Meeting the challenges of our time with intellectual rigour
Much prayer, hard work, costly co-operation and considerable money – all are required of Christians to address the challenges of contemporary society. It has always been so – for those fighting world wars, enduring depression and dust bowl, facing epidemic or environmental disaster, immigrating to a new country.
Yet our present challenges have something in common – a complexity that means we can’t just pray and work and co-operate and spend our way out of our troubles, the way Canadians have solved problems since Confederation. We are going to have to think our way out of them too.
Canadian Evangelicals might seem poised for the serious and sustained analysis and reflection our moment requires. As a whole Canadians are among the best-educated people on earth, with a higher proportion of our population receiving postsecondary education than in any other country.
Evangelicals have shared in this trend as we steadily increased the academic quality of our educational institutions. Our pastors typically now have at least one degree and often more.
And all of us are surrounded by a clutter of publishers, websites, seminars and other media that seek to edify clergy and laity alike.
However, we also swim in a constant stream – really, a flood – of information packaged as “infotainment,” as brief and superficial “segments” that promptly tell us what to think, rather than furnish us with solid information to interpret on our own.
(How many statistics do you think the typical editor wants to see in an article, or a producer will allow on the air? How many actual facts are presented in the average news story? Count them sometime.)
Information comes to us arranged according to algorithms of interest. Google, Facebook & Co. use our previous clicking to ensure we are served more of the same. So we live in increasingly self-reinforcing matrices of congenial perspectives and comforting “truths.”
DISTRACTED, SKEPTICAL, INTUITIVE
Among Evangelicals, usually labelled as such partly because of our commitment to biblical truth, the watering down of our knowledge is no less dire.
Bible reading and Bible knowledge have steadily declined, even as our secular education has increased. Poll data show a truly appalling lack of basic biblical knowledge in most Canadians’ minds – but worse, they show scanty Bible reading even among regular churchgoers.
Although Evangelicals are still accused, particularly by some Roman Catholic critics, of thinking each of us is our own pope, we recognize, in our candid moments, how pathetically fragmentary is our knowledge of Scripture.
Most of us can barely quote the 23rd Psalm and couldn’t recite 20 verses from anywhere else in the Bible. Scripture memorization is a vanishing folk art, like baking your own bread.
Text-based preaching in our churches is often replaced by clever storytelling and passionate punchlines.
These and similar changes have gained momentum as we turn increasingly toward infotainment and away from more important knowledge. But there’s also another key factor – a sweeping increase in skepticism.
Whom do Canadians today believe? Clergy? Hah. At best, they pander to the powerful and at worst, they prey upon the vulnerable. Scientists? You hire yours and I’ll hire mine. Physicians? Lackeys of government health authorities and puppets of Big Pharma. Political leaders? Just look at those clowns in Question Period.
This rampant postmodern doubt of everything and everyone leaves only one remaining authority to trust – ourselves.
We find a particular talk show host to be compelling, a particular media pundit to be impressive, this professor to be knowledgeable, that preacher to be inspired – so we believe them.
Our child’s school sends home a form advising about an inoculation? Let’s see what I think about that, and then trust my child’s health to my own opinion, shaped as it might be by my reading the best of contemporary science, or instead by listening to that former Playboy model give her impassioned opinion on my favourite talk show.
We have to vote in a federal election? Will I do some research on policies and candidates? Or simply vote to support the leader I somehow find most attractive?
Our church is embroiled in a dispute over sex and sexuality? Well, I try to attend to what comes my way regarding the Bible’s teaching on these questions, but you know how experts seem to disagree, right? So doesn’t it just seem obvious that—?
What seems right to me is going to (have to) be right for me. That’s current Canadian thinking. And Evangelicals are no different than other Canadians in embracing this new confidence in intuition, this neo-Romanticism.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
What then are Canadian Evangelicals to do to meet the complex questions of our day with commensurate intellectual resources?
