The Pro-Life Movement

Recently (May 31, 2009) a man shot and killed George Tiller in the midst of a church service. Tiller was one of the few doctors in America that performed partial birth abortions and he was also consistently in the center of the abortion debate. Because Tiller was such a high-profile person in the abortion services community, and he was shot dead in a church, there has been a lot of media attention paid to the event. This attention has revealed something very telling about the current pro-life movement – we are failing miserably.

Before justifying such a claim I want to state some of my background assumptions via a quick argument seeking to establish that both Tiller’s killing and abortions are immoral. I will then explain why I think the pro-life movement is failing. Finally, I will conclude by presenting the strategy that I think the pro-life movement should endorse and demonstrate what that strategy looks like in action by arguing for the truth of some of the premises in the following argument.

  1. Personhood begins at conception. That means from the earliest stage of pregnancy we are dealing with a human person and should treat him or her accordingly.
  2. The unjustified killing of a human person is morally wrong.
  3. Almost all abortions are instances of unjustifiably killing a human person.
  4. Therefore, almost all abortions are morally wrong.

Though this is slightly off topic, I should point out that according to the above argument the killing of George Tiller was morally wrong. I am perfectly content with such a view since I take all instances of vigilantism as being morally inappropriate. On my view, killing Tiller is not just morally wrong but also pragmatically wrong. If one wants to see abortion more highly restricted (or eliminated altogether), killing abortionists won’t help that matter. If anything, it makes it more unlikely.

With the above argument in mind, I want to describe why I think the pro-life movement is failing and what should be done to correct it. First, why it is failing. I take as a representative sample of media coverage a recent column on the BBC News website (Anti-abortion and violence in the US). In this column, author Nick Triggle notes what he takes to be the general tenor of the abortion debate in the US. First he notes that quite-popular President Obama “was heckled by anti-abortion activists over his decision earlier this year to lift restrictions on funding for abortion.” He then notes that such heckling and protests are quite common in the US and its commonplace is, at least, partly attributable to the “hundreds of religious stations across the country.” He continues, “the level of involvement of religious groups” is vastly different in the US than in the UK. Finally, and most tellingly, he says “With half the US population regular church-goers, everything from sexual abstinence and euthanasia campaigns to the abortion debate has been dominated by religious groups.”

Now I don’t have a problem with Triggle’s article. In fact, I think his analysis is spot on. What I do have a problem with is that the pro-life movement has allowed itself to be branded as a religious movement. If you go to any number of websites that have reported on Tiller’s killing and look at just a few of the comments you’ll see a frequent theme. You’ll see many pro-choice supporters accusing “pro-lifers” as being close-minded and trying to force their religious beliefs on the rest of America. Sadly, the responses by those same pro-lifers support such an idea.

But don’t get me wrong; I am proud that most people in the pro-life movement are Christians. That religious groups are the primary reason this is still an issue in America today is a good thing. That means we are still fighting for the oppressed and willing to defend the defenseless. However, we do not live in a world that accepts our authority as their authority. Religious groups cannot make a religious argument to convince the world that abortion is morally wrong. We must give them arguments with premises that they can accept on their own terms. We can’t allow the fact that the pro-life movement is dominated by “religious groups” to become a fact that the pro-life argument is a religious argument.

There is simply no need to give a religious argument for the immorality of abortion. Of course, these types of arguments are available, but they will only convince those that already accept that religion as true and authoritative. Most in America today do not (even many of those that refer to themselves as Christians) accept Christianity as true and authoritative. Here one might ask what type of argument should we give, if not a religious argument. What would a non-religious argument look like? Here is an example of one, very simple, argument that all religious and non-religious people can use to make the case for the life of the unborn.

  1. Either the unborn are human persons or not.
  2. If the unborn are not human persons, then no justification for an abortion is needed (just like we don’t need justifying reasons for removing tonsils).
  3. If the unborn are human persons, then the justification typically given for an abortion will never be morally adequate (just because an individual is too busy or too poor to take care of another human person does not mean that individual is justified in killing that human person).

This focuses the debate on the thing that matters most. Are the unborn human persons? I believe they are, but not even that belief depends upon a religious assumption. Why think the unborn are human persons? This can be boiled down to one general idea.

  • The location of a thing is never a morally salient feature of that thing.

