Syria and Paris: symptoms rather than problems

Over the past days I have watched the American responses to the terrorist attacks in Paris with growing apprehension, responses marked by misinformation, faulty logic, and a notable absence of compassion.

But I have to admit something that may seem strange: I’m not upset with everyone who responded this way.

True, I don’t agree with the 30 + U.S. Governors, or the electorates that they represent, who advocate barring Syrian refugees from the United States (and from their respective states in particular).1 I don’t agree with the Republican presidential candidates who advocate admitting only Christian immigrants (Ted Cruz, Jed Bush) or even with candidate Donald Trump, who proposes maintaining a database and surveillance on all Syrian refugees (and maybe even sending all of the Syrians “back home”).2

Indeed, the very fact that the majority of people who oppose the immigration of Syrian refugees (or at least, all of the reports I have read concerning the opinions of such folks) claim to do so because of the possibility of admitting terrorist agents / radicalized Muslims is itself telling. It shows that they misunderstand the nature of the threat and the solutions currently in place, and so offer an incorrect response.

Specifically, the level of scrutiny, the uncertainty of selection, the long wait, and the advantages of other methods make immigration the least likely means of “infiltrating” the United States or Canada. For example, both countries require that Syrian refugees must pass three distinct review processes. Next both countries preference families, single mothers, orphans and the elderly. Further, the review process is lengthy and is generally proceeded by several years in a refugee camp—a long time to have potential fighters “out of action.” Finally, tourist visas are far easier to obtain and tourist access is far freer and more immediate.3

As if to confirm this, only 3 of 784,000 refugees accepted to the United States since 2001 have been indicted for attempted terrorism, and none of the attempts were against Americans or on American soil.4 So why would a potential terrorist try to immigrate when there are easier ways to perpetrate terrorism?

They wouldn’t.

Instead, I believe that the facts support a different view of the matter—and so a different response—which I will consider below. Yet while I disagree with them, I’m not surprised to encounter them.

I’m not surprised because the world is filled with people who believe that the “right way” to live is to prioritize yourself, your family, and your culture / way of life at all times. Whether we call this “looking out for number one,” failing to care for others or just being “ethnocentric,” these responses are prevalent. Sad I think, but not surprising.

I respond to such thinking along four lines: pragmatic, philosophical, general and personal.

Pragmatically, the very ability to prioritize oneself, one’s goals and “way of life” necessitates living in an environment that is sufficiently compatible with / conducive to these goals.

For example, the practice of giving foreign aid (for both development and relief) is not only altruistic but also self-serving. In the short term it abates despair, and therefore renders foreign populations far less vulnerable to embracing radical viewpoints, which reduces global threats. In the long term, insofar as it helps to re-establish stability and normalcy foreign aid helps not only helps reduces foreign threats but creates trading partners, and trade is the vehicle that allows us to fulfill many of our self-interests.

Philosophically, I would argue that militantly promoting my good (or preemptively ‘preserving’ it, as an indiscriminate “better safe than sorry” campaign) is precisely what extremists are hoping for.

For example, where radical organizations seek to polarize respondents (either to fully embrace their distorted rhetoric or by their militant rejection to become the “enemy” that these organizations depict all “others” to be), responding purely with fear and exclusion is exactly the response that they are looking for!5

Generally, the distance between terrorist acts and the acts of mentally unbalanced people is remarkably small, maybe even indistinguishable.

For example, in the US we can think about the Oklahoma bomber or the man in 2010 who flew his plane into an IRS office, or the recent abortion clinic shootings in Colorado Springs.6 Committed by foreigners we would likely call these people “terrorists.” Committed by Americans these people are typically called “mentally disturbed” or “unwell.”7 Such events are very similar, but our responses to them are very different.8

Personally, I would argue that seeking my own good often results in me deprioritizing myself / some of my desires and also risking myself / my well-being.

For example, in a relationship where I have been hurt or mistreated I am faced with the need, if the relationship is to continue, to privilege trust and forgiveness over suspicion and resentment. Similarly, as author Brenée Brown notes, human mental and emotional health requires (perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively) that we continue to embrace our own vulnerability.9 In all cases, I need to be open to the idea that “protecting” and insulating myself may actually be self-destructive.

Yet while I disagree with them, my beef is not necessarily with those presidential candidates, those American Governors, or their electorates.

Regardless of whether their motivation is personal, familial, or cultural (or a blend of them) these are not the people with whom I most disagree. Instead, my beef is with Christians—evangelical Christians—who hold these views. More to the point, my beef is with much of evangelical Christianity itself.

In other words, I believe that there is something deeply wrong at the core of typical evangelicalism.


Next post I specify “Why evangelicalism?” and explain “What exactly is wrong?”

Love and truth (and Syria)

I have been very pleased that my church has chosen to engage ‘head on’ with raising support for the Syrian refugee crisis, and I have been glad to take a role in researching and promoting relief efforts in Syria, as well as researching the causes and complexities of the struggle that has cost so many people their homes (and sometimes their lives).

As I have been engaging in various discussion within our FaceBook group it was revealing for me to realize that I do not support sponsorship of Syrian immigrants to Canada “carte blanche.”

