Bonhoeffer on Christian Community

I just received my physical copy of a book (a festschrift) to which I contributed in honour of Gus Konkel. My chapter is entitled, “Destruction and Restoration of Genuine Human Community in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall.”

If you’d like to read it, the chapter is linked on my ‘publications’ page (or you can just click here).

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Concluding Reflections on Doubt and Faith (post #3)

In my first post, I discussed the appropriate and helpful role that doubt can sometimes play in genuine Christian life and faith. In my second post, I identified the basic problem as overemphasizing Doubt or allowing it to overshadow, suppress, or paralyze faith. In this third and final post, I will offer some critical reflections on how doubt can be damaging to Christian life and faith in concrete and specific ways. I will draw on the gospels, specifically how Jesus addresses faith and doubt, to do this.

Let’s begin on a positive note, noticing that Jesus often commends people for having or exercising faith. I will simply list examples in the gospels – I encourage you to look up the full passages on your own (or, at least, those that strike you or draw your attention). The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) have MUCH to say about faith and doubt. John’s gospel replaces the language of ‘faith’ and ‘having faith’ with that of ‘belief’ and ‘believing.’

1. Jesus commends the unusual faith of the centurion (Matt 8:5; Luke 7:1-9), an amazing example of a Gentile exercising faith that Jesus (a Jew) has not seen in Israel.

2. Jesus performs many healings – of blindness, paralysis, leprosy – and exorcisms, often explicitly associating his healing work with the faith expressed by those involved (Matt 9:2, 9:22, 9:29, 15:27-29; Mark 2:5, 5:34, 7:24, 10:52; Luke 5:20, 7:1-9, 8:48, 17:19,18:42). Jesus often says things like, “Your faith has healed you.”

3. Jesus indicates that faith is instrumental in bringing about the ‘salvation’ of people – God’s work to save them (Luke 7:49-50; John 1:12, 3:16-18, 3:36; John 3:16-18, 6:29, 6:40, 6:47, 7:38, 11:25, 16:27).

4. Jesus teaches the importance of having faith without doubt (Matt 21:21; Luke 17:6, 22:32; John 6:29, 6:35, 12:36, 14:1, 14:12, 20:27). I don’t think that Jesus necessarily assumes that doubt is not present as a thing. What he stresses is the importance of practicing faith (encouraging, nurturing, choosing faith) rather than practicing doubt and disbelief.

5. Jesus teaches that believing in him and his teaching brings light, so that we will not walk in darkness (John 1:4-5, 3:19, 8:12, 12:44-46).

We also have many passages in the gospels where Jesus rebukes (or, more softly perhaps, confronts) people for lacking faith or choosing disbelief. Importantly, Jesus is always contextual and – as God incarnate – knows peoples’ hearts and minds in ways that we do not. He knows when it is fitting to offer a gentle exhortation and when to confront doubt and disbelief more urgently and assertively. Jesus is always deeply pastoral and prophetic.

Here are some examples of Jesus rebuking people for lacking faith, often saying, “You of little faith!”

1. Jesus rebukes people for lacking faith in the form of doubting God’s goodness and provision (Matt 6:30; Luke 12:28), sometimes also forgetting the amazing things God/Jesus has already done in their lives. For example in Matthew16:8-9, Jesus rebukes the disciples for worrying about having no bread, even though they had recently seen Jesus miraculously feed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread!

2. Jesus rebukes the disciples for doubting Jesus’s identity and what goes with it – God’s power and protection (e.g., rebuking the storm – Matt 8:26, 14:31; Mark 4:40; Luke 8:25).

3. Jesus rebukes those who refuse to believe in him and so will face condemnation, rejection, and spiritual death (John 3:18, 3:36; John 5:24, 8:24).

4. Jesus refrains from or is unable to do miracles (Matt 13:58, Mark 6:5-7), which is correlated with peoples’ lack of faith. 

5. Jesus teaches that doubt and disbelief can result in a lack of power to do ministry (Matt 17:20).

6. Jesus rebukes the disciples for their “stubborn refusal” to believe the witnesses to his resurrection (Mark 16:14).

7. Jesus strongly rebukes the Pharisees for lacking faith or belief in him (5:31-47).

In reading through these passages, several things stand out to me about the concrete damage that doubt and disbelief can do to suck Christian life of its full joy, flourishing, and effectiveness. 

It is important to highlight, however, that it is not simply the ‘innocent’ or genuine presence of doubt that is the main problem. We all must manage doubt, not only in religious matters but in all our relationships, choices, and commitments. The problem is failing to practice faith and instead to practice doubt or disbelief. Perhaps we should talk about faith and doubt primarily as verbs (doing faith, doing doubt) or participles (trusting/believing, doubting/disbelieving). This point reminds us of the personal nature of Christian faith and thus its important connection to love. As 1 Corinthians 13 teaches, love “always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13:7). From this perspective, doubt can play a secondary, critical, and servant role to faith. This is important because trusting does not mean being gullible, hoping does not mean naïve optimism, and persevering does not mean never stopping to discern or re-evaluate one’s chosen route (the goal and destination might be clear, but the means and paths of arriving might require continual discernment). 

O.K. So, with those caveats in mind, here we go . . .

(1)

First, doubt can demonstrate and further entrench a lack of trust. This is true of Christian faith, as it is also true of relationships. Love requires the risk to trust. Misplaced doubt can lead us to judge others, rather than expecting the best of them. The same can happen with our relationship with God. Of course, not all human beings are worthy of our trust. But God is always worthy of our trust.  

