Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Alan Hirsch's Call to Contend

At our recent district conference there was some really good and some really bad. I've been a bit negative lately, so here's some of the really good.

Alan Hirsch, our guest speaker and author of The Forgotten Ways, was talking about the different types of people that make up the Christian community, as well as the community at large, and was emphasizing the dynamic we need to have in order to have real community (rather than false peace or false unity). He said we need to:

recognize and enjoy our FIT (the grounds of our unity),

and our SPLIT (the diversity of persons within it),

and to CONTEND over disagreements (discuss, don't avoid!)

with the goal that we would TRANSCEND (find one mind, the mind of Christ).

I do think Hirsch may be overly optimistic about our ability to find one mind, even the mind of Christ, with a timing that conviences us (and our lofty corporate strategies and goals), but I do agree about it as a goal. What I would add is that if the original unity is understood to transcend us, as something grounded in Christ around whom we gather, then the unity at the end will aim at consensus, but will transcend both consensus and disagreement for the same reason it always did.

I do think that in communion in Christ we have something in which we should enjoy the freedom to disagree, rather than feel the pressure to maintain "peace" by avoiding conflict and open discussion. I actually think it betrays a failure to trust in Christ or believe in the communion of saints if this is our idea of peace and unity.

Regardless of my nuances on Hirsch's call (which I don't think are minor, but I'm trying to be positive here), I think his call to CONTEND rather than AVOID was a very good and much needed one. Hear here Alan Hirsch!


joel said...

Inconsistency is applicable to all people, not just Christians. By excluding a group you simply commit the same problem. You persist on making reason (like atheism) into a faith because you only seem to understand faith vs. faith analogies Jon.

The critique of inconsistency is applicable to all people groups, even those who do not adhere to valuing it. So long as you see it as an ‘us vs. them’ paradigm, you can get away with simply throwing the criticism back on the source.

If you cannot criticize Christianity by its believers how can you criticize it? One cannot criticize the Holy Scriptures, because they come from God and one cannot criticize God itself because who am I to criticize that which I cannot understand, grasp or really touch?

God is perfect, but our understanding of God is fallible; thus any problems found therein are excusable as human-caused.

The Scriptures are perfect, but they had to be given (or originally given) to and through people; thus any problems found therein are excusable as human-caused.

Christians have the true religion but they are fallible; thus any problems found with them are excusable as human-caused or bad examples.

If you cannot scrutinize a religion based on its ideas, its God, its scriptures or its people; how the hell is one to make a judgement?

This system smacks of convenience, and it is only titillated by the fact that Christians will only take criticism serious it comes from within and if it is delivered for the benefit of the religion as a whole. It does not bother me that this is the system chosen by religious people in order to obtain a kind of stability and defence against the onslaught of attack from other faiths and various anti-christian view points; but surely you must admit of its problematic nature, if not that the danger it posses for clear-minded scrutiny Jon.

You, yourself are such a high proponent of listening to criticism and wanting to delve deep into the hard questions opposed to Christianity; surely you should take some serious thought on this set-up- instead of simply saying all other groups are the same or have the same problems!

jon said...

I'm moving the conversation up here:


Joel said, "If you cannot scrutinize a religion based on its ideas, its God, its scriptures or its people; how the hell is one to make a judgement?"

I don't know any Christians (even the most arrogant) who don't scrutinize the religion of Christianity at least somewhat. My guess is that you experience a lot of pushback against your criticisms because you're starting out at an admitted stance of unbelief which makes people defend things they're not even sure of completely themselves.

You were in the church so you know there is a lot of questioning going on out there, all I hear from you in this line of thinking is a rejection of faith. That's your call and it's your right to look at the same world as me and choose no faith while I choose faith, but it smacks of arrogance for you to somehow imply that criticism and reasonable thought applied to Christ can only produce atheism.

Maybe that's not what you mean to imply but that's my impression.

