Rob Barrett, TCF Director of Fellows and Forums, has recently contributed a post to the Blog for Political Theology. Offender, Victim, or Teacher? Seeing through the Eyes of the Powerless invites Christians to develop new ways of seeing – particularly as regards our care for the “least among us.” Take a look!
A recent ad for a cell company data plan launches with the claim, “The miraculous is everywhere!” Vivid, dynamic images flash across the screen, reminding the viewer of the wonder on display all around. A phone snaps pictures and links friends and family – happy viewers who share in the delight and amazement. If our world and its marvels appear boundless, this ad seems to suggest, there’s only one reasonable response: continual and unlimited technological connection.
It’s a lovely picture, really – immersing myself in the inspiring, compelling beauty of our world, and using those images to foster connection with those I love. It represents a sort of “best case scenario” for all that technology has to offer me. I resonate with the promises cascading and spiralling across the screen.
Then, subtly, the tone changes, and the narrative thread spins off. The visuals continue to trace the joys and delights of a life technologically mediated, but the tone becomes increasingly urgent. I’m led to realize that it’s not enough to revel in the wonder of it all – I have to possess it. All the time, all of it. The miraculous, it turns out, isn’t a gift, it’s an entitlement. The storyline drives me from wonder to demand, ending with the bold proclamation, “I need – no, I have the right – to be unlimited!”
The ad ends on a high, crusading note – challenging me to go forth and “be unlimited!” I can do this, of course, only with the help of the marvellous cell provider and my trusty smartphone. Marketing joins technology in creating a vision of the good life – a life which is by all rights, mine.
I am convinced, however, that there is a better way. When I accept abundant life as a gift from my Creator, it comes not as a right but as a gift. My response is not an urgent, demanding sense of entitlement, but instead one of gratitude and even true wonder. The delight of God’s creation and the joy of my relationships are only made more vivid through the lens of thankfulness.
We at TCF give quite a lot of thought to the proper place of technology in a faithful life. How does social media impact our spiritual formation? Does technology help or harm the work of higher education? As we continue to explore this topic, one starting point involves a response to this ad, and the technological promises it represents.
How do we respond to notions of “unlimited”? Will we demand constant, unbounded access to the good life, mediated by tools that promise it all? Or will we instead choose to receive life abundant with gratitude, as God’s good gift?
***You can view the ad here. Or, you could skip the ad altogether and instead spend the same 30 seconds enjoying God’s gifts. Take a look out the window, write a love-note to your spouse, thank God for the life you woke up to this morning.
The results of a recent Barna poll come as something of a surprise: the majority of Protestant pastors polled report some degree of uncertainty about their position on the creation/evolution debate. Many of them do, undoubtedly, hold a specific view on the issue – but they claim to hold it with uncertainty.
TCF friend Todd Wood blogged about the poll, pointing out the irony that Christians tend to (sometimes violently) disagree about these issues in absolute, certain terms – when in reality, they privately harbor uncertainties! He suggests that the creation/evolution debate is so difficult at least in part because it is so very complex and does not yield easy answers – from any perspective. He suggests, in fact, that
Humbly acknowledging that we don’t know everything is not an affront to God or His Word. It’s just human. It’s what we are.
This sort of humility is at the very heart of our work at TCF. Difficult questions won’t find answers in a stubborn insistence on certainty. The honest pursuit of truth demands honesty about the things we don’t know. So often our disagreements are knotted up by a complex array of knowledge and inference, complicated by varying degrees of uncertainty. When we can admit to our uncertainty, we “clear space” to truly learn. More importantly, however: a humble acknowledgement of our finite knowledge makes space for fellow believers who share our predicament. Though we may engage the uncertainty from vastly different perspectives, we nevertheless find in each other partners seeking to discern God’s ways.
Wood’s post reminds us that our work as Christians isn’t primarily to get all the information right. God’s creation is a wonderful and complex thing, and it is no doubt a gift to do our very best to explore and try to understand it. More important, however, is our calling to love one another – to engage these grand questions charitably, trusting that even in our uncertainty, Christ holds it all together.
This month’s conversation at respectfulconversation.net on American Evangelicalism grapples with the difficult questions of the exclusivity of the Christian faith. Contributors were invited to write about the significance and role in Evangelicalism of ‘preaching the gospel, sharing the faith, and reaching out to the lost.’
Throughout the series, the topics of evangelism, pluralism, and questions of heaven and hell are all explored with conviction – and variety. Some writers emphatically defend a traditionally exclusivist position on salvation, others suggest a more nuanced approach – or in some cases, a modified inclusivist stance. A common theme emerges, however, in post after post: while the propositional content of beliefs may vary, evangelicals share a commitment to a life that witnesses in act as well as word. It’s a question dear to the heart of TCF, reflecting our commitment to embodying Christ’s reconciling presence in the world. Kyle Roberts (Bethel Seminary) sums it up well when he writes:
…Evangelical Christians should let our conviction about Christ’s centrality as the revelation of God motivate us to share, live, and witness to the message of God’s reconciliation with humanity and promised redemption of the cosmos by extending Christ’s presence in the world—by being the “peace” of Christ in a violent world.
