Why Christian Education

Why Christian Education

[The following is a written summary of an address to the faculty of Westminster Catawba Christian School on August 5, 2019.]

At SouthLake Christian, we began a strategic planning process earlier this year to identify our main priorities as a school for the next chapter in our history. We spent a few months gathering data from our various constituents – teachers, students, parents, alumni, and members of the community – to clarify who we are and what next steps we should take, to select among all the good options the very best ones. Early and often, people identified two traits that characterize our school and must be preserved at all costs: our commitment to academic rigor and our identity as a Christian school. These conjoined twins represent the two main reasons our school was established and continues to exist, the reason parents hire us and pay us to do a job, the reason volunteers and donors give their time and money, and the reason that independent, public, and charter schools haven’t crowded us out. And yet, there are reasons for Christian education superior to those pragmatic considerations, important as they are. I propose that Christian education casts out fear[1], nourishes freedom, and tells a better story.

Bob Woodward’s 2018 book entitled Fear describes the inner workings of the White House with this phrase: “Real power is fear.” Machiavelli’s The Prince articulates a similar refrain: “It is better to be feared than loved.” Many leaders rise to power and maintain that power because they manage effectively to understand and articulate the underlying fears of their constituents. Some leaders maintain power by stoking that fear while promising to ameliorate it. These strategies work because fear plagues us all. It drives us to work and overwork, robs our sleep, wrecks our bodies, taints our relationships, and blinds us to life’s beauty. Fear. Cable news fuels it, social media feeds it, marketing firms monetize it. And the thing we have most to fear is fear itself. Yet we have a solution. Christians have always taught that the antidote to fear is love. The apostle John, for whom 4 books of the New Testament are named, writes that “God is love” and “perfect love casts out fear” and “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.” (1 John 4.8, 1 John 4.17, and John 15.13 – NIV). The love that led Jesus to lay down his life for us lives in us. As we love each other and our students and their families, we cast out fear. As we teach that love, and acknowledge explicitly its source and power, we smother the fires scorching our society. Christian education literally makes the world a better place, God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

As we cast out fear, we nourish freedom. Years ago, I attended a conference of the American Academy of Religion, one session of which concerned academic freedom. The panel discussion was led by professors at various types of universities – state, private secular, and Christian. As they each described their context, something became blatantly obvious. Only Christian schools have any chance at true academic freedom! Public and secular private school teachers avoid religious conversations like the plague, by necessity. They can lose their jobs if they appear to advocate for any particular religious conviction. In the name of tolerance or open-mindedness or diversity, our society has pushed theological belief to the margins, treating nearly every other form of belief more amicably. A rather strange state of affairs now exists whereby religious belief, so important to so many, can barely be discussed by anyone in a secular classroom. And so, I ask, who is really free? The answer is YOU. You teach at a school that sees theological conviction not merely as a subject worthy of open discussion, but one foundational to all discussion because every belief of any kind begins with an unproven assumption. All learning requires faith. Your students attend a school where they can ask ANY question and get a straight answer. We can actually promote tolerance and open-mindedness and diversity not because these things are fashionable, but because they are beautiful, and good, and right, and true, and biblical. We have rich theological language by which to say that we should treat each other with respect and kindness because we are all created in God’s image, that we value people different from us because such is the Kingdom of God, that we seek community with people who do not look like us because heaven will be filled with people of “every tribe and tongue and nation” (Revelation 7.9 – ESV). We do not fear others because we love them. We love them because God first loved us. God’s love sets us free.

Christian education casts out fear, nourishes freedom, and tells a better story. This summer I spent part of a day with Scott Dillon, Head of School at Westminster Catawba, and we talked at length about the why of Christian education. What sets us apart from other academically rigorous schools? Why do parents pay us to educate their kids? What do we offer that is distinctive? To approach an answer to those questions, play a game with me. Imagine your school is not a Christian school. A student asks, why do I need to learn this math? You could answer, because you will need it for next year’s math class. Why do I need next year’s math class? Because you will need it to graduate. And why do I care about graduation? Because you need a high school degree to go to college or vocational school. Why do I need college or vocational school? Because you need more education to find a job in a competitive global economy? Why do I need to a job? So that you can live, pay your bills, raise a family, enjoy the world. Why do I need to do these things? Because they contribute to the greater good. And why should I care about the greater good? And on, and on, and on. Eventually, every answer becomes depressingly utilitarian. We do these things because they have pragmatic value. BORING! As Christian educators, we have a better story to tell. We teach and we learn because all truth is God’s truth. Because every equation displays God’s handiwork, and every element on the periodic table gives evidence of God’s ingenuity, and every musical note sounds God’s beauty, and every star in the solar system declares the God’s glory, and every language expresses God’s love, and every event in history ultimately tells His story. And we are story tellers. And what an amazing story we get to tell.

[1] The idea that Christian education casts out fear I owe to Dr. Dennis Sansom, Professor of Philosophy at Samford University. He presented this idea in a Convocation address to the university sometime during the 2006-2007 academic year.

