A “Christian” or “Biblical” Worldview?

It’s fairly common in evangelical circles, especially in discussing apologetics, to hear that we really need to have a “Christian worldview.” The idea is that one’s “worldview” is like a lens that we see everything through (a set of values, assumptions, authoritative ideas, etc.) and that we need the right lens: Christianity. Now, I want to say that I agree with this general idea in the following ways:

  • Agreed: We should strive to make Christ Lord of every area of our lives.
  • Agreed: Christianity should be the centre of any Christian’s worldview.
  • Agreed: There is no part of our thinking which should not acknowledge God where applicable.
    • (To those who say “where would God not be applicable?!”, all I mean to say is that there are some thoughts, such as “1+1=2,” or the thoughts involved with cleaning one’s bathroom, etc. that do not need to explicitly acknowledge God in order to be successful.)
  • Agreed: It is an important part of intellectual discipleship to try, as much as possible, to align our approach to life with Scripture.
    • For example, while a Christian might enjoy watching various incarnations of Star Trek, as I do, it should be quite clear the the philosophy of that show is at many points entirely at odds with Christianity: the Prime Directive to not interfere with other cultures is contrary to the Great Commission.
      • (But shouldn’t I also try to find whatever wisdom there might be in the attitude of non-interference? We still need to spread the gospel, but shouldn’t we try to avoid “preaching our culture” alongside it – or worse, instead of it?)

I would caution, however, that there is a danger is saying that one already has achieved a “biblical” or “Christian” worldview: I think it’s pretty clear that an obedient, biblical Christian in Canada is going to have a somewhat different worldview than an obedient, biblical Christian in China.

  • The danger of saying that one has “the” Christian worldview is that we will take the parts of our worldview that are merely cultural and raise them to the level of being “the” Christian view.
  • I think that the lenses of sin, historical contingency, and self are constantly placed before our eyes, so that we see through many lenses at the same time.
    • The result is that sometimes we attribute things we see/think to our having a “Christian worldview,” when in reality, Christians have had many, many worldviews throughout history (compare St. Augustine, a Christian Neo-Platonist, with B. B. Warfield or the Apostle Paul, for example–all Christians, but definitely not exactly the same worldviews).
  • It might seem like splitting hairs, but it would be best to say that what we are seeking for is to have a biblically informed worldview as much as possible, living in a constant awareness that we always fail to see things exactly as God does.
  • I would argue that just as Christianity is expressed differently in each individual Christian (differing spiritual gifts, experiences, talents, personalities, passions, etc.), Christianity is also expressed differently in different cultures.
    • Now, I don’t mean wildly differently – I’m certainly not saying that core matters of doctrine or morality may freely vary between cultures.
    • What I mean is that the Christianity of the Middle Ages certainly had a different worldview than that of North American evangelicals today, and that both of those are certainly different from the worldview(s) in the early Church.
      • So that one’s “worldview” is actually made up of many things that are shared with one’s culture.
        • Any Christian, anywhere, is going to have a worldview that includes certain values and assumptions that are shared even by non-Christians in that culture.
          • For example, I value democracy, freedom of speech, and presently value a specific balance between right- and left-wing economics wherein I think that roads, hospitals, and schools should be publicly funded but that we should promote free trade, keep taxes low, and not penalize the rich just because they’re rich. But should I imagine that my specific balance is the right, or Christian one? Is it not entirely possible to be a Christian who is a little more to the left or right of me–maybe even a lot? Of course! It is simply fanciful for anyone to think that the Bible teaches a one-and-for-all, specific economic policy for every imaginable situation. In fact, it seems entirely reasonable that the best balance for a country (and the concerns of the gospel) might be to have one right-left balance now, and a different one in twenty years, and a different one after that…
    • So it’s just not possible to have a worldview that is entirely “Christian” because one cannot avoid including certain values and assumptions that just didn’t come from Christianity.

So that the best and most accurate thing to say is this:

worldview-goggles

This cartoon from Answers in Genesis rightly points out that atheists have a worldview (something that atheists sometimes deny), but it is just too simplistic. The creationist thinks it is possible to achieve a final “biblical” perspective, so that one can actually be “objectively biblical.” Ironically, the cartoon misses its own point: really, neither person can be wholly objective (neither person can wholly escape their own culture, finitude, and sinful desire to put himself in God’s place; neither can see things as God does). The atheist has very little excuse for not knowing that he has a bias, but the Christian should have even less of an excuse if he really believes that Bible he’s holding!

Christianity should be the most important part, or the “governing part” of our worldview, and that there are less important parts of our worldviews that may vary across Christians in different times and places. Saying that we have “the” Christian worldview is not just inaccurate, but it risks the raising of human, temporary ideas to the level of divine revelation, and that is wrong.

So, as usual, life is just more complicated than we’d like it to be.