If one should think of a newborn as a human person, then there is no good reason to not think of a pre-born as a human person. Frankly, it is absurd to think that a few inches determine the moral status of a person. To believe that the fetus is magically transformed from non-person to person by traveling down the birth canal is rationally unacceptable. The fetus just prior to birth is just as much a human as the infant just after birth. Its location is irrelevant.

Further, there are no good reasons to cut off personhood at some earlier point in the pregnancy either. Distinctions based upon trimester are purely arbitrary ways for people to refer to general stages of development. Almost everything that a person needs to develop into a grown human being is present from conception. The only additional things needed are external. They are 1) an appropriate environment and 2) to not be killed. But this is just as true for you and me as it is for the unborn. If you kill me, then I will obviously not continue grow as a human being. But even if you just remove me from an environment conducive to my continued growth (e.g. by stripping off my clothes and placing me outside during an Alaskan winter), then I too will die. That the unborn depends upon the appropriate environment to live does not mean it is not a human person. If you don’t kill me, then I will continue to grow as a human person grows. If you don’t kill the unborn, they will do the same.

Now of course much more can be said in favor of the pro-life position. This is intended to be a very rough and ready type of argument that, for our purposes, simply demonstrates how the pro-life movement should advance its cause. You should notice that nothing I have said against the morality of abortion has depended upon a religious argument. Not once did I appeal to the Bible or to church teaching. If the pro-life movement begins to advance these types of arguments, then we will have a much greater shot at convincing the general public that abortion is morally wrong. Even if that does not result in Roe being overturned (though I in fact think it could), it will prevent a great number of women from choosing to have an abortion. But as long as the pro-life movement relies upon religious arguments we will continue to be marginalized in the public sphere. Our arguments are compelling and their arguments are not. In order to progress the pro-life agenda we must use the compelling arguments and not ones that rely upon a religious text that a vast number of Americans don’t accept as authoritative.

If you’d like more resources for developing this type of argument I’ll make two recommendations. The first is Stand to Reason’s Bio Ethics page. At STR’s page you’ll find a wealth of good reasoning about the abortion issue (as well as many of today’s other pressing ethical issues). The second is Life Training Institute, which is run by Scott Klusendorf, a former member of Stand to Reason. (I’m indebted to Greg Koukl of STR and Klusendorf for the formulation of the above argument.) Klusendorf just published a book dealing with the abortion issue called, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (this links to the book’s website). You can get his book from that site or from Amazon at The Case for Life.

Three Thoughts on the AIG Bonuses

I don’t have a degree in economics or law, but there are three things about the nationwide AIG bonuses outrage that have to be recognized.
  1. Whoever authored the bill allowing the bonuses to be paid is to blame the most – not the people accepting the bonuses. If there is a legally binding contract that says they get the money, then they should get. That’s how contracts work. If you’ve got a huge carrot (several million dollars of ‘bail out’ money), then you use that carrot to get what you want (removal of huge bonuses). But this has to happen before all terms are settled upon. In fact, removing the bonuses just becomes one of those terms. You don’t, after you realize you screwed up the negotiations, make a moral issue out of people following through on a contract all parties agreed to and then ‘legislate’ that moral issue because you look like a fool.
  2. What you especially can’t do is void such a legally binding contract. If you do, what reason would companies have to begin investing in our economy? They’d be quite aware that even legally binding contracts aren’t actually binding if the government is involved. The last thing you want to do is provide disincentives for future investment.
  3. Since just voiding the contracts (or that part of them) isn’t a good option there’s now a push to tax 90% of those bonuses. This option is just as bad as the previous one because the same disincentive for future investment remains. If the government is able to retroactively enact taxes on whatever the current ruling party wants, then why should anyone think their projected bottom dollar for their business will be the actual bottom dollar? If it’s determined that your company was too successful, then the government can just increase your taxes going backwards. If the proposal was to raise taxes on all 2010 bonuses, then this is much less problematic. Enacting retro-active taxes on people that are not politically popular is a very bad precedent to set. (And I know the AIG issue is related to personal bonuses, but there’s no in-principle way of keeping the two apart.)

In sum, voiding the contracts or levying huge taxes are both bad options and send a very bad signal to the business world. What the economy needs now are businesses willing to invest their capital, but both of these actions will make execs that much more hesitant to do so.

