Saturday 24 January 2009

A new epistemology?

Professor Tim Clydesdale has written an interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he suggests a new epistemology is dominant in the universities of America. There are echoes of Allan Bloom's 'Closing of the American Mind' here, as he suggests that today's university student sees knowledge as something to be approached more democratically, with less acceptance of expert knowledge, and not necessarily an acceptance of traditional notions of 'knowledge for knowledge's sake', 'the transformative power of the liberal arts' and so on. This he rightly suggests represents a challenge to university educators. Since it's a higher education opinion piece he doesn't try to outline in detail his view on this presumed epistemology its philosophical foundations, but one part of his stimulating commentary caught my attention and intersected with the observations of many that notions of 'truth' and textual authority continue to be challenged (see for example my posts on 'Truth and the Internet' here and here). Many of us have observed how younger generations in particular (but not exclusively) no longer place as much credence on authoritative texts nor supposed knowledgeable people. It seems experience, credentials, publications and even position carry little value for younger generations who are quick to say 'So what?' 'I'm not so sure about that' or 'Well that's one opinion among many'. He wrote:

Today's students know full well that authorities can be found for every position and any knowledge claim, and consequently the students are dubious (privately, that is) about anything we [academics and scholars] claim to be true or important.

In a piece that was published in Case 15 (here), I commented that for the postmodern person, knowledge, varies with the individual, circumstances and time and leads to the catch cry, ‘that might be true for you, but not for me’. Just as the serpent in the Garden of Eden suggested to Adam and Eve that they could have access to all the knowledge that God possessed as creator (Genesis 3:1-5), the deconstructive postmodernist (a term that I think comes closest to describing Clydesdale's 'new epistemology') suggests that we can have access to the tree of knowledge because we create it, it is in us.

While accepting that it is good to question knowledge and that some would see this more pluralistic view of knowledge as a good thing, Clydesdale contrasts this new attitude to that of students in an earlier age who were prepared to accept the authority of teachers and university professors more readily. He continues:

"Of course, this new epistemology does not imply that our students have become skilled arbiters of information and interpretation. It simply means that they arrive at college with well-established methods of sorting, doubting, or ignoring the same."

In my earlier Case 15 article I also pointed out that the process of democratisation of knowledge, has led to the creation of new interpretive communities where ideas are shared, interpretations are co-constructed and knowledge in turn is shared with others. Barthes wrote of the ‘death of the author’ over forty years ago, so this is not a new development, although I would agree with Clydesdale that it is a more common epistemological starting point than it was once. But for me, what have had the greatest impact have been the social changes inherent in modern western societies in combination with new forms of communication. The changing nature of families and their instability has meant that peer groups are now more important sources of advice, support and knowledge than was once the case. And while one could not blame new communication technology for the undermining of political, parental, teacher, police or scholarly authority, its development has accompanied significant social changes to families and the place of the church, and increasingly pluralistic societies precipitated by increasing globalisation, occurring at the same time that post modern thinking had taken hold of the academy (something that many argued is now changing).

The Internet continues to add weight to and support this shift from authorial and textual power to the reader/student and their interpretive communities. In particular, the Internet has done much to negate individual authorship in favour of shared authorship. Phenomena such as Wikipedia make it increasingly difficult to identify a single author and in effect supports the notions of the young that they will weigh every issue up, not just accept your view even if you're a teacher, professor, politician or even their mum. Once again, we need to recognise that universities, schools and families should be places where we encourage the young to question, argue and explore ideas. But what does this mean for the way we approach a different generation?

Clydesdale's conclusion is that we should approach our students with greater respect and with patience:

"The onus is on us to better convey the value that a robust intellectual life adds to the public good. And we need to begin by respecting our students (and the wider public) not just as persons but as the arbiters of knowledge that they have become. Specifically, we must respect students as thinkers, even though their thinking skills may be undeveloped and their knowledge base shallow. Moreover, our respect must be genuine. Students have keen hypocrisy sensors and do not like being patronized."

I find this a challenge, but I think there is great wisdom in what he is suggesting. While I will never retreat from my belief that there are truths which I will defend vigorously (most notably, biblical teaching and the gospel of Christ), nor will I compromise in watering down or sanitising the message of the gospel, we do need to consider how we engage with such a different generation whether as an academic, teacher, parent or preacher. Clydesdale's point intersects with the views of others in recent times including John Stackhouse who points out in his book Humble Apologetics that “If we are going to defend and commend our faith, we must do it in a new mode: with a different voice and in a different posture. Our apologetics must be humble.