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10 Popular Re-interpretations of The Great Commission

  1. “Go therefore and make fools of yourselves, building up walls to protect your children from hearing anything that you disagree with; shoe-horn the Ten Commandments in every public school and set up a Nativity scene on every government property.”
    • Because we all know that Jesus’ Kingdom is of this world, right?
  2. “Go therefore and make cheap, unoriginal parodies of popular music and movies, making Christianity look fun in the name of entertainment, teaching people to expect fog machines, light-shows, and emotional ecstasy during worship…”
    • I am not opposing all Christian music here; there are a number of truly original Christian artists – but there are many “baptized” versions of secular artists as well…
  3. “Go therefore and make the world a better place, joining hands with general humanistic morality, teaching people to live more peacefully with one another and to observe the general tenets of secular humanism…”
    • I have nothing against many social causes – I actually think Christians should be doing many of those things! But these are not the Great Commission; we cannot confuse the message with good deeds.
  4. “Go therefore and make friends with non-believers, acting very nice and hoping that one day they will ask you why you are different…”
    • There’s nothing wrong with making friends and doing “relational evangelism” – except that some of your friends may feel that you’re treating them like a project (because you are). Alternatively, it might only be a relationship without any evangelism. I’m all for choosing the right moment and being wise, but let’s face it: it’s difficult to evangelize, and it’s way more easy to just sink back into a comfortable friendship than it is to actually get the message across. We simply don’t get to be off-duty Christians. We are either all about Jesus Christ or we are slacking off.
    • I don’t mean that every single moment is supposed to be some sort of explicit “Jesus teaching moment” – far from it! But I do mean that every single moment is an on-duty moment. If we are truly being transformed by the gospel, then it transforms all of our lives; it means that it should not even be possible for someone to become your friend without it being really obvious that you’re about Jesus Christ. It should drip off you; it should be both implicit and explicit – according to wisdom in the Holy Spirit. We don’t get to pretend that we’re not Christians.
  5. “Go therefore door-to-door and tell people how evil they are, threatening them with the torments of hell in the name of love, teaching them to fear all that I have commanded you…”
    • I’m not against door-to-door ministry (I admire that boldness!); rather, I am against using fear as a primary motivator for bringing people to faith in Christ. Yes, we need to be honest about God’s holiness, justice, and judgment – but that really isn’t the whole message of the Cross, now is it? Jesus talked about hell, but he talked about a lot of other things, too.
  6. “Go therefore and tell people that God is just love (not really holy), making them feel accepted in the name of community, teaching them to ignore all that I have commanded you…”
    • Loving acceptance is a key component of Christian love – but it is not supposed to be motivated by an “I’m okay; you’re okay” mentality. Rather, it should be motivated by the knowledge that neither of us is “okay,” but that because of Jesus we can be redeemed. We accept others because we have been accepted and redeemed.
    • It is possible to be more liberal than Jesus.
  7. “Go therefore into your homes and have nothing to do with the world, protecting yourselves from the evil around you in the name of holiness, teaching outsiders that you are better than them…”
    • It is possible to be more conservative than Jesus.
    • If you think that avoiding all situations with alcohol, for example, is more important than getting out there and interacting with non-believers, then you are more conservative than Jesus. If you think that you cannot be friends with a non-believer, you are more conservative with Jesus. You cannot plant any seeds (much less harvest) if you’re afraid to go to the field.
  8. “Go therefore and make yourselves rich, teaching people that God will bless them in this life in the name of health, wealth, and prosperity…”
    • Frankly, I don’t even know how this one gets off the ground. Just read about Paul’s life in the Bible – he was probably one of the best Christians ever and yet he suffered greatly.
  9. “Go therefore and prove scientifically that God exists, showing that the world is definitely only a few thousand years old and that evolution is false in the name of Enlightenment Rationalism, teaching them about the conspiracy in modern science…”
    • And its corollary:
      • 2 Tim. 3:16 – All Scripture is inspired [verbally dictated] by God [according to modern, twenty-first century, English-speaking, North American standards of rigid exactitude] and profitable for teaching [science and modern historiography], for reproof [of all non-conservative understandings of Scripture], for correction [of historical allegations], for training in righteousness [rationalistic apologetics];”
    • I have nothing against apologetics per se. But the Great Commission is not about asking people for their intellectual permission to preach the gospel. Apologetics should help remove obstacles to hearing, but it can never finally establish the credibility of the gospel – it cannot and must not pretend to provide a rationalistic foundation for belief. (See more on this here.)
  10. “Go therefore to seminary and learn all the theology you can, posting on Facebook everything you’ve learned in the name of truth, teaching people that they need to think critically about what they believe, forgetting to actually invite people to take a positive step of faith beyond the reach of critical thought…”
    • This is mine. This is the one that I struggle with all the time – both online and in person. I am willing to discuss apologetics with everyone, but I am often fearful to actually say to someone, with confidence, “Listen, Jesus is the Creator and Lord of everything; he can forgive you for the wrongs you’ve committed against him – against God – and he will give you new life. He has died for your sins and for my sins! He is the point of this life, and any way of doing life without enshrining him as Lord and following him is a wasted life. He will come back to judge the living and the dead.
      • Please pray that I would move past mere rational appeal into the realm of confident witness. For all of my opposition to the rationalistic approach I described above, I often fall into the same sort of thing (only not in terms of Creation Science). The fact that my method is perhaps more sophisticated (or needlessly complicated) does not excuse me from the basic charge that I do, in fact, try to make an excuse for the Word of God. But we do not need to make an excuse for the Word of God; we need to be silent and heed it.

Matthew 28:19-20 (the real one) “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 

Worship, Reverence, and “Jesus Is My … “

Can you finish the sentence?

For at least some readers, the word homeboy readily comes to mind.