Instead, I find myself concerned about the potential threat of increasing ideological extremism in Canada via immigration from the Middle East, but not because I think that Canadian immigration screening is not thorough or effective. Instead, I recognize both that there are no “guarantees” in life and that there is much in Canada that I want to protect (including my own family).

Further, throughout the discussions about Syria many have advocated the need to love the Syrian people and to recognize that they are “like us” in essential ways. Yet when I consider my own experiences with different ‘versions’ of Christianity I recognize that these views enable people to “love” others in very different ways, some of which seem to me so very, very unloving.

And if this occurs for Christians, why not Muslims?

Yet I do, in fact, support sponsorship of Syrian refugess in Canada. And this is because I think that I have enough evidence to believe that our immigration process is sound and that the need is great. And while I suspect that many ‘versions’ of Islam are deeply problematic and even destructive I do trust that, when removed from environments that are narrow and repressive, better ways of thinking and living can be emerge.

Yet my point is this: love alone cannot be my guide here. This is not because I devalue it but because I think that love alone is insufficient. Nor do I want to be oriented primarily toward trust, for the same reasons. So what are the options? If I think that it’s true that there’s much to protect in Canada or that I suspect that Islam can be destructive, then can truth or suspicion be my guide?

I don’t think so: truth alone will not suffice either, nor does suspicion offers enough to orient me rightly.

Instead it is my belief that love and truth / truth and love are co-equal and co-central both to healthy human existence—to living life “abundantly”—and to the character of the Christian God, as revealed in the Biblical text and as I have experienced it in my own life.

In short, both my experience and how I read the biblical text leads me to the strong belief that love and truth need to be placed in tension with each other such that they both compliment and, where necessary, can correct each other. Likewise, I find human life to be filled with tensions—between suspicion and trust, skepticism and belief, confidence and humility—and rather than being destructive I believe that these tensions are actually productive.

As such I find that I live life best, and as a Christian relate to God best, not by collapsing these tensions into principles (and so creating hierarchies where love is privileged over truth, or vice verse) but by maintaining the dialogue—the sometimes ‘rough and uncomfortable harmony’—that they create.

For love without truth is sentimentalism that risks naively welcoming “the other” at the risk of denigrating (and even destroying) the self: by being finite and fallen we are sometimes as apt to welcome devils as well as angels, unawares. Yet truth without love is inhumane and risks mercilessly denigrating (and even destroying) “the other:” by being finite and fallen we are sometimes apt to deceive ourselves that we are better beings than those whose faults we discover.

But to my mind “better” is not found in denouncing faults that we do not share but in forgiving them, even as we recognize (and are wounded by) them.


I became a family mediator, in part, because I believe that conflict always has a positive component: it indicates passionate involvement, and passions are connected to our beliefs about truth. So conflict is one way that we promote, protect, and pursue what we think is true. If this is so, then while falsehood may be the opposite of truth, it is not its greatest enemy: that enemy is apathy.

I think that apathy with regard to Syria—or helping others in need, generally—is simply not getting involved: having “too much to do,” not seeing the importance of the issues, or having too many “good things” to do at home to look further afield. This can be prompted by a range of factors, from selfishness and fear to not cultivating curiosity and courage.

But for my money the answer to apathy, whether it concerns how we engage with our family, with Syrian refugees, or with the God of the Bible comes down to two things.

First, being dedicated truth-seekers. For Christians I think that this means accepting the daily challenge to formulate and embody the deep connections between the truth of our faith and the truth we understand and experience in our world. Second, fully participating in love: being loved and loving in return. And for Christians, I think that this means allowing ourselves to be transformed—inspired to love God, ourselves and others rightly—by stories and experiences of loving and being loved by God.

In other words I believe that right engagement with ourselves and our world and, for Christians, with God, happens best when we let truth and love, love and truth, have their due: dual top billing.

No “space on the table?”

For some time now I have been using the metaphor of “clearing space at the table” to describe the nature of my discussion on the Untangling Christianity podcast.

Specifically, I have been likening the notion of presenting new approaches and understandings relative to Christianity to the phenomenon of coming to a full table and, before being able to add anything, needing to clear space.

During a recent exchange I was asked to justify my view that there is need for anything more at this table. After all, Christianity has the benefit of centuries of careful work on the part of a host of intelligent and dedicated individuals, people who have not only carefully considered the Christian faith but lived it out with conviction. What more is needed?

Quite a valid question.

Before answering it, however, I think that it’s best to note a few things that I am not doing. First, I am not clearing the entire table. This would be impossible (because I cannot remove or erase this history: it exists and impacts me whether I am aware of it or not) and counter-productive (no one has the resources to “start fresh” with a new construal or presentation of Christianity). Second, I am not trying to assert my perspective but to argue for it: to present not only my views but how I hold them and the reasons why I think these views are preferable to other, existing views.

In fact, I view the very process of “clearing space” as deeply respectful of other views. In other words—and to follow the metaphor—instead of merely piling my contents on top and ignoring whatever is already there, as if my views are the only ones that count, I engage with the existing views even where I believe that they are partial, problematic, or even harmful and erroneous. Hence the beginning of the tagline to our podcast: “Defusing destructive ideas, unsnarling confused ideas . . .