Biblical Interpretation Education Leadership Theology

In the Beginning – Reflections on Genesis 1

[Note: The following is a sermon I preached at Samford University in 2012. Because it is a sermon, it is longer than my typical blog posts. I’m blogging it here as I begin a series on Genesis for young adults at Shades Mountain Baptist.]

For the past few years I’ve been teaching through the Bible each semester; that’s all the way through the Bible in about 4 months (approximately 36 hour-long class periods). The disadvantage of this approach is lack of depth but the advantage is the big picture. There’s no time to miss the forest for the trees. So often we look at the trees – those individual stories that fill the Bible – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, etc. and the moral lessons they teach. We miss the forest – the One Story of creation, fall, rescue and redemption. Take Jonah for example. We often read and remember the story like this: God told Jonah to go to some city and preach. Jonah refused so God had him swallowed by a big fish. The moral of the story is “you’d better obey or something bad might happen to you.” We fail to see how Jonah is connected to the larger narrative of scripture, that Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, sworn enemies of Jonah and the nation of Israel that was his home. This is why he fled, not simply out of disobedience but fear for his life. If he goes, the Assyrians will likely kill him and if they repent, his countrymen will likely kill him for helping save a dangerous enemy. We tend to ignore Jonah chapter 4 that tells us Jonah went, preached, and the Ninevites repented and God spared them in spite of his threats to destroy them, and Jonah got angry. And the lesson God teaches Jonah is that God cares about all people, even those we hate, and fear, and write off as too far gone for God. The Bible is filled with stories of God reaching out to people beyond reach and calling us to do the same.

Genesis introduces us to the ONE story of the creation, fall, rescue, and redemption of all humanity. When I was a kid my favorite toy was Legos. I had dozens of sets, thousands of little pieces that I could assemble any way my imagination saw fit. And every Lego engineer knows that when it’s time to get serious, the first step is to find a large open spot on the floor and dump out all the Legos. Only then can you see what pieces you’ve got, begin creatively to think of the design possibilities, and then start putting things together. Genesis 1 dumps out the Legos. We see from the beginning the major characters and theological themes that permeate scripture. Now I’m going to look at the first 5 verses of Genesis 1 to examine the Who, What and How of creation, and therefore the Who, What and How of the One story of the Bible.

  1. First, who created? “In the beginning, God created.” This is how it begins. The most read, copied, translated, distributed, and sold book in human history begins with “In the beginning, God.” Before the beginning of time and space, before anything we can know, or see, or comprehend, before any-thing, there was God – pre-existent, eternal, the uncreated creator creates. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” hovering a Hebrew word connoting the way a mother bird hovers over her babies – concern, care, nurture. “And God said” – there was the spoken word. The apostle John, inspired by these words, wrote the following:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

God, Spirit, Word – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – all three together, in the beginning – one, inseparable yet distinct, one person with three natures, equality, unity, trinity. From the earliest words of scripture we see a profound and mysterious truth about God. God is relational, God is love, even before there were people to love. Innate within God’s being, central to God’s character, the essence of God’s nature is love. Why did God create? Not out of need or necessity or loneliness or isolation. Not so that God could become love, but because God is love. He created because he loves. Why does loneliness and isolation hurt? Why does conflict with others feel so stressful? Why does alienation from community, or family, or friends make you sad? Because creation itself originates with a God who is innately relational so that loneliness, isolation, conflict, and alienation are contrary to the very essence of creation and the heart of God.

  1. Second, what was created? “And God said, ‘Let there be ….’” What did God create? The physical universe. Before the beginning, God was all there was, and then God created out of nothing, something that was different, new, separate, other than God. God used his ultimate, unsurpassed power to bring something out of nothing, to give power, individuality and freedom. Not pawns or puppets, not lines of code in a computer program that is running its course. We, and the world that we occupy are free. Free beings. Free to relate to God. Or not. Free to enjoy God’s creation. Or not. God in His sovereignty made us free, and that is good.

7x God pronounced the world good. God used his ultimate and unsurpassed power for good. The physical space we occupy, the natural world, the environment, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, our bodies, appetites, senses, emotions, thoughts, all intended for good. Fallen and broken and twisted and perverted, yes, as we will see in Genesis 3, but as designed, they are good. Here we see one of the great truths – that evil exists only as the absence or perversion of good. Genesis 1 mentions darkness to show us the world without light. Without the Word, the world would remain in darkness. But God spoke, and light vanquished the darkness because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. Dark is no-thing. Light is something and it is good. By analogy, all that is bad in our world and in your life is bad because something that is good is missing or messed up. Light is good. It grows plants, produces food, and nourishes our bodies with vitamin D. Too much light, without SPF 30 or higher, turns a day at the beach into a nightmare for a fair-skinned, formerly red-headed campus minister. The same sun that nourishes the earth can scorch the soil and skin. Without the light, there’d be no soil and skin to scorch. Food is good. There are few joys greater than a good home-cooked meal. But too much food and you’ll get sick. Not enough food and you’ll get sick. Poisoned or spoiled or tainted food can make you sick. All that is wrong is wrong because God made something that was right, and it went wrong. We are free. That is good. But God made the world so that it could go wrong. And he knew it would go wrong and he created it anyway. Why? Because a fallen and redeemed world is greater than a world that never fell in the first place.

