us to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught” (Titus 1:9; cf. 2 Tim 3:14). It would seem that certainty is not always a sin.

We also need to keep in mind that certainty is a matter of degrees, something that Enns fails to take into account. Is there a danger of being too certain about our Christian beliefs? Obviously! After all, we only see through a glass darkly; we only know in part (1 Cor 13:9, 12). So we need to be careful to avoid dogmatic assertions of what we believe. I think this is what Enns really wants to say. But he needs to be much more nuanced in describing the dangers of excessive certainty and he most certainly should change the title of his book.

Yes, we also can be too preoccupied with correct thinking, but again, we find that there is repeated emphasis on knowledge and correct doctrine in the Bible. Jesus warned about false prophets which will deceive many people (Matt 24:11). When Jesus was saying something that he thought was important one of his favorite expressions was, “Truly, truly,” or “I tell you the truth” (Matt 5:18, 26; Mark 3:28; Luke 4:24; John 1:51; etc.). Paul repeatedly prays that the love of new believers “may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Phil 1:9; Col 1:10). Peter warns about false prophets and false teachers who introduce destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). John encourages us to test the spirits to see whether they are from God, again because there are false prophets in this world. And John goes on to clarify the criteria of correct thinking – acknowledging that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. “This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 John 4:1-6). The Bible clearly teaches us that correct thinking is important. Enns’ position ultimately undermines the very idea of a search for truth, and that is a dangerous.

Enns disagrees and argues that faith “is not so much defined by what we believe but in whom we trust” (p. 22). As we have already seen, he makes the even stronger claim that in the Bible, “believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust—namely God” (p. 93). But these are simply a false claims. The biblical concept of faith (pistis) includes both belief and trust. The verb form of faith (pisteuō) is often followed by “that,” indicating acceptance of some substantive claims. For example, the writer to the Hebrews says, “By faith we understand that …” (Heb 11:3). Paul informs us that faith comes by hearing a message or the word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Similarly, “believe” is often followed by a “that.” Jesus warned the Jews, “if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:23; cf. Matt 9:28). In Acts, we are told that many who heard the message believed” (Acts 4:4). Clearly there is content involved here. Indeed, Paul repeatedly warns about the dangers of preaching “a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached” or receiving “a different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:6). We disregard the “what” of Christian faith at our peril. Trust that is not based on correct thinking is vacuous and unbiblical.

Enns draws an analogy between trust in God and personal relationships. He maintains that beliefs about a person are incidental to maintaining a relationship. Then he gives a specific example of his marriage which “is not based on accurate knowledge of each other we hold with confident certitude” (p. 23). I’m not so sure. I trust in my wife because I know a good number of things about her. It is not a question of either trust or knowledge. Trust and beliefs go hand in hand in healthy relationships and in our relationship to God. Indeed, Enns is forced to admit that beliefs about a person might be “helpful in deepening the relationship” (p. 22). And as we have already seen, he is also forced to admit that “believing is never empty of content” (p. 93). But here again, we are dealing with his penchant for contradictions. The predominant thrust of his book is to describe trust and beliefs as opposites. For example, we are told that in the New Testament, the words “believe” or “faith” are “about all-in trust, not something we believe about God or Jesus” (p. 99 -my emphasis). Indeed, Enns even suggests that the word “believe” “should be stricken from all of our Bibles and replaced with trust” (p. 112). I find it difficult to believe that a biblical scholar can make such an outrageous recommendation based on an obviously false claim.

In chapters 7 & 8, Peter Enns tells a personal story that I believe helps us to understand his treatment of faith, certainty, and trust. It is a story of his “dark night of the soul” (167), a time in his life when he wrestled with a family crisis created by a daughter who experienced anxiety and needed to be sent away for an extended period of therapy. Enns goes on to tell the story about the ending of his fourteen-year tenure as a seminary professor when his theological views were being questioned. It is these experiences that led Peter Enns to a deepening trust in God and an appreciation for the mystical side of Christian faith where we are called to share in Christ’s own sufferings (pp. 198-201).

I resonated with Enns’ story because I too have experienced a dark night of the soul, which also drove me to a deeper trust in God and intimacy with Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. But despite these somewhat similar experiences I have come to very different conclusions about faith, knowledge and certainty. Yes, experiences like this force us to lay down the need to understand everything (p. 201). And yes, experiences like this might even cause one to doubt. But I worry about Enns using these experiences to extol the virtues of intellectual doubt. “Doubt signals not God’s death but the need to die to the theology we hold to with clenched fists” (p. 160). In my experience it is precisely during the time when I was thrown into a long night of existential anguish and suffering that I most needed to hang on to my theology of a God who loved me and who suffered like me. Trust without correct beliefs is hollow. Further, it is important to distinguish between existential anguish and intellectual doubt which Enns describes as “sacred” and “God’s instrument” to bring us to trust (p. 164). “Doubt is divine tough love” (p. 165). Yes, God bringing us into suffering is tough love, and this will no doubt cause us to question God. But intellectual doubt itself is not divine tough love. The language here is again very misleading.

My fear is that many readers will be misled by these concluding chapters in which Peter Enns sounds quite orthodox and even evangelical. A careful reading of Enns will reveal that he is neither orthodox or evangelical. Listen to what Enns says about “the two pillars of the Christian faith,” the incarnation and the resurrection, which “express the mystery of faith” (p. 152). “Both are utterly beyond what is knowable by most every standard we use to know everything else: experience, observation, and testing. These mysteries are ‘known’ differently—only by trust” (p. 152). Yes, we can’t fully understand the incarnation and the resurrection, and so there is an element of faith and mystery involved here. But Enns is saying more than this. He is saying these two essential truths of Christianity are known “only” by trust and not by observation and testing. I’m sorry, but this sounds like blind trust. Indeed, Enns urges us to trust our “experiences” instead (p. 153). But blind trust and subjective experience are rather flimsy foundations for authentic Christian faith.

