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Welcome to the second in what is likely to be a blog series that will last me the rest of my life (should blogs still be a thing in the future). This is a series where I freak out at the prospect of having to raise a real-life human creature! This is also a series in which I take my expensive theological education and figure out what that looks like on the ground, in real life, as a parent.

Youth group was a formative time for me, despite my absenteeism. Before I was ever married I accepted a job as a youth pastor at a church. All of this to say, the formation of children and young people is something that I thought about before ever having children. With marriage, comes talk of children. And with talk of children, comes talk of how you will raise said creatures and this of course involves matters including but not nearly limited to education.

Christina and I have spoken at decent length about education and what we’ll do when Charlotte and our other children reach that age. We’ve had similar conversations with our parents and family members. We have friends who homeschool, un-school, send their kids to private Christian school, send their kids to montessori school…the list goes on. For someone unfamiliar with options other than regular old public school these other methods may seem strange and scary. There are, however, some significant philosophical and methodological questions being asked here. There are significant advantages to pursing a non-public-school education for your children. Furthermore, for the Christian, there are really important issues to be grappled with here.

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I got into a discussion, of sorts, with some folks on facebook (where else?) the other day on the subject of what Christian parents ought to do about their children’s education. It was sparked by the video embedded above. The video is of Gary DeMar, founder (I think) of an organization called American Vision whose mission is to, “Restore America to its Biblical Foundation” by “Exercising Servanthood Dominion”. Then, when America “recognizes the sovereignty of God over all of life…America will be again a ‘city on a hill’ drawing all nations to the Lord Jesus Christ and teaching them to subdue the earth for the advancement of His Kingdom.” Phew. That was a mouthful.

At any rate, this is a growing opinion in some Reformed circles (though, I hesitate to even attribute the term “Reformed” to these groups as I’m not sure they’re getting the Reformers right…but I digress!). Here in Ontario, Christian parents are increasingly concerned about the public school curriculum (and for good reason, I might add). We are told all sorts of things about said curriculum: you’re child will learn about same-sex marriage in the 2nd grade; anal sex in the 7th grade; evolution (!); and so on and so forth. Worst of all, we’re told that parents have no say in the matter, perhaps because it may well be the case that parents do not have the right to control how their children will be educated. Now, some of this is indeed problematic and is worth challenging, but how?

Some of my brothers and sisters argue that Christian parents should withdraw their children from the public school system entirely. Indeed, this is touted as not only a Christian response but the Christian response. Listen to Gary in the video above: “If you really really believe in a Christian worldview and you really want to believe that you can make fundamental changes in the world, you’re not going to be able to do it with someone educating your children 6 hours a day 5 days a week 10 months out of the year for 12 years.” And again: “Every aspect of your life has to be awash in the things of God’s word, you can’t do that if you’re sending your kids off to a completely different worldview.”

Did you catch that? (I hope you did, I italicized it.) “You’re not going to be able to do it”. “You can’t do that if…”.

Removing one’s children from the public system is held up as the only fitting Christian response to this current crisis. This, I argue, is at best fear-mongering rooted in ignorance. And, (perhaps) well intentioned but ultimately irresponsible leaders like Gary here are having a negative impact on everyday Christians (surprise!). I recently had a sister in the Lord tell me that if I sent my daughter to public school that she would come home dressed as a boy and confused about her gender (!). I had another conversation with a university professor at a Christian institution who attempted to convince me that not only was the public school system “at odds with the Christian faith” but that Christians in N. America are a persecuted people group and that the public school system is out to teach our children that “white, male, heterosexual, evangelicals” are “archetypal oppressor(s)”. Thus, Christian children will be educated within a system that considers them “structural oppressors”. As a result, our children will be unable/unwilling to self-identify as a Christian in the public system. When I was unconvinced by this gentleman’s arguments he proceeded to tell me that I was naive, irresponsible, and putting my children’s innocence at risk.