The Christian calling – to witness to the love of God in a broken world – shines through loud and clear in this week’s posts. As writers grapple with just how Evangelicals should share the “Evangel” – good news – they consistently conclude that actions speak as loudly as words. Or, as TCF phrases it, formation is every bit as important as information.
Simply put, this round of posts reminds us that our Christian witness will only ever be as strong as our capacity to share the love of Christ in a watching world.
Discussion on the first topic in the American Evangelicalism series is coming to a close. Eighteen different writers have weighed in with their thoughts on Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition. Commenting is still open, so do take the time to catch up on any of the pieces you may have missed. There’s a surprising breadth of perspective and thoughtful engagement with a potentially difficult topic.
The final piece, “What does Evangelical really mean?“ by Karl Giberson, weighs in with a surprising twist on the on-going conversation about language. Last week, we highlighted C. Ben Mitchell’s hopeful post suggesting that “Evangelical” is most effectively employed as an adjective, rather than a noun. Giberson has come to a different sort of conclusion.
It seems to me that the public face of evangelicalism has become increasingly more negative and I am, frankly, embarrassed by the label.
He explains that evangelicalism is, in common use, increasingly equated with political, social, and theological fundamentalism. He fears that in current usage, the term is used to refer to just about anything except followers of Jesus who are known for their love. He therefore prefers to distance himself from a label which carries so much baggage.
Giberson’s decision to step away from the term “evangelical” is not primarily a theological one. It is instead a linguistic distinction – acknowledging the term’s shift in meaning, and pragmatically stepping away from what the word has come to represent. He hints at an important possibility: perhaps by setting aside the label, we can more faithfully practice all that the word once meant.
Not everyone, of course, agrees with Giberson’s assessment. But some Christians will, and TCF’s work is to encourage participation in precisely these sorts of important – if difficult – conversations.
Do you remember life without the internet? Picking up a newspaper on your front step in the morning, or paging through a hardbound cookbook looking for a recipe for dinner? What it was like to read maps without little blue dots helpfully pointing out that “you are here”? Writing a letter, longhand, and licking the stamp before dropping it in a mailbox? These were all very much part of my life into early adulthood – I somehow managed college, wedding planning, and raising a child into toddlerhood without the use of the internet.
Paul Miller, on the other hand, represents a generation that scarcely – if at all – remembers life pre-internet. He was 12 years old when he began using the web extensively, and eventually made a career of tech writing for TheVerge.com, a website covering “the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture.” Over time, however, he began to question what life might be like without the ubiquitous influence of the internet. He wondered, “What about me is because I use the internet, what about me is because I’m Paul Miller?”
In a move that some of us might find terrifying, Miller determined to take a year entirely off from internet activity. Though he continued to write for The Verge, he did so exclusively off-line. His correspondence moved from an email inbox to a PO box, he learned how to use the library and paper maps instead of Google. The experiment, at the outset, afforded Miller massive amounts of time and welcome freedom from technological interruption. He hoped, in the process, to grow as a person – to become more creative, more focused, more in tune with other people. Over the course of the year, however, Miller came face-to-face with a surprising conclusion: the internet was not, in itself, the source of his problems. Instead, he concluded, “There’s deeper reasons for most of my problems that really didn’t have a lot to do with the internet. They just manifest differently on and off-line.”
Miller’s story points out an important element in the work of TCF. It is true that we engage in sometimes difficult conversations about the appropriate role of technology in a faithful life. We are, however, primarily interested in the development of habits and patterns of life that translate into every arena of life – the internet included. The practices of the church, many of them handed down over the centuries, still stand us in good stead in the face of profoundly contemporary challenges. Miller’s story reminds us that together we stand in need of God’s transforming grace, whether we’re unplugged or connected 24/7.
Read and watch more of Miller’s story, in his own words, in this reflection he wrote to mark his return to the internet.
A new article by TCF Senior Fellow James K.A. Smith, “Hitting the Pause Button,” encourages readers to slow down and consider the formative impact of the technological tools we choose to put to use. He writes:
If technology is an expression of our creaturely vocation to create, then the question isn’t whether to employ technology, but how and which. So we’re not hitting the pause button in order to ask whether we should use technology; we hit the pause button to slow down and ask much harder, more nuanced questions.
“Hitting the Pause Button” explores the nature of technology, and of its impact on us as users. Smith also suggests a number of questions to help us consider ‘technology—and our relation to it—in ways that are informed by a biblical vision for flourishing’.
As we at TCF work to promote charitable conversation, we try to pay close attention to the workings of language –how it tears down or builds up, how it can alienate or unite. Communication (both written and face-to-face) mediates our shared communion and forms the foundation of charitable interaction. Our very mission rests on the challenge to develop careful – and charitable – uses of language.
In the on-going conversation on American Evangelicalism at respectfulconversation.net, C. Ben Mitchell speaks to one aspect of this work: developing a faithful stewardship of language. Citing Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, he explains that the barrage of words in our media-driven society has perhaps caused us to undervalue words, to use them without caution or thoughtfulness. Given their critical role in supporting Christian unity, however, he appeals to his reader to consider a more intentional, integrated use of language.