Clydesdale finishes with these helpful words:

"Some of us need an attitude adjustment. It is not just residential-college students who live in a bubble — many faculty members do as well. We take for granted our privileged status, become consumed by petty controversies, talk only to ourselves, and ignore the wider public that makes our work possible. It is tempting, I know, to want to curse the culture and withdraw into like-minded enclaves. But neither catharsis nor retreat will satisfy those who demand accountability, raise financial support for public higher education, or generate more students who cherish college as an opportunity to learn and think."

While Clydesdale was writing this article for a general higher education academic readership, we could also redirect his thoughts to any of us would be apologists and even preachers. This is something that Tim Keller considers at length in his excellent book The Reason for God, which I reviewed on this blog (here). The message of the gospel must not be sanitised or modified for this generation, but we must give careful consideration to how we engage a questioning generation in a consideration of the truth.

You can read Clydesdale's excellent piece here.

Thursday 15 January 2009

Apologetics of the heart

Tim Chester & Steve Timmis have an interesting chapter on apologetics in their book ‘Total Church: A radical reshaping around gospel and community’ (IVP, 2007, pp159-175) in which they argue for ‘apologetics of the heart’ not just apologetics of the head. They argue that there is always a limit to rational apologetics. This quote from the chapter pretty much sums up their position:

“This does not mean there is no place for rational apologetics. But it means they must be less ambitious. Their role is not to persuade unbelievers. The role of rational apologetics is to demonstrate that unbelief is a problem of the heart rather than a problem of the head. People may claim that the obstacle to faith is the problem of suffering or the implausibility of miracles or the existence of other religions. The role of rational apologetics is to show that these are not the real causes of unbelief. It is to strip away the excuses and expose rebellious hearts.” P. 167

Before commenting on the quote I would want to stress that there is never a limit to anything for our sovereign God. I continue to be amazed at how God can use any person, adopting any strategy, at any level of proficiency, in any situation, to reveal the truth of the gospel. But Chester and Timmis are making the point that as we seek to build strong effective gospel-centred churches and people, that we should not see the sharing of the biblical truth of the gospel simply as rational argument. This sits well with the overall theme of the book that challenges churches to see that the local church (and Christian practice in general) as gospel-centred in the sense of being word-centred, mission-centred and community-centred. They make some fundamental points in arriving at their position:

  • People reject God not just because they reject the Bible intellectually as truth and God’s revelation to them, but in rebellion against him (Psalm 14:1-3). “Atheism may be understood as a spiritual movement of the soul as well as an intellectual movement of the mind” (p.161). People reject God not just based on reason, “but as a presupposition and sometimes despite reason”.
  • Knowing God is dependent on him graciously revealing himself to us through the message of the cross. We will only know God by God’s grace.
  • The role of rational apologetics is “….not to persuade unbelievers. The role of rational apologetics is to demonstrate that unbelief is a problem of the heart rather a problem of the head….it is to strip away the excuses [for unbelief] and expose rebellious hearts” (p. 167).

The value of relational apologetics

Chester and Timmis argue for greater attention to relational apologetics rather than simply rational apologetics. While not denying (or even downgrading) the importance of knowledge, they argue for greater attention to the building of better relationships with each other (as John argues in John 13), as we seek to build better relationships with our wider family, friends and community. They argue that just as the story of Israel was one of the nations drawing the nations to God, so too the Christian community should draw others to the gospel and that (in quoting Francis Schaeffer), “Christian community is the ultimate apologetic”.

For me (as CASE demonstrates), it is all about balancing the relational and the rational. It is not one or the other. We know that the Bible calls us to reason with others as Paul demonstrates (e.g. Acts 17), even with strangers. But likewise we are called to live such godly lives among people that they see our deeds to the glory of God (1 Peter 2:4-12).

The Christian community in all its forms (e.g. church, family, Bible study etc) should be seeking to glorify God and to be used by him to draw others to the gospel, relationally as well as through rational argument.

Chester and Timmis complete their chapter with these words:

“We have a better story than any of the alternatives. We need to awaken a desire for God. We need to make people want Christianity to be true. Then we may be able to persuade them that it is true.”

