Foundations 2: Understanding Fear (166)

This is the second in a series of eight to ten episodes explaining the first curriculum (called “First Steps”) in the Foundations of Flourishing teaching program.

After last episode’s focus on the three negative elements that typically afflict evangelical churches (Legalism, Fear, Ignorance), here Gregg examines fear as the principal element that links legalism and ignorance.

Foundations 1: Legalism, Fear, Ignorance (165)

Legalism, fear, and ignorance: these three words represent tendencies and orientations that none of us would like to own up to, much less that Christians would want to admit to.  Sadly, however, the members of this trio are all too frequently cited by outsiders as reasons that Christians are phoney and that the Christian church is bankrupt. What is more, my experience is that these three tendencies and orientations are often found together, so that where one is present, the others are likely there also.

Addressing these three opponents to right Christian living and to the full and persuasive presentation of Christianity is an essential “first-step” to a program dedicated to promoting a high level of satisfaction for Christians, relative to their beliefs, and consequently for Christian beliefs to appear more legitimate, and even compelling, to those outside of Christianity.

Legalism fills the void when we have not developed the necessary, productive skills to navigate the complexities of living in our world.  In other words poor assumptions, like the “requirements” of the Christian life being clear and the “process” for living it being obvious, lend themselves to creating a law-based system of behaviours and norms based upon those perceived requirements and processes.  Yet instead of addressing situations or events that require decisions, the main goal of legalism is to keep us safe by identifying who is “like us” or “in our tribe” and what behaviours or ideas are acceptable or match our community’s.  So legalism appeases fear, and fear drives legalism.

Fear—and precisely an unconscious but deep-seated worry that Christians must out-argue opponents and that “good Christians” always defend Christianity (and do it successfully)—can become the guiding disposition that blocks our ability to cultivate the positive dispositions that allow us to engage well with God, others, and especially with ourselves.  Only a posture of openness and vulnerability allows us to adapt to the requirements of opposing dispositions (such humility and confidence, love and truth, trust and suspicion, etc.).  Yet this is impossible when fear reigns, especially when we are unconscious of it.  In this way, fear is linked to ignorance and ignorance can perpetuate fear.

Ignorance exists if Christians have not developed the habit of accumulating knowledge relevant to both Christian faith and human life.  Indeed, where Christians believe that they already have all of the resources needed to live life well and understand the Bible correctly, ignorance can be self-perpetuating because we “settle” for our opinions (and those of our church or our pastor).  This can become a system of minimal information that never challenges us but merely affirms what we already hold to be the case.  Where ignorance is based upon biblical understandings, it automatically includes the further misunderstanding that salvation is more important than—or superior to—creation.

Together legalism, fear, and ignorance create a monoculture where Christians become “boundary-focused,” carefully policing who comes into the fold (and where and how long they stay), and where Christians are unable authentically to connect with outsiders (and instead simply engage in “cross-talk” and dispute).

So what can be done about these three opponents?

First, we recognize that legalism, fear-based living, and ignorance are enemies to a Christian way of being—they prevent Christian maturity and so undermine the potential for Christians to live abundantly (or “to flourish”).

Second, we recognize that legalism, fear-based living, and ignorance in the church are the natural result of some rather common poor assumptions and misunderstandings.  This means that unless we have taken active steps to work against them, I must acknowledge that they are almost certainly present, to some degree, in my life!

Christians Go Back to Kindergarten (164)

This is the third of the three-episode series where Gregg offers his views on the Whitehorse Inn podcast, “Do all paths lead to God?”  Specifically, Gregg is replying to the claim that this podcast is an example of how Christians “engage well” with outsiders—how they engage thoughtfully, on point, and respectfully with non-Christians and interact with non-Christian views from the perspective of (and on the terms of) non-Christians.

In this episode Gregg bring together a number of arguments that respond point-for-point to the Whitehorse Inn podcasters main perspectives.  Gregg summarizes his views by explaining that he perceives at least three basic flaws in the approach taken by the Whitehorse podcasters, and that these flaws are “fatal” because they undermine the Christian message that the podcasters desire to communicate and disenfranchise non-Christians, the audience to whom the podcasters seek to communicate this message.

The first flaw is that their presentation of the Christian message overvalues the Bible (and the importance of biblical truth) and both undervalues experience (and the importance of love), and further overemphasizes its uniqueness while de-emphasizing its shared nature.  The second flaw is that the podcasters unjustifiably detach truth claims from their corresponding truth values, to the point that they appear to view Christian truth claims as comprising their own truth values, as if such a thing were possible.  The third flaw is that the podcasters take an unnecessarily polarized view of human capacities resulting in an overly limited view of typical human capability (particularly of human sense perception, imagination, emotion, memory, interpretation, etc.), believing that typical human perspectives are purely subjective (and therefore of no or low value) while those of biblical authors and persons are fully objective (and so of full or high value).