(2)

Second, doubt can lead to cynicism. And cynicism is a killer of faith. It’s also a choice, a decision (made consciously or unconsciously) to allow doubt to fester, take root, and become more real than faith. It places us within an alternate narrative to Christian faith, one that can no longer see God’s goodness and providence. In his book Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said – somewhat cryptically – that “the cynic is always lying.” I have often pondered those words. What I think Bonhoeffer means is that the cynic always has to deny some authentic feature of his or her being. In essence, cynicism thrives when we shut down one or more aspects of our genuine selves, often due to fear, hurt, betrayal, disappointment, abuse, or other breakdowns or offenses in our relationships. We put up a wall, shut down a bit, and then treat important and serious matters and questions with shallowness, reductionism, sarcasm, triteness, and smugness. It’s totally understandable, but it’s ultimately a form of insincerity and Jesus calls us out of it toward faith.

(3)

Third, doubt and disbelief can mask disobedience and stubbornness. Sometimes doubt and disbelief are the presenting or surface issues, while the root problem is actually the refusal to submit to Christ’s Lordship and the enthronement of one’s own goals, desires, plans, and preferences. This is the essence of the sinful condition that works to separate us from God, depicted graphically and brilliantly in Genesis 3. Doubt, or lack of faith, can mask the assumption or assertion of the sovereignty of the self. Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives helpful expression to this in his book, Discipleship. He writes,

Only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe.  . . . It is particularly important for pastors giving care to speak from knowledge of both of these statements. They need to know that sorrow over a lack of faith repeatedly comes from disobedience, which may be intentional or even no longer noticed, and that such sorrow all too often corresponds to the comfort of cheap grace. But the disobedience remains unbroken, and the words of grace become a consolation which the disobedient grant to themselves and a forgiveness of sins they accord themselves. . . . This is a common situation in today’s pastoral care. What then happens is that people get so stubborn in their disobedience through their self-granted forgiveness that they claim they can no longer discern what is good and what is God’s command. They claim it is ambiguous and permits various interpretations. At first they know clearly that they were disobedient, but their knowledge is gradually dimmed until they become unapproachable. Then the disobedient have entangled themselves so badly that they simply are no longer able to hear the word. Then they can no longer have faith.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, DBW 4:67-68. [Note: Bonhoeffer also discusses the opposite situation, where a person is paralyzed by guilt and fixated on their disobedience; here, the solution is to declare, “only the believers obey,” i.e., the problem here is not disobedience but lack of faith in Christ’s true love and forgiveness, a fixation on self rather than Christ, but in the opposite direction.]

(4)

Fourth, doubt can impede commitment, investment, devotion, and loyal allegiance. As western evangelicals (or Protestants), we are prone to thinking about ‘faith’ primarily in epistemological terms, i.e., in terms of knowing or believing things. But the best of recent scholarship on faith in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew Bates, John Barclay, N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight) has demonstrated convincingly that ‘faith’ is primarily about loyal allegiance to Jesus (similar to covenant faithfulness in the OT and as embodied in Jesus). So, faith is not just believing stuff. It’s necessarily and essentially connected to obedience to Jesus, to discipleship and following in the way of Jesus. Jesus’s way is costly and demanding. Sometimes, it makes little to no sense to ‘the world’ because it’s not simply about a new ethic or a new politic, but a new way of being and participating in response to a new reality that has dawned with Christ’s resurrection. Quite simply, we will not succeed in walking the way if we lack faith in the one Who IS the way.

(5)

Fifth, doubt can deprive us of joy, of experiencing the fullness of God’s blessing (not always the giving of God’s blessing, but certainly our experience of it), and from participating in some of the amazing things God wants to do in, for, and through us. We see this clearly in some of the gospel passages cited above, where Jesus refrains from doing miracles due to peoples’ lack of faith. But we also see it in several other areas of life: we miss out on the joy of being reconciled to God and to others; we miss out on the unexpected fruits of generosity, sacrifice, and even suffering entailed by a costly call. We fail to experience God in both gathered worship (or liturgy) and in nature because we have closed our eyes, become distracted and so imperceptive, or supress and explain away the wonder and gratitude that arises within us. Sometimes doubt is present because we fear what others will think of us. We don’t want to be mistaken for those people, so we avoid any association with the things (even the good things) that might characterize them. Or we reject legitimate expressions and fruits of faith because we fear (and rightly reject) unhealthy caricatures and distortions of them. 

Concluding Thoughts

I’d like to close on a personal note. I wrote this blog series not as one who finds having faith and overcoming doubt easy. I am not, generally speaking, an optimist. I’m definitely as “glass half empty” rather than “glass half full” kind of guy. It is easy for me to become suspicious, critical, and – if I’m not careful – cynical. I’ve been through phases where I couldn’t stand to be in church. I remember once walking out in the middle of worship, grabbing my toddler from child care, and going to Tim Horton’s to grab a coffee while the rest of my family stayed for the service (and/or Sunday School). I sometimes get really cynical about prayer. What’s the point? (Ask my wife – I’m NOT exaggerating here. In fact, I’m underplaying considerably). And despite experiencing – personally and dramatically – God’s miraculous intervention in my life, I am still tempted to doubt God’s goodness and love, to despair about the state of the world and the church (and to question God’s competence or care in overseeing them), and to indulge foolish thoughts and actions that push God (and others) away. This is not the way, but it’s so easy to slip into (very wide is this road and narrow is the gate that leads to life!).

But one thing I’ve learned is that faith is not something that simply ‘happens’ or is automatic. On one level it does, because God initiates it or plants a seed for it, but faith requires a response. Faith must be practiced. Why else did Paul write all those letters? Why else would the book of Revelation (the final book of the Bible) emphasize perseverance? Why else would Jesus talk so much about the cost and difficulty of faith? Why else would faith be described with language drawn from sport (press on, persevere, win the prize), the military (there is a spiritual battle at play), asceticism (fasting, praying, mortifying the flesh, dying to self), and the most difficult of relationships like marriage (yes it’s difficult – note contemporary divorce rates!) and, even more shockingly, love for one’s enemies. Perhaps there is a fruitful analogy here to be drawn between faith and love as things we work at and practice, rather than as mere beliefs, feelings, or events that we ‘fall into’ or that just ‘happen.’