Now, I realize that for someone to call Jesus his or her homeboy is probably not meant to be quite as shallow and irreverent as it comes across to my ears. For example, urbandictionary.com (I have fixed spelling and grammatical errors) defines homeboy as “closest friend,” “the epitome of a friend,” “a close friend,” “a person who always has your back,” and “long-time friend”; none of these are particularly troublesome for me. After all, Jesus did say to his disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). It is good and right that disciples of Jesus Christ would consider him their friend, and if that were all that homeboy meant, I would take little issue with it.

However, look at these other things that urbandictionary.com has to say about homeboy:

  • “Guy to chill with.”
  • “It is more commonly used now as a term to mean a friend from the neighborhood or a gang member.”
  • “One of your peeps — a good friend. Derived from the Spanish hombre
  • “Used to establish a mutual relationship between the individual using the term, the person described by it, and a third person.”

Now things are a little more problematic. I think that last definition hits the problem most squarely: “a mutual relationship.” Do we have a mutual relationship with Jesus? Mutual means that the relation is is reciprocal; it means that both people are on equal footing. Is this where we have arrived in twenty-first century, western evangelicalism? Look at the verse right before the one I quoted earlier:

You are My friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).

Does that sound mutual? Are we on equal footing with Jesus? Perhaps surprisingly, the late Tupac Shakur seems to come the closest to orthodoxy when he says, “You ain’t nothing without your homeboy” (if the urbandictionary quotation can be trusted). That’s a definition of homeboy that I could use with Jesus: I am nothing without him. As a good friend of mine likes to say, I am totally “up a tree without a paddle” apart from Jesus Christ. I don’t recommend the 2006 movie School for Scoundrels at all — but there is one line from the trailer that rings true: “You can’t help yourself because your self sucks.” Of course, instead of Billy Bob Thorton, it is Jesus we need to help us, as he makes clear earlier in the same chapter we’ve been looking at: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Of Course We Must Avoid Empty Religiosity

I am not saying that everyone who says “Jesus is my homeboy” is consciously saying that his or her relationship with Jesus is mutual. Surely most would say something like, “No, of course I’m not saying that I’m equal with Jesus or anything; I’m just emphasizing the closeness of our relationship. Jesus is someone I can kick it with, you know? I’m trying to get away from that stuffy, religious approach that makes God far away and inaccessible. After all, the Bible does say that we come to God saying ‘Abba! Father!,’ which was a familiar term of endearment in biblical times.

It is certainly true that Abba is a familiar term of endearment, and that we must avoid the imbalanced approach to God that only emphasizes his distance from us and stifles all sense of fellowship with God through his Holy Spirit. Of course we must resist that imbalance. But Christian living is not like physics: the answer to one imbalance is not the opposite imbalance. The answer to sexual promiscuity is not forced celibacy for life; the answer to drunkenness is not a legalism that demonizes any Christian who drinks; the answer to legalism is not a cheap-grace, anything-goes, lawlessness. No, the answer is always to be more like Jesus instead. If we only run from a specific problem, we might end up going anywhere! But if we run to Jesus, we can leave a problem behind without creating another.

If we don't run to Jesus, we might end up anywhere: in some cult, in a worse form of sin and imbalance, etc.

If we don’t run to Jesus, we might end up anywhere: in some cult, in a worse form of sin and imbalance, etc.

 

The Emotions Need to Be Discipled, too.

Now, what is really good about the “homeboy” approach, is that it holds our affection and closeness with Jesus in high regard. However, even our affections — our emotions — need to be discipled; not just disciplined — but discipled.

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Chap. 1).

Until I read the above C. S. Lewis quote, I had never really thought about my emotions as something to be trained. I had always thought of them as something to be ignored, controlled, subdued — but trained? It makes sense, now that I think about it. We are called to be like Jesus, not like Spock: the emotions — just like the intellect, the will, the body — are also meant to be discipled.

This means that when my feelings are not in accord with what is right — when they delight in evil (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-7) — I am supposed to submit them to Christ and grow in that area. Although we all differ in our personalities, the goal should be that we take every feeling captive and make it obedient to Christ (not just every thought)!

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a public space (not a library), trying to study. Soon, a girl showed up with a guitar and started softly playing and singing a worship song — Can you believe it? The nerve! I was trying to read! How dare she!!?? — and I glared at the back of her head. This, I think, is an example of a feeling that needs to be denied and re-trained. Instead, I should be happy that someone is worshipping God; I must train  my emotions to be happy that someone is worshipping God. That is entirely new to me. In the past, it was “Just ignore that feeling”; now, it is “Take that feeling captive and train it — make it obedient to Christ.” It used to be “Just ignore that inclination to lust”; now it is “Stop it. See that woman as a creation of God, and pray for her. Now.” It used to be “Just be patient and stifle your anger at that jerk who just cut you off”; now it is “Pray for him. Pray that God blesses him and draws him to Jesus Christ.” Do you see the difference? Do you see the potential for spiritual growth? I must train my emotions to delight in what the Lord delights (see Eph 5:10).

You Cannot Worship without Reverence

What the “homeboy” approach totally forgets, I would argue, is reverence for God as God. (Even if we don’t call Jesus our homeboy, it might still be the case that we don’t revere him properly.)