Gregg believes these three flaws to be related by the fact that they all represent overstating (or prioritizing) certain notions to the detriment of others, when in fact both are not only interrelated but necessary (and so require proper integration and equal “weight”).  All of the above are also informed by a philosophical perspective that overly simplifies how we know things and is overly optimistic about how fully we can access the things that we try to know.

Concerning how the podcasters under-emphasize and devalue experience, Gregg explains that Christians need to understand not only how others view the world but why they view it as they do.  Specifically, Gregg argues that , in a post-holocaust, post-Rwanda, post-modern world we cannot proceed like, for instance, Paul did on Mars Hill (in Acts 17).  Paul was communicating with a population who were almost entirely ignorant of Jesus and the message of Christianity.  Further, he was communicating to a culture that was far more open than ours and one that was fundamentally different.  And the main difference is that Paul was dealing with a culture of belief were scepticism was present but not overwhelming, whereas we are now dealing with a nearly overwhelming culture of suspicion (and even apathy) where belief is rare.

The point is that Paul needed to communicate content first—he needed to communicate basic facts to introduce Christianity to those who had never heard of it before.  In the twenty-first century, however, everyone already knows everything about Christianity.  Now Christians will immediately object: many non-Christians think they have the whole picture when in fact they have a partial picture, or they believe that they know what Christianity is about but they are missing key information.

The issue Gregg notes here is that the reigning suspicion toward Christianity will never be overcome but more or better information.  This is because suspicion, as an interpretive grid, is a way of seeing that is aimed not at a belief’s content but at its practitioners’ actions.  This has two implications.

The first implication is that because suspicion is aimed at uncovering self-deceit, the very thing that the Bible so keenly details and continually denounces, Christians should respond to suspicion by accepting its criticism and examining where and how it is true in order, to use the Whitehorse Inn podcasters’s words, to “0submit] ourselves to reality.”  The second implication of the Christian’s actions being under fire, and not his or her beliefs per se, is that Christians need to earn the right to speak by showing outsiders that they are “real human beings.”  So where part of the accusation lodged against Christians is that they are “disconnected from real life” (demonstrated in part by the fact that they continually misunderstand non-Christians will claiming the relate with them well) Gregg argues that Christians must begin a conversation with outsiders not by talking about God and Christianity but by demonstrating how their faith plays out in real life.

So in a “culture of suspicion” Christians cannot proceed by telling things about Christianity first, and only showing how what we said can be validated in “real life” second.  This worked for Paul on Mars Hill but is not the approach that can address today’s widespread suspicion.

Instead, today Christians need to . . . go back to Kindergarten!

In other words, we need to show Christianity (and ourselves as Christians) to be valid and real, and only then can we earn a hearing—only then can we tell non-Christians about Christianity in a way that addresses how non-Christians may be either mis– or under-informed about Christian truth claims or biblical information.

Non-Christians Have “Reason Enough” (163)

This is the second episode in a three-part miniseries where Gregg offers his views on the Whitehorse Inn podcast, “Do all paths lead to God?”  Specifically, Gregg is replying to the claim that this podcast is an example of how Christians “engage well” with outsiders—how they engage thoughtfully, on point, and respectfully with non-Christians and interact with non-Christian views from the perspective of (and on the terms of) non-Christians.

Gregg begins by explaining that he finds the priorities for the investigation that the speakers did carry out to be worrying.  So at 3:15 mark the speaker first notes their intention to determine if the idea that “All paths lead to God” is consistent with Christ’s teachings, and next to determine if the idea is “reasonable” to begin with.

So where the Whitehorse Inn podcast apparently aim to help Christians engage well with non-Christians on the question of whether “all paths lead to God,” yet does so by prioritizing conformity with Christ’s teachings ahead of conformity with reason, this implies one of two things.  Either that Christianity is obviously reasonable—and expects non-Christians to accept this as a foregone conclusion (which clearly they would dispute) or this ordering assumes that Christianity is in some way “outside of” or “above” the criteria of reasonableness.  Both perspectives are problematic when presenting Christianity to non-Christians.

Focusing on the notion that Christianity is in some way “outside of” or “above” the criteria of reasonableness, Gregg is particularly critical of the strong fideist perspective that argues that “human sin has so damaged human reason as to make it impossible for human reason to evaluate religious truth claims properly.”  (C. Stephan Evans, 1998 Faith Beyond Reason, 16).

Gregg identifies several deficiencies with this view.

First, it overstates the implications of sin for non-Christians, both theologically and experientially.  So Calvin’s notion of “total depravity” overstates the matter in believing that God’s image in humanity was completely shattered as of Genesis 3.  The evidence?  Biblically, both Genesis 5 and 9 make references to God’s image in humanity that cannot be restricted to a historical reference.  More compellingly, look around you!  Everyday you will see non-Christians making choices and using their reason to do truly valuable and morally good things.  Not all the time, and not entirely (although interestingly, that’s the same with Christians).  But they do so enough, in my view, to discredit Calvin’s conclusion.