So what makes me think that the table needs something new?

What about its current contents is problematic, and why?

My own experience of Christianity, or what I might call a “constellation” of experiences, is one indicator that something is wrong. John has a sufficiently similar constellation of experiences. And having spent 3 of the past 20 years living and studying at Swiss L’Abri (and over 10 other years in very close contact with the branch’s director) I have met and heard of hundreds of Christians whose patterns of experience seem similar.

But not just this.

The books that John and I began our podcast by evaluating—books read by thousands—were written to address just the sort of thing that would precede the movements away from Christianity that John, myself, and others have taken (John faded away from Christianity, I rejected it outright and utterly, etc.) indicating that many Christians experience their faith not being satisfying, not working out, or just plain “not making sense.”

And as if more proof were needed, there are dozens of cultural barometers gauging the vitality of the evangelical church in the Western world to be at an all-time low, despite a resurgent interest in “spirituality.”  I think the issue is best summed up by an evangelical pastor who was recently invited to a gathering of atheists. When asked what they would see as their major “beef” with Christians, the atheists were incredulous: “We don’t have a problem with Christians. . . Christianity is simply irrelevant!”

Thus the issues that I see are twofold.

First, Christianity has indeed become largely irrelevant insofar as it has lost credibility with those outside for not having thoughtfully and intentionally engaged with the major issues of time.1 Second, Christianity is fragmenting internally precisely because it has substituted personal piety and maintenance of community boundaries for thoughtful, intentional engagement with our world.

And why has this happened?

To my mind it is the result of many factors, but a core reason is that many Christians understand Christianity in an unbalanced or partial manner. In general terms, the evangelical church typically preferences biblical truth over all things, even the idea of loving their neighbour by valuing his or her ideas as much as we value our own. Similarly, the liberal church (and more recently, elements of the evangelical church that are attempting to bridge the “credibility gap” with those outside of Christianity) preferences love over truth, honouring acceptance and listening to the exclusion of critique.

I believe that aspects of both are true, but neither are valid separately. In other words, the Christian church suffers from improperly formulating the relationship between truth and love, and thus incorrectly engaging with and embodying both. Hence the second part of the tagline to our podcast: “considering love and truth in Christianity.”2

There is still much more to be said on these subjects, both by way of defusing destructive ideologies / unsnarling confused ideas and, most valuably, by way of considering how love and truth are best understood within Christianity, then within human existence, and finally what the best interaction may be between the two.

Ravi Zacharias III: Being Christian, being human

I want to pause before continuing with my stated goal of assessing and responding to Mr. Zacharias’s Christian apologetics, and particularly his understanding of Postmodernism, in order to frame my eventual response within a fuller presentation of my own view of how Christians should interact with others, both other Christians and non-Christians.

In other words, I believe that beginning with my own understandings on the matter is the best way to make a potentially contentious discussion productive.

Further, in a context where suspicion reigns for so many people—particularly suspicion about grand, all-encompassing narratives where good things can “really happen” to those that believe and bad things can be overcome—Christians can only engage by first accepting the full truth of this suspicion (and thus being those whose life and practice stands up to its scrutiny) rather than being those whose logic and rhetoric simply try to refute it.1

As such, I believe that Christians will show their Christianity to be credible and relevant by first showing themselves to be real human beings: those who understand “the real world” because they act and suffer within it rather than seeking to escape, ignore, or denigrate reality by virtue of Christian belief.

So what are my expectations of myself and of others, and what are my goals in interacting with them?

First, I want to understand who this other person is and be understood by him or her. This begins by realizing that the other is similar to me yet different, and so honouring that person’s uniqueness begins by listening so as to understand the other on his or her own terms. In other words, this individual is not first a “sinner” or even someone “made in God’s image” but is a person with his/her own views and self-understanding. So while one’s views may not be definitive (i.e., they may not offer the best understanding / fullest identity of that person) nevertheless they are crucial, because one’s self-understanding is one’s starting point.

This type of listening is predicated upon believing that others are just as important as I am, and that her/his beliefs and views have as much innate value as my own. The goal here is respect, which is a form of “loving my neighbour.”2

Second, my intention is not first to teach others but to learn whatever I can from them, while realizing that I also have things of value to offer to others. This perspective is predicated on several understandings. One is that all truth is God’s truth, and so I can expect to find it in many places (and so I need not be afraid of it, wherever I find it). Another understanding is that I know some things without knowing everything, and that non-Christians may have important things to teach me about being human and even about Christianity.3

The goal here is truth-seeking, which is a form of self-love, and is aided by not only living with the tension between confidence and humility but embracing it and other tensions as a productive and necessary reality of being human (that is, being finite, if not also fallen).4

Third, my starting place is not the Bible but is my humanity. In other words, the starting place for all human beings is their existence (being born, growing up in a family, living in the world with other human beings, etc). So while my engagement with the Bible has had a radically transformative impact on my humanity, yet my created humanness is the context for this transformative engagement and remains my undeniable starting point (because no one is born a Christian), and thus the best point at which to connect with everyone.