The idea for this blog entry came to me as I was listening to a message by Ravi Zacharias called “The Foundation of Contemporary Discipleship“:

In Greek (the language of the New Testament), there are a few words for worship:

  • Proskuneo, which means to kneel down or prostrate yourself in paying homage to someone.
  • Latreuo, which means to serve or to give religious homage as a servant.
  • Threskeia, which basically just means worship, but also has ceremonial and discipline connotations.
  • Sebomai, which also means to revere.
  • Eusebeo, which means to dutifully give someone his due reverence or regard.

None of these words suggest that you can worship God without revering him: Ravi argues that “you cannot worship [God] without reverence. We have lost this aspect in our time.”

Consider Malachi 1:6: “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’”

There is no reason to think that in New Testament times we are any less bound to give God his honour and respect as Father and Master. Jesus is not just your homeboy — he is Master, Lord, Saviour, Redeemer, Creator, Almighty God, the King of Kings!

You might have the chance to be on familiar terms with some powerful world leader some day, but will you get chummy with him or her? Will you disregard his laws, violate her etiquette, or give him a half-baked gift? Will you fall asleep while he speaks? Ignore her letters? Will you disobey direct orders?

At the Same Time, You Cannot Worship without Emotion

Not emotionalism but emotions.

I find evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch (1928 – 2010) to be very helpful on this matter:

“I fully concur with … [a] critique of contemporary music that makes the praise of God serve the satisfaction of the human heart, thereby transforming worship into therapy. But we must not be too hasty in [removing] from our hymnals gospel songs and chorales that celebrate Christ in us, for we are then emptying the faith of its mystical content, and a faith without a small dose of mysticism can only grow cold and formalistic. It is surely not our goal to become God’s frozen chosen” (The Holy Spirit, 339).

Frozen chosen!

If we are to love God with all that we are, that must include the emotions. We must not idolize them and make them the centre, but neither can we ignore them. Just as I want the churchgoer to disciple his or her mind, using it for God’s glory, so too must the logical, Spock-like believer like me learn to allow his or her emotions to not only be killed but resurrected to the glory of Jesus Christ.

I have to admit, I didn’t know what “sacrilege” meant until now — not really. Ravi quotes G. Campbell Morgan’s book on Malachi: “Sacrilege is defined as taking something that belongs to God and using it profanely. …the worst kind of sacrilege is taking something and giving it to God when it means absolutely nothing to you.” So if we are just singing along (or just serving along, or whatever it is), for show, that is actually worse than having no reverence. He continues quoting Campbell: “You will never be able to worship him without giving him your best; the best of your time, the best of your intellect, the best of your substance, the best of your gifts.” “You cannot worship God without emotion; you cannot worship God without reverence; you cannot worship God without sacrifice … you cannot worship God without the purity of heart.”

There are two errors to avoid here: having no reverence, and only appearing to have reverence — without any personal commitment / cost. The first falls into emotionalism; the second jettisons the emotions altogether.

“When you don’t have that love,” Ravi goes on, “when you don’t have that reverence/obedience, when you don’t have that sacrifice … you have also sniffed at it and what a weariness it is: worship became a boring exercise for them — ‘what a weariness it is’ (Malachi 1:13). Can you imagine when the purpose for which you are created becomes a boring exercise for you? You know what it’d be like? It would be like embracing the wife you were wedded to in the love your youth, and finding no enchantment, no comfort, no thrill in it.”

Putting out a Fire with a Flood?

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis suggests that it is the business of the Devil to have Christians “running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under” (Letter no. 25); that is, to have those in the church forever making themselves busy in the wrong direction — emphasizing seemingly good things in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In his seventeeth-century classic The Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter (1615-1691) makes a related point when he laments an “an epidemical malady”  — what he calls the “temporizing of ministers” (chap. 3, sec. 1, 3, (1)); this is the natural tendency of those in church leadership to align their message and approach with the ethos of their surrounding culture. In doing so, they are appealing to that which is politically, socially and, indeed, economically expedient, at the expense of being truly faithful to their calling to preach the word of God.

These two points — one from Lewis, one from Baxter — together illustrate the necessity of taking heed of those outside of our own socio-historical context (that is, we should humbly read sources from outside of our own time and place). Care must be taken to assess whether we find ourselves in a time of “fire” or “flood” — to borrow from Lewis’s analogy.

One flood of our time, I think, is irreverence: we’re so focussed on putting out the fire of stuffy, detached legalism, that we are now drowning in irreverent emotionalism. Reading older works can help to give us balance.

At times, Baxter’s writing might sound unduly harsh and puzzling:

“Of all preaching in the world, (that speaks not stark lies) I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity, and affect them as stage-plays used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God” (ch. 2, sec. 2, 11.).

I don’t know about you, but that sounds kind of crazy to me! — and perhaps with good reason; hermeneutics today suggests that Christ himself used humor to illustrate important truths (see Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ). Yet before we rush to the other side of Lewis’s “boat” — saying that Baxter is just wrong and we are right — I think that Baxter says something important here. (It might surprise some that this same author also instructs us to avoid all “harsh, discouraging language” (ch. 3, sec. 2. part 3, art. 2, 11, (7)), or that he advocates personal, relational evangelism over and against the “austerities of monks and hermits” (ch. 3, part 1, art. 1, 13.) — all of the sudden he sounds like us!)