I sincerely wish I was making this up.

The new face of "structural oppression", according to concerned Christian parents and their understanding of the public school curriculum.

The new face of “structural oppression”, according to concerned Christian professor and his understanding of the public school curriculum.

This post is already getting long-winded. My point here is simply to suggest that (1) Christians have nothing to fear from the public school system because Christians have nothing to fear, and (2) there is not a Christian response to this matter only varied responses from varied Christians whose ultimate desire is the same — faithfulness to Christ in the midst of a watching world. These matters take wisdom, patience, and much prayer. I’ll try to make a point of writing a follow-up post in which I will offer another possible option for Christian parents that differs from the one expressed in the video above. In conclusion, I leave you with the words of Michael Ramsey:

“Let me add one final counsel. Beware of attitudes which try to make God smaller than the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus…Whenever exponents of the Christian faith treat it as something which we have to “defend” like a beleaguered fortress or a fragile structure they are making God to be smaller than he is…(c) So too there is a spirit of fearfulness which thinks that no good can ever come of movements which are outside the camp of Christendom, forgetting that God could use a Cyrus, an Assyria, or an altar-to-an-unknown-deity in his great purpose in history. We are not indeed to confuse what God does as redeemer in the unique sphere of gospel and Church with what he does as illuminator through the light that lighteth every man (sic); but to be blind to the latter is not to enhance the former or to understand it better.”

And again: “But certain distinctions can be drawn. It is one thing to state main Christian principles, or to denounce a particular downright evil. It is another thing to commend a particular programme, on which the technical skills and wisdom of competent Christians may differ, and to say “This is the Christian programme”, as if to unchurch or label as second-grade any Christians who might for good reasons dissent.

I welcome input and even push-back on this matter! Thoughts?!

Lord, grant us wisdom. Amen.

A group of persecuted Christians praying outside of the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa.

A group of persecuted Christians praying outside of the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa.

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“Believing in Christ means the acknowledgment that one belongs not to one’s self but to him, and belonging to him means belonging to the body of Christ, the community of brethren who have been redeemed and claimed by the one Lord. This belonging to Christ and hence to one another is the presupposition and crucial preorientation of all the believer’s choosing and doing. The believer is not on his own in matters of conduct, nor is he, on the other hand, in possession of prescribed requirements for life in Christ. What is to be done must be discerned and decided in the individual case but always with reference to God’s gift of love as it has been met in Christ and God’s demand of love as it is repeatedly met in the neighbor.”

Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (237).

For Christmas my father gave me Hannah’s Child, the memoir of Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who has been influential in my own thinking about and (I hope) practice of the Christian faith. A while back Dan posted an interesting liturgy he wrote during Christmas on the theme of godforsakenness. While I disagree with Dan that we are indeed godforsaken I understand that, subjectively, it is not difficult to see how one could feel godforsaken. Indeed, I rarely (if ever) “feel” that God is present. As Hauerwas would say, God is just not “there” for me. Hauerwas opens the memoir with the following confession which I resonate deeply with myself.

I believe what I write, or rather, by writing I learn to believe. But then I do not put much stock in “believing in God.” The grammar of “belief” invites a far too rationalistic account of what it means to be a Christian. “Belief” implies propositions about which you get to make up your mind before you know the work they are meant to do. Does that mean I do not believe in God? Of course not, but I am far more interested in what a declaration of belief entails for how I live my life.

It may be that I am not that interested in “belief” because God is just not “there” for me. God is “there” for some. God is there for Paula, my wife; for Timothy Kimbrough, the rector of Holy Family Episcopal Church; for Sam Wells, my friend. But God is not there for me in the same way. Prayer never comes easy for me. I am not complaining. I assume this to be God’s gift to help me think hard about what it means to worship God in a world where God is no longer simply “there.”