For the purposes of the current conversation, Mitchell proposes that “Evangelical” is most faithfully used as an adjective, modifying the noun “Christian.” This adjective might accompany others: Nicene, Orthodox, Baptist – but always with an eye to supporting the primary identity of its speaker as a member of the Body of Christ. The effect of this linguistic choice, of course, highlights the intention of Christ when he prayed that those whom the Father gave him might “be one.” Our Christian unity is quite simply a gift of the Father, a gift which we recognize when we call ourselves Christians. We then use further descriptors, perhaps, to tell a bit more of ourselves – but always, we are primarily known by the noun “Christian.”
Mitchell reminds us that stewardship of language keeps words in their proper relations to one another – and that this careful use of speech helps us keep our own priorities straight, as well. If we understand ourselves first and foremost as children of God, in relation to one another, then we stand the best chance of living into the adjectives we use, as well. We should in no way dispense with the descriptors – in them we find the rich variety and fullness of the body of Christ. But we will most faithfully enter into that abundance as we use our words well.
In my previous post, I introduced the idea that through practice, developed in time and over time during the most ordinary aspects of life, the virtues are formed within us and become part of who we are. Today I would like to address what we mean by practices and why we should participate in them.
When we talk about practices and the habits that form us into virtuous people, we are essentially talking about spiritual disciplines. But before going further, I want to start with a quote from Kenneth Boa’s Conformed to His Image: “The daily regimen of the spiritual disciplines equips us to live well during the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life…Our daily choices shape our habits, and our habits shape our character… which guide the decisions we make in times of stress, temptation, and adversity.”
TCF recognizes that the stress, temptation and adversity that we encounter cannot be solved without first talking about the kind of people we are going to be during these difficult times. In a diverse world where conflict is inevitable, we have an opportunity to become mature Christians who display love and charity – virtues that require practice in order to become deeply embedded into the core of who we are. When divisive issues breed tension within our homes, workplaces and communities we must be able to respond by viewing the other person as a gift rather than as the enemy. In this way we trust that “all things hold together in Christ” and we can live faithfully – not a life where conflict is non-existent but one in which differences are an opportunity to display Christ’s love manifest in us.
In order to live this way, a number of virtues are required, one example being humility. It is one thing to try to be humble for Jesus’ sake while gritting our teeth, and an entirely different thing to have the fruit of humility springing forth naturally from the depth of our character. The second response happens through the work of the Spirit but it also requires something from us as well, a willingness to be transformed and the commitment to create space for that development to happen. This is where spiritual disciplines come in. Just as musicians must master the fundamental chords and rhythms before being able to create beautiful music, so too must Christians be disciplined in the practices of the faith in order to be formed into the beautiful image of Christ.
Although the word “discipline” can bring forth negative images and feelings, it’s actually through the practice of the spiritual disciplines that we find the pathway to freedom – to love God and others more fully. Craig Dykstra, in Growing in the Life of Faith, explains it well:
“Christian practices are not activities we do to make something spiritual happen in our lives. Nor are they duties we undertake to be obedient to God. Rather, they are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, these are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God.”
Whether we call them practices, spiritual disciplines or forms of participation, the idea is that we intentionally respond to God’s grace-filled step of love toward us by inviting him to manifest his life through us. This is not about outer behavioral changes but about allowing the Spirit to transform our hearts so we can be united as one body and display God’s love to the world.
Earlier this month we introduced an online conversation about Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition hosted at RespectfulConversation.net. That discussion continues in the “Comments” section of the RC site, and in an on-going series from a number of other respondents. We encourage you to join in – here’s a brief overview of some of the new articles:
Richard Mouw (Fuller Seminary) writes of a “branding problem” in contemporary Evangelicalism. He suggests it may be possible to “rescue the label” by sticking to the basics, and by speaking “with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3: 15). “We need to cultivate the capacity for a kinder and gentler evangelicalism.”
John Hawthorne (Spring Arbor University) responds to last week’s posts by suggesting that what Evangelicalism is depends on the frame you put it in. Historically, Evangelicalism arose as a middle-road between the moderns and the fundamentalists. Institutionally, Evangelicalism is defined by key evangelical institutions and leaders. Theologically, Evangelicalism is a particular set of commitments. As these frames interact, he sees the future of Evangelicalism as both hopeful and intriguing.
Jeannine Brown (Bethel Seminary) calls for evangelicals humbly to acknowledge their modest place within a much larger stream of Christian tradition. By recognizing Evangelicalism “as a particular and located Christian movement,” there arise opportunities to see Evangelicalism’s breadth and diversity, to learn from one another, and to acknowledge an inability to control its future trajectory.
Justin Barnard (Union University) engages Peter Enns’s question about Evangelicalism’s ability to retain its identity while engaging in genuine, broader Christian dialogue. For Barnard, Evangelicalism is an impulse to pursue the Platonic ideal of the Gospel and a refusal to identify the Gospel with any existing institutions. When evangelicals recognize this, the process of pursuing the Gospel naturally involves dialogue and critique. But this can be done with charity.
Sarah Ruden (Wesleyan University) writes as an outsider to Evangelicalism who, nonetheless, is impatient for evangelicals to engage their grasp of “the life-giving idea of sin.” The evangelical insight into sin squares with the desperate horrors we see around us every day. Evangelicalism then offers hope. Instead of squabbling over familiar questions, she calls evangelicals to live out the amazing truth that “the only viable ideas about the future start with those of Biblical Christianity” and the imitation of Christ.