Of course there are hard questions, just as I'm sure there are for an atheist, but that doesn't mean people who believe in God aren't wrestling with them. See here is somewhere we can agree, I think you can scrutinize all of the things you've said a religious person can't, using reason. For me though reason always brings me back to God, maybe not religion, but certainly God.

12:39 AM


Honestly, I fee like you just illustrated my point: that Christians will only take internal criticism seriously. That’s good, but eliminates the possibility of full scrutiny does it not?

It would be like saying: I am self-critical of my position, but not to the point that I might be wrong, only in such a way that I increase my chances of being more right.

I can never take serious the fact that I might ever be totally wrong, I have isolated myself from the potential of ever being wrong.

This second thing is what I am trying to desrcribe.

8:29 AM


joel, i thoroughly reject your premises that Christianity:

a) does not self-critique
b) does not criticize the Bible (in fact, if one looks at the last 100 years of biblical criticism alone one is hard pressed to find a way it has not been criticized)
c) believes the Bible "perfect" in the way you imply
d) does not criticize God (in fact God welcomes us to lament pretty brutally and honestly)

There isn't much further for us to go when that is the idea of Christianity you wish to contend against.

I also can hardly believe that you accuse me of not taking questions and criticism seriously when my entire relationship with you (online at least) has been one where i have done exactly that.

And conversely I have really rarely felt that my critiques of atheism have been little more than brushed off. so, again i'll say that it makes presuppositions (and accepts them, one must conclude, by faith) in its stance against God, and these too seem very convenient for what it hopes to find. there is no avoiding unproven first premises. question is what stands up to reason and if you ask me what worldview gives the most reasonable assessment of existence as we know it (as well as the most promising and life-producing) it is Christianity. Why wouldn't I defend that? But to say critiques are not taken seriously is at this point a little unbelievable.

jon said...

Just because Christians have lots of internal conversations, and just because I apply many of my posts to Christianity internally, doesn't mean we don't look for ways to apply them outside the church, and doesn't mean we don't entertain questions from "outside." Many don't even like making the "in/out" distinctions we're making here, myself included, but even then I have to admit that my discussion of an issue is going to sound different among a group of people who accept a bunch of its primary faith-moves together for the sake of delving deeper into the significance of the topic at hand, or for the purpose of worshiping, or what not.

in a worship venue, i'd like to see more questioning. but we have to remember that it is a worship venue, and can't be made to stand in for other venues, the venues of debate and so on.

but i'm not saying questions are not allowed. i'm taking them here, again and again, even on posts that are originally aimed internally at my faith-group!

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Tanti, thanks for the response to my critique of the volunteering thing. That is interesting. And good for the Christians! If that is true, it is impressive.


Someone earlier wrote that they suspected it was sometimes thought, by atheists, that atheism was the only reasonable response to an honest examination of Christianity.

Alright. I'll let that sink in. I do need to be careful of arrogance, and I think on that one I have been guilty as charged on occasion -and for that I'm sorry. I might disagree with them, but I do think it is possible for reasonable men to be Christians.


I'm going to bow out of this conversation, but I will say that I take your critiques of Atheism very seriously Jon.

For me, I think I need a new way of having this debate before I'll feel inclined to engage in it seriously again. The back and forth arguing is feeling pretty dry for me at the moment. Even my own words in these posts feel pretty flat to me. I don't know. We've just done and said all of this stuff before, and the adversarial nature of it all feels untrue somehow.

Not that I don't value highly rigorous debate. I'm just ready to move on to another chapter, and I fear there may not be one.

joel said...

My response was much too long for a comment so I posted it on my ithaca site if you are interested Jon and Tony.

jon said...

i hear ya matthew. charitable and honest as always.

i'll likely see you over there joel. thanks guys.

after my last, rather defensive, comment to joel, i wanted to come on and say that i still think they are good questions. those within my own faith who have what they like to call a "high view" of Scripture (i.e. total innerancy) really need to hear joel's critique, in my view.

also, i really wish more people with the "pie in the sky", escapist, "shiny happy", I-have-absolute-truth-and-you-can't question-my-view-of-it could hear your critiques joel. I really think you have very valid critiques of much christian (and other religious) practice. I do think it possible and reasonable to wrestle with these things within the faith, though.i wish we did more of it, actually.