  1. Third, how did God create? Here’s the formula repeated in chapter 1: “God said … God separated … God called.” God spoke things into being, put everything in its place, and gave everything a name, designated it for a purpose. In other words, God orders and gives purpose to all things. Here’s how the text drives home this truth: In Genesis 1, we see 7 days. The name of God is mentioned 35 times (a multiple of 7). The word heaven is mentioned 21 times. The word earth is also mentioned 21 times (multiples of 7). The word good is mentioned 7 times. The number 7, the perfect number, the number of completion, illustrates order and purpose. All that God created is free and for a purpose. What purpose? Now that’s the question isn’t it? The answer to that question is the meaning of life, the ultimate truth, the reason you’re alive and breathing and here in this room. You have a purpose more profound than you can imagine, greater than yourself, of immeasurable value and meaning. And here it is, right here in Genesis 1. The God of creation created you because he loves you and has a purpose for you. This seems elementary, grade school, old hat. Yet it’s the meaning of life and we forget it every day. In the chaos of our busy lives, we forget our purpose. Genesis calls us to remember.

Now let me pause, here near the end of this sermon, and say that we’ve been talking about Genesis for [18] minutes now and not once have I mentioned evolution, the issue that has dominated conversations about the Genesis for the past 90 years. Often, the questions we ask aren’t the ones Genesis answers because Genesis has a greater purpose. Let me illustrate.

In the summer of 2011 I taught a course in London and spent a weekend in Paris with my wife and three kids. While there we visited the Louvre. The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums and is the most visited museum in the world with over 15,000 visitors daily. The Louvre employs 2000 people, contains 380,000 objects, is comprised of 652,300 square feet of exhibit space that cover 100 acres. It’s a 5-6 mile walk just to traverse every corridor. Without question, the Louvre single greatest collection of art and antiquities in human history. Perhaps the most famous piece of art at the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. The day we were there, crowds swelled around the painting so that it took us almost 20 to get close to it. I put my then 6 year-old Kate on my shoulders so she could see. And when we got close, she uttered these words that I’ll always remember: “I want some Nutella.” For those of you not familiar, Nutella is a creamy chocolate hazelnut spread that the Parisians are crazy about. They serve it in crapes all over Paris, and in the snack bar at the Louvre, and my daughter has some just as we entered the museum. [By the way, it turns out that eating Nutella within close proximity of priceless art is “frowned upon.”] But after 4 miles of walking through the museum Kate was hungry again. And so as we stood inches in front of the most famous and recognizable work of art in history, all that my daughter could think about was a tasty snack.

Often times we go to Genesis, or for that matter to the Bible, or for that matter to God himself, with OUR questions, our agenda, our curiosities, our desires for a spiritual snack. The corridors of the Bible filled with beauty and value beyond imagination and miss the splendor of the stories in front of us because we crave intellectual junk food. The questions we ask are not the ones God is answering and the questions God is addressing are often not the ones we are asking.

So why are we here? Because a God who loves you created you for a purpose, to love him and to reflect him to the world. This is what it means to “glorify God.” And there is nothing more important in the entire universe than that. The question is, is that the most important thing in your universe? College is busy. Your world after college is even busier. How do you keep it all in order? God turned chaos into the cosmos! Will you allow that God to bring order to the chaos of life? That is the question that matters.

Biblical Interpretation Theology

The Message of Christianity as Simply as I Know How to Explain It

God created all things and called the world that he created “very good.” Man and woman, happy and in perfect relationship with the creation and the Creator. Tempted by the desire to be like God, man and woman rebelled against God and sin entered the world. Every evil, every ounce of suffering, every war and death and disease and disaster originates from a good creation that is broken by sin. 

In response, God chooses the nation of Israel to use for his purposes to begin to restore the world. He taught Israel how to live as his chosen people, set them free from captivity, provided for their needs and gave them the law (10 Commandments, and a few others). But the law that was a gift was also a curse. The law exposes how truly broken we are. This was God’s plan all along, to teach us that we cannot be good enough to fix the world, to be genuinely happy again, or to restore a perfect relationship with God. The prophets, priests, and kings of Ancient Israel teach us that in the pages of the Old Testament.

Enter Jesus. He was an Israelite, the next step in God’s plan through Israel to remake the creation. He was born, lived, and died as a human being. But he was also God, the Son of God, the incarnation of God, the fullness of God in a human being. He was tempted like us, laughed like us, hurt like us, cried like us, bled like us, but without sin, without fault. So when he was executed he didn’t deserve it. He sacrificed himself for us, and in some mysterious way that I cannot fully understand, he took upon himself the sin and pain and misery of the world in order to fix it. There was a debt I owed that he paid. I was captive to an old life and he set me free. I deserved a punishment that he took in my place. The God of the universe is so just that he could not ignore sin, and so filled with love that he could not let it destroy us. So God sent Jesus to fix the problem. And Jesus did, and is continuing to do so, and will one day complete that task for good at the end of time, at the end of the world as we know it. In the words of Andrew Peterson, the world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.