Charles Taylor has characterized “our age” as one of “exclusive humanism.” God is a “hypothesis” most people no longer need – and “most people” includes those who say they believe in God. Indeed, when most people think it “important” that they believe in God, you have an indication that the God they believe in cannot be the God who raised Jesus from the dead or Israel from Egypt.

I do think that the first task of the church is to make the world the world. That means, of course, that I need all the help I can get to recognize that I am “world.” But I sometimes worry that my stress on the “Christian difference” may be my attempt to overcompensate for my lack of “faith.” That still does not seem to get the matter right. It is not that I lack faith, but that I always have the sense that I am such a beginner when it comes to knowing how to be a Christian.

“How” is the heart of the matter for me. When I first read Kierkegaard, I was quite taken with his suggestion that the “what” of Christianity is not the problem. It is the “how.” I have spent many years trying to say that we cannot understand the “what” of Christianity without knowing “how” to be Christian. Yet then I worry about the how of my own life.

Last night I got to see one of my favourite (is “favourite” a theological category?) living theologians deliver a lecture at Regis College at the Toronto School of Theology on the topic, “Suffering Presence: Twenty-Five Years Later.” The lecture consisted of a number of insights and reflections 25 years after the publications of this book.

As someone who enjoys theology and hopes to be engaged in both pastoral ministry as well as chaplaincy in the medical community I found the lecture really great. I won’t summarize the whole talk for you but below are a few points that stood out to me in particular.

(1) I think the overarching theme that Hauerwas wanted us to wrestle with was how we approach suffering. Hauerwas rightly noted that we live in a culture that avoids suffering at all costs. Heck, we even try to avoid aging at all costs because, well, the older you get the closer you come to death (no offense, mom). Hauerwas mentioned that when he gives these sorts of talks to students and professionals he usually begins by asking people how they want to die (!). The usual response is something along the lines of, “quietly and in my sleep.” “Quietly”, because we don’t want to be a burden to our family and friends and, “in my sleep” because we don’t want to know that we’re dying. What does this tell us about how we view life, death, and humanity?

Hauerwas suggested that we want to die in such a way as to not be a burden to our families and friends because we have a view of the human body that is isolated from others (so, we wouldn’t want the suffering of our bodies to encroach on the lives of other bodies). Part of the reason for this view, argues Hauerwas, is that we lack an understanding of the telos of the human body. This is evident in the fact that for most medical students their first patient (in med school) is a corpse. Literally. This has shaped and is shaped by a particular philosophy of the human body. It is essentially a machine. From examining a corpse we can learn all about the human body, how it functions, what it looks like and so on. But a dead body is very different from a living body. Thus, it is a fundamental mistake of medicine to understand the body as mechanistic. Living bodies are storied bodies. Rooted in a complex web of narratives and experiences. Therefore, a malfunctioning liver isn’t simply a malfunctioning liver and how you treat such a liver may differ based on whether the liver in question belongs to Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith. Why? Because these are storied people and health and medicine fails us if we simply view them as mechanistic and proceed accordingly.

(2) It is possible to be ill and yet healthy. Likewise, one could be free of illness and be unhealthy. For Hauerwas, this is because, “health is membership in a community,” (quoting Wendell Berry). A medical system which understands the human body as fundamentally mechanistic and autonomous is concerned with delivering a product to consumers (Dr.’s want to keep their patients happy, after all) and fails to understand the storied nature of the body. Here, there can be no hard distinction (as often can be in the medical community) between the physical and the spiritual for then we’re back to understanding the body as mechanistic, as a corpse rather than living. We could be deathly ill and at the same time healthy because, as Hauerwas argues, who we are is most determined by the relationships of our bodies to other bodies (I would think here of other human creatures, the non-human creature, and Jesus and his Body). This has obvious implications for the church. One of the implications Hauerwas chose to draw out was the need for morally formed ministers. He said, and I think rightly, that people don’t generally believe that an ill trained priest can damage their eternal salvation but they do believe that an ill trained doctor can damage their health. Here, Hauerwas contrasted seminaries with medical schools arguing the medical schools form more moral people (Dr.’s are trained to offer unconditional care to their patients. Even if the person before them with a heart condition is a scum-of-the-earth child molester the Dr. is obliged to care for them. This, says Hauerwas, is a true moral commitment to the health of the other). Hauerwas argued that the Psalmists plea to be saved from death was because they feared God. They wanted to stand before God as righteous. Contrast this with our plea to be saved from death today, which comes not from a fear of God but from a fear of death. The significance of this shift should not be lost on us.