By implication, I want to understand myself as a human being and be aware of what it takes to live life rightly / best / most fully. The goal here is to live out my understanding that creation frames salvation, salvation transforms creation.5  As such I both begin the process of mutual understanding (#1) where it is most likely to meet with success and situate truth-seeking (#2) within its proper framework: in both cases, beginning with the human and creational.

Fourth, being a Christian means being rightly and fully human, and while this requires dependence upon / trusting God it is not a passive orientation. Thus engagement with others is at least secondary6 to being in right relationship with God, not simply believing certain things about God.

In turn, best relating with God requires orienting oneself toward Christian belief and practice according to the most appropriate characterization of Christianity. To my mind, this is both as a “research project” (a quest for truth born out of wonder, dissatisfaction and / or suffering, requiring both dedication and rigor) and a “dramatic production” (a response to love, voicing joy and leading to inspiration: both my own and that of others).

The goal here is best to engage with Christian belief and practice for myself, in order to embrace the truth and love / love and truth that are both necessary to human flourishing and the result of best connecting and relating with the Christian God.

Fifth, I want to understand my humanity and develop critical self-awareness in order to love myself rightly. The content here is this: I am dependent upon being in right relationship with God for better self-understandings, and by embracing these self-understandings I increasingly come to love who I am becoming by being loved by God (and loving God in return).

In this way, even as rightly relating with God proceeds engagement with others (#4), so too I can only engage with (and love) others in the context of rightly knowing and loving myself. The goal here is to know and relate to myself truly and, in so doing, jubilate in the outcomes of becoming my “best self,” through right relationship with God.


These five stages amount to wanting to live out who I am and promote what I deeply believe about myself, God, and the world. I do this primarily by integrating the new understandings and new experiences that I have derived from being in right relationship with God such that I not only exhibit a willingness but an eagerness to consider subjects that would seem to challenge Christian understandings and Christian faith itself (such as evolution, human sexuality, the existence of hell, etc.).

In this way I live a fulfilled and meaningful life, and, by offering sufficient evidence through my own authenticity to overcome the rampant and immediate suspicion that precedes discussions about Christianity and / or its orientations, I am legitimately able to share the sources of that fulfillment and meaning with others.

Ravi Zacharias II

Last post I expressed my hesitations about Christian apologetics and particularly Ravi Zacharias and his apologetics ministry.

I mentioned two main concerns. First, I find Mr. Zacharias’ understanding of Postmodernism is at best partial (and at worst, inaccurate), such that by failing to grasp Postmodernism accurately his responses to it are neither valid nor viable.

Thus in subsequent posts I will detail Mr. Zacharias’ views on Postmodersim and then contrast them with those of some prominent scholars. 1 And while I need not have chosen solely Christian thinkers, arguing on the basis of the work of eminent Christian scholars may be the most effective way of convincing Christians that Mr. Zacharias has indeed misunderstood Postmodernism (and so misportrays Postmoderns and, further, advocates responses that neither respect nor actually love them).

Yet despite the importance of my first concern in this post I want to focus on my second concern, as presenting a positive response best sets the stage for the critical discussion that follows. Specifically, my second concern is that the epistemologically focused, “question and answer” nature of Christian apologetics is actually counterproductive in presenting Christianity to postmoderns.

This is because postmoderns not only live in but have deeply internalized the implications of existing in a post-Holocaust, post Rwanda world. Most pointedly, postmoderns are far too aware that the reality of evil trumps any “grand ideas” (such as the ideal of progress, the virtues of modern science, or Christian ideals such as forgiveness and reconciliation). In a very real sense, these amounts to only “words, words, words.”

So where Mr. Zacharias and other Christian apologists approach postmoderns with rational arguments and emphasize biblical truth claims, postmoderns instead require the proof that would validate those reasons—the truth value that corresponds to such truth claims—while being thoroughly sceptical about such claims to such validation (and suspicious of those who are offering it). Where such is the case, any approach that offers truth claims without providing the appropriate truth values is deemed useless.

So how would I instead suggest that Christians engage with non-Christians?

Well, I engage with others—Christians and non-Christians—quite similarly.

First, I want to understand who this other person is, and be understood by them. This involves listening to others in such a way that I accept and “live out” the truth that their beliefs and views have as much innate value as my own. The goal here is respect as compassion, which is a form of “loving my neighbour.”

Second, my intention is not first to teach others but to learn whatever I can from them, while realizing that I also have things of value to offer to others. The goal here is truth-seeking, which is a form of self-love and is aided by not only tolerating the tension between confidence and humility but embracing it as a productive and necessary reality of being human (and finite).

Third, my starting place with anyone is not the Bible but my humanity. By starting my engagement this way I enter the process of mutual understanding (my first interest, above) where it is most likely to meet with success and situate truth-seeking (my second interest, above) within its proper framework: in both cases, beginning with the human and creational. The goal here is living with others according to my best understanding of how life works: creation frames salvation; salvation transforms creation.

Fourth, I want to engage with others in the process of living a fulfilled and meaningful life. Thus I connect with others as I am “living out” the truth and love, love and truth that I see at the core of human flourishing and as the result of proper connection with the Christian God. The goal here is living rightly, according to my best understanding of being in right relationship with God.