The federal government should have required that AIG not pay these huge bonuses as part of the terms of the bail out. But now is too late to demand the bonuses not be paid. Handling this before the bail out terms were settled would have been acceptable because both parties would have agreed that re-working the contract is in both of their interests (and this is precisely what happened concerning the auto-industry). Now that there is a valid contract one party can’t decide to renege to save face politically.

Grading papers

Last week I received this semester’s first stack of papers to grade. I’ve set a goal of grading two papers a day. At that pace I’ll be finished by the time we resume class after Reading Week and I won’t want to kill myself for trying to grade so many at once.

So far, I’m pleased with the quality of papers. They are for my Philosophy of Religion class, so it’s a subject I care about quite a lot. At this point in their educational journey I’m not expecting them to be all that original in what they have to say, but do expect them to say it well. What really makes me happy is to see someone carefully present an argument and then nicely evaluate it. It might be their own argument or that of someone else. But either way a good philosophy paper needs an argument and it needs a good examination of it. Most have done this, some have not. 

One thing that has been encouraging is that I’m starting to notice just how much I’ve learned over the years. It’s easy to be so caught up in what you’re doing in school that you don’t actually realize you’re learning quite a bit. For example, I had one student cite an author as advocating a certain position but because I’m familiar with the book, I knew he only said that in the introduction to his book while explaining various other views. It wasn’t until chapter 3 that he advocated a more nuanced, but similar, position.

This whole process makes me think back to my time as a 3rd or 4th year student and the types of papers I turned in to my professors. I get the feeling that some of my students are turning in work that is better than the work I turned in at that stage. That is exciting.

This post was a bit random (with a lot of rambling), but hey it’s what I was thinking about and I couldn’t fit it into 140 characters for Twitter. By the way, this is my first blog post with the tag ‘school’ indicating not my own education but to my educating others. Wow.

I’m Pissed at Brian McLaren and Donald Miller and You Should Be Too

During the presidential election campaign popular Christian authors/speakers Brian McLaren and Donald Miller endorsed Barack Obama. They specifically argued that their endorsement was consistent with their opposition to abortion. For those not familiar with these names, you may be familiar with some of their books. McLaren is the author of A Generous Orthodoxy, A New Kind of Christian, and more recently Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Miller is probably best known from his book Blue Like Jazz.

Brian McLaren outlines his case that voting for Obama is a step in the right direction for those opposed to abortion here. The basic idea is this: the only way McCain could help the cause is if he were able to appoint more conservative judges. That, at best, would overturn Roe vs. Wade which would only push the issue back to the states. Because most states don’t have a majority of people opposed to abortion, it would remain legal. He concludes his case by saying, “But in regards to abortion along with many other issues, we are convinced – firmly, thoughtfully, and enthusiastically convinced – that casting our vote for Obama is a step in the right direction, fully consistent with our desire to celebrate the sacredness of life and improve the moral health of our nation and world.”

Miller’s case can be found here and is very similar to McLaren’s. Overturning the Roe vs. Wade case is unlikely and won’t be as helpful as pro-lifers think. In addition, Obama supports the 95/10 initiative that “aims to reduce the number of abortions that take place in this country by 95% within 10 years.” While recognizing Obama’s promise to the National Organization for Women that he would repeal Bush’s executive order banning late-term abortions, Miller concludes that Obama “will accomplish more than John McCain” on the abortion issue and that Obama has proposed the only “realistic strategy that can move us around the cultural impasse that is breathing hate and anger into the Christian community.”

My evidence that McLaren and Miller influenced many Christian voters is only anecdotal. Prior to the election I noticed a number of my former classmates at two Christian universities joining Facebook groups endorsing Obama even though I also knew these same former students were opposed to abortion. I also saw several articles by main stream presses arguing that the abortion issue is no longer important – and several cited McLaren and/or Miller (I’ve since tried to locate these but can’t find them. I’ll update this post if I do). Anecdotal evidence can only go so far, but given McLaren & Miller’s popularity it seems reasonable to assume that many Christians were indeed influenced by them.

So why am I pissed at these two men for their support of Barack Obama? Because less than 72 hours in office President Obama has decided that the U.S. government will remove restrictions on the federal government funding oversees groups that provide abortion services (http://tinyurl.com/ajrwfh). In 1984 Ronald Reagan instituted a policy that prohibited foreign groups that provide abortion services from receiving funding from the U.S. government. This was the U.S. policy until 1993 when President Clinton rescinded it, but was re-instituted by President George W. Bush.