Baxter’s real concern, I think, is that people will not be misled by the humor employed by those in leadership, and he is actually advocating a proper balance between mildness and severity, appropriate to each situation: “If there be no severity [that is, seriousness], our reproofs [rebukes] will be despised. If all severity, we shall be taken as usurpers of dominion, rather than persuaders of the minds of men to the truth” (ch. 2, sec. 2, 7.). This is actually pretty balanced — more balanced than we often are. Even if Baxter and his generation misplaced their sense of humour, we have certainly lost our sense of reverence. For example, when I was a volunteer youth leader, I recall when one of the teens jovially began throwing around the word “Yahweh” as a nickname for a physical object as it was tossed around. Why aren’t we teaching reverence?

Going even father back in Church History, Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule (c. AD 591) also makes some comments very different from anything you’d hear today: he teachers pastors to encourage grief over sin, godly sorrow, (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10-11) and even fear (cf. Luke 12:5) in churchgoers! Whereas some modern preaching resembles self-help books on how to feel good about life, Gregory warns the rich to fear being in high spirits (III.2); the joyful are to think about “sad things that follow upon punishment,” and are to be harshly warned “what to be afraid of” (III.2); “levity of mind” (silly, non-seriousness) must be “guarded against,” because it leads to “inconstancy of the thoughts” (III.18); we ought to bewail our sins—even those that we have ceased to do (III.30).

Again, it is worth pausing to apply some balance to Gregory’s own words here, since Jesus Himself made use of humour: we need to avoid a “misguided piety” that makes “us fear that acceptance of [Jesus’] obvious wit and humor would somehow be mildly blasphemous or sacrilegious,” because “Christ laughed, and…He expected others to laugh” (Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 15). At the same time, Gregory might have an important point that “levity of the mind” can carry us away. The Bible tells us to “become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning” (1 Cor. 15:34) and to be “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The point is that we should remember to disciple our emotions — neither abolishing them nor letting them carry us away!

The Holy Spirit was still active in the church of the sixth century; they were still Christians. Even if Gregory errs on the side of being too serious, he still provides a corrective for our own lack of reverence, and our tendency to focus on meeting felt-needs of seekers instead of actual needs of disciples.  Gregory repeatedly calls a pastor a “physician of the heart.” It seems to me that a physician “of the heart” cannot simply focus on what feels good (or joyful) any more than a medical doctor can. Oftentimes, we see Jesus as more of a “homeboy” than a holy God, and sin is certainly not bewailed. Gregory rightly emphasizes the reverence that we lack.

A Solution?

Not to be one to just complain and leave, I suggest two ways in which we might recover a healthy sense of reverence for the things of God. First, we need to be educated about the importance of reverence for God. Since many of our popular analogies for understanding our relationship with God make use of a tender father-child relationship, I suggest that we begin here; central to such a discussion will be the exposition of verses like Romans 8:15 (“…by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’) versus those akin to Luke 12:5 (“…Yes, I tell you, fear him [God].”).

Although the whole “I don’t have a religion; I have a relationship” stance is flawed, belittling the great Christian Tradition overseen by the Holy Spirit (although never over and against Scripture), we would do well to take a page out of Gregory’s book and address the more grievous vice first (III.39), and start by educating Christians on the concept of reverence in relationship. In another blog entry, I argued that one of the reasons you can’t go to heaven by just being a good person is that you are not being a good creature if you do not relate properly to your Creator. But the same goes for Christians: sure, we have a relationship with God, but we must relate properly to God.

Second, we must address our use of humor, which is one of the primary ways we are letting emotions lead us. Clearly Christ’s use of humour should prevents us from disposing with it completely; however, I believe that we would do well to strictly dispatch with both “filthy joking” (Eph. 5:4) and with making callous jokes about Hell and other spiritual things (2 Pet. 2:10) (and flippancy in general, but I think I will write another blog entry about that). Regrettably, these things are common among evangelicals — especially youth and young adults (they were particularly present in myself until about 2008) — these things sometimes even manifest among those in leadership positions. Whenever such things are confronted, the response is usually along the lines of “don’t be so legalistic.” Since so many are sensitive to legalism as the antithesis of grace and relationship, I suggest that we begin by explaining how such forms of humour do not befit our relationship with God. We need reverence in relationship. A woman will not suffer her husband to make a joke about cheating on her, for example—it is to disrespect both her and their relationship. And our God? He will not be mocked.

Pop-Wisdom vs. Biblical Wisdom

(Sorry for the lack of posts lately – I’m planning a wedding and trying to wrap up some schoolwork these days.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between popular wisdom and biblical wisdom.

Popular wisdom seems to say that we should trust our hearts and be basically sceptical about reason: “what is truth? Everyone has a different opinion. Follow your heart. Who really knows what is best? Do what you think is right. To each his or her own.”

Biblical wisdom seems to say the opposite – that we should be basically sceptical about our hearts, and generally trusting of reason: the heart is desperately sick and evil (Jer. 17:9); it is the wellspring of all manner of evils (Jesus says this in Matt. 15:18-20); God calls us to come an reason with Him (Is. 1:18); we are told to be mature in our thinking (1 Cor. 14:20); and that solid biblical teaching is for those who have learned to discern the difference between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). And yet, at the same time, there are verses that show that human reason has limits and cannot always be trusted, and that we have to submit ourselves to Christ before we can have the ‘mind of Christ’ (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; 1 Cor. 2:14-16).