Fifth, I want to advocate to others the joys, benefits, and truths that I have experienced and come to believe about myself and life, in light of rightly relating with God. I do this by integrating my new understandings and experiences, derived from right relationship with God, within the entirety of my person and existence. The goal here is to jubilate in becoming my best self as one who is loved by, in love with, and rightly relating to God.

Thus it is only in the wake of this fivefold approach that I can offer significant, biblical truth claims to others (such as that God loves us, that we can be forgiven and so can forgive ourselves, and that living well and being fully ourselves requires relating rightly with God) in such a way that their meaning is clarified and their potency is maximized.

In other words, I must offer myself as proof of my words—as (at least partial) truth value to justify the truth claims that I purport.


Next post I will expand on these five points: defining them as well as explaining why their order and logic matter, both theologically and philosophically.

Ravi Zacharias I

“What do you think of Ravi Zacharias and his ministry of Christian apologetics?”

Given the esteem that Mr. Zacharias generally has in evangelical circles, it is important to note that any answer critical of him or his Christian apologetics offered to evangelicals will need to navigate between two poles, as steering too close to either may appear to discredit the response.

On one hand, by simply voicing critiques about Ravi Zacharias, his ministries, and Christian apologetics in a rather direct but general way I may be seen to be making comments “out of court.” In other words, being perceived to be critical without offering enough substantiation.

On the other hand, however, taking a very research-based approach to the matter may be seen as heavy-handed and unfair. In other words, by marshaling sources and presenting arguments in an academic fashion I may be perceived as approaching the discussion “in the wrong way” (i.e., on terms other than those used by Mr. Zacharias).

My response to this dilemma:

These matters are both complicated and important. As a result of being complicated they require sufficient research to bring as much clarity as possible. As a result of being important (by which I mean, how Christians understand these matters will have profound impact on people’s lives) they require that we be as thorough as possible in order, quite literally, to “love my neighbour as myself” (and to love God in the process).

Given this need for sufficient research and a thorough approach I’ve elected to make this series of posts more academically focused than most.

As such, I ask for your patience in reading this material such that you will be willing, where necessary, to re-read a given post. Further, I ask that you see the abundance of references and citations in these posts in the most charitable way: they are not an attempt to discredit Mr. Zacharias’s perspective (who offers little or no reference / citation) but an attempt a) to demonstrate the reasoned and well-researched approach of Christian scholars on these matters and, by extension, b) to offer you sufficient evidence to persuade you that the view I espouse on this matter is the better one.

In other words, my hope in offering this type of response is to avoid the error that I believe Mr. Zacharias himself has committed: misunderstanding the perspective that he is considering, such that he mischaracterizes those who hold that perspective, and thereby offers a response to the issue / its adherents that is in fact more of a problem than a solution.

That said, I have two main difficulties with Ravi Zacharias’ views and Christian apologetics:

First, from listening to his videos1, reading his articles2, and exposure to him in other sources3, I find that his views, although articulate, do not show sufficient understanding of the matters that he is arguing against. Consequently, by failing to present these matters accurately his responses to them are neither valid nor viable.4

A key example is postmodernism.5

Postmodernism is a key notion for Mr. Zacharias given that his chief goal is to persuade non-Christians of the validity of Christianity and, logically, the effectiveness of any apologetic depends on understanding one’s audience. So as Mr. Zacharias rightly notes, Western non-Christians are decidedly postmodern. Yet from my own research, informed by experts in this field of study, I believe that Mr. Zacharias has not only misunderstood postmodernism but consequently mischaracterized those who are postmodern.

And this leads to my second concern.

Second, Christian apologetics itself (as an epistemologically focused, “question and answer” enterprise is one that) I find questionable to the point of being counterproductive in presenting Christianity well. This is because postmoderns live in a post-Holocaust, post Rwanda world, and so they are far too aware that the reality of evil trumps any “grand ideas” (such as the ideal of progress, the virtues of modern science, or Christian ideals such as forgiveness and reconciliation). In a very real sense, these amounts to only “words, words, words.”

So where Mr. Zacharias and other Christian apologists approach postmoderns with their rational arguments and emphasis on biblical truth claims, postmoderns instead require the proof that would validate those reasons—the truth value that corresponds to those truth claims—while being thoroughly sceptical about such claims to such validation (and suspicious of those who are offering it). Where such is the case, any approach that offers truth claims without providing the appropriate truth values is deemed useless.

What is the nature of Christianity II (aka, “owning” your faith)

In a previous post I examined both the implications and the motivations related to describing Christianity in particular ways. Having discussed implications and motivations, let’s take a step closer to answering the question: “What is the nature of Christianity” and how might one describe this nature?

So, how would one go about describing Christianity?

For many Christians, Christianity simply means following God: obeying God, loving God, and certainly believing in God. Also, Christians typically use Bible verses to describe their belief / Christianity. So they may cite (or paraphrase) verses about loving God and loving their “neighbour” (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 11, etc.), about how much God loves us (John 3, etc.), or about the sinfulness of humanity (Rom 8, etc.).