President Obama felt that one of the first things he had to do as president was increase funding for foreign groups that provide abortions. Groups that find abortion to be a morally acceptable method of “family planning” will now have more resources to provide this service. How, in the words of McLaren, is this a “step in the right direction” that is “consistent with [his] desire to celebrate the sacredness of life”? I’d like to ask Miller how this is part of a “realistic strategy” that will make progress on the abortion issue.

To me it seems that McLaren and Miller are to the left of many Christians in the U.S. They have tired of the “Conservative Right” and in their zeal to elect a left-minded candidate, they were duped into thinking Obama’s policies are actually going to make progress on the abortion issue. They then went on to give really bad arguments that convinced many to vote for Obama because he was the real pro-life candidate. Within 72 hours they’ve been proven wrong. And if we keep in mind President Obama’s promise to Planned Parenthood that the first thing he’d do as president is “sign the Freedom of Choice Act” then they’ll be proven wrong again. (Note: The Freedom of Choice Act would remove state laws that currently limit/prohibit abortions of any kind.) These are at least two changes that will hurt the pro-life cause and were/would be ordered directly by the president that McLaren and Miller endorsed.

If you care about the pro-life cause, then I think you should do two things. Express to McLaren and Miller your anger that they endorsed a candidate hurting the pro-life cause. Perhaps they will recognize their mistake and use their popularity to pressure President Obama into not signing the Freedom of Choice Act. Second, you should contact your Congressmen about your displeasure concerning President Obama’s recent executive order allowing tax dollars to fund abortions in foreign countries and your desire that he not sign FOCA.

Fallacious Reasoning and Support for a Canadian Coalition

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I live in Toronto, Canada. This means I get double the dose of politics, which in turn means I get to stick my nose in twice as much stuff.

Approximately seven weeks ago the Canadian people went to the polls to elect a new government. Because there are three main Canadian parties and one dedicated to the interests of Quebec, the likelihood of any one party winning a majority is small. There are a total of 308 ridings and the Conservatives were hoping to win enough new seats so they could have a majority government. They did win more seats (19), but not enough to have a majority. Here is how the election broke down by seats won and percentage of seats available.

  • Conservatives:    143  46.4%
  • Liberals:               76    24.7%
  • Bloc Québécois:  50   16.2%
  • New Democrats: 37    12%
  • Independent:       2      0.7%

Since the Conservatives have the most number of seats, they are the ruling party. In the last week, for various reasons (which don’t really matter for my purposes here), the leaders of the Liberals, the Bloc Québécois, and the New Democrats decided that they were unhappy with the Conservative government and wanted to form a coalition that would unseat Harper and have the head of the Liberal government as Prime Minister (currently Stephane Dion). Because the combination of these three governments would give the coalition 165 seats as opposed to the Conservatives 143, the coalition could oust the Conservatives and take over.

With that background in mind we can see how many people are reasoning fallaciously concerning the proposed coalition government. The leaders of the coalition parties (and many of their supporters) seem to be reasoning this way:

  1. Canadians voted that the Liberals should have 76 seats.
  2. Canadians voted that the Bloc should have 50 seats.
  3. Canadians voted that the NDP should have 37 seats.
  4. So, Canadians voted that the Liberals, the Bloc, and the NDP should have 165 seats.
  5. Canadians voted that the Conservatives should have 143 seats.
  6. Therefore, if the Liberals, the Bloc, and the NDP form together, more Canadians voted for that coalition than for the Conservatives.

So what is wrong with this reasoning? Why is it fallacious? I mean it’s true that more Canadians voted for these parties individually than for the Conservatives, so it must mean that more Canadians would want a ruling party to be formed from these individual parties than for the Conservative party. As we’ll soon see, this is the Fallacy of Composition.

People commit the fallacy of composition when they assume that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole. We can easily see why this is fallacious with a common example.

  1. It is true that parts of my body are invisible to the naked eye.
  2. Therefore, my body as a whole is invisible to the naked eye.

Here is another example that plenty of sports writers are guilty of committing.

  1. Team A is better at every postition than Team B.
  2. Therefore, Team A as a whole is better than Team B.

Both of these are examples of fallacious reasoning. It is obvious that there are parts of my body that can’t be seen with the naked eye, but it’s also obvious that my body as a whole can be seen with the naked eye. What about the second example? Well, it might be true that Team A has bettter players at every position than Team B, but Team A might not practice very much together or might have more selfish players at every position. Either case would make it reasonable to think that as a whole Team B is better (e.g. the 1980 U.S. hockey team).