Wyndy Corbin Reuschling (Ashland Theological Seminary) writes about the critical importance of observing the ways in which Evangelicals actually live out their sense of self and faith. She points out a number of ways in which popular expressions might differ from theoretical understandings detailed by fellow contributors. Importantly, an exploration of popular practices might shed new light on current understandings of both the present and future of Evangelicalism.
Every time the church faces a “crisis” (whether real or perceived), Christians have to think about how they will respond. What strategies should we use to keep and restore the integrity of the Christian faith? David Brooks, NY Times columnist, has written an article that looks back at the major crisis afflicting the North African church during the 4th century. While it’s not everyday that one reads about Augustine and the Donatists in the newspaper, Brooks is keen to show how looking back at this moment in the church’s history helps us to better understand how the church can face its “crises” today.
Though Brooks is thinking about the Roman Catholic Church’s struggles and its new pope in particular, what he raises has broad relevance for all Christians who are attempting to keep the integrity of the Christian faith while addressing controversial issues. In Augustine’s response to the crisis of his day, Brooks sees an impulse towards openness and unity, and a lack of defensiveness grounded in “a confidence that your identity is secure even amid crisis.” Here at TCF, we also believe that we should approach the controversial issues in faith, science, and culture with a humility grounded in the confidence that our identities are secure in Christ. It is only when we realize that Christ is truly holding all things together that we then are able to approach the complexity and confusion in these issues with charity.
Read David Brook’s article, “How Movements Recover,” here.
As part of our work to foster a “new kind of conversation,” TCF is pleased to announce a new partnership with RespectfulConversation.net. The mission of RespectfulConversation (RC), as its name suggests, is to “to encourage and help facilitate forums for respectful conversation regarding important contemporary issues.” RC’s founder, Harold Heie, has joined TCF as a Senior Fellow, and together with Rob Barrett (TCF’s Director of Fellows & Forums) he hosts a newly-launched online discussion about “American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities.”
The purpose of this conversation is two-fold: first, to create a space for constructive dialogue about “the present conditions and future possibilities for Evangelicalism;” and second, to model charitable conversation, even (or particularly) in the context of deep disagreement. This online discussion addresses a series of questions, presenting a variety of perspectives from a broad range of writers, and inviting readers’ comments as a means of furthering the conversation.
The first topic, launched May 1st, addresses Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition. Six different writers have been invited to present their thoughts on this topic; next week, six respondents will reply and add their own insights. We encourage you to take the time to follow this conversation – both for the important issues it addresses, and for the remarkable opportunity to participate in a respectful online conversation. By way of introduction, here is a brief overview of this week’s posts:
John Wilson emphasizes the breadth and openness of American evangelicalism through both its history of drawing on the broader Christian tradition and the willingness to maintain fellowship when former evangelicals move into other branches of Christianity.
John Franke makes the perhaps surprising case that Evangelicalism is inherently diverse and ecumenical. But running against this diversity is a tendency within evangelicalism to define “one true faith over against other versions,” which leads to an un-evangelical contentiousness.
Corwin Smidt explores the various ways evangelicalism can be defined. Does it designate a set of beliefs? Or does it refer to a specific social group? And if a group, is it its own religious tradition or is it a movement that is trying to change the face of Christianity more broadly?
Vincent Bacote is forthrightly hopeful about the future of evangelicalism because of its willingness to listen to Scripture and its openness to the Holy Spirit. While others are shedding the label, he holds on to the possibility of revival and revolution within American evangelicalism that will overcome current weaknesses.
Amos Yong envisions a future for evangelicalism that is increasingly influenced by Pentecostalism. The 21st century evangelicalism he sees will be transformed by Pentecostal experiences of Scripture, atonement, mission, and conversion.
Peter Enns sees American Evangelicalism as a movement rooted in the pursuit of faithfulness to God within a particular historical context. As times change and history moves on, he questions whether the movement is willing to change as well.
Brains are amazing things – they help us understand, they help us communicate, they help us imagine. Beyond the fact that they keep our lungs and hearts going, they equip us for the day-to-day challenges of life – and (usually) kick into overdrive when we need extra processing capacity.
We count on our brains to help us work out tough problems, and we trust the solutions that they offer. But, as it turns out, there’s a chance our brains may be playing occasional tricks on us. This online article profiles just a few of the ways in which the human brain sometimes delivers less-than-perfect information-processing.
Of course, acknowledging these “cognitive biases” doesn’t mean we give up all hope of clear thinking. On the contrary, realizing what we have to work with should help us to think even more clearly. An honest assessment of our capacities is certainly the best possible starting point for any rational exercise. Further, as we become aware of our own limitations:
• We can intentionally combat or compensate for our biases;
• We can invite outside perspective to help us work around them;
• We can hold our own ideas humbly, recognizing their potential flaws.
Many of the controversies which TCF works to address show evidence of one or more of these biases. Fortunately, the limitations are equal-opportunity; as humans doing brain-heavy work, every one of us involved in the conversations is liable to mistakes of one sort or another. If we can take to heart our own limitations, however, we can begin to develop the personal humility and relational charity we so desperately need for addressing these problems that – apparently – no one brain can adequately work out!