What does this mean for us? We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot manage our own spiritual lives. We cannot restore ourselves or the world to the good condition in which God created it. We need Jesus. And the good news is this, literally the Gospel is this, that Jesus invites us to follow him, to believe in him, to trust him with our lives. And if we do so, he saves us from all that is wrong with us and from all that is wrong with the world. He restores us to a right relationship with God and with other people, gives us companionship, meaning and purpose in the Church, and begins the process of fixing everything. We do nothing to earn what God gives – this is grace, all of God offered to us in Christ. We acknowledge our sin and accept God’s gift, with the faith that God is who the Bible says he is, and that Jesus did what the Bible says he did for us. We enter a new relationship with him. All things become new.

– Presented at Freshmen Retreat, Samford University, August 29, 2014 and Shades Mountain Baptist UMin, August 31, 2014

Bible Biblical Interpretation Theology

Myths Christians Believe (finale)

Completing my multi-part (and too long) series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.
  • For Part 3 (myths 5 and 6), go here.
  • For Part 4 (myths 7 and 8), go here.

Myth 9: A Christian place is an easy place to be a Christian.

The first Christian school I attended was seminary, and in my first week of classes I observed a fellow student cheating on a Hebrew quiz. Cheating in seminary. Let that sink in. The experience struck me as totally ridiculous, but also taught me that seminarians are people, and just like people everywhere, some are dishonest. Many seminarians played the religious game. They discussed theological topics, engaged in religious activities, but they were in it for the money. The seminary degree was their ticket to a job that would pay the bills, or in some extreme cases, help make them rich and famous mega-church pastors. Seminary shattered my idealistic notions of Christian education. I needed my idealism shattered, but I sometimes found it difficult to maintain a genuine faith and not become cynical.

Now that I work and teach on a campus with a Christian identity and mission, I see some students playing that same religious game, and other students becoming cynical. Some students are shocked that their roommates use profanity or alcohol. Some are appalled by the obscenity they see from their classmates on social media. Others are generally irritated by all the Christian bragging they hear, the Bible studies, mission trips, small groups, etc. that people use to build their résumé. I sometimes talk to students (usually upperclassmen) who are so tired of the Christian culture that they find it all difficult to stomach.  Some ask, “Shouldn’t a Christian place be different, better, or more genuinely Christian?”

Some of the diversity stems from the fact that the school where I work doesn’t hand pick its student population so that every student fits a particular mold, religious persuasion, or ideological perspective. Some of the frustration comes from the unrealistic expectations of people who expect a Christian school (or church or organization or family or whatever) to be a utopia. It turns out that Christian schools are full of people, and people are sinful, and sinful people do sinful things. Perhaps we need a more realistic understanding of what a Christian school is.

Strictly speaking, an organization or institution cannot be “Christian,” only a person can.  A building is not Christian because it is adorned with a cross or stained glass any more than putting a Jesus fish on the bumper of my Toyota makes it a Christian truck.  A school isn’t Christian because it has a chapel on campus, a Bible verse on the front gate, or because it requires students to take a religion class or two.  In fact, it might be more accurate to talk about “schools with a Christian mission” rather than “Christian schools.” Maybe this is linguistic hair-splitting, but when you think of a school or a church or an organization in this way, maybe it eliminates the pressure to be perfect. People can be genuine about their hurts, struggles, and shortcomings. Somehow this type of vulnerability seems to lessen the cynicism. At the end of the day, even the most faithful believers are, all at once, both saints and sinners.

Myth 10: If I live well my life should go well.

The corollary to this myth is that if my life goes badly, I must have done something wrong. While few people will actually admit to this belief, they nonetheless become angry with God when life doesn’t go well. The view that a life of ease is a reward and that trauma is punishment gives rise to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The very question expresses the false belief that good people shouldn’t suffer.

In truth, there are many explanations for the existence of evil and suffering (I’ve written about that subject here) and retribution is one of them. But it is one thing to say that bad behavior is usually punished, and quite another to say that my current suffering must be punishment. If I eat bad oysters I’ll probably get an intestinal illness. But an intestinal illness may have nothing to do with oysters. We all get sick. The reality is that life is difficult and painful for everyone. Your own sense of personal virtue does not mean that God owes you a good life.

When you think about it, blaming God for pain is illogical. If God is powerful enough to be blameworthy, then he is powerful enough to have reasons for my pain that are beyond my ability to understand. Ironically, to blame God is simultaneously to credit God with the ability to be blameless. Here I am not trying to trivialize evil by suggesting that God causes all suffering as a means to a greater good. I am saying that whether God causes or allows my pain is simply beyond me. I cannot always know. I know that ultimately God redeems all pain and injustice in Christ and by Christ’s own suffering and death, but I do not claim to understand fully how that happens or when it will happen fully. I simply know that my responsibility is humble service, not to earn God’s grace but because God has given me grace beyond what I deserve. Grace persists, even in the absence of intellectual understanding.

If you are hurting, it may not be your fault. If you are doing well, it may not be to your credit. “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Theology

Myths Christians Believe (Part 2)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject, here’s the latest installment. For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2) and the appropriate footnotes and credits, go here.