  • How are we to make sense of this? Well, for myself, this is the model that I use in my own thinking:
    • Reason itself (with a capital R) is simply the mechanics of truth, and God is the Truth (John 14:6); therefore, Reason itself is an ally.
    • However, we humans are, apart from God, darkened in our thinking. We are capable of some infallible reason (2 + 2 = 4), but we are also capable of much fallible reason as well, which is most evident in human hypocrisy.
      • When we use logic correctly, we are tapping into that which flows from God’s own nature.
      • When we think incorrectly, we are falling prey to the limitations of our fallible minds.
      • When our sinful motivations cause us to be closed-minded to the truth (e.g. assuming that there must be no supernatural without even investigation historical evidence for such), our fallen hearts are taking over our thinking.
    • I want to suggest that all human fallible reason is, in fact, either due to untrained minds and/or evil intentions of the heart; I think sometimes it is only one of these, and sometimes it is both – we are more than capable of deceiving ourselves.

The cash value is this: popular culture says that we should be most cautious about truth and our minds, while biblical wisdom says we should be most cautious about our hearts. So if we make our moral decisions on the basis of our emotions and desires – on the basis of what seems right to us (cf. Prov. 14:12) – instead of submitting our opinions to the authority of Scripture, then it’s hard to ignore the clear implication: we have simply relocated the authority; we trust our hearts more than we trust God.

Now, it is important to clarify the boundaries of what I am saying here:

  • By “trusting of reason,” all I mean is that the Bible seems to say that once we’ve taken care of the heart problem, reason is an ally, not a foe. This is not to somehow elevate human reason above the effects of the Fall; rather, I would argue that whatever is merely human (whatever does not flow from God’s nature) in human reason is, in fact, not truth-oriented at all. The merely human parts of human reason are those parts which are either mistaken or in service of the deceptive human heart instead of in service of Truth. Whatever parts of reason are not merely human – that is, whatever is not influenced by the fallen human heart or imperfect mind – is, in fact, the mechanics of Truth itself (a.k.a. the rules of logic). I believe that the rules of logic must flow from the nature of God Himself. This does not mean that we humans have an exhaustive understanding of these laws; rather, just like moral laws, they are gradually discovered (revealed!) over time. So, I am not at all saying that human reason is the ally; it is God who is our ally, and true Reason is part of His nature. Truth is not something we can posses, but we can allow Truth to posses us. I don’t have the Truth: the Truth has me. Praise God!
  • When I speak of human emotions as being opposed to biblical wisdom, or somehow the opposite of biblical wisdom, I am not at all saying that human emotions (or conscience) are always wrong; rather, I am saying that if we choose to go with our hearts when they are opposed to the teachings of Scripture, then we are trusting our hearts more than God.
    • That is what makes this such a dangerous area of Christian living: much of the time we can trust our hearts! Murder is wrong; we should give to the poor; racism is wrong; we should help the helpless; stealing money is wrong; we should love others and care for them – all of these things basically agree with the collective ‘human heart’ of western culture (at this point in history). And yet, we also have a number of ‘heart-positions’ that are squarely at odds with Scripture: culture tells us not to judge anyone ever (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13); that all religions are the same, and sincerity is all that matters (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12); that we should do whatever we desire to do (James 1:13-15; Rom. 8:13); and so on.

So, the point is this: we must trust the authority of Scripture first, and submit our hearts to God continually.

What do you guys think?

Revised: Critical Thought, Humility, and Wisdom in Education

(I have revised this post on the basis of feedback and deeper thought on the issue. I always appreciate feedback and correction; please continue to serve me in this way. As a result, I think I have a much stronger and better-written post, now.)

Probably the most frightening thing about getting an education, for me, is that it is wholly possible to go through this entire exercise while largely cheating the system.

I have said this elsewhere:

If you have not learned these two non-negotiable things by the end of your university education, then I would suggest that it has ultimately failed you: The first is the discipline of critical thought – the ability to think through a matter carefully, thoroughly, and with balance: to think responsibly and with integrity. The second is a permanent awareness of, and a commitment to respond to, the limits of your critical thinking: your biases, your weaknesses, and, most importantly, your pride – in a word, you must have learned intellectual humility. Paradoxically, it is only after this essential education that you are truly teachable.

The fact is, you can consume many ideas and facts, and give them back to your professor on paper, all without learning much very much of substance; these things enter your mind, you use them, and then they are gone – just like a shopping list. You can wholly side-step learning to think critically if you choose instead to be lazy.

At this point, having read an earlier version of this post, Dennis Venema (Ph.D. Biology) pointed the following out to me: “If that’s true, your profs are short-changing you. They should be testing you on your ability to think critically.” I think Venema is right to press me on this, and I think that I over-stated the possibility of actually going through an entire university degree without learning to think critically at all – so I appreciate the correction. It can happen, but it isn’t very likely. What I’m really trying to say here, is that although it takes some wisdom to engage in critical thought, it is yet possible ‘go through the motions’ of critical thought without learning important wisdom from the process.

So let’s differentiate between the two:

Critical thinking is the process of evaluating an idea with fairness and without prejudice. It means a rejection of both excessive gullibility and excessive scepticism.