***The website linked above references just a few of the many cognitive biases of which we’re currently aware. For further reading, try any number of journal articles readily available on the internet, or a well-reviewed book like How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life or The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making.
Frequently, as we wrap up a Forum discussion on questions of origins, we hear the question, “Where can I read more about these issues?” A bibliography of all the books addressing this topic would be dauntingly long, and of course many of the books listed in it would be quite technical, addressed to highly specialized audiences. So we try to keep an eye out for books that instead offer a concise, accessible summary of the issues, and then recommend it for further reading.
We are therefore pleased to point readers to a newly-published book from IVP, Mapping the Origins Debate. Author Gerald Rau takes on the daunting challenge of charting a comprehensive overview, informed by his training in genetics, education, and philosophy of science. This broad range of experience allows Rau to approach the debate from multiple perspectives, thereby offering the reader a variety of entry points to a necessarily complex subject matter.
Rau’s approach to the questions of origins is, as far as I am aware, a unique one. Charting a continuum of six models (ranging from naturalistic evolution on one end to young earth creation at the other) he stresses the internal coherence of each approach to its own standards and criteria. He explains that, while scientific evidence is crucial for investigating questions of origins, it is our underlying perspectives that help select which evidence to admit, and how to interpret it accordingly. Given the subjective nature of scientific interpretation, then, he writes, “Each model rests on and is inextricably connected with particular philosophical presuppositions” (p. 30)
Rau’s intent here is not to minimize or relativize the scientific process. Instead, his goal is to map the evidence – and our accompanying assumptions – in such a way that might lead to fruitful dialogue between ‘proponents of different positions.’ (p. 35) He is therefore careful to use neutral language and respectful explanations of each model – reminding his reader time and again that each approach in fact makes logical sense within its own stated parameters. We are, in a sense, each playing well by the rules – but unfortunately, it’s the rules we can’t seem to agree on. The point of this approach is to help us understand those who hold to a different model, and to respect the process of reasoning that has led to their conclusions. Though we may ultimately disagree about models, we come to recognize that our thought processes share striking similarities.
The book is structured as an investigation of the origins of the universe, of life, of species, and of humans. For each chapter, he lays out a brief summary of the scientific evidence, and then explains the ways in which each model selects and interprets the evidence. Finally, he offers an overview of the theological and philosophical implications of each approach.
In the final chapter, Rau surveys the philosophical presuppositions inherent in the practice of science, broadly understood. Critical to the purposes of this book is the recognition that science itself is not a monolithic, uncontested set of facts. Rau does indeed hold that there is such a thing as scientific truth – and, in fact, that a great deal of it is knowable by us. However, it is simultaneously true that our philosophical and religious assumptions dramatically impact how we approach and understand that truth. Rau’s goal is to shed light on this reality “in a way that will promote mutual understanding and thus honest communication about the underlying issues with less animosity.” (p. 190)
This book is a significant resource for those who share TCF’s desire to engage in charitable dialogue about contentious issues. The framework – understanding the perspectives that frame our scientific conclusions – helps set the stage for gracious discussions. The information it lays out is a helpful introduction to the relevant scientific considerations. Most especially, the author’s respectful tone effectively models the presentation of opposing perspectives with charity and respect.
Mapping the Origins Debate will prove especially helpful for high school or college level educators, or adult study groups. Rau’s scientific expertise shows through on more than one occasion, and the technical descriptions were occasionally a stretch for this humanities-trained reader. It’s also important to note that his approach necessarily gives equal weight and validity to each of the six models. This could lead to the assumption that scientific evidence or philosophical inference supports each to the same degree – a conclusion to which some readers may object. On the other hand, the book has been recommended by the National Science Teachers Association, suggesting that its balanced approach is viewed as a welcome alternative to the all-too-common contentious treatments of the issues.
The Colossian Forum welcomes a conversation partner like Rau – one committed to deep respect and charitable engagement. His thorough, even-handed presentation of scientific, philosophical, and theological considerations serves as a tremendous resource for Christians who are looking for the “facts.” Even more importantly, however, Rau models a gracious, thoughtful approach to interacting with both the information and with fellow believers. This book provides helpful information in a gracious manner which evidences precisely the kind of formation we work to affirm.
Anyone who works with traditional undergraduate college students is well aware that they are on a transitional journey as emerging adults. As a biology faculty member at a Christian liberal arts university, I view my role in this process as not only a guide in their understanding of biological concepts but also a provider of resources and learning opportunities that develop them holistically. In my classes, I intentionally expose my students to some of the challenging cultural concerns for Christian believers within the context of science and faith. These relevant issues provide them with rich opportunities to examine, evaluate, and reflect on faithful Christian perspectives that may differ from their own; they also hold the potential to augment my students’ spiritual formation process. As we engage in these issues as fellow believers in Christ, I remind them of the importance of recognizing that since “Christ holds all thing together” (Colossian 1:16-17), there is ultimately nothing to fear in searching for truth wherever it may be found.
In my attempt to fulfill my courses’ learning outcomes for both critical thinking and faith/learning integration, I search for resources from Christian organizations who model a reconciliatory approach to the conflicts within science, faith, and culture. While conducting a web search for appropriate resources, I discovered The Colossian Forum. I was not familiar with this particular organization but was intrigued by particular phrases on their homepage such as liberating truth, a safe place for the riskiest questions, and a new approach to a new kind of conversation.