Myth 3: It is wrong to doubt.

In support of this myth, I have heard some quote James 1:5-7: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

This passage does not constitute a blanket condemnation of doubt. In this context, James is speaking to the instability of one who has confidence enough to ask God for wisdom (believing that God is able), but simultaneously doubts that God will give it. This double-mindedness is not a fault of the intellect, but rather a fault of the will, an unwillingness to hold fast to what the intellect has already accepted in the face of changing circumstances. I know that airline travel is relatively safe. I have good evidence to support this belief. So if I get nervous when I fly, I am double-minded in the way James condemns. If, however, I have doubts about the safety of a particular mode of travel based on evidence, that doubt is not only justified, it is wise.

Nowhere does the Bible condemn honest, intellectually curious doubt. The Old Testament book of Job expresses that kind of doubt. Thomas expressed that kind of doubt about the resurrection. Jesus expresses that kind of doubt when he prayed before his execution, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” If Jesus had doubts about the necessity of his primary mission, then surely our intellectual doubts are equally legitimate, and sometimes necessary. Of course, Jesus also added, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done,” proving that sometimes faith and doubt necessarily coexist. As the theologian Paul Tillich argues, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an unavoidable element of faith (Dynamics of Faith, Chapter 1, section 5).

There is no shame or guilt in honest intellectual doubt. There is, however, guilt associated with the kind of laziness that holds fast to a belief with no evidence to support it. Faith is NOT belief in the absence of evidence. Faith is the conviction to hold on to a belief that logic has convinced you is true, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so.

Myth 4: The more exotic the more spiritual.

I work at a Christian college where, in a few days, students will return to campus and begin to compare their summers. Among those who served the poor in India or started a non-profit in Africa, there will inevitably a student or two who shamefully admits that his/her job was to babysit for a family in Atlanta or to work at McDonalds, as if somehow these job choices represent lesser ways to live out the Christian life. I read books advocating for believers to live a radical life. I hear sermons advocating international adoption, life in the inner city, and international missions among unreached people groups, worthy and needed objectives all of them. Yet I fear that these constant refrains run the risk of marginalizing those who live in the suburbs, own a small business, and work hard every day to raise their kids. Normal people can be people of faith too, yes? In fact, if I’m called to campus ministry among the world’s educated elite, and I choose instead to dig wells in the African dessert, haven’t I forsaken my gifts and my calling in a way that dishonors God?

We sometimes forget that Paul, the radical apostle and missionary of the New Testament, also suggested to believers in Thessalonica that they “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4.11).  It took skilled workers, craftsmen, and artists to design the ancient Jewish tabernacle and its accompanying furnishings, yet of these very normal, hard-working people, the book of Exodus (chapter 31) says, “I have filled [them] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship….” God ordained these workers to the very ordinary task of building things. This was their purpose and calling, and to denigrate the ordinary, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is to denigrate the wisdom of God. Obedience, whether in the exotic or the ordinary, is the appropriate faith response to God.

Biblical Interpretation Campus Ministry Theology

How Should We Live? A Very Brief Introduction to Ethics

“Every pursuit aims at some good.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

“Pride comes before a fall.” – Proverbs 16:18

Introduction
Students in both my graduate level Corporate Integrity class and my freshmen level Core Texts class read quite a bit of philosophy. Some consider philosophy boring or impractical, but in some ways philosophy is the most practical of academic disciplines because it helps us think about the things that matter most in life.  Philosophy deals with the good, the true, and the beautiful (ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics), the necessary components of a life well lived. Ethics helps us think about what a good life looks like.

From a Christian perspective, a good life comes by grace through faith in Christ, but the gift of grace is not the end of the Christian life. Instead, grace should motivate right behavior. The field of ethics helps us think carefully about right behavior. What is good? How should we live? The major of schools of ethical thought help us answer these questions. Let me list four, describe them, and discuss their strengths and limitations.

1. Consequentialist Ethics. Sometimes called teleological ethics, consequentialism focuses on the outcome of a particular behavior. An action is good if it achieves a good end. There are two forms of consequentialism, egoism (act to maximize your own good) and utilitarianism (act to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number). Of course questions remain as to what goods should be maximized and for whom. Should we, for example, prioritize a growing economy or a clean environment? Should we sacrifice the needs of a wealthy minority for the needs of the poor majority? And how might we distinguish between needs and desires? Surely we desire many things that we do not genuinely need.

2. Rule or Duty Ethics. Sometimes called deontological ethics, rule or duty ethics focus on the obligations, rules, principles, laws, norms or duties that guide behavior. An action is good if it conforms to an accepted rule or duty. One classic expression of deontological ethics includes Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: treat people as ends not means, and act only on that principle that you would will to be a universal law. Another expression of deontology includes John Locke’s Social Contract Theory: if you choose to live in a society, you should respect the rights of others within that society. Deontology, however, raises obvious questions. How do we determine rules, duties, and rights? Are there ever exceptions to a rule? Can I tell a lie to save a life (as many did, for example, to hide Jews from the Nazis)?