On the one hand description though citing Bible verses is valuable, as the Bible represents an important (and indeed, essential) informer about the Christian God and the Christian faith. Yet on the other hand, while Christians must always seek to be informed by the biblical texts, I believe that the goal for every Christian is to describe the nature of Christianity—in truth, the nature of their own Christian belief—in their own words.

To my mind, the difference between presenting Christianity via scriptural quotations versus offering one’s own description—in one’s own words—often amounts to the contrast between believing in God / adhering to Christianity versus having come to a place of understanding that belief and having lived out the trust that such understanding implies, over time and in real-life situations. As such, it is the difference between tacit acceptance (of how one was raised or of one’s culture) and active engagement (which includes not only affirmation but also critique).

Again, I am not suggesting that Christians should put the Bible aside, but rather that they should cultivate the integration of their biblical understandings and experiential contexts to the point that their disposition towards their faith germinates into what might be called “ownership.” Ownership implies intimate involvement: caring deeply about the health, development, and outcomes of something. Ownership further implies deep personal investment (and by extension, it requires significant understanding).

Now an impediment to actively engaging with one’s faith is that in many churches (and indeed, in many Christian traditions) an emphasis on ownership does not exist or, where it does, the sort of “creative fidelity” that the notion implies is seen as at least misplaced, if not wayward. In other words, in many Christian environments the faithful yet creative appropriation of Scripture, integrated with one’s own experiences of living out one’s relationship with God (where both are distinct and in productive tension, allowing mutual corroboration and correction) is not seen as necessary to a vibrant and tenable Christian life.

For example, in some Christian traditions adherents are taught that “belief is enough” (or even given the tacit message that understanding is non-essential). And while belief is an essential component, to see relationship with God as being based on belief alone is to sorely misunderstand the situation in 1st century Palestine when Jesus called his fellow Judeans to “belief.” Indeed, these were people for whom the necessary understanding was already in place, but which needed to be re-oriented according to the perspective that Jesus offered on God, himself, and how people were to relate to both of them.

In my view then, emphasizing “belief alone” is in fact a detriment to Christians as it does not encourage them to adopt (and develop skill in using) the tools needed to become “owners” relative to their Christian beliefs. Instead, where Christians actively engage with their belief they are always looking for ways to understand those beliefs better, to explain them more fully, and to engage in their relationship with God (that is at the core of those beliefs) more vibrantly.

Thus the impetus for framing one’s Christian convictions / the nature of Christianity in one’s own words flows from one’s intimate involvement and personal investment, with the advantage that framing our faith our own words affords greater clarity of vision and purpose (for ourselves), as well as explanation (for others).

Finally, as I noted above, this degree of personalization (or ownership) requires “creative fidelity”: the faithful yet creative appropriation of Scripture, integrated with one’s own experiences of living out one’s relationship with God. Here Scripture and experience are distinct and yet situated in a relationship of productive tension, allowing these each component the possibility of corroborating—or correcting—the other.

Projects, faculties, and personal narrative

What is the relationship between our faculties and our projects?

In my view they are reciprocal.  So my faculties, skill sets, and / or virtues contribute to my “success”—or not—in a given project, while undertaking certain projects allows me to enhance those faculties, skill sets, and / or virtues required for the success such projects (and not others faculties, virtues, etc.).

Yet can there also be conflict between my projects and my faculties?

I think so. Here’s an example:

Suppose that you meet someone special, and this is the most important relationship in your life to date. You come to know and love this person, and decide to marry him/her. We could call this a “project”: something in which one is involved and wishes to carry out to a good end. Other projects revolve around / feed into this project (such as finishing college or university, moving into a larger apartment, and developing relationships with this person’s friends and family), and this project itself feeds into larger projects (such as having a good marriage and, ultimately, “living a happy life”).

Now suppose that you find out some uncomfortable information about this person: a story about this person’s past relationship, with another person. Let’s play this out in several different ways.

First, let’s say that the story that you heard was rather vague and comes from a source that doesn’t seem overly credible. How do you respond? In other words, how do you use your faculties (your senses reason, memory, experience, imagination, etc.) to assess matters related to a given project?

Second, what if you begin hearing stories like this—concerning this person’s past—more frequently? And what if the information sources appear more credible? Third, what if you then begin to hear things about this person’s present activities: relationships with other people, now?

In other words, we choose to integrate new information—or not—based on a number of factors.

On the one hand, we often like to think that these factors relate solely (or mainly) to the relevance of the information and the credibility of the sources. Doubtless such considerations often play a big role. However, our decision to integrate new information is also related to the degree to which it is important to my identity that this project should succeed.

Further gut instinct and commitment impact how, when, or whether we integrate new information. If this were not so, then parents would be foolish to believe their young child is innocent based simply on the child’s say-so, and Christians would simply be deluded when they continue to believe in God despite contradictory information.

This is where “conflict” between our faculties and our projects, as I mentioned previously, can arise.

Now obviously much but depends upon the particulars of the matter. So perhaps this ends by me finding my fiancée to be profoundly deceitful: not being who I thought she was, I will not marry her; not being the judge of character I thought I was, I am less certain about future life choices.