In reviewing some of the material available online, I first read their Manifesto which described their aim to equip the church to engage culture in a way that does not fragment the body of Christ. I also discovered that two Christian biologists, Todd Wood and Dennis Venema, had each written an essay at the request of The Colossian Forum. I was intrigued because of my awareness that these two individuals approached their specialty area of genomics from differing Christian perspectives. Both essays expressed a refreshingly gracious rather than argumentative tone and modeled postures of humility, hope, and receptive listening. The intentionality of both these individuals to model Christ-like virtues in this context was inspirational.
I decided to assign all three of these readings as the last “integration” assignment for the semester and asked my students to summarize, evaluate, and reflect on the content. Since this particular assignment would serve as the pinnacle of our integrative learning together over the course of the semester, I specifically asked them to reflect on 1) the future orientation of the church in its approach to science and faith and 2) the impact of this biology course on their Christian faith.
In their reflections on the future orientation of the church, the responses were mixed. Some of my students described a newfound hope that the disharmony over science and faith issues would fade:
I hope that churches will begin to have organized meetings where this topic is discussed in an open way and differing perspectives are accepted.
Some students were uncertain:
Unless there is a new generation of theologians and pastors that step up into leadership and address these issues, the church will remain the same.
Still others expressed a pessimistic outlook:
I believe the evangelical church will eventually split. As we can see now, it is impossible to get people to think as one.
Overall, their thinking was unified in the desire that future generations of believers will nurture the unity that is found in Christ.
In reflecting on the influence of this course on their faith, the overwhelming majority of them described a positive effect. One student commented that
…my faith has been strengthened greatly by this class because I have realized that no matter what science uncovers about how God brought about life, all truth is God’s truth and because of that fact I can engage in scientific learning without fears. Seeming conflicts are only a misinterpretation of either the general revelation from God that science provides or the special revelation that God gave us in the Bible. I take comfort in the fact that God works in ways which are different than ours, and which we may not be able to comprehend.
Another student summarized her thoughts by stating:
After being in this class, I think that the most significant point I’ll be taking away is also the most comforting – that science and faith are not in conflict. It was what I’d always subconsciously known, but never really hoped to believe. This makes me feel loved by a very great God, who I can see revealing himself in a way that goes far beyond the box to which I had confined him.
Education is intended to be transformative, and these comments illustrate why I consider it essential for my students to be exposed to not only the challenging questions for the Christian faith being raised by science in our world today, but also to this posture of reconciliation based on the unity amongst believers in Christ, who is Truth. In my experience, most Christian college students today are seeking a new way forward in these often contentious conversations that come at the intersection of science, faith, and culture. As a holistic educator, I celebrate these challenges as opportunities for faith development in my students’ journeys to an adulthood in which they will love God and serve others.
Catfish. Manti Te’o. If there’s one thing we can learn from this film turned MTV show and Notre Dame linebacker it’s that social technology has complicated the way we think about relationships.
How should we relate to virtual relationships? How “real” are virtual relationships? Manti Te’o’s girlfriend hoax grabbed the national spotlight and provoked such questions. The reality television show Catfish deals with these questions on a regular basis. Its basic script consists of uniting virtual lovers in person. Sometimes the results are disastrous: someone had fabricated their online identity and the other person feels deeply hurt. Sometimes the results are more hopeful: the couple is thrilled to discover that they had portrayed themselves faithfully. And sometimes the results are bizarre: someone is deceived by the false virtual portrayal of their lover but wants to continue the relationship, claiming that what they share is still “real” in some way.
While these popular examples focus particularly on romantic relationships, they can also serve as vivid examples of how social technology complicates and touches all relationships. Dr. Rick Ostrander, provost of Cornerstone University, highlights these broader tensions in his article, “Christian Learning in the Digital Age.” He writes:
Ostrander suggests that social technology should never be used to ground our relationships, nor can it replace the incarnational power of personal interaction. In other words, there are serious limits to what social technology can accomplish. On the other hand, the popular examples of Catfish and Manti Te’o serve as vivid portrayals of social media use that has eschewed almost any limits to ground and create even the most intimate of relationships. In cases like these, society is no longer asking about appropriate limits for the relational uses of social media. Rather, it is simply presumed as part and parcel of our lives, uncritically put to use in whatever way we see fit (or consider entertaining). However, we at TCF are firmly convinced that the question we must continually ask is: what kind of people are we becoming in the process?
What are your thoughts on this topic? How should we approach virtual relationships, especially as they relate to our face-to-face relationships?
In Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, Sam Wells & Marcia Owen collaborate to present a theologically-grounded, practice-driven response to human violence. The book addresses very particular needs within the authors’ community, all the while bearing in mind a wide range of “issues that evoke fear and bewilderment.” A very specific focus on concerns of gun violence in the inner city provides an entry point for engaging with violence and social change, more broadly conceived.
TCF’s work, admittedly, doesn’t typically bring us into contact with physical violence. However, we all too often observe the violent ways in which words are wielded in attempts to win ideological battles. Our vision is to help Christians disagree well – to practice charity and deep trust in God, even – or especially – in response to vehement contention. This book, then, serves as a helpful resource in exploring a range of faithful responses to violence.