3. Virtue Ethics. Sometimes called character ethics, this school of thought focuses on the development of virtue, the traits that lead to ethical decisions. An action is good if it embodies a virtue (integrity, trustworthiness, humility) and avoids a vice (greed, dishonesty, arrogance). Of course one might ask what virtues are most important, and whether or not it is possible for a vice sometimes to produce a good outcome.

4. Divine Command Theory. Here, an action is right if God commands it. There are two (mutually exclusive?) forms of divine command theory: (1) Plato – God only commands actions that are good, and (2) Ockham – Any action God commands is good. Plato’s view runs the risk of placing good over, God if it is something to which God is bound. Ockham’s view runs the risk of making good entirely arbitrary, such that humans could never know what was good apart from specific rules. Divine command theory raises some obvious questions. Which god’s command should be followed? How can one truly know God has commanded an action? Can God command something seemingly unethical (as when God commands Abraham to murder his son Isaac)?

Conclusion
No single school of ethical thought solves every moral dilemma. Some situations involve unavoidable moral complexity. Each school of thought contributes something to the conversation, but each has obvious limitations. Most people utilize a combination decision-making philosophies, but gravitate toward one in particular. It is wise to know one’s own ethical tendencies and to understand the strengths and weaknesses of that school of thought. To know what you don’t know requires humility, without which the good life (and God’s grace) will likely elude you.

Ethics Theology

Christian Conversion: Event or Process?

I grew up as a Baptist in south Louisiana where most of my friends were Catholic.   I went to church weekly from preschool to 12th grade.  As I recall, every church service I attended included two things: an offering and an invitation.  For those who aren’t familiar, as my Catholic friends were not, the invitation is a time near the end of a worship service designated for people to respond publically to a call to Christian faith, or to make other public decisions of somewhat lesser importance.  The invitation represents a key feature of evangelicalism and is tied closely to what I call conversion theology.  Mark Noll describes this theology as a key feature in American evangelicalism with its emphasis on life-changing religious experiences.[1]  The invitation to conversion was such a prominent part of my formative church experiences, that I was converted twice, once at age 7 when I had no idea what I was doing, and again at age 13, precisely because at age 7 I had no idea what I was doing.  This two-step conversion process, I have learned during two decades of work among students in the Bible Belt, is an incredibly common phenomenon.  From time to time, I ask students if they have a conversion story similar to mine.  I estimate that approximately 75% of students say yes.  These admittedly unscientific observations illustrate, I think, that many Protestants obsess about identifying the specific point in time that they crossed the line into faith.  They want to know the moment of conversion, the exact date and time, and to keep it in their memory.  Many write it in their Bibles.  My intent here is not to debate the relative theological value of conversion theology, but rather to point out that a great many sincere believers, C. S. Lewis included, could not tell you exactly when they crossed the line.

Lewis describes his conversion to Christian faith in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy.  There he gives details about his commitment to atheism as a young adult and the slow process by which he came to believe in the existence of God.  He writes of his 1929 conversion to theism, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.  I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.”[2]  His acceptance of Christian belief came nearly two years later, following a late night conversation with J.R.R. Tolkein and Hugo Dyson, and on a bus ride with his brother to the zoo.  He writes, “when we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought … It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, becomes aware that he is awake.”[3]

Rumor has it that years later, Lewis was asked by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to give testimony to his Christian conversion at a 1950’s crusade and Lewis refused, believing that his own story failed to conform to the stories typically told at such events.  For his own part, Lewis once met Billy Graham and liked him sincerely.  Lewis supported offering people a clear call to conversion.  But in an interview recorded in God in the Dock, Lewis was asked whether it was his personal aim to “foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ,” and his response was “You can’t lay down any pattern for God.  There are many different ways of bringing people into His Kingdom.”[4]  D. E. Myers argues convincingly that much of Lewis’s writing reflects a style of Anglicanism that emphasizes gradual spiritual formation rather than sudden conversion.[5]  I suspect that Lewis would be deeply uncomfortable with the formulaic manner by which Christian commitment is promoted within southern evangelicalism.

As a teacher and campus minister, I have known literally hundreds of students whose experiences do not fit the formula.  For my own part, I cannot identify clearly the exact point in time that I crossed the line into faith.  I know that prior to age seven, I cannot rightly say that I had any genuine Christian commitment.  After age 13 I can.  In the interim, God only knows.  This used to trouble me, as it does many students with similar stories.  Lewis was the first of many to show me that there are other ways of thinking about Christian commitment than the conversion theology of my home church.  Be comforted if the story of your spiritual formation is much messier than the perceived norm.

[1] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 228-29.

[3] Ibid., 237.

[4] Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Edited by Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: Macmillan, 1958), 262.

[5] D. E. Myers, “The Complete Anglican: Spiritual Style in the Chronicles of Narnia,” in Anglican Theological Review 66 (April 1984): 148-160.

[The featured image for this blog is a photo I took in June of 2010 of New Building at Magdalen College, Oxford, where C. S. Lewis lived and taught.]

Campus Ministry Theology

Should I abandon the Church?