I think the main thing is that we must commit ourselves to doing the things that nurture and build faith, in a disciplined and intentional way. Many forces exist to undermine and destroy faith and many of these are seductive and/or work on a subconscious level without our knowing or intending. So, we are called to be vigilant, to wait, be ready, on watch, discerning, and present to God at all times. Like the early believers in the book of Acts, we are called to devote ourselves to the basic things that make us more Christian: to biblical teaching, to fellowship, to sharing meals (both actually and symbolically in the sacrament), to prayer, to sharing our possessions, to worshipping and praising God, and to bearing public witness to our faith (see Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). That takes work and intentionality; it takes spiritual discipline. And it begins with a choice made repeatedly: pay attention and respond to God. Choose to interpret what you don’t know in light of what you do know, not the other way around. Enthrone faith and welcome doubt as a servant of that faith. Don’t enthrone doubt and impose litmus tests for faith that cannot possibly comprehend, contain, measure, or even adequately describe the Subject.

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Further Reflections on Doubt and Faith (post #2)

In my previous post, I discussed the appropriate and helpful role that doubt can sometimes play in genuine Christian life and faith. In this second post, I will reflect on what I think is the basic problem with overemphasizing Doubt (or perhaps allowing Doubt to take root and fester) and why starting with Doubt – or allowing it to overshadow, suppress, or paralyze faith – is inappropriate for the Christian. In a third and final post, I will offer some critical reflections on how doubt can be damaging to Christian life and faith in concrete ways.

I think I can begin to summarize the negative consequences of Doubt with the following statement: doubt can be a helpful servant, but it is a terrible master. It can play an important critical role in our thinking and being, but it must be subservient to – not the gatekeeper of – a larger reality that begins with faith. 

This basic truth is an important reminder for Christians living in an age of skepticism, confusion, deconstruction, wariness, and polarization. In such a context, it can be really challenging not to allow faith to be displaced by doubt, the hermeneutics of trust by the hermeneutics of suspicion. This often leads to anxiety, mistrust, division, and a crisis of meaning and purpose. We must resist this.

Even Descartes – the quintessential modern doubter – knew that all doubters assume that they are thinking. But we must push further than this: all thinkers assume that they have being. And what is the source of our being? Christians believe that God himself is the source of our being (as Paul said, “in Him we live and move and have our being” – Acts 17:28) and that all created things were made in, for, and through the Word (John 1:1:3; Col 1:16) – namely Christ – and find their coherence and meaning in him (“in him all things hold together” – Col 1:17). 

For Christians, the fundamental truth about reality is that it is created by the triune God of the Bible, and hence that it is coherent, meaningful, teleological (or better, eschatological – i.e., it is going somewhere, unfolding toward an intended end), and thus ethical or value-laden. Reality is not fundamentally incoherent, meaningless, purposeless, or ethically neutral or hostile. 

The doctrine of creation pushes even further: created reality is characterized ontologically (with respect to its true being) by truth, goodness, beauty, and love. It is not fundamentally evil, deceitful or arbitrary, ugly or foul, or indifferent, hostile, or hateful. These are qualities that plague the fallen world, bearing witness to its sinfulness and alienation from God, not its intended createdness. 

Ancient philosophy (e.g., Plato) recognized that the first three of these qualities (truth, beauty, and goodness) must necessarily characterize the being we refer to as ‘God.’ In addition to this, Christianity has insisted, on the basis of the biblical unveiling of God’s triune being in history, that God is characterized – essentially – by love. In fact, Scripture says plainly that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Profoundly, Augustine drew out the significance of this in terms of trinitarian theology: the Father as Lover, the Son as Beloved, and the Spirit as Love personified or hypostasized (or the personal/personalizing Bond shared between Father and Son). The mission of this triune God toward humans is to draw them into deep and abiding fellowship or communion – in fact, it’s stronger than that – union with God

This mission of God (missio Dei) takes a trinitarian form, God’s mission in history thus disclosing God’s eternal being. God’s saving, reconciling, healing, redeeming action originates from the Father, takes form and is ‘accomplished’ (in time and ‘in flesh’) through the Son, and is effected and perfected in and by the Spirit. The Spirit, who is sent to dwell within us, brings us into communion with the Son who is in perfect communion with the Father. Or, as John puts it in chapters 14-17 of his gospel, the Spirit who comes to be ‘in’ us places us ‘in Christ/the Son’ who is ‘in the Father.’ And the Spirit is active within us to bring about the transformation in which we are invited to participate. Thus, the indwelling Spirit is active in telling us that we are God’s children, convicting us of sin, regenerating our hearts and minds, infusing and facilitating the formation of our character, pouring God’s love into our hearts, and crying out from within us to prompt and enable worship, praise, lament, supplication, intercession, and just, righteous, and loving action.

To sum up: we live our lives participating in a world (and larger reality) that is good, true, beautiful, coherent, meaningful, teleological/eschatological, and defined ultimately by Love (which, importantly, sums up and integrates rather than displaces all the other divine attributes and virtues). We inhabit a world that has its origin in God (creation), finds its healing and reconciliation in God (salvation), and is being renewed, fulfilled, and perfected – made whole and complete – in God (eschatological consummation / new creation). All of this is really real and out there to be discovered and entered-into, not in a detached, mechanistic, purely objective (dualistic subject-object) way but in a participatory, sacramental way, because this reality finds its life, movement, and being in God and this God is present and active, speaking, moving, and loving

This is the vision of reality to which Christians hold. This is the vision of reality that Christians literally stake their lives on (if they are faithful and faith-full). It should define their identity, inform their purpose, align their values, priorities, and goals, re-order their loves and desires, and become manifest in their common life together and their engagement with and witness to the world. 