In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Durham, North Carolina suffered a disproportionately high number of gun-related injuries and deaths. While many local organizations worked to address the devastating violence, Living Without Enemies traces one approach that developed gradually and organically through the work of Marcia Owen with the Religious Coalition for Nonviolent Durham. In response to the devastating losses, members of the community joined Owens in holding simple prayer vigils to honor the victims of gun crime. As Wells observed and participated in these vigils, building a friendship with Owens, he began to develop a theological framework for compassionate participation in the process of social transformation. Living Without Enemies tells the story of their shared work and theological reflections.
Wells lays out four primary ways in which we tend to engage need. First, there is working for: typically the most natural way for Westerners to address a problem, we “become very good at what [we] do, and spend the rest of [our] lives doing it for people.” We utilize our skills and exert our power on behalf of others and their needs. We use insight, focus, and skill to solve problems for people and society. The Colossian Forum was founded in response to a very specific problem, and we continue to refine our work to more adequately address the controversies surrounding the faith and science conversation. Through forums, publications, research, and above all, relationships, we hope to help bring charity and reconciliation to the church.
Second, there is working with. In this mode, we invite participation: we work to solve problems together with those who bear the burdens. Together, we identify the problems to be addressed, and together we design and implement solutions. We at TCF are profoundly grateful for the investment of so many who help us to daily address deep disagreements in the church. Generous donors, gifted scholars, thoughtful pastors, and committed teachers all share in our work in generative and faithful ways.
There may be times, however, where we don’t have the opportunity to work tangibly with or for, and then we may choose the third manner of engagement: being for. In this mode, while we may not actively work toward a specific end, our energies and efforts bear in mind and indirectly support the needs of others. Such a broad range of issues threaten to divide the church, yet the work of TCF must necessarily focus more narrowly. We pray that our existence and our work may, in some way, begin to show a faithful way forward among the many struggles which remain outside our direct engagement.
Finally, we engage by being with, which involves deep and growing relationship with those in need – apart from the considerations of problem-solving. As Wells reminds us, “We tend to turn everything into a problem ripe for solving. But some things aren’t problems, and some problems cannot simply be fixed.” “Being with means experiencing in your own body some of the fragility of relationships, self-esteem and general well-being that are at the heart of [problems like] poverty. It means having the patience not to search around for the light switch, but to sit side by side for a time in the shadows.”
This being with often represents the heart of our work at TCF. While we are fortunate to do a great deal of work for and with a remarkable group of Christians who share our commitment to a Body reconciled, we also recognize that our efforts will, some days, meet with evident failure. As our Executive Director Michael Gulker wrote in TCF’s April prayer letter, some problems aren’t just hard, they’re wicked. The issues that divide the Church run deep, and some days, at least, appear insurmountable. In those moments – and perhaps more often – we recognize that being with remains a deeply faithful way to practice our high calling.
Perhaps another way to understand being with is simply as friendship. Friendship in pursuit of the good, as described by David Burrell in this glossary entry, is a tremendous gift – and one which we are called to share with other Christians, with whom we may or may not actually agree. It is this friendship in Christ which our Forums seek to foster. Deeper than our divisions over issues of faith, science, and culture, we find the invitation to be with, to love. As John Wright describes, our friendship is grounded in love – classically referred to as Charity. This love may include a problem-solving technique, and it may foster the development of a proven and effective model for social change. However, it is above all else an entering into relationship, finding delight in one another and thereby in God.
It is this love, finally, that allows us to live without enemies – for in its sharing, enemies become friends. As Wells reminds us, in the words of Thomas à Kempis, “That which is done for love (though it be little and contemptible in the sight of the world) becomes wholly fruitful.”
During Holy Week, I spent a day with Dr. L. Gregory Jones, a member of The Colossian Forum’s Advisory Board. Dr. Jones is an accomplished theologian, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School, and currently serves as a Senior Strategist for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. During our visit, one key distinction Dr. Jones made stuck in my head – the difference between “hard problems” and “wicked problems.”
Hard problems are like difficult calculus equations. Given enough time we’ll eventually wrestle them to the ground- and boy does that feel good! But wicked problems are so complex, multifaceted and fluid that they resist even our most skillful and persistent attempts to solve them – and boy is that frustrating!
Yet wicked problems offer us the chance to recognize that we are not in control, that the world does not submit to our will, and that we simply do not know the way. Because we hate not being in control, we are often tempted to misconstrue wicked problems as hard problems so that we have something to do, so we can attack the problem and wrestle it to the ground.
For example, existing tensions between faith and science are often attributed to a simple lack of knowledge or misinterpretation of data, be it scientific or theological. This is a hard problem – but one we can solve! With this overly-simple diagnosis in hand, we feel empowered to wrestle it to the ground with an education campaign! While a lack of education certainly names a real dilemma of the faith/science conversation, reducing it to merely a lack of information is analogous to treating a fever accompanying an infected wound but ignoring the wound itself!