There are problems with the Church, no doubt. More accurately, there are problems with churches. This is a blinding flash of the obvious. Churches are comprised of broken people in a broken world. Broken people do things that range from mildly annoying to downright evil. Your involvement with churches likely includes experiences across this spectrum. Many use church problems as their reason for avoiding church altogether, and people in the U.S. are avoiding church in record numbers. They’ve been hurt, burned, mistreated, offended, or generally irritated by the church, so they disassociate themselves from the institution entirely, either intentionally and explicitly, or unintentionally and implicitly by their lack of involvement. If you’ve been abused by a representative of the Church, I am certainly not going to try to minimize your pain or attempt to talk you out of your offense. Rather, I offer my sincere apology and affirm that victimization in the name of religion is evil. I suspect that most who have left the church, however, have done so for reasons far less severe than abuse. In any case, the question I want to ask here is this. Is it reasonable to leave the Church, and every expression of it, in response to an offense? Should you throw the baby out with the bathwater?

If you are involved with a church long enough, you will be offended, and you will offend. Such is the nature of human relationships. In fact, the more deeply you know someone, the more profoundly that person can hurt you. I can ignore a stranger’s insult. The same words spoken by my wife may wound deeply. But we do not necessarily denounce the institution of marriage in response to the insult or injury of a spouse. In a church, relationships center on something deeply personal and ultimately significant, one’s belief in and relationship to God. Genuine relationships of this sort leave one remarkably vulnerable, making offense inevitable, but also making healing and joy and growth and fulfillment possible. In other words, the conditions necessary for good create conditions that make evil possible. It is precisely because the Church can be such a powerful force for good in the world that it is capable of being such a source of evil.

We live in a throw-away society. If something breaks, we toss it and replace it. In a fractured and individualistic society, it is far easier to leave a community than to reconcile with it. Especially in the Bible belt, with churches on every corner, I can leave one congregation for another in an attempt to find the “right” church, one that makes me comfortable, where everyone shares my beliefs and values. If such a place were possible, and if I found such a place, I suspect that as I changed and the community changed we wouldn’t be perfectly compatible for long. At some point, I must acknowledge that if I choose to surround myself with only those people who agree with me, I have more or less become my own standard for life and truth. I have become my own God. I have created a world that revolves around me. If that is my goal, then I shouldn’t be surprised when a church, whose objective is to lead me to worship someone above and beyond me, rubs me the wrong way.

Theology

The Problem of Pain

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.  This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

– C. S. Lewis

The problem of pain represents the most serious intellectual challenge to the rationality of Christian faith. Many have rejected or abandoned faith as a result of the failed attempt to reconcile God’s goodness with the realities of evil and suffering. Here I want to outline briefly how Christian theologians have answered this problem and offer a few suggestions for those suffering and those seeking to offer comfort. I make no claim to provide a complete solution to the problem. I do not think such a thing exists. Every answer includes insights and shortcomings. If we examine this issue long enough, we will likely be forced to admit that we have as many questions as answers. Along with the Old Testament character Job, whose suffering is legend, I must eventually confess: “I am of small account, what shall I answer? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4) Eventually we should all confess as much, but not before seeking answers as Job did. We may not get all of the answers we seek, but in the process we may get something better.

To begin, it would be helpful to define evil and to distinguish between natural evil and moral evil. Evil is often defined as anything without which the world would be a better place. By implication, some of what we might call evil might make the world a better place. Natural evil (disasters and diseases) results from features of the physical universe that are arguably necessary for survival. Gravity keeps me from floating off into space, but gravity also means that when I trip and fall I may get hurt. The cells in my body regenerate, divide, and mutate in order to keep me alive, but sometimes these characteristics of cells lead to the spread of disease. These examples of so-called natural evil lead to suffering, but the possibility of such suffering is unavoidable in a physical world that operates according to natural laws that keep us alive, making the world better on the whole. Moral evil, by contrast, occurs when people violate divine law, harming themselves and others in the process, rendering the world worse. Of course, there are ways that natural evil and moral evil mingle, such as when drought followed by monsoon rains cause mudslides in communities with substandard housing. Poverty, climate change, unscrupulous builders, and natural weather cycles coalesce to cause suffering. For someone with a biblical worldview, however, both moral evil and natural evil find their ultimate origins in Genesis 3; they result from sin that tainted human society and the natural world.

Now I’d like to review four historically prominent explanations for suffering in Christian history, and show some of their strengths and weaknesses. Theologians sometimes call these ideas theodicy, a term that means “defending the justice of God in light of evil.” These ides have a long history and for the sake of brevity I will avoid attributions, but if you’re curious, feel free to comment. The four ideas are as follows.

Free Will – God created humans with freedom and we may choose to use that freedom for good or ill. Implied in this explanation is a kind of retribution principle – evil behavior is punished, either passively or actively. If I operate an automobile while intoxicated and wreck my car, my injuries are the direct result of my behavior. Whether my suffering is God’s punishment or the result of natural law (or both), I deserve it and few will call it unfair. But what if, in my intoxicated state, I drive my car into a crowd of pedestrians? Free will explains well my pain, but not theirs, or that of their loved ones. Why didn’t God intervene to trump my free will to protect others? Turns out, free will is a helpful explanation for some instances of suffering, but a troubling response to others.