Okay, so how does the relate to the recently formed coalition government in Canada. If people assume that because more Canadians voted for parts of the coalition that more people voted for the whole coaltion, then they are reasoning fallaciously. Many people that voted for one of the coalition parties individually might be quite unhappy with what results by combining them altogether. If, for example, I care about issue X and voted for the Liberal party because of their committment to issue X, but in order to form the coalition the Liberals had to give up issue X, then that might be enough to lead me to not vote for the coalition at all. After all, the issue I really care about was just given up by the Liberal leader. If these types of scenarious weren’t plausible, then why have separate parties to begin with? There must be at least a few issues that separate the parties, but if those are the ones I care about then why would I continue to support a group of leaders that just gave up on that issue?

The only way we can know for sure if more people want to have a coalition of Liberals, Bloc Québécois, and New Democrats running Parliament and not the Conservatives is if there were an election with these two options. Of course that would never happen because as soon as an election is called each party would go back to trying to win votes for their own party. Keep in mind that it may be true that more Canadians want a coalition government, but we can’t know that from the fact that more Canadians voted for the three parties individually than for the Conservatives.

As an American, I find this whole thing really fascinating. It is also interesting to see that American politicians don’t have a corner on the ‘bad reasoning’ market.

It’s been a while

Well, school hit and I stopped posting. What’s new in the blog-o-sphere? If you peruse just a few blogs, I’m sure you’ll see the same story being told all across the web. Actually, there are two reasons for my delayed postings. The first I’ve already mentioned. Teaching three classes, settling in a new country, and trying to finish a dissertation tends to take up your time.

The other reason is Facebook. Simply put, it’s far easier to post a link to an article with a few summary thoughts than it is to craft a post for this blog. When something gets me really angry or really happy, I can just update my status and shout it to the world. Again, far easier than writing a blog post.

But, I do feel there is value in setting some time aside to thoughtfully present some idea. Many times it’s an idea that I’d like to run by other people and some times it’s an idea that I feel very strongly about. In either case, posting the idea on a blog can be very helpful. In sum, my posting will probably never become as frequent as it once was, but I think it will pick up.

Perhaps even later today I’ll explain how how the Canadian “coalition” parties are guilty of the composition fallacy.

Best to you,

Thoughts on A Generous Orthodoxy – 3

It is very late here in Toronto, but after several hours of lying in bed staring at the ceiling, I decided to sit doesn and write a few thoughts about chapter 2 in A Generous Orthodoxy. Fortunately this chapter, “Jesus and God B,” is very short and there’s not too much going on here.

McLaren doesn’t really say much in this chapter. The first paragraph of the chapter he describes why he is a Christian. In the process he uses Jesus’ name a lot and then has several pages of him justifying why he felt he needed to use the name as much as he does. He then tells us that “son of God”, “son of man”, and “son of humanity” should be thought of in the same way we use phrases like “mother of all wars.” Jesus captures the essences of God and man. We experience God in Jesus. Then there are several pages trying to explain why he has used the masculine pronouns to refer to God and Jesus. Finally, we get to the part where the title of the chapter gets tied in. For many years people thought of God as “God A.” This God was “single, solitary, dominant Power, Mind or Will”. Then after experiencing Jesus, people came to experience “God B” – “a unified, eternal, mysterious, relational community/family/society/entity of saving Love” (76). I would’ve thought the title of the chapter would be worth more than two paragraphs, but hey the guy has sold a ton of copies so he must know more than me about these things.

As I stated a few posts ago, I haven’t read any of McLaren’s stuff before this book. But I have heard many reports indicating he’s not a big fan of exclusivism (the idea that only those who believe in Jesus as Son of God enter Heaven). A Tyndale student reports that during a talk McLaren recently gave in Toronto he said he’d rather someone be a compassionate Muslim concerned about social justice than a non-social justice minded Christian. With these types of stories in mind, my ears perked when I read,

For too many people the name Jesus has become a symbol of exclusion, as if Jesus’ statement “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” actually means, “I am in the way of people seeking truth and life. I won’t let anyone get to God unless he comes through me (pg. 70).