Yes, we need more Bible knowledge. Even though the Internet stands ready to provide it at a keystroke, we have to know certain information, and sometimes a lot of it, to know what to look up. We can locate Scripture verses using electronic concordances according to even single words, so long as we know those key words and understand what categories are relevant to our search.
But Bible knowledge on its own can’t help us much, of course, just like any knowledge divorced from proper concern, moral judgment, relevant skill and willingness to act remains sterile.
We also need to know what is actually the case in a given situation, what is worth the case and how things can best be engaged in this situation.
In short, we need broader theological knowledge, the knowledge that combines the Bible with the best of what we know in other spheres to come to a comprehensive, coherent and clear interpretation of the issue at hand.
That theological knowledge then can be applied carefully to guide us in obedient action.
Yet who has time for all that research and reflection? We are all, even professors when it comes to areas outside their expertise, in the same situation of being overwhelmed.
How can we one day stand before the Lord to say we did our best? Let’s consider three possible interlocking initiatives toward pastors, professors and laypeople.
1. RELIABLE PASTORS
First, we need our pastors to be local experts. Since none of us can think through most of the decisions we have to make, we have to trust someone who seems authoritative, whether a car mechanic, counsellor or parent. And that’s perfectly fine, so long as the people we trust are truly expert.
Just as we generally put our trust in our family doctors, while still feeling free to look up medical information online and chat with our friends about their hospital stays, so we ought to have confidence that our pastors are equally reliable experts.
Yes, pastors aren’t infallible, and they might need to refer us to theological specialists from time to time, but for the usual run of intellectual challenges to our faith we ought to find our pastors to be adequately expert.
Are they? Have we insisted pastors receive formal education truly equal to the challenges of life in Canada today?
- We must fund theological students such that they can afford to get those demanding degrees at the best places and not graduate with crushing debt – or drop out as they see the debt mountain loom. If we wouldn’t want to be served by a dentist or lawyer who received her professional training online, do we want to be served by pastors who have never been educated in a community of theological excellence?
- We must support the best Christian universities and seminaries such that they can be generous with excellent scholarships to attract and support the best candidates.
- And we must pay pastors well enough that they are not having to cut short their few precious “thinking hours” each day to ponder how to make ends meet.
The objective here, of course, is not to produce pastors who are narrowly intellectual, preoccupied with doctrinal minutiae and detached from the rest of Christian living. Most contemporary congregations include people capable of helping in lots of pastoral ways, but how many well-trained theological professionals are there to meet the need for intellectual help in thinking through the threats and opportunities of our cultural moment?
The 18th century co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley, himself a voracious reader and polymath, exhorted his fellow pastors: “Ought not a minister to have, first, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness?”
We Evangelicals can also help our pastors by insisting on and supporting ongoing pastoral education. Working through difficult issues requires two resources in abundance – time and money.
- Our churches need to build into every pastor’s year at least one seminar, course or conference on a difficult issue, beyond gatherings that focus on denominational or congregational business.
- We need to be sure every pastor has access to the best books, magazines and websites, and build into his or her weekly schedule the time to absorb them.
- We need to encourage pastors to establish professional study groups that together tackle the hard questions in ongoing conversations of a high order. And these study groups should be networked with scholarly experts, those “specialists” we mentioned, who stand ready to help them on particular difficulties as they arise.
2. RELIABLE SCHOLARS
We also need at least two things from our scholarly theologians.
First, we need more experts on disputed issues coming together to hash out their differences. You would think that this is what happens all the time at scholarly meetings. It sometimes does, yes, but on far too many theological issues (as in other academic disciplines, alas), the partisan discourses remain separate, and experts indulge in the lazy luxury of preaching to their fawning choirs.
I recall 20 years ago a Canadian conference on gender issues sponsored by a national organization that could well have brokered a genuine and constructive confrontation of egalitarians and complementarians. But the agenda was set by only one side, and the other was forbidden from any representation.