Now, if this is what truly characterizes reality (as Christians believe it does), then I suggest that Doubt is not a fitting posture to hold at a fundamental or basic level. Faith is a much more fitting basic orientation and mode of existence. This is why classic Christian theology asserts that all knowing takes the form of faith seeking deeper understanding. This leads neither to the ‘certainty’ of modern rationalism nor the easy-believism of fundamentalism, but rather to the kind of growing ‘certainty’ we associate with an ever-deepening relationship, such as a marriage or long-term and deeply committed friendship. (Though, to be sure, these analogies are limited because no human being is fully trustworthy and perfectly good all the time.)

So, faith is the basic orienting posture of the Christian, while doubt can serve a subservient role to faith, assisting faith to be genuine and discerning (even shrewd, at times). 

Problems begin when doubt starts to usurp and displace faith. When doubt begins to define our perceptions of reality in a disproportionate way, thus feeding suspicion, skepticism, mistrust, division, and polarization. Again, in a subsidiary or servant role, doubt can be helpful; faith should not be naïve, gullible, sentimental, or complacent about evil and injustice in the world. 

Resisting the seductive yet deceptive power of Doubt is difficult, perhaps especially in our contemporary postmodern (and post-everything!) world. Christians must be intentional and disciplined about practicing faith, about cultivating and sustaining habits and practices that nurture and deepen faith. Several of the spiritual disciplines are meant to do this. Spiritual disciplines exist not to win us holy points with God, but to form us concretely in participation with the Holy Spirit and in alignment with a biblical vision of reality—with the Kingdom of God, as Jesus preached it, at the very centre.

What kinds of habits and practices? Well, there are potentially many! Lately, I’ve been drawn (in some cases, drawn back) to four very simple ones: (1) the habit of gratitude cultivated by the practice of giving thanks (e.g., writing three things I’m thankful for in my journal, first thing every day); (2) mindfulness of reality-in-Christ cultivated by simple daily Bible reading (how can God’s vision and mission define and align my worldview and mindset if I’m not immersed in the biblical narrative?); (3) healthy relationships cultivated by practicing spiritual friendship (pursuing meaningful conversation and Christ-centredness intentionally and explicitly, with 2-3 close friends); and (4) worship (the posture of offering my whole life to God) cultivated by practicing worship in various ways, both personally and corporately (with Christ’s body, the church). 

These practices are simple . . . it’s not rocket science. But they are effective, if pursued in openness and in faith relationally with God. They are not the only disciplines, but they are the ones that I am most drawn to presently to nurture and sustain the deepening of faith.

Next Post: In the final post of this short series, I will discuss some specific ways that  doubt can harm and distort faith. As part of this, I’ll make some observations about Jesus’s teachings about faith and doubt in the Gospel of Luke.

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Some Reflections on Doubt and Faith

It is common today, perhaps even fashionable, for Christians to celebrate the place of doubt within Christian life and faith. In part, this is a good thing. Yet, I sometimes wonder if perhaps the pendulum has begun to sway too far in the opposite direction. Are too many Christians beginning to embrace doubt to the point of skepticism and cynicism? This would not be a good thing.

In this post, I will offer some reflections on the appropriate place of doubt in Christian life and faith. In a second post, I will offer a critique of problematic forms of doubt that are damaging to Christian life and faith.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four reasons why doubt might be appropriate for the Christian believer. 

(1)

First, since the Enlightenment, we in the west have tended to champion certain forms of knowing over others. In particular, we tend to associate ‘knowledge’ and ‘certainty’ with forms of knowing that begin with skepticism and then critically apply rational and empirical methods to answer our questions (having first assumed implicitly or set out explicitly the criteria for testing the truth we are seeking). The problem with this is that critical rational and empirical methods are not the only ways of knowing. In particular, as the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi has shown, personal knowing is not reducible to rational and empirical methods. And as hermeneutic thinkers like Hans-Georg Gadamer have shown, even scientific knowledge is not reducible to purely objective and detached methods, because the scientists employing those methods are human agents who are immersed-in-the-world and begin their work with particular interests that influence and guide the kinds of questions they ask. 

With Christian faith, this approach to knowing is even more limited with respect to our knowledge of God. This is because the God of Christianity is personal and relational in nature; as a Person, God can be known truly and deeply only if God opens himself up and discloses himself to us. Our own methods here are limited, because God is the infinite Subject of divine self-disclosure (or revelation), not an impersonal and finite object that we can subject to our tests and experiments. (To some degree, this applies to all persons, but it applies to God supremely). So, sometimes, I think present-day Christians champion doubt because they are pushing back against the idea that faith must be ‘certain’ in a kind of scientific sense. This seems appropriate.

(2)

Second, some might endorse doubt in response to simplistic representations of Christian faith that approach ‘faith’ in an anti-intellectual and fideistic way. This typically characterizes various forms of fundamentalism that downplay the importance of the life of the mind. It also characterizes some (not all!) charismatic expressions of faith, especially those that embrace ‘health and wealth’ teachings (“name it and claim it,” “doubt it, live without it,” etc.). Here, faith is presented in childish – rather than child-like – terms and borders on the superstitious or the magical (e.g., words and phrase spoken with the right attitude possess the power to achieve what they command). Many have been hurt by such approaches and, as a result, have come to question their faith (“this doesn’t work”) or their own genuineness or earnestness (“perhaps I was not healed because I didn’t believe firmly enough?”). Doubt in the form of resistance to this kind of ‘faith’ also seems appropriate.