And I'll of course admit to the cyclical nature of Christian reasoning. I just think this is inevitbaly to all worldviews, and I think that Christian reasoning comes around and checks itseld, names the mystery, and perpetually digs it deeper, so I continue to work within it (and consider questions against it). thanks as always for engaging.

Tony Tanti said...

Joel, your quote "I have isolated myself from the potential of ever being wrong" in the context of Christian self-critique is a great point. I know we don't know each other at all but I'd venture a guess that if you asked my friends and family they'd tell you that I have an annoying amount of that in me...ironically not when it comes to God though. I've questioned my faith in every way imaginable over the last few years especially and have even stopped going to church. In all of that I have often entertained the thought of "is this all there is" and "is there even a God" and I just keep coming back to a firmer belief in God and a weaker belief in religion. Your idea that a person can never be fully critical of something they believe in seems naive to me. Everyone believes in something and is affected by their beliefs, even if those beliefs are dominated by opinions on what is incorrect. I know my beliefs are dominated by finding what I disagree with rather than seeking to contribute to what I believe in. Anyway my point is this, I agree with you that a person with a strong faith can never be objective, but then I also believe nobody is objective, even you, so where does that leave us? Can we discount all criticism that comes from a person with a belief system?

And Matt, I hear you on the arrogance, I've had that in spades in my life and constantly fight it.

I'll go read Joel's blog now.

joel said...

Tony said:
“Your idea that a person can never be fully critical of something they believe in seems naive to me.”

I never said ‘never’ that would be naïve.

Tony said:
“Anyway my point is this, I agree with you that a person with a strong faith can never be objective, but then I also believe nobody is objective, even you, so where does that leave us?”

My point is NOT that a person with a strong faith can never be objective, but rather I ask the question of what it means to have a strong faith. The danger is that their ‘strong’ faith might actually be (or be based in) the refusal to take certain criticisms into account. In this sense, they (if a person were to befall this kind of philosophy) could suggest and display a strong faith which when examined might end up being nothing but bigotry, close-mindedness and in the worst case, ignorance.

If there was a person fitting this description and they fervently thought that they WERE self-critical, you can see how bad it might be. It would be like a racist who refused to even acknowledge they are a racist (let alone be convinced that they should not be).

My point is that such a setup (I believe I am right, believe I am self-critical but in actuality I am not as right as I think and I am not as self-critical as I think) is what nullifies the dialogue with most fundamentalists and others.

Most fundamentalists KNOW they are this way and praise it; how the more dangerous could it be if we had a fundamentalist who refused to acknowledge they were acting in this way?

They might even be offended by being called a fundamentalist- how might one dialogue with such a person?

I am not saying every religion is like this, nor am I saying many or most Christians are like this; but the formula of thinking (the philosophy) being used might be being used in lesser ways (other ways) among your religion. Such ‘ways’ are poor reasoning and should be called as such.

jon said...

Those were some good comments. Tanti: I don't think we think you think you are as beyond self-critique as you think we think you are. In other words, while you are certainly never wrong, you do seem more open to the possibility than you are making yourself sound. But that was some funny stuff, in the midst of a good point.

I can see Joel's point and would agree about the danger there. Speaking from personal experience, I've seen lots of Christians who are coming close to that danger. They rail on and on about absolute truth and it seemingly never occurs to them that, absolute truth or not, they don't know the truth absolutely.

Having said that, most of the genuine Christians I have come to know and love are horribly self-critical. And I think of a strong faith as a reasonable faith, which has come through and exists even in the midst of doubt. It is something that is not on a spectrum over and against reason.