Second, the strong form of the argument under-states or even ignores the necessary interplay between life and faith.  It does so in two ways.

The first way concerns how the strong version typically characterizes reason (or better, the philosophical view of reason that it typically holds).  Called philosophical modernism, Gregg argues that this view drastically overstates the power and scope of human reason.  For example, Modernism maintains that humans can achieve objective knowledge (i.e., that they can be certain that what they know is true) and that all rational people will arrive at the same understandings (because all people have the same faculty of reason).

The second way concerns how a number of key, Christian truth claims can only be evaluated experientially (such as the human pre-disposition to self-deceit or the reality of God’s love for human beings).  So, where non-Christians deny Christianity because, for example, they have been presented with no “real life” evidence for the claim that “God loves us”—or no “content” appropriate to prove its truthfulness—this clearly shows that non-Christians have understood the claim just fine!

Further, while faith is always involved in embracing Christianity, Gregg argues that the notion that non-Christians cannot “evaluate religious truth claims properly” is nearly impossible to assess, because most Christians are either unable properly to situate such claims and present evidence for them or they do not believe that such evidence is even required (because non-Christians can’t competently evaluate it)!  In other words, this view is self-fulfilling but then blames the other party—then non-Christians—for the outcome!

Gregg finishes by explaining how the Whitehorse Inn podcasters have essentially been dishonest by constructed a “straw man” argument.

So Gregg summarizes the Whitehorse Inn podcast episode like this:

  • Many—and maybe most—non-Christians believe that “all paths lead to God,”
  • The view that “all paths lead to God” is confused, contradictory, and ultimately mistaken,
  • Therefore many—and maybe most—non-Christians are therefore confused, illogical, and ultimately mistaken when it comes to their beliefs,
  • Christians can use a few simple tips and tactics to present the truth to Non-Christians.

Very simple, very straightforward.  The problem is that this summary is not true.

So Gregg’s argument that the presenters have essentially created—and then gone on easily to defeat—a “strawman.”  A strawman argument is an argument that supposedly represents an opponent’s view but in actual fact represents an argument that is weaker and usually simpler (and potentially unrelated to the actual argument.

So by choosing the weakest possible manifestation of an anti-Christian argument and then showing it (surprise, surprise) to be invalid, the presenters give the impression of:

  1. Really understanding non-Christian views,
  2. Sincerely engaging with non-Christian views,
  3. Decisively defeating non-Christian views,
  4. Clearly showing other Christians how to do the same.

Yet this approach is not only inaccurate (and even dishonest), but is actually self-defeating.  In other words, by choosing the weakest possible opponent and then claiming victory, 1) Christians fool themselves into thinking that their position is strong when in fact it is weak (or even *irrelevant* to stronger versions non-Christian arguments), 2) Christians simply reinforce the prevailing, non-Christian view that Christians are out-of-touch with reality, 3) Christians likewise reinforce the prevailing, non-Christian view that Christian claims about loving others and respecting their viewpoints are simply, well, bogus.

The point is that none of the non-Christians that I know believe the view that “all roads lead to God” is even sensible, let alone poses any reason for holding an agnostic or atheistic viewpoint.  No self-respecting agnostic or atheist that I know or am aware actually holds this view!  The only people I am aware of that hold it are Baha’i!




Fuzzy non-Christianity misrepresents non-Christians (162)

In this episode Gregg reviews an episode from the Whitehorse Inn podcast by Christian academician Michael Horton entitled: “Do all paths lead to God?”

Gregg begins by noting that this podcast was offered in the Untangling Christianity Facebook group as an example of how Christians engage well with non-Christians (i.e., how Christians can engage thoughtfully, on point, and respectfully with non-Christians and their perspectives).  Gregg found just the opposite.

Before beginning with a point-by-point examination of the episode Gregg first offers what he views to be a better way not only of engaging with non-Christians but a better approach to both life and faith.

Gregg refers to this as an “integrated approach” to life and faith.  This integrated approach emphasizes that unless we realize and address the problems associated with starting somewhere other than “with ourselves,” we are bound to misfire when we try to engage with both life and faith.  And Christians are certainly bound to misfire when it comes to how they engage with non-Christians.  On the other hand, an integrated approach positively emphasizes the crucial things that human beings glean about themselves and the insights that are offered relative to Christian belief (and the Christian God) by living in the world—what Christians refer to as “creation.”

In other words, because creation and salvation are necessarily linked, human beings can derive ready, preliminary insights into who God is / the nature of the divine-human relationship by virtue of right living and rightly engaging with life.  Gregg believes that this link between creation and salvation can best be expressed as “creation frames salvation, salvation refigures creation.”  Creation frames salvation, salvation refigures creation.