(3)

Third, and perhaps related to what I’ve just written, doubt seems like an appropriate Christian response to leaders who act in inappropriate ways or who say and teach inappropriate things. Faith is a central virtue in Christianity, but it is balanced by hope (which requires trust and not mere optimism) and love (which requires justice). As discussed and represented in Scripture, faith is not blind to reality or to evil. Rather, it is connected to wisdom and discernment as well as to righteousness, justice, and holiness. So, it is appropriate and even necessarily for Christians with strong faith to respond with doubt – in the forms of critical thinking and moral reasoning – when they encounter authoritarian, immoral, anti-intellectual, manipulative, or predatory leaders or the claims and demands of such leaders.

(4)

Finally, a certain form of doubt seems to be appropriate to the committed nature of Christian faith. Here, we are not talking about doubt in an epistemological sense (Cartesian doubt or skepticism) but in an existential sense. When the gravity of important decisions weighs heavily on us, we are appropriately deliberative, reflective, perhaps even hesitant to act. The existentialists referred to this as ‘anxiety.’ If we are to live authentically in the real world, such anxiety cannot be ignored, wished away, or bypassed, but must rather be embraced and faced with decisive commitment and responsible action. The Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote about this aspect of Christian faith in his book Fear and Trembling, as he pondered the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. He argued that the “Knight of Faith” has to commit fully to what is ultimate (God) in order to truly receive and enjoy rightly and authentically what is penultimate (Isaac). Doing so requires a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical,’ the suspension of human rational and moral judgments in light of an absolute, transcendent call from beyond what can be humanly anticipated or calculated. 

My wife’s grandfather, Lyness Wark, used to say that “doubt is the price the strong man pays for his convictions.” It’s an illuminating proverb to ponder. If you want to illiminate doubt from your life, the solution is easy: just abandon all of your convictions! If you don’t care, if you are not involved or committed, you won’t have doubts. But this is an even worse price to pay than the cost of doubt itself! So, understood this way, doubt can be sign that you actually have convictions and commitments and that you care enough to recognize and face the gravity of the decisions that you face. Within Christian life and faith, this kind of ‘doubt’ seems very appropriate indeed.

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Thoughts on Abortion from Michael Gorman

In the wake of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US Supreme Court, I’ve seen many posts about abortion on social media platforms. Many are reactionary and unhelpful. A precious few are more nuanced and careful.

My general reaction is that I think that some conservatives are gleefully celebrating too much and some progressives are despairingly lamenting too much.

Some conservatives seem to fixate on abortion and reduce almost all of social and political ethics to this one issue (even supporting an egomaniac, misogynistic tyrant because the ends justify the means). It’s important to point out, however, that the pro-life movement is broad and diverse. For example, there are pro-life advocates in the Democratic Party and there is the growing influence of the Pro-Life Feminists movement (see here and here, for examples) and secular pro-life movements (see here). Moreover, many conservatives promote a holistic approach to life, advocating (with real dollars and initiatives) care not only for the unborn, but for women, children, the poor, and the marginalized. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that conservatives are doing more in these areas than progressives are (see this commentary piece in the Washington Post and this book).

On the other hand, progressives tend to see the issue of abortion in a very one-sided way, one that leans heavily on particular modernist and postmodernist western assumptions (e.g., individualism, autonomy, consumer choice, and the denial of ‘human being’ status to a select class of human beings, namely those at a particular developmental stage). These days, increasing numbers of Christians seem not to understand why the Christian tradition has consistently stood against abortion and infanticide for 2000+ years and that concerns me too.

These issues are very complex. But perhaps we (conservatives and progressives) can all agree what we should be doing more to alleviate the conditions that tend to make abortion an ‘attractive’ (or only conceivable) option for women facing difficult or desperate circumstances. We should all be doing more to work for better social conditions for women, children, families, and the poor and marginalized. We should all being doing more to change the attitudes of men about relationships, sex, commitment, and family. We should all being doing more to resist the constant sexualization of young people (and increasingly, children) and the objectification of persons as sexual objects (especially women). But there are so many cultural forces opposed to all of this, so it’s very difficult.

I found the following thoughts from the biblical scholar and theologian Michael Gorman to be really helpful in explaining why Christians have traditionally opposed abortion but also why the best of the tradition has advocated for a holistic and consistent approach to valuing and protecting life.

I like Gorman because in his work he resists the polarizing classifications of ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ and ‘personal/private’ vs. ‘social/public’ ethics. His aim is to promote the holistic flourishing of life and I’m grateful for his clear thinking and articulation of these convictions.

I hope you find his reflections helpful too!

_ _ _ _ _

From Michael Gorman (Facebook post on May 14, 2022)

It is probably dangerous as well as difficult to address a complex and controversial matter such as abortion on FB. (But fools rush in….) So I do so with some hesitation, even though I have written about the subject many times. (See especially my book *Abortion and the Early Church*.) The purpose of this (long) post is not to critique or endorse a particular statute or Supreme Court decision, much less a particular legal argument (such as that of Justice Alito). Rather, the point of this post is to encourage fellow Christians (and other interested people of good will with an open mind) who identify as pro-choice, or pro-life, or both to think a bit more deeply, and a bit differently, about the matter. I think point #3 is perhaps the most important, specifically the word “neighbor.” If you care to respond, please do so in a civil manner. (I cannot promise I will respond to all comments.) And feel free to share.

1. *Won’t abortion always be with us?* While it is true that there always has been and always will be abortion, that reality should not be determinative for our response to it. “You always have the poor with you,” said Jesus (John 12:8), but that saying does not permit us to condone poverty or ignore the poor. Rather, we should work to address the root causes of poverty, to care for the poor in our midst, and so on. So too with abortion.