Soul Making – God intends pain to build character, to make our souls more nearly perfect. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, yes? Or as the New Testament epistle of James states, “Consider it joy when you encounter trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Indeed, some instances of pain instruct. Who will disagree? The question is whether God could sometimes teach by a less painful pedagogy. In other words, do the ends justify the means? What souls are improved, for example, by the holocaust? Couldn’t the same good be accomplished with less evil? Couldn’t an omnipotent God make it so? Soul making, while helpful in some ways, seems to fail as an explanation for the most horrific evils.

Best Possible World – An all-knowing God would be aware of all possible worlds. A benevolent God would create the best possible world. An all-powerful God is able to create the best world. In other words, our world could be either more evil or less free, either of which would be worse that our current state of affairs. The only way for God to eliminate the possibility of evil altogether would be to eliminate freedom entirely, or not create a world at all. A world without freedom is not a good world, but a morally neutral world, and surely our world is better than no world, or so the argument goes. Of course, someone with cancer might conclude that even if this is the best world possible, it’s still a pretty crappy world. Sometimes we’d all agree.

Divine Suffering – God did not exempt himself from the world’s pain. God suffers with us (in Christ, God feels what we feel). God suffers because of us (moral evil grieves God). And God suffers for us (in Christ, God took suffering upon himself that spares us). Perhaps divine suffering is less of a philosophical explanation for evil and more of a recognition that Christianity situates the solution to evil squarely in Christ. Jesus doesn’t so much explain evil as he experiences it, overcomes it, defeats it, swallows it, and ultimately renders it powerless. Exactly how this happens is a matter for another post; that it happens partially is a matter of experience; that it happens completely in the end is a matter of faith.

So what can Christians offer to a suffering world? Explanations, especially poorly timed ones, can certainly do harm. Theodicy isn’t for funerals. In the middle of Job’s pain God didn’t explain. In response to Job’s questions, God didn’t answer. Instead, God listened. God was present. Job’s final words to God affirm this: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The final solution to evil is to see God, and in Christ we see God most clearly and experience God most poignantly. In the final analysis, this is surely better than explanations.

Theology

Who is Going to Hell? Or Heaven?

Around this time of year, religious denominations in the U.S. tend to hold their annual conferences, while I tend to hold my breath, hoping that they do not embarrass themselves, or the Church at large, in the process. The embarrassment often comes in the form of moral pronouncements about cultural trends or paternalistic calls to pray for a particular group of lost or morally reprobate souls. These resolutions often prompt some response from the groups in question who are offended to be considered lost or morally reprobate. This kind of public discourse accomplishes nothing, and I almost never agree with any claim to know who is “in” and who is “out.”  Here’s why.

As a Christian theologian, I recognize that the formulas religious denominations use to make determinations about the salvation of others derive more from Church history and practice than carefully considered biblical interpretation. For example, in some traditions God alone elects those who are saved, while in others, you make a “personal decision.” In some traditions, you participate in a “confirmation” process that may include a particular recited prayer or baptism. Some baptize infants or very young children and some baptize adults.  Some traditions consider any sincere religious adherence to be enough. Others think that no particular religious inclination or behavior is necessary since in the end, all will be included in God’s love.  And here’s an important point – most Christian traditions would cite the Bible as a reason that they think about salvation the way that they do. Each have particular texts that they cite to defend their view of who is on the way to heaven or hell.

Here’s a quick summary of the continuum of viewpoints on the subject, from the widest to the most narrow view of salvation:

  1. Universalism  – everybody goes to heaven.
  2. Pluralism – sincere adherents of other religions go to heaven.
  3. Inclusivism – only follower of Jesus go to heaven, but some may be unconscious or vicarious Christians, meaning that they follow Jesus in spirit if not in actual name. Additionally, some Inclusivists believe in an after-death opportunity to accept the truth of Jesus before the matter is finally settled.
  4. Exclusivism – only those who consciously profess Jesus as the only way to salvation go to heaven. This means that by implication, and based on history and demographics, the majority of the people who have ever lived will go to hell.

Now my point here is not to defend a particular position (maybe I’ll address in another “Theology Thursday” post) but rather to make one simple point. In the final analysis, I personally have no idea who is in heaven and who is in hell. I have opinions and even preferences, but I’ve never been to either place (if it’s even accurate to call either a “place” in time and space) and my knowledge of the hearts and minds of particular individuals is extraordinarily limited. For that matter, my knowledge of myself is limited. I do believe that I can know something about where I stand with God, and I can perhaps make an elementary assessment of what others think of God based on their beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, etc. But to claim that I know the final eternal destiny of another person is short-sighted at best, and arrogant at worst.

So maybe we should avoid all-together claims to know who is in heaven and hell, and who is going where and when, and treat people with the kind of compassion that Christ modeled. I suspect that would do more than religious resolutions to point people toward heaven.

[Footnote: This post was inspired by a conversation with a good friend, Joel Busby, who is a thoughtful theologian and blogger in his own right. Read his blog here.]

Theology