Here it seems McLaren is attacking a straw man. There are many that would say Jesus’ statement was exclusionary, but it’s not because he simply wouldn’t let anyone else come to God (as McLaren suggests). Instead, Jesus is the only way to get to God because all of humanity has sinned and is in need of a redeemer. Jesus is that redeemer but the only way to have access to that redemption is to come through him. There just is no other way about it. It’s not that the Muslim or Jew has walked up to “God’s door” and Jesus is there blocking it. Instead, the Muslim or Jew could not even get to the door without Jesus showing them the way.

I don’t know what McLaren thinks about mankind being in a sinful state, but I hope he clarifies his views later in the book. If he doesn’t think we are sinful from birth, then it makes much more sense for him to think the Muslim or Jew has the same access to God as the Christian.  As I said above, in the opening paragraph of the chapter McLaren writes why he is a Christian. Note what is missing from it.

I am a Christian because I have confidence in Jesus Christ – in all his dimensions (those I know, and those I don’t). I trust Jesus. I think Jesus is right because I believe God was in Jesus in an unprecedented way. Through Jesus I have entered into a real, experiential relationship with God as Father, and I have received God’s Spirit into my life. I have experienced the love of God through Jesus, and as the old hymn says, “love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my life, my all.” As I seek to follow Jesus as my leader, guide, and teacher, I believe I am experiencing life in its fullest dimensions – full of joy and love, and yes, full of struggle and challenge, too. For all these reasons and more, I love Jesus. I believe Jesus embraces me, and you, and the whole world in the love of God.

Did you notice that he doesn’t say anything about redemption or forgiveness? Of course if he doesn’t think he is a sinner, then God has nothing to redeem or forgive. To be fair, McLaren doesn’t say these are the only reasons he loves Jesus. He says it is for “these reasons and more.” Perhaps the part about humanity’s sinfulness and need for redemption gets packed into the “and more” part of this, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The title of chapter four is “Jesus: Savior of What?”, hopefully we’ll get some clarification then.

What Obama Said about Meeting Without Preconditions

In the last two debates McCain and Palin said Obama was naive for saying he would meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea without preconditions. Obama and Biden have responded by saying that those remarks were taken out of context and that Obama said he would seek high level, non presidential, diplomacy. Well thank God for the internet.

The USA Today has the relevant quotes from the Obama conference call in which these remarks were made (you can read it here). During this conference call Obama said, “If I sit down with the leader in Iran, I will send him a strong message that Israel is our friend, that we will assist in their security and that we don’t find nuclear weapons acceptable… That’s not going to be a propaganda coup for the president of Iran.”

Here Obama said he would meet with Iran and that doing so would not be a coup for the president of Iran. I don’t know how else to take “If I sit down with the leader of Iran.” I’m not sure how “I” can be misconstrued. In light of this the question he is asked,

“Would you be willing to separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” To this question Obama responded, “I would.”

Feel free to read the linked article and see everything in context and then make your own honest decision as to whether or not Obama meant he himself would meet with these leaders or if he would have high level diplomats do it.

If he misspoke, that’s fine, but come out and admit it as misspeak. But please don’t insult my intelligence by saying he was referring to high level diplomats.

Thoughts on ‘A Generous Orthodoxy 2’

Last week I published a few thoughts about Franke’s forward to McLaren’s book. This week I read the “Introduction”, “Chapter 0”, and “Chapter 1.” For the most part, each seemed to be created to fill space (this is less true of “Chapter 1”), but there were a few things that would be worth mentioning. Since this week’s readings were split into three categories, there’s not much chance of a single thread running through each, so I’ll just break my thoughts into three sections. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to concentrate my reflection on one or two overarching themes of the chapter.

“Introduction”

This is a book for new Christians, old Christians disillusioned with their church, and people that have yet to become Christian. Because the focus is decidely on these groups of people, it will not be surprising if his generous orthodoxy turns out to be a ‘new’ orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has been around for some time, so if he’s just going to present what people have mostly always believed, he’ll be covering a lot of old ground. If that were the case, then I doubt the book would have been such a hit.

Here we see something about McLaren’s writing style. He writes very humbly. He does not come across as arrogant in the least. It appears that he is trying to make sure the reader feels comfortable enough with the book to disagree with it. This, for McLaren, is a sign of good writing because that is when people will truly learn. Whether or not that is the only way people learn is beside the point.