(3) The body that the church presents to be cared for is not the isolated body but the baptized body. Here is where I thought the real crux of Hauerwas’ argument lay, in the statement: “Suffering can be a gift that makes more intimate our connection with God and one another.” The church presents a body to be cared for that understands suffering in a fundamentally different way than the isolated body. Suffering and death do not need to be avoided at all costs and prolonged so that we can “die without knowing it”. Rather, we can face suffering as a gift that draws us deeper into communion with others and with God. Because it is the baptized body death is no longer feared for our deaths have been united in baptism with Christ’s death. Death has been transformed so that it is no longer to be seen as the end of life but rather entrance in a new, eternal, resurrection life with Christ. Our hope is therefore not to avoid suffering and die in peace but rather our hope is resurrection life.

(4) This view of health (as, “membership in a [Christian] community”) can form patients differently than the dominant understanding of health (as illness free, or health as cure). The Christian view of health forms patients who want to be cured but do not seek the cure at all costs. Quite literally, it forms patients who are patient. The greatest gift that could be given here is not a cure but presence. To be present with someone, to offer them the gift of friendship, in their illness or as they journey through death is a gift that far outweighs a cure. We can offer the gift of friendship when there is no cure to offer. Christian health, thus, means reliance on Christ and his church even in the face of suffering and death. Human finitude can be welcomed as a gift. We must learn, then, to suffer without losing hope. We must learn to sit with one another in the shadow of the valley of death.

(5) The ways that Christians pray (for health, healing etc) reveals how we approach illness and health the same as the world. So often, Christian prayers for health and healing are prayers for a cure, prayers to avoid suffering or even death. Ours prayers, however, are determined not by the valley of the shadow of death but by the presence of the one who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death. With Christ we have already died. As noted above, our hope is not to get through life unscathed but the hope of resurrection. To be a Christian is to undergo the training to know how to live out of control. Thus, we need a type of medicine that, “for God’s sake, respects the body that is storied by the cross.”

It really was a fantastic lecture and there is much to dwell on there. If you have not yet read “Suffering Presence” (as I haven’t) you really should!

Now, as an aside, my favourite part of the evening came during the question and answer at the end. The first person to come to the microphone praised Hauerwas as a man of great stature and then proceeded to criticize him by asking something to the extent of, “This all sounds very dualistic, where is the Christianity here?!!” The gentleman wanted a more Christianized version of whatever it was Hauerwas was selling. Hauerwas’ response was, basically, “I hope I didn’t do what you say I did,” (funny!). The second person to ask a question was a very nice and gentle young man from Trinity College (“niceness” is especially prized in certain circles!). This young man proceeded to ask a question that was exactly opposite to the first questioner. His question was basically, “How can we take what you’ve said here and talk about it more rationally?” In other words, he wanted to de-Christianize the talk and make it more palatable for secular professionals. The poor guy. I can only presume that he hadn’t read much Hauerwas prior to coming to the lecture because if he had he would have known that if there is one thing that Hauerwas hates it is liberal Protestantism which does just that, rob Jesus of his particularity and soften the offensive blow of the gospel to make it more palatable. Hauerwas’ response was, in my opinion, an instant classic (and made me literally laugh out loud…sorry questioner): “I have no idea. Run it up the flagpole and see if you can get anyone to salute. The body has a telos, sorry.” Hilarity!

 

***UPDATE – See the video of the full talk here.