Exactly the same thing has been evident recently in major conferences on nonmainstream sexuality (or LGBTQ) issues. They almost always turn out to be rallies of the already convinced rather than meetings of differing minds. Anyone who is not already convinced, however, predictably comes away wondering what the other side would have said, and so nothing gets truly settled among those who are humble enough and open-minded enough to consider more than one opinion.
Prominent organizations of Evangelicals, therefore, (including denominations, scholarly organizations, public interest groups and major schools) ought to do much more than they are doing in bringing experts together in conversations of genuine give-and-take to educate each other, and then the rest of us, about the vexed issues of the day.
Then, second, such experts need training to communicate effectively with us via the media most appropriate to both the subject matter and the audience. Book? Video series? Sunday school class? Weekend seminar? Magazine article? Sermon? Blog post? Tweet? What is the right way to say what needs to be said to the audience who needs to hear it?
These are questions for which academic training provides no guidance whatsoever. But basic principles of good journalism and communications can be taught. Will someone provide them for our experts? Will the experts, with backing from their deans and provosts, undertake such training to communicate much, much better with interested laity?
At least professors need to team up with journalists and other popular communicators so many more people can benefit from the hard-earned knowledge and wisdom that too often remains behind the walls of the ivory towers.
3. EFFECTIVELY GUIDED LAYPEOPLE
Professors and pastors who fulfil their roles will also direct the rest of us to what is worth reading, viewing and listening to.
Review sections of Christian magazines and websites are crucial. Admittedly, editors find it hard to get genuine experts to contribute reviews, the pay is usually poor and the readership scanty. Yet reviews are perhaps the most vital element in any periodical and should be both prominent and excellent.
Less formally, pastors and professors can set up accounts on online services such as Goodreads, as well as on their institution’s websites, to offer their judgments to their circles of influence.
Church bulletins should feature a book/website/movie/podcast of the week to help parishioners find the good signals out there amid the noise.
In sum, we badly need our experts to guide us so laypeople can best use our few precious nonworking hours.
Then laypeople need to listen to our pastors and other teachers in adult Christian education programs of sufficient depth and extent. A 20- or 30-minute sermon once a week is insufficient for us to be educated on the difficult issues of the day.
And as important as devotional reading of the Bible surely is, whether by individuals or by small groups, it can be worthless and even dangerous if it is not informed by correct understanding of what Scripture is, in fact, saying – often despite what we feel it is saying.
We laypeople need to invest in theological study the way we invest in anything else that really matters – our children, marriages, health, financial security.
Sunday classes, yes, and weekday study groups; regular reading and taking courses offered by theological schools, whether locally or online, that are intellectually adequate to the issues we face.
We can’t become experts, of course. But even to hear and understand properly what the experts are saying requires more time than most of us currently give them.
Laypeople must not only receive, but give in turn. Pastors can’t possibly become pundits who pronounce on every matter facing everyone in their care. Pastors are instead called to “equip the saints” with the theological groundwork necessary.
Then intellectually gifted laypeople can apply Christian principles to their respective areas of expertise, and teach the rest of us how to think about topics such as parenting teenagers, selecting appropriate charities for support, the ethics of physician-assisted suicide and the merits of the latest hit movie.
JUST LIKE THE EARLY CHURCH?
“But what about the Apostles?” someone might retort. “They didn’t have fancy seminary degrees and go on study leaves and demand book allowances.”
Ironically enough, answering this objection properly demands both Bible knowledge and theological sophistication.
Yes, fishermen were called by the Holy Spirit to write some of the New Testament, but most of it was written by only two people who were both highly educated – Luke and Paul.
The Twelve, furthermore, all had three years of continuous training with Jesus, while Paul, rabbi though he was, also underwent additional years of theological training from the Lord before he was sent out to teach.
The Early Church was taught, not to put too fine a point on it, by trained teachers. And the quality of teaching mattered very much. The Apostles harshly condemned false teaching, and the New Testament chides churches for settling for childish sermons when they should have graduated to more meaty fare.