“Chapter 0”

McLaren writes this chapter as a warning to the reader. He is going to discuss topics that will likely make immature people (Christians?) cringe. If that is you, then you’re supposed to take the book back to the bookstore. Honestly, I found this entire section highly irritating. The combination of “this is going to shock you” and more evidences of his humility made me want to stop reading entirely. Not because I’m not mature but because it was so annoying. I seriously doubt McLaren wants people to actually take the book back. And even if he did, then he’s taking himself way to seriously. We no longer live in a society where questioning the status quo is dangerous. In fact, supporting the status quo is more dangerous that blasting it. Added to that were more self-deprecating remarks intended to demonstrate just how humble of a writer he is and that he is fully aware of his own ignorance. By the end of the chapter it really felt like he was just fishing for complements. If he believed he is as amateurish as he claims, then he should never have written a book.

With these annoyances aside, there is at least one thing worth discussing. On page thirty-five, McLaren writes “Nearly all orthodoxies of Christian history have shown a pervasive disdain for other religions of the world: Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, atheism, etc. A generous orthodoxy of the kind explored in this book, while never pitching its tent in the valley of relativism, nevertheless seeks to see members of other religions and non-religions not as enemies but as beloved neighbors, and whenever possible, as dialouge partners and even collaborators.”

A few things come to mind here. First, what does McLaren mean by “disdain” and how has that been expressed? Does he mean historical orthodoxies have sought the persecution of people belonging to these other faiths? Or does he mean historical orthodoxy has shown disdain by teaching they are wrong? Perhaps he means the disdain has been shown by the belief that other faiths are wrong and those that believe in them will spend eternity in Hell. If it’s the first, then I think the reader is owed some historical examples. (I’m sure they can be found concerning Islam, but that is conspicuously absent from the list.) If it’s the second or third option, then I think we need to be shown how thinking someone is wrong is disdainful. The fact that McLaren believes Barack Obama is the best presidential candidate doesn’t make me disdain him, even though I think he is wrong.

Second, what does McLaren mean by saying participants in other religions are “dialogue partners and even collaborators”? Now I know ‘dialogue’ and ‘conversation’ are big words in McLaren’s world, but what do they really mean? If it means we should sit down and hear each other out, then that’s great. But if it means we should sit down, hear each other out, but not expect one side to convince the other side about the truth of his religion, then this seems to just be religious scepticism. Dialoguing about religious truth shouldn’t be treated different from dialoguing about  mathematical truths. There is a truth to the matter and we should try to get at it. One should only deny this if he thinks there is no truth (relativism-what McLaren specifically denied) or if he thinks there is a truth but we can’t know it. I don’t think McLaren is a skeptic, but I do think he should be clearer about what it means to dialogue with members of other faiths.

Finally, what does McLaren mean when he says members of other religions should be seen as “collaborators”? Collaborating for what? Collaborating implies two or more people working together for something. For what would McLaren have us work together? Fair treatment of the “untouchables” in India’s caste system? Equal rights for women in countries ran by radical Muslims? The abolition of abortion in America? Is it just in the ethical arena that we should collaborate with these people or should we do it in the religious arena too? If so, on what would we be collaborating?

Perhaps these questions will get fleshed out later in the book. If not, perhaps someone reading this blog could help me out.

“Chapter 1: The Seven Jesuses I Have Known”

This chapter has no real thesis, so it’s hard to evaluate. He’s not arguing for something (he may think he’s arguing for something but since there’s no argument here I’ll assume he’s not trying to do so), but instead is giving some of his past views on Jesus. I won’t run down the whole list, but will try to sum it up. He started out seeing Jesus in a very religiously conservative way (Jesus came to die for our sins) and then eventually ended up on the edge of that conversativism (Pentecostalism-Jesus teaches us to have more faith). This was short and he moved on to seeing Jesus through the Roman Catholic and then Greek Orthodoxy lense (Jesus’ resurection defeats death and his birth restores creation). He dabbled in a bit of the Anabaptist movement and then moved on to some form of liberation theology (Jesus came to make peace and confron social injustices). McLaren is careful to point out that the seven ways he has experienced Jesus are just that, his own experiences. Members of each group would probably disagree with some part of his presentation, but he feels he has fairly represented his own experience of each group.