A good illustration comes from Peter Kreeft, a prominent Catholic philosopher. He relates the following in a podcast concerning C. S. Lewis’ wonderful book, Till We Have Faces beginning at 26:50 (Although, this example has nothing to do with Lewis’ amazing book, which you should all read.):

“you can’t really answer any problem unless you face it honestly and go into it totally and deeply. […] an experiment I do in my classes often when we have course in philosophy of religion, and the question of the existence of God comes up: I ask the class, ‘How many of you think you can prove that God exists and how many of you are either sceptics or unbelievers?’ And, it’s always about half-and-half or one-third and two-thirds, so I say, ‘Okay, all of you who think you can prove God’s existence get over here; all of you who think you can’t – either because you’re sceptics or you don’t believe – get over here. And now we’re going to have a debate.’ And kreeft-bcthey separate and only then do I tell them, ‘Now, all of you, who think you can prove the existence of God, argue that you can’t, because there is no God; you’re the atheists. And now you who don’t believe, you be the theists; you give them their best arguments. They say ‘Why did you do that? That’s not fair!’ – ‘Oh yes it is. If don’t you understand the other person’s point of view, how do you have a right to criticize it?‘ Okay so they try. I’ve done this three or four times; the result is always exactly the same. I’ll bet you can’t guess what the result is: the theists, who are pretending to be atheists, win the argument; the atheist arguments are always stronger. The fake atheists’ arguments are stronger than the fake theists’ arguments. The atheists who are pretending to argue for God give ridiculously weak arguments for believing, but the theists, who are pretending to be atheists, give better arguments for atheism than the atheists could give. And then we have another debate: ‘How come that happened?’ So, the atheists who are pretending to be theists say, ‘That’s because you made us argue for this ridiculously weak position, like Santa Clause.’ And the theists who are pretending to be atheists said, ‘No, we’ve seen both sides; they’ve seen neither.’ And we argue that. Well, you know which it is.”

    • IfYouCannotArticulateThe theists in Kreeft’s class knew about both sides of the matter, but the atheists did not. I don’t think the atheists had employed critical thinking skills with respect to theism; therefore, I think that a good measure of being able to think critically is how well you understand a position with which you disagree: if you cannot clearly, fairly articulate a good, persuasive argument in favour of your opponent’s viewpoint, bring it into thoughtful interaction with your own, and logically demonstrate why yours is the superior viewpoint, then you are not thinking critically; more likely, you are a pawn in someone else’s argument and do not truly understand your opponent’s position.

Wisdom gives the reason for critical thinking.

The reason is that we must have mental humility: one’s assumptions may be wrong.  But wisdom also goes beyond critical thinking, into the realm of application – moral humility is necessary: one’s mental assumptions may still be wrong at this point, but, even worse, so may one’s life-application of the conclusions drawn from critical thinking.

So, while it is not possible to engage in critical thinking without at least some small measure of wisdom – namely, enough to know that you ought to understand both sides of a matter in order to understand the matter (mental humility) – wisdom is also required for the proper application of the conclusions drawn from critical thought (moral humility).

Having studied both in the sciences and in the humanities, I’ve observed that ideas can be treated just like equations; logic can be treated like math: it is possible to run a new idea through your mental machinery and generate conclusions just like points on a graph, all without actually learning or reflecting on anything beyond whatever subconscious impression was made on you by the process. You can forget the new idea just like you forget a mathematical function once you’re finished with it – or worse, you can wholly accept the new idea uncritically; excessive open-mindedness is just as bad as excessive closed-mindedness. It takes work to sit back and truly reflect upon what you’ve encountered, to evaluate it critically, and even more work – and moral humility – to apply it with wisdom.

The following story is illustrative. It is found in another podcast by Peter Kreeft, called “Pro-Life Philosophy” (Best to just find it on iTunes; there is also a text version here):

“I was arguing with a very intelligent pro-choice feminist and I argued, ‘Give me one argument that defends abortion that doesn’t also defend infanticide.’ And we argued for a while, and I felt it was going nowhere, but afterwards she came up to me and said, ‘You know, I didn’t think you could do this, but you convinced me, you made me change my mind.’ I said, ‘Oh really? Congratulations, you’ve seen the logic.’ She said, ‘Yeah, now I’m for infanticide.’ So, sometimes logic is dangerous.”

  • So, although this intelligent feminist was certainly had the mental humility to engage in critical thought, she allowed herself to go against commonsense moral wisdom: namely, she ignored the fact that it is wrong to kill an infant. And this sort of thing is precisely the danger that I am trying to underscore in this post: it is dangerous to never engage in critical thought – because you refuse to question your assumptions – but it is even more dangerous to go through the motions of critical thought, receiving the label of having become “an educated person,” while still, somehow, being blind to moral truth and wisdom.

Beginning at 48:51 in the audio version of the same Pro-Life podcast, Kreeft says,

The smarter you are, the more clever you are at hiding from yourself. […] You’ve gotta be very clever to not know something. […] There was a Harvard sociologist who, in the ’80s or ’90s, made a study of the people who actually did the work in the Holocaust – in the death camps – and she paralleled it with their level of education. And she thought she was going to show, statistically, that those who were more educated – whatever their beliefs for or against Hitler – were more reluctant to do the ‘dirty work,’ because they had sensitive consciences, or at least sensitive feelings, and that the ‘grunts,’ the ‘pig-like’ people did the dirty work. It was exactly the opposite…exactly the opposite: the more educated you [were], the more fanatically pro-Nazi you were, because they were educated in Hitler’s schools; the power of propaganda.