Of course, we would be foolish to stop after the Apostles and ignore what the Spirit has been saying to the churches for the last 2,000 years – and particularly what God is saying to us here and now to guide us here and now. There is much to learn.
THE BIBLE IS COMPLICATED
The Bible is a truly extraordinary phenomenon – “alien technology,” in fact, designed by God for an amazing task – to bring the gospel to the world, yes, but also to furnish teaching such that anyone anywhere in the world at any time can be trained by it into sound and mature Christian life.
Such an astounding effect can be rendered, even by the Holy Spirit, only via an unimaginably complex book, as the Bible is.
I once heard a popular media personality question a Christian apologist on the air. “How come,” the skeptic asked, “Christianity and its Bible have to be so darned complicated? Why can’t the basics of the faith just be written on the back of a postcard so that an eight-year-old child can understand them?”
The apologist, who had done his homework, responded thus. “Fred,” he said, “before you were on TV, you were a city councillor, right?”
“Yes,” Fred replied.
“And before that, you were a lawyer, right?”
“Yes,” Fred said.
“So tell me this. Why are the laws of this city, province and country so darned complicated? Why can’t you write them out on the back of a postcard so that an eight-year-old can understand them?”
Fred seemed stunned by the question. So the apologist continued.
“I’ll tell you why. Because in Grown-Up World, things are often complicated. Simple truths can guide us much of the time, yes, and we can teach those to our eight-year-olds. But in a world as complicated as ours, we need appropriate complexity to guide us.
“The Bible is a book that can bless an eight-year-old. ‘God so loved the world.’ ‘You must be born again.’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ But the Bible is also capable of guiding adults, families, churches and even nations. For that, we need more than a postcard.”
And to make good use of that amazing book, and to listen properly to that subtle Spirit, we need more than your best guess or mine, your intuition or mine. We need an intellectual culture among Canadian Evangelicals sufficient to the challenge.
Sadly, I was told last week that Canadian evangelical postsecondary institutions labour under some $100 million in debt. Almost none are in the black. None can plan confidently for the future on the basis of generous endowments rendered by Christians who believed in their mission enough to trust them with significant resources.
Likewise, national organizations who could do the work we need doing – convening conferences, sending out seminar speakers, offering media training to academics – continue to struggle to find both funds and creative leadership.
Furthermore, most of our most popular churches from coast to coast do not feature anything approaching substantial biblical preaching, let alone extensive adult education programs adequate to the problems each of us laypeople face.
Some of them even disparage formal theological education, as if glib spiritual formulas, funny anecdotes and peppy worship music will equip Canadian Christians to respond adequately to the political, economic, sexual, artistic and other issues of our day.
And that is the test – adequacy. We Canucks don’t typically think in extravagant terms. None of us will say we need schools flush with cash, or organizations with posh headquarters, or churches offering full-blown college or seminary programs in their Christian education departments.
But we can agree to settle for nothing less than adequacy – enough in the way of personnel and programs to help each of us think Christianly about the main issues of our lives.
Imagine being able to give a compelling “reason for the hope” within us (1 Peter 3:15).
Imagine offering a well-considered defence of a Christian view of complex issues such as sex, abortion, taxation and climate change.
Imagine forming beliefs in actual accordance with the Word and Spirit of God, and not just according to our own preferences.
Imagine becoming intellectually adequate to represent Jesus Christ in the complex day in which we live.
But let’s be absolutely clear. When our thinking has to contend with the daily messages purveyed by the likes of the Royal Bank, the Government of Canada, Apple, Exxon or Twenty-First Century Fox, “adequate” is a high standard indeed.
We Canadian Evangelicals have risen to the challenge before. By God’s grace, let’s do it again.
John Stackhouse is the Samuel J. Mikolaski professor of religious studies and dean of faculty development at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. His latest book is Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2014). View this article in the complete Sep/Oct 2015 digital edition.