2. *Don’t women have the right to do what they want with their own body?* The popular claim about bodily autonomy, expressed in phrases like “my body, my choice,” is fundamentally an unchristian position. For Christians, our bodies are not our own, as Saint Paul says specifically in relation to matters of human sexuality (1 Cor 6:12-20). The modern/postmodern idol of complete freedom and choice is part of the mentality of this world/age/culture that Paul challenges us to challenge (Rom 12:1-2) because it is not freedom, but slavery.

3. *When and why should an embryo or fetus be treated like an actual human being?* The question of when a developing human life truly becomes a human being or a person deserving of protection is not a new issue; answers have ranged from conception to two-years-old. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the early church to the subject of abortion and infanticide was to declare that newborn and unborn children are our *neighbors*. They are to be loved just as the poor, the outcast, widows, orphans, and pregnant women are to be loved as neighbors. This perspective and practice was completely at odds with most of the pagan Roman culture, in which abortion, exposure of newborns who were deemed unwanted or “deformed” or perhaps the wrong gender (i.e., female), and infanticide were all practiced and legitimized by a variety of arguments. At the heart of these Roman practices was a belief that should sound familiar: the unborn and newborn were not persons or neighbors but appendages or possessions that could be abandoned or destroyed, basically at will, by those with more power. And those with the power were most often men, with women and children being the victims.

4. *But if the Old Testament seems to imply that life begins at birth, and the New Testament does not mention abortion, why did the early Christians oppose it?* The early Christian opposition to abortion and infanticide was in line with Jewish perspectives of the day. The Old Testament speaks only of *accidental* abortion (miscarriage) when two men fight (Exodus 21:22–25). There is no approval of non-therapeutic abortion in ancient Jewish literature. Among Jewish authorities there was debate about when the unborn received a soul and about the legal status of the unborn but, apart from saving the mother’s life, Jews did not follow their pagan neighbors in advocating for or practicing abortion.

The earliest Christians who left evidence (as early as the late first or early second century) were no doubt motivated to maintain and expand this basic Jewish attitude to unborn and newborn children by the birth narratives preserved in the Gospels. Since Mary’s pregnancy was both unintended and took place while she was not married, outside of Jewish culture Jesus would have been a candidate for abortion. Luke tells us that Jesus was active in the womb of Mary, while Matthew narrates the attempt to kill the newborn Jesus. It was—and still should be—difficult to believe in an incarnate God who is remembered for his activity in utero, and who escaped both abortion and infanticide, and still adopt the reigning culture’s attitudes toward, and practices of, such things.

5. *Does being anti-abortion make one pro-life?* Not necessarily. The inspired genius of the early church was to be consistently pro-life, rejecting violence of every sort. (See, for example, *The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment*, edited by Ron Sider.) Today, such a womb-to-tomb ethic of life and peace (shalom) is known as the “seamless garment” ethic or the “consistent life” ethic. People who call themselves pro-life cannot be just anti-abortion. They (we) must work for the well-being of pregnant women, new mothers, children in poverty, and more—that is, for all humanity and indeed for all creation.

6. *So what would all this mean legally?* Although I am not espousing a particular legal position, it does seem to me that it is inconsistent to say that the unborn child is our neighbor and at the same time to support laws that offer no protection of that neighbor. It is in some ways (not all) similar to the situation involving slaves, whether ancient or more modern. If slaves are not persons but property, there is no reason to question the legality of slavery. However, in retrospect we now know (at least most of us know) that view of slaves was and is horribly wrong. I suspect that, one day, even though abortions will never end, just as slavery will never end, most of humanity will look back at periods in which abortion was espoused as an inalienable right and recognize the error of that perspective—just as most people realize the error of slavery. At the same time, as 1 Peter implies, the transformation must begin with “the household of God.”

7. *So what should Christians do to be truly pro-life and not just anti-abortion?* A truly pro-life position will provide concrete short-term and long-term support for those who choose life—even more than is currently done. Such support will involve great changes in the way the church functions and in the way Christians back governmental and nonprofit programs. A truly pro-life position will not be advocating for unfettered gun rights while decrying unfettered abortion rights—or vice versa. A truly pro-life position will also be one in which those who make misguided decisions out of desperation will be treated with compassion and true Christian care. And in both the church and the wider society, a truly pro-life position will expect men to take moral and financial responsibility for their actions. As in antiquity, it is so often men who cause the traumas that women and children experience.

We live in a culture that idolizes irresponsible notions of freedom. We live in a culture of violence, an “interlocking directorate of death” from abortion to guns to the death penalty to war, as Daniel Berrigan said. We obviously do not live in a culture that is even remotely pro-life in the broad sense of this term. Although there are some Christians and churches trying to embody a holistic pro-life vision, the Christian community as a whole, at least from my vantage point, is not doing much better than the culture we inhabit. We are divided and inconsistent.

The conversion that is necessary to protect human life in the womb also requires a commitment to protect human life on this side of the womb. To paraphrase 1 John, how can we say we love the unborn whom we have not seen, if we do not love the already born whom we have seen? At the same time, how can we worship the God who came to us in the womb of Mary without treating the unborn child as our neighbor?

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ASA Diving Deeper Discussion

On April 9, 2022, I had the opportunity to be featured in the ASA’s Diving Deeper Discussion, to do some Q&A regarding my recent article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith on theodicy and the historical Adam. The video of that session is posted below.