McLaren concludes by saying each of these ways is valuable and we should appreciate each for what they are. We shouldn’t try to make them all one, but should enjoy the differences of each. For example, says McLaren, we enjoy different cuisines: Thai, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican for what they are independent of each other. If we dumped them all into a blender we’d get a pretty untasty meal. In the same way, we shouldn’t just have our Pentecostal Jesus and nothing else, but we also shouldn’t try to make all seven views of Jesus one.

I think McLaren is right that different denominations tend to focus on different aspects of Jesus. I also think he’s right that we should try to learn from other representations of Jesus. But there is a limit to this approach. If one view is mutually exclusive with the others, then we simply can’t accept all of them. We’ll have to decide which is right and which is wrong. I think this decision is what McLaren wants to avoid, but at some point he’ll figure out it’s unavoidable (I hope).

To conclude this long post (the future posts will cover only one chapter and will therefore be much shorter), McLaren is after good things. He advocates showing more humility when discussing theological issues with other people within Christianity and without. But he may not recognize that intellectual humility should lead to the truth. One can be intellectually humble and still think he is right. One can argue vehemently with the Muslim for the truth of Christianity but still be humble throughout. McLaren seems to suggest that being intellectually humble means giving up the right to argue for a truth claim altogether. That is a mistake.

McLaren also seems to want people to step back from what they have believed for so long and to carefully evaluate those beliefs. Here we are in full agreement. But again, we need not be skeptical of those beliefs just because we have believed them for some time. We can start out by saying “This is what I have believed” and move to examine those beliefs. We need not throw them all out even if we hear a new argument that may call into question some of those beliefs.

Thoughts on ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ 1

Many people I know have asked for my thoughts about the ‘Emergent’ church movement and I have had little to tell them. I know there is a difference between the ‘Emerging’ church and the ‘Emergent’ church, but can’t really figure out what that is. I know that some who consider themselves Emergent deny that we can have truth about anything, but not all make such a claim. I know some identify themselves as being fully postmodern, but also know few people really know what ‘postmodern’ means. I also know that many within the movement wouldn’t be too happy with my liberal use of ‘know’.

So, I have resolved to do a bit of reading in my almost non-existent free time. Over the next few months I am going to try to read a chapter a week of one of the more influential books in the Emergent movement – Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. McLaren is considered by many to be at the forefront of this movement so I think it’d be good to start with his book.

Today I’d like to offer a few thoughts about John Franke’s forward to the book. I disagree with much of what Franke has written elsewhere, but for the most part, his introduction was pretty unobjectionable. I should mention that I am skeptical about whether anyone really is as postmodern as is claimed. I think the same worry is going to be true of the Emergent movement in general and we get a glimpse of that in Franke’s forward.

Franke explains that McLaren’ writes in a way more to keep a conversation going rather than as a conversation stopper. Part of the complaint against many classical conservatives and liberals is their commitment to classical foundationalism and its claim of certainty. Franke writes that this commitment to certainty was motivated by a desire to reconstruct knowledge “by rejecting ‘premodern’ notions of authority and replacing them with uncontestable beliefs accessible to all individuals” (“Forward,” pg. 11).  McLaren, with his “generous orthodoxy” isn’t after such certainty. Instead he wants to encourage open and honest dialogue about important issues concerning the Christian faith. In this spirit, A Generous Orthodoxy “does not so much specify a particular point or position as it establishes a spacious territory defined by certain distinct boundaries in which there is space to live, move, and breathe while exploring the wonders and mysteries of the faith” (“Forward,” pg. 13-14). Instead of seeking after certainty concerning specifics of the faith, a generous orthodoxy operates within certain parameters and does so with an openness to anything that falls within those parameters.

This sounds fine and dandy at first glance, but after a bit more reflection we’ll see that Franke is actually helping himself to what he’s previously bemoaned. Having the freedom to explore different tenants of the Christian faith is great and all, but Franke fails to realize that the parameters in which he thinks we should do that exploring are determined through arguments that have a definite conclusion. Franke focuses on the freedom within those parameters, but the parameters themselves have been determined by a reliance on aspects of the very foundationalism that he decries. The conversation stops at the very parameters themselves, and if they do not, then Franke has to be willing to allow for a much more liberal versions of Christianity that may reject some, or all, of traditional orthodoxy-defining beliefs.

I have a feeling that many of the Emergent writers implicitly help themselves to things they explicitly reject. We’ll see in the coming weeks if my feeling is accurate about McLaren.