We have just come through Holy Week – the week Christians follow Jesus into the teeth of the most wicked problem of all – our rejection of God and our slavery to sin and death. Stories of the Bible tells us of lots of folks who responded to this wicked problem by treating it as a hard problem. Zealots blamed the Romans and their collaborators and attacked them. The Pharisees blamed the morally impure and attacked them. The “realist” Sanhedrin blamed the “idealist” Pharisees and Zealots and attacked them. Judas blamed Jesus and betrayed him. Peter attacked the temple guard to defend Jesus, but when Peter’s mode of action failed, he denied him. They all attacked the problem and tried to wrestle it to the ground.
What does Jesus do to prepare himself and his disciples to face the wicked problem of sin and death? He washes their feet, prays for them and tells them that he is the way, the truth and the life. And what is his way? Entrusting himself and his friends to the goodness of his Father as he willingly goes into the ground!
What would it mean for us as Christians to witness to the goodness of the Father not only in times of joy but also in the face of today’s most wicked problems? Whose feet do we need to wash? For whom do we need to pray?
What would it mean for us to become a community so capable of “trusting God that rather than vilifying those who disagree with us we welcome” them as brothers and sisters in Christ and trust God together? What kind of people would dare to do this? Only an Easter people!
Alleluia – He is Risen!
This piece was originally written for TCF’s April prayer e-letter. If you’d like to receive our prayer letter directly, please send your email address to email@example.com to subscribe. Thank you for your partnership!
In his Easter Sunday address, the newly installed Archbishop of Canterbury wasted no time in addressing the significant controversies facing the Church of England. He acknowledged the challenges ahead, but called Christians to find gracious ways to pursue reconciliation. He observed:
“We need to understand reconciliation within the Church as the transformation of destructive conflict, not [as] unanimity.”
He forthrightly acknowledged that differences of opinion are here to stay – it’s the manner in which they are engaged that matters most.
“It doesn’t mean we all agree, it is that we find ways of disagreeing, perhaps very passionately but loving each other deeply at the same time, gracefully and deeply committed to each other.
The practice of reconciliation matters deeply to the Rev. Justin Welby, who has worked extensively for peace in several African nations and in the Middle East. In his new role as Archbishop, the challenge will be to help bring peace to the Church. Not one to shy away from the hard work of reconciliation, he points out that “our fear of [conflict], our sense of it being wasted time and effort, is wrong.” Instead, he calls us to serve as active witnesses of the “miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls. We must be reconciled reconcilers.”
Note: You can read a recent address by Archbishop Welby on the topic of Faith in Conflict here. His emphasis closely parallels that of The Colossian Forum – read more about our approach in our Manifesto.
Is beauty an indication that something is true? Most moderns would unequivocally conclude that truth has nothing to do with beauty, but that truth corresponds to a reality we can apprehend objectively. As this narrative often goes, beauty is only beheld subjectively.
But does this assumption really bear out in our everyday encounters with language? Is good preaching good merely because its content corresponds with something? Or is it good also because the form of the preaching – warmth, conviction, love, indignant passion, etc. – is beautiful? When you believe a teacher is telling you the truth about something, is the requisite trust established between you and teacher built upon confirmations of reality-correspondence? Or is it also built upon the beauty of the relationship shared by a master and apprentice? There seems to be special dynamic between what’s good, what’s true, and what’s beautiful.
If such a dynamic exists, we should wonder if the beauty or ugliness of presentation give clues about the truthfulness or falseness of what’s being presented. Better put, we should wonder if the beauty of virtue testifies to the truth of a claim, and if the ugliness of vice testifies to deception and untruth. The Colossian Forum believes this applies to Scriptural interpretation. In conversations about origins or the historicity of Adam and Eve and the like, Christians obviously appeal to Scripture. However, a great number of us, including myself, often presume that our supposed “truthful” interpretation of a text grants us a license to approach those with whom we disagree in an impatient or abrasive manner. But if, as suggested above, truth and beauty are integrally related, it seems wrongheaded to think that this manner of presentation is a byproduct and expression of truth. On the contrary, a vicious presentation might well indicate that the content of what’s being presented is false or misunderstood.
Augustine can help us on this point. In De Doctrina Christiana he says this:
So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them (1.36.40).
Augustine understands Scripture to be a salvific means of blessedness; that is, it’s a vehicle of salvation – an instrument intended to lead us to a saving knowledge of God. As such, it also cultivates love of other people; hence this “twin love of God and neighbor.” If an interpretation of a text leads me to a particular conclusion about, say, the creation of humanity vis-à-vis evolutionary biology, and yet I present this interpretation without regard for the wellbeing of my disagreeing conversation partner, I have apparently misunderstood the text. After all, Scripture – a vehicle of salvation and love of neighbor – would not and cannot intend a vicious presentation of its content. But if the interpretation is being presented charitably, this is a sign that the very Scripture that’s being interpreted has also sanctified the presenter in such a way that she cultivates love for her neighbor. And an interpretation that sanctifies a believer is an interpretation that understands the text.
The Colossian Forum intends to create a space where conversation partners can read and present Scripture charitably in such a way that these interlocutors, despite their various disagreements, can abide in each others’ mutual understanding (implying a twin love of God and neighbor) of the Scriptures. Only when these Scriptures are presented beautifully and charitably can we pursue the truth together, as one people.
For more on how this plays out among folks who comment on our blog, see our Writers’ Guidelines here.