Orthodox evangelical faith says that the incarnation of Christ occurred in space and time and therefore was very much known by observation. Jesus, after the resurrection commissions his disciples to act at “witnesses” of all that they had seen and heard while they were with him (Acts 1:8). The word “witness” used in Acts is primarily a legal term which was frequently used in Greek to denote witness to facts and events. This meaning of “witness” continues to this day within the legal context, where witnesses, and sometimes “expert witnesses,” are called to give testimony in court cases. The apostles were commissioned to be expert witnesses to what they had seen and heard during their time with Jesus. Thus John opens his epistle with these words: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). And Paul dares to say that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). These are the claims of orthodox and evangelical faith. Sadly, Enns is unable to affirm these claims in the book under review, as well has in his earlier book mentioned in the introduction.

Of course, Enns will object by saying that I am too certain about what I believe, too preoccupied with correct thinking and proving that I have the right beliefs. But I wonder how certain Peter Enns is about his own critique of orthodox and evangelical Christianity. And is Enns not also very preoccupied with correct thinking and proving that he has the right beliefs? He has after all written two books to convince us that he has got it right and that we as evangelicals have got it wrong. I would further suggest that Enns needs to be more transparent about where he really stands. Inconsistencies might reveal a deeper problem. Jesus gave us this advice: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’ (Matt 5:37).

I cannot recommend this book. For a more coherent treatment of faith, knowledge and certainty, I would recommend Lesslie Newbigin’s classic, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995).

The Ethics of Evangelism Again

March 13, 2018

I have been preoccupied with the subject of the ethics if evangelism and persuasion for several decades now. In 2011, I published a book entitled The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (Paternoster Press and IVP Press). This book was written with two readerships in mind – skeptics opposed to evangelism, and religious adherents who are committed to evangelism. I had two basic objectives in mind when I wrote this book: to defend evangelism against a variety of objections; and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism.

I thought my two objectives would run parallel to the two very different audiences I was writing for. My defense of evangelism was meant for a skeptical readership – atheists, agnostics, and those opposed to any religion. The chapters devoted to developing criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism were meant for religious adherents committed to evangelism, including evangelical Christians.

What I have discovered since the book came out is that my sharp separation of objectives and readerships was rather naïve. I am finding that there are many Christians, including evangelical Christians, who are quite suspicious about evangelism per se. Indeed, some of them are nearly as skeptical about evangelism as are atheists and agnostics. This has come as a surprise to me, and it raises the interesting question as to why this is the case, a question I will not pursue here.

This skepticism about evangelism among Christians has prompted me to write another book about the ethics of evangelism, specifically addressed to Christians. Indeed, already in my previous book, I argue that resources for encouraging ethical evangelism must be found within each of the religions that engage in evangelism. Thus Christians need to find the resources for encouraging ethical evangelism within the Christian tradition itself. It is within this context that I state, “I intend to write a sequel to the present monograph in which I will deal with the ethics of evangelism from an explicitly Christian perspective” (p. 219, note 7).

Another reason for writing a book from an explicitly Christian perspective is the difficulty of dealing with ethics in a way that is shared by skeptics, people from other religions, and Christians. Indeed, the very idea of finding common ground in the area of ethics is seen as problematic by many ethicists and people more generally. This is why I argued in my previous book that each religious tradition engaged in evangelism must develop an ethics of evangelism from within their own tradition. This entails that Christians need a treatment of the ethics of evangelism that is grounded in a biblical approach to ethics.

For the past few years I have been working on a sequel to my previous book. I am happy to announce that a new book has just been released, entitled The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism, published by Cascade Books.

What are the objectives of this new book. The first and basic aim of the forthcoming work is to provide a biblical and theological grounding for an explicitly Christian ethics of evangelism. Secondly, I apply a biblical ethics of evangelism to some specific contexts that pose some unique challenges for us as Christians. For example, what are the ethical constraints in doing evangelism within the context of relief, development, and advocacy work? Or, within professions, e.g. the secular classroom? What about child evangelism? I also explore the tensions inherent in proselytizing, understood as sheep stealing, e.g. evangelicals evangelizing in Orthodox or Catholic countries. Thirdly, I reassure Christians that doing evangelism is not scandalous. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, still wants us to be engaged in evangelism, though we need to make sure that we do so in an ethical manner.

Is there a need for a book like this? Surprisingly, the existing literature on evangelism pays little attention to the important task of distinguishing between ethical and unethical approaches to evangelism. There are countless articles and books written by Christians on how to do evangelism. But these same articles and books tend to skirt the ethical questions surrounding the practice of evangelism. One gets the impression that evangelism is so important for some Christians that there is no need to bother about the problem of doing evangelism in an ethical manner.

Thankfully, there have been several attempts in the last decade or so to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism, the most recent one being the joint work of the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,” released in 2011. However, these attempts tend to be very brief, and they do little by way of showing how these criteria are grounded in the Scriptures. My aim is to supplement statements like these and provide a careful and systematic treatment of a biblical approach to the ethics of evangelism.

The Bible and a Hermeneutic of Suspicion

November 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heterodox Yoder and the Mennonite Church Today

August 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)