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Gregory of Nazianzus: The Great Exchange

One of the great themes of patristic soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is that of the “Great Exchange,” which takes the form: Christ became like us so that we could become like him. In its stronger form, it states: Christ was made human so that humans beings could be made divine (Athanasius). The patristics did not mean by this that we become God literally (essentially) but that we are drawn and united to God, in Christ by the Spirit, and so come to participate in God’s own life and qualities, which he shares with us. Christ experiences all that it is to be human (including the worst stuff, like temptation, shame, humiliation, suffering, and death) and, in turn, imparts to us the things that God wants to give us to perfect and consummate our humanity and to grant us LIFE in its fulness.

It’s such a beautiful theme and it leads to an expansively holistic understanding of salvation.

Here is a passage from St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329 – 390 CE), one of the Greek church fathers that played a significant role in the early development of christology and trinitarian theology. Enjoy!

“He was baptized as Man—but He remitted sins as God —not because He needed purificatory rites Himself, but that He might sanctify the element of water. He was tempted as Man, but He conquered as God; yea, He bids us be of good cheer, for He has overcome the world. He hungered—but He fed thousands; yea, He is the Bread that giveth life, and That is of heaven. He thirsted—but He cried, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink. Yea, He promised that fountains should flow from them that believe. He was wearied, but He is the Rest of them that are weary and heavy laden. He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea. He rebuked the winds, He made Peter light as he began to sink. He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish; yea, He is the King of those who demanded it. He is called a Samaritan and a demoniac; —but He saves him that came down from Jerusalem and fell among thieves; the demons acknowledge Him, and He drives out demons and sinks in the sea legions of foul spirits, and sees the Prince of the demons falling like lightning. He is stoned, but is not taken. He prays, but He hears prayer. He weeps, but He causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God. He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood. As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also. As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word, and is proclaimed by the Voice of one crying in the wilderness. He is bruised and wounded, but He healeth every disease and every infirmity. He is lifted up and nailed to the Tree, but by the Tree of Life He restoreth us; yea, He saveth even the Robber crucified with Him; yea, He wrapped the visible world in darkness. He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine , who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is Sweetness and altogether desire. He lays down His life, but He has power to take it again; and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. He dies, but He gives life, and by His death destroys death. He is buried, but He rises again; He goes down into Hell, but He brings up the souls; He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead … .”

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St. John of Damascus: Holistic Salvation

These words from St. John of Damascus (~645-749 AD) describe the holistic effects of Christian salvation, the effects of God’s redemptive work and power through Christ in the Spirit.

“Indeed, the worship of demons has ceased. Creation has been sanctified with the divine blood. Alters and temples of idols have been overthrown. Knowledge of God has been implanted. The consubstantial Trinity, the uncreated Godhead is worshipped, one true God, Creator and Lord of all. Virtue is practiced. Hope of the resurrection has been granted through the resurrection of Christ. The demons tremble at the men who were formerly in their power. Yes, and most wonderful of all is that all these things were successfully brought about through a cross and suffering and death. The Gospel of the knowledge of God has been preached to the whole world and has put the adversaries to flight not by war and arms and camps. Rather, it was a few unarmed, poor, unlettered, persecuted, tormented, done-to-death men, who, by preaching One who had died crucified in the flesh, prevailed over the wise and powerful, because the almighty power of the Crucified was with them.”

So much more than “say a prayer and get saved” or “just love people” or “give mental assent to this set of beliefs or statements” or other forms of gospel reductionism. So much bigger, more holistic and integrated.

God’s redemption calls and empowers us to true worship and allegiance (away from idolatry and false loyalties), true knowledge (especially of God – what’s most Real), true virtue and true justice; it instills hope, defeats evil, and rejects all coercive, violent, and otherwise inappropriate means to advancing God’s vision for human flourishing (i.e., those rejecting the centrality of the cross and a cruciform life).

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Why I Don’t Support Mandatory Vaccines (in most cases)

I’m going to go out on a bit of an ethical limb here, and share a thought that is a strong leaning but not an unchangeable or irrefutable conclusion. I am against mandatory vaccines (except in places where vulnerable people have no other choice but to be, hospitals and long-term care facilities for example).

Before I explain why, you should know that I affirm the importance of getting vaccinated (I’m triple vaxxed) and I believe that the evidence for the vaccine’s effectiveness is strong (and that the risks of not being vaccinated are real and potentially devastating). But I’m still against mandatory vaccinations in most cases.

The video I include below, from a professor at Western University whose job is now at risk because she refuses to be vaccinated, is a good place to start. Have a look at the video and hear her plea. Listen to her concerns.

Unfortunately, the professor does not really make any compelling arguments, and she shoots herself in the foot by unhelpfully and fallaciously questioning the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. But I think her basic point is valid regardless of any statements we might make about the vaccine or about covid.

Her point is that no one has a right to force or coerce another person to accept an unwanted and invasive bodily intervention (whether a procedure, an unwanted touch, a treatment applied paternalistically without consent, or whatever). I think she’s right about this. I think that we should consider bodily autonomy to be a nearly absolute ethical value and principle (short of extraordinary circumstances, like the use of force to apprehend and detain someone that commits a crime).

I have served on university research ethics boards and taught ethics seminars to resident physicians. So, I know that one of the fundamental rules of informed consent is that it must be non-coerced to be valid. This is true for medical procedures and it’s true for potential participants in research studies. If a study involves coercion (or even unjustified deception) in anyway, it doesn’t pass the research ethics board evaluation.

So, I simply ask: Is this woman being coerced or under duress, and so inappropriately pressured to accept an invasive violation of her body (by which I mean unwanted, not necessarily dangerous; e.g., an unwanted kiss is not dangerous in itself but it is a bodily invasion and thus psychologically and socially damaging)? If so, we have a problem.