On the other hand, however, there is an important connection between one’s projects and faculties and one’s story, or “narrative.” This is because, in my view, human identity is narrative identity. So in terms of my projects, I not only act in order to carry them out successfully, I also constantly try to attain the “narrator’s position” (both in terms of individual projects and in terms of my life in general).

Now none of us is capable of “writing” our own stories—life is always bigger than we are.

Yet we all attempt to tell our stories in a way that both makes sense of them (to ourselves and others) and that shows how and why the obstacles that we faced were overcome, integrated into the project such that we nevertheless completed it successfully, or we chose to change / abandon the project for the sake of a greater goal—a particular, overarching “good.”

Thus sometimes I narrate my story—and its projects—against the events. This is so because I perceive (and so narrate) events according to certain “vision” of the world, a vision that flows from and makes possible my desire to achieve a particular “good” (which is part and parcel of seeking to become a particular self). So this vision of the world, which aims at this “good,” directs how one narrates one’s larger story.

In other words, the narrator—not the events—recounts the story, such that narrating is structuring and including events so as to further the plot of one’s own story. So while the unexpected arises, sometimes I “emplot” events so as to resist major changes to my story, perhaps delaying incorporation of more dissonant themes or accommodating my story to less dissonant ones.

So what is the practical impact of all this?

In my case, the vision by which I seek to orients my story is love and the “good” to which I aspire (and seek after) is truth / truthfulness.  Hence one of my guiding assumptions / understandings is that love and truth, truth and love are co-central to human existence and divine character.

Much, much more could be said here, particularly about one’s narrative not simply as a story but as a “work of art.” Yet hopefully this sheds some light on our projects and faculties being “in conflict,” why / when this conflict is negative, and why / when this conflict may be positive (with this caveat: my wager is that whether such conflict can be positive depends upon what vision one embraces and to what “good” one is committed).

What is the nature of Christianity, and how would you describe it?

I would like to approach the question of the nature of Christianity (and how we best describe it) in two steps.

Step one: before offering my answer, I’d like to explain why I think that whatever answer we give to this question is important. Specifically, I believe that the answer indicates not only how we present Christianity to others, but how we think about God and about ourselves. And I would argue how we think about God and ourselves have ramifications for the full scope of human existence.

And so? My guess is that many people see Christianity as a belief system, and describe it as a series of propositions that people accept, and which have a governing influence on what they understand and how they live. Others might see it more generally as a worldview, and describe it as a particular orientation from which to understand (and live out) key notions about existence. Not the nature or description I would offer, but fair enough.

Yet in terms of the importance of the answer that one gives to this question, I want to frame this by considering two ideas. First, what is the effect of describing something? Second, what is the function of such a description?

At its most basic, describing the nature of a thing means focusing on its characteristics, their workings and interrelations and, by consequence, excluding all other characteristics, etc. Thus we narrow our sights in order to view the matter at hand more accurately. Next, the function of such a description is to orient us—to keep us “on track” in terms of how we engage or interact with that subject or entity, and to differentiate this subject or entity from others.

So descriptions have the effect of both freeing us and constraining us, and they function to maintain a sort of equilibrium—to regulate engagement and maintain distinctions. Straightforward enough.

Yet the point that I want to underscore is that describing the nature of something like Christianity is much more than just engaging our faculties: using our analysis, our creativity, and referencing past experiences. Instead, it actually has social implications, because how we describe something like Christianity may actually impact who we can (and cannot) be friends with!

This means that how we describe something can both open up new relationships and, perhaps more importantly, threaten existing relationships. For example, what affect would it have on your Christian friends if you endorsed a rather different description of Christianity than they do? How might they react (and what implications could you have for your relationships with them)?

My hunch is that many Christians would answer such questions negatively. Perhaps very negatively. More so, my hunch is also that for most of us the assumption that we would receive negative responses (or even be ostracized) is not something about which we are completely conscious. Yet I believe that the pre-conscious fear of negative responses can actually change how we describe something, without us even knowing it!1

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that if we fear, at whatever level, that our Christian peers will respond to us negatively then this “may” effect how we see and describe Christianity. I am arguing that it will effect it. The only questions are how, and how much.

Now I think that it’s worth offering an explanation of these potentially negative responses. I explain them in terms of the type of relationship that one has with truth (and the type of orientation one has toward truth-seeking), but also toward such things as the value of imagination, speculative thinking, discussion (versus debate), etc.

So returning to my earlier comment, above, not only does describing the nature of Christianity have social implications, but I believe that to varying degrees it is actually socially driven—our descriptions are socially motivated—depending on the nature of one’s existing relationships and how such things as truth, imagination, etc. are valued (or not) in a given community.

Being aware not only of the implications but also of our motivations, my next post will turn to Step two: the question of the nature of Christianity and how one might best describe it.

Should faith be “blind” / we act by “faith alone”?

A recent discussion raised the idea of following God blindly / in ways that we don’t understand. I’m taking this opportunity to examine that notion and offer some of my thoughts about it.

I think it’s true that God engages people / we find ourselves in contexts with God in ways that are uncomfortable. Sometimes this is because we lack the information to assess a task, situation, or relationship as we would normally do. In other words, we can’t take the steps toward understanding something—what is involved, by whom, when, for what purpose, etc.—in order to determine if and how we will act: whether we “buy in” or not.