  • This shows that being educated can be a dangerous thing, for even if you have the mental humility to run through the mental machinations of critical thought, you may, in fact, lack moral humility; you may be simply arming yourself with greater resources with which to shield yourself from the possibility that your moral assumptions may be wrong.

My fear is that, in education, we can largely side-step learning to think critically and apply wisdom if we are lazy.

This can happen in a number of ways:

  • You can wholly ignore the opportunity to critically examine your own assumptions, and simply wave the banner of those assumptions throughout your entire education, dismissing alternative viewpoints whenever you encounter them. (Venema is right to point out that this would be a significant failure on the part of the professors, and this possibility is by far the least likely.)
  • Or, you can wholly abandon whatever assumptions you brought with you and accept everything your professors say to you. (This strikes me as more likely.)
  • But even more sinister, is the possibility that you do learn to “simulate” critical thinking – to others and to yourself – by merely running ideas through your mental machinery and writing the process down on paper for marks; it is still possible to lack the wisdom to actually be open to the idea that your assumptions could be wrong, even if you gain the ability to “mathematically” describe both sides of an argument, as it were. (This, to me, seems to be a reality in the world around us.)

None of the above is an education, in my view. But the worst part – the most frightening part – is that when you obtain your degree, people call you “educated,” and they think of you as wiser than they, or as having obtained some sort of authority. And then they give you jobs in government and other places of leadership. But instead of a wise person being in charge, you have someone who, by virtue of his or her education, is – ironically – licensed to be ignorant – morally if not mentally.

I would maintain that being “educated” is (or ought to be) largely a qualitative measure of having learned to think critically and with wise humility – not merely a quantitative measure of books read, papers written, labs completed and lectures attended. A general labourer who spends a little bit of time to read and listen to those with whom he disagrees, and learns to think critically and with humility, is, in my view, more educated than most. My definition of the word “educated” may need some work, but I do not think that my concern is unfounded.

Of course, some rote knowledge is important: I submit that no one has any business not knowing some basic history, geography, or politics in the Western world, and that there are also basic disciplines to which university students should be exposed (grammar!), but these words of wisdom still ring as true as ever, far above all projects of humanity, showing the importance of mental humility:

Prov 18:13 “He who gives an answer before he hears,
It is folly and shame to him.”

Prov. 26:12 “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

James 1:19-20 “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”

These are words of wisdom, and wisdom is the key – not mere knowledge of facts. What are you doing with your knowledge? It is not the untrained worker with a full set of tools who is an electrician; it is the one who can skin a wire and connect a breaker with his or her key-chain, in a pinch – right? Skill itself is a physical form of wisdom (cf. Ex 31:2-5).

Do not waste your education; use it as an opportunity to grow in wisdom – the skill of living life well, in accordance with “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8; I’m using it out of context.) use your knowledge and understanding in service of such things. In regard to making moral decisions, I think that wisdom is the skill of knowing how to act appropriately in the light of God’s truth, with an awareness of the limitations of the human heart (a.k.a. humility). I laid out the limitations of the human heart in my last blog entry:

We must take the warnings in Scripture seriously: we cannot trust our hearts completely (Jer. 17:9); there is a way that seems right, but leads to destruction (Prov. 14:12); many will surround themselves with false teachers, who tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3); “woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26); “all men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Additionally, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

In conclusion, wisdom is the ground of critical thought, and it should also be its goal: we need wisdom in order to have mental humility – which we need for critical thought – and we need wisdom to have the necessary moral humility to apply the conclusions drawn from that critical thought in an appropriate manner.

How can we get wisdom?

Proverbs 2:1-6

My son, if you will receive my words
And treasure my commandments within you,
2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom,
Incline your heart to understanding;
For if you cry for discernment,
Lift your voice for understanding;
If you seek her as silver
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will discern the fear of the Lord
And discover the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

“5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

Narrow Road Morality: Wisdom in the Spirit as a Third-Way Alternative to both Legalism and Liberalism

I am convinced that in all matters of Christian living – be it theological formulation, or practical morality – legalism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin, which is a mindless refusal to act according to wisdom in the Spirit when presented with a genuine “grey area.” It is always easier to turn off your brain and either invent a new rule that is not in the Bible (c.f. 1 Cor 4:6), or throw caution to the wind and say that “anything goes.” It is always more difficult and more Christian to take the narrow road of applying wisdom in the Spirit at all times.

“Who decides where the line is?” asks the liberal, pretending that the cliff of godlessness is no real danger (c.f. Matt 7:21-23; 1 Cor 5:9-13). “That’s a slippery slope,” often warns the legalist, assuming that the opposing gorge of self-impressed, pride-soaked Pharisaical living is not an equally perilous danger (c.f. Matt 15:9; Col 2:20-23).

The narrow road is neither of these. Who decides? We do, as the body of Christ. All of the time; every time. We do so by wisdom in the Spirit, while grace helps us to defy the slippery slopes of life. The Christian is never off-duty. He or she is always mindful that the human heart cannot be trusted without reservation (Jer. 17:9; Prov 14:12; 1 Pet 5:8) and that we must constantly strive to think clearly, carefully, and prayerfully (Prov. 18:13; John 7:24), using wisdom in the Spirit (1 Cor 2:6-16).

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