Now, I can anticipate some objections:

– Doesn’t this woman have an ethical duty to others to be vaccinated? Well, perhaps she does. I am vaccinated partially because I feel the weight of this responsibility to others. But that’s not really the relevant question. The question is: should we compel others coercively to be ‘ethical’? If so, whose ethics should we enforce? Especially in a pluralist society such as ours. All kinds of things that are ethically obligatory are not legally required, and all kinds of things that are ethically wrong are not illegal. Regarding vaccines, I’m sympathetic to the argument that we all have an ethical duty to be vaccinated (if normal conditions apply). That does not mean that we should be denied basic civil (and perhaps human) rights if we don’t do so.

– From a Christian perspective, does loving one’s neighbour not require one to be vaccinated? Perhaps it does. But it is un-Christian to force and coercively compel others to act Christianly. (Aside from Christian principles that have parallels in other faiths and worldviews and attain social consensus, and so can be reformulated into general universal laws, e.g., Do not murder).

– Shouldn’t the common good (public health) outweigh the individual’s right to bodily autonomy? I think this is a very dangerous path to go down. I hope I don’t have to explain why. Aside from the dangerous precedents and problems it creates, it also rests purely on consequentialist or utilitarian reasoning, which ignores the possibility of individual acts being morally right or wrong in an absolute sense (the only factor determining the ethical status of the action is the common good – whatever that means). But what if the violation of bodily autonomy is simply always wrong? What if being coerced into receiving a medical procedure is just always wrong?

– Shouldn’t the government and key social institutions enforce what’s in the public’s best interest? Well, this sounds good, but the devil is in the details. Of course, we do use government to do this (it’s the reason Leviathan exists, to allude to Hobbes), but a democratic society must ensure that it does this very carefully and – I’d argue – very cautiously and sparingly. Using the coercive power of the state to enforce the common good should apply at a very general (and lowest-common-denominator) kind of way. To affirm (and legally enshrine) the idea that the government knows better than individuals (and parents and families and legal guardians) how they should live and what they should be compelled to do with their bodies is to put us, collectively, on a very dangerous path.

I know that many are frustrated that some people are refusing to be vaccinated. And I know that there are costs associated with that. But I think that the violation of bodily autonomy (or coercion and duress impeding its resistance) is too high a price to pay to enforce the ‘public good’. Vaccination is a good thing that should be encouraged, but bodily autonomy is a more fundamental good that must be protected.

I think that this whole issue actually points to some more serious and disturbing societal problems. Ultimately, in a rational and free society we all have the burden of convincing others of the truthfulness of our claims. We should always aim to persuade rather than coerce. So, the scientific community needs to think carefully about this. It needs to expand its imagination and work hard to foster trust, build relationships with those who fear or distrust science, and seek to translate scientific data within real contexts and communities, meeting people where they are at and finding common ground on which to build.

Of course, the scientific community is not fully (or even mostly) to blame here. It’s very difficult to convince people of the truth when, by and large, our culture functionally (if not philosophically) buys into moral relativism and is increasingly skeptical about “truth,” believing that it either doesn’t exist or is simply an illusion (the rationalization after the fact of the more basic will to power).

The broader social problem is a disagreement about whether truth exists, how to access it, what legitimate authorities speak knowledgeably about it (a question undermined by authorities overstepping and overspeaking beyond what is legitimate and warranted), and how to build trust between individuals and between communities at local, inter-community, and societal levels. A difficult task, demanding much of us (so, we’re inclined to give up). But without it, all we’re left with is a struggle for power. A struggle to coerce others to our own point of view.

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Embracing the Life of the Mind as a Person of Faith

One of the things that led me to pursue higher studies in theology (earning a ThM and later a PhD after my MDiv) was a sense of dissatisfaction with the intellectual state of contemporary Christianity in North America. In particular, I worried (and continue to worry) about the anti-intellectual climate that often characterizes evangelical church culture.

Of course, I’m not alone in this. Years ago, Mark Noll (a noted evangelical scholar and Professor Emeritus at Notre Dame) wrote an incisive yet gracious critique of evangelicalism entitled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (later, he wrote a constructive sequel to that book entitled Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind). As Noll points out in Scandal, it’s not that evangelicals aren’t smart or educated. Many are. Rather, the main problem is that evangelicals often fail to integrate knowledge from various academic disciplines; thus, they can tend to separate faith form the unity of knowledge and operate in secluded silos that keep certain faith perspectives in tact by shielding them from scholarly inquiry and critique. [As an aside, certain disciplines within the contemporary university scene today seem to be rather fideistic in similarly shielding themselves from broader interdisciplinary critique, but that’s a conversation for another time!]

Are there resources for thinking intelligently about the Christian faith, in dialogue with wider scholarship and knowledge? Yes! There are lots of resources.

A great example, in the area of dialogue between the sciences and Christian faith, is the American Scientific Affiliation and its Canadian Counterpart, the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation. If you are not familiar with these groups, do check them out! They jointly publish a quarterly peer-reviewed journal (see here), as well as a more popular-level magazine, and offer a number of other helpful resources as well as organize and foster local networks of Christians working in the sciences in higher education and in industry (e.g., see the local chapters listings for the CSCA and ASA).

One of the things we need to do, as Christian faith communities, is give more attention to thinking carefully and critically about Christian worldview (I would include here both the content of what a worldview includes and the diverse ways in which worldview and social imaginaries are taught and caught). Without a consistent and informed (and sufficiently deep and broad) worldview, we will quite simply lack the capacity to integrate various dimensions of knowledge well . . . and by “well” I mean with integrity, balance, proportion, faithfulness, and integrity.

Here’s one place to start. It’s a review article I wrote about Christian worldview, published in the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. It introduces a number of important contemporary thinkers and issues that concern the life of the mind from Christian perspective generally, and attending to Christian worldview in particular.

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