Now I believe that the above represents not only a normal process but a healthy and even essential one. True, we assess information to understand—and then act—all the time in daily life (and so it typically goes unnoticed), but also in ways that are essential to our well being and even survival. So in my view, assessment toward understanding, in preparation for action, is a fundamentally human way of engaging with the world. I recognize that we could nuance this a lot, but let’s leave that for later.

So what is God doing by (seemingly) circumventing this?

Well, in my view God is seeking to engage us within God’s greatest project: bringing about God’s kingdom. Further, I believe that God engages us toward this end in a manner that seeks to create trust in our relationship of committed attachment with God (there are preceding steps here, such as cultivating belief and developing understanding, but let’s focus on this step). Yet in my experience, and according to my Bible reading, I don’t think that God seeks to create this trust in a manner that is divorced from / contrary to how we engage with engage—or not—with issues in other areas of our lives.

In other words, I see symmetry between how we relate to the created, natural order and how we relate to God as the creator. So there are times and situations when certain human competencies / virtues will take the fore (relying more on my senses and reason) and other times / situations when other human competencies / virtues will predominate (relying more on my creativity and imagination). And this symmetry is in fact necessary, particularly for developing our trust in God, to the furtherance of our relationship of committed attachment to God. This is a topic in itself, and again I’ll have to leave it for later.

My main point is that I do not believe that God ever calls us (or indeed, ever called anyone in the biblical texts) to act “blindly,” to act on faith alone or even to come to Christianity through faith alone. Nor is this a matter of simply knowing God—being reliant on what I understand of God’s character and nothing more.

Let’s take a few examples. What about Abram (Abraham), Matthew, or Peter?

So what was Abram’s understanding, when he answered God’s request to go to Canaan? It seems that he understood something of who God was, the general destination, and that the request held a certain importance. Yet Genesis 11 also indicates that Abram had, once before, set out for Canaan (with his Father, Terah) but had stopped short. So it seems he also understood something of Canaan itself, that influenced him to go there. Thus I see Abram’s action both as guided (or semi-informed) purpose combined with faith.

What about Matthew’s understanding? Well, by the time that Jesus tells Matthew to “Follow me,” in chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel, the stories and news about Jesus would have been widespread. His acts of healing and his willingness to associate with “sinners” would have become our equivalent of urban legends. Thus Matthew would have understood enough to know that Jesus represented a “second chance” for him. So to my mind he risked an act of faith based on what he understood generally (and so hoped for himself, personally).

But let’s take a harder case. What about Simon and Andrew? They meet Jesus only in chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel. Yet even here, if we follow the flow of the Matthew’s narrative, we see that the Judean people of that period had been prepared for Jesus, such that a degree of general understanding had been developed through John’s activity (chapter 3) and specific understanding by Jesus’s own, direct action (described in Mt 4:17).

Notice also that Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to something: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Mt 4:19) Now recall: Hebrew narrative is by nature terse, so details are never superfluous but purposeful and necessary for the reader’s understanding.1 We are not told why Jesus made this comment, nor why it would have been important for Simon and Andrew. Yet it clearly gave them a far greater sense of purpose, and likely they would have understood the tie between that purpose and Jesus’ own purpose.

So What would they have all likely understood?

At very least, that something was afoot—something was happening, and in each case this seems to have been tied to a prior desire (to go to Canaan), hope (to be given another chance), or sense of purpose (to change people’s lives).2

I am emphasizing the role of human “understanding” in order to push back against the reformation principles of acting / engaging with God “by faith alone,” and that coming to belief in God amounts to “faith seeking understanding.” These are substantial notions that I cannot fully explain here. Yet I raise them not only because some may object to my perspective on these bases, but also because this thinking has had a strong, indirect influence on Christian thought in a number of ways.

Particularly, they have influenced a representation of faith as the most important element in relating to God, to the point that faith is “all we need” or that it can “go it alone.”  From my perspective this orientation is responsible, in good part, for the widespread loss of credibility that the church in the western world experiences, to the point that Christianity may be seen as “faith without understanding.”

The idea that faith is primary to human existence has often been supported by the claim that all human beings “start” from faith, as newborns. Yet biology clearly contradicts this.  Instead, it proves that humans start with what we might call “inchoate” (or tacit) knowledge.

Thus in my graduate research I explained how neonatal biology and neurology have approached consensus concerning the occurrence of what they call “prenatal olfactory learning.”3 So against viewing the earliest human disposition as “faith” or “trust,” newborns already ‘know’ (or perhaps, pre-understand) the mother’s scent and are attracted to it. This occurs as a result of the infant’s lived experience, by being (indirectly) in relationship with the mother through the infant’s environment (i.e., the uterus).4

To conclude, my concern is that when Christians promote the idea of “just having faith” or “blind faith” they are actually advocating something unnatural and unbiblical. And my experience is that this not only negatively impacts Christians (via a distorted picture of who God is and how God acts), but also acts as a negative apologetic for non-Christians, for whom this idea—like “faith without understanding”—amounts to intellectual suicide.5