While I find this to be a helpful summation, I want to quibble with them over the use of words here and in other places in the chapter, and how their use of words can give a wrong impression of God’s sovereignty. While agreeing with them that we need balance between rational and relational apologetics, we must always recognise that ultimately “we” do little and don’t “make” things happen - God reveals himself in Christ through his word by his Spirit. While I think my difference with them on this point is more about the language they use, rather than their acceptance of God’s sovereignty (after all the authors argue this very position in chapter 1 of the book), I want to caution against losing sight of this fundamental truth as we rightly seek a more balance approach to our apologetics. As I said at the beginning of this post God can use any person, adopting any strategy, at any level of proficiency, in any situation, to reveal the truth of the gospel. Of course, this is not a reason for Christians to sit back and do nothing, to place no priority on loving others to the glory of God, to build strong Christian communities centred on the gospel, or to fail to share the gospel through words and deeds. Chester and Timmis offer some good advice as an antidote to this type of Christian and church ineffectiveness.

Related links

You can find more details on the book here (USA) and here (UK).
For more information on "The Crowded House" and Tim Chester and Steve Timmis click here.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

How not to teach children to gamble: Some biblical advice

I was struck recently while shopping at a local shopping centre that from a very early age people are encouraged to consider gambling as a natural part of life. The ‘lucky dip’ machine designed specifically for children is surely a good example of how from at least the toddler stage we begin to encourage, or at best accept, that luck, taking a chance and seeking to win at the expense of others is part of life. It started me thinking about the many other ways we encourage children inadvertently to see gambling as part of life and how in the process we undermine many significant areas of biblical teaching that most Christians parents would hope to have shape their children’s lives. In particular it led me to consider how we might be teaching and modelling an incorrect understanding of God and our relationship to him. Before dismissing me as a bit ‘over the top’ stay with me till the end of the post.

The social problems that gambling creates

The damage that gambling does is an indisputable fact. As an addiction it is a serious social problem not just in Australia but all over the world. Here are a few facts based on the 2006 edition of the Australian Gambling Statistics (the 2008 statistics are available here).

Gambling in Australia stood at $142 billion per annum in turnover in 2006. Overall, 72% was spent on gambling machines (slot machines or what we Australians call poker machines or ‘pokies’). In NSW, Victoria and Queensland gambling on pokies was about 90% of the total wagering.

The majority of losses are on poker machines. In NSW alone, this comprises 71% of all losses, and in Victoria and Queensland about 55%.

Problem gamblers

The Sydney Problem Gambling Centre created by The Salvation Army is dedicated to supporting people and families trapped by gambling addiction. Their publications give some sense of the extent of the problem in Sydney alone. They define problem gambling as “a compulsive act done in the belief that it will cure financial problems, improve quality of life or relationships or help to manage work issues, rather than a fun activity that is indulged in occasionally.” For problem gamblers, gambling becomes the centre of their lives, to the exclusion of everything else. A major report prepared for The Salvation Army suggested that a key trigger for problem gambling was often a big win at a young age, which the individual would then seek to replicate.

It was estimated in 2004 that Australia had 293,000 problem gamblers, a figure that no doubt has grown since. Approximately 20% of all clients to the Sydney Problem Gambling Centre admit to suicidal thoughts. Some other relevant details:

Gambling expenditure is growing faster than household disposable income.
Gaming machines in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia are more common in poorer communities.
Heightened levels of parental gambling are associated with higher incidence of child problem gambling.
The Productivity Commission has estimated that approximately 1.5 million people in Australia are suffering as a result of problem gambling; frequently in the form of poverty.
20% of problem gamblers also have problems with alcohol.
20% report borrowing money without paying it back.

What does the Bible say about gambling?

The short answer is not much directly. In fact, the only direct reference to gambling occurs in the Gospel accounts of the Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ possessions (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34 and John 19:24). Some falsely argue that the Jewish practice of casting lots (Numbers 26:52-56; 1 Sam. 14:41-42; Acts 1:26) is a form of gambling , but this practice was only ever concerned with discerning God’s will, it was not gambling. It did not involve the transfer of something of value from one to another, nor did it reflect a win-lose situation with one person gaining advantage over another. Those who used these practices were not appealing to chance, but rather the will of God. Both Isaiah and Paul connected the focus on good luck or gambling with false religions.

But while the Bible lacks a direct commandment against gambling, it expresses strong views about the foundational causes of gambling. The practice of gambling contradicts God’s standards for our lives and the relationship he expects to have with us. How does biblical teaching support the point that I’m making? There are at least seven things worth noting.

1. First, the Bible emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Matthew 10:29-30 reminds us that we are to live our lives in fear of God, with the knowledge that the one who can destroy body and soul also knows when a single sparrow perishes and has also numbered the very hairs on our heads (not hard in relation to me!). Engaging in gambling, by way of contrast, is to appeal to chance and luck. There can be no luck with a sovereign God. To engage in gambling is a denial of the sovereignty of God in one’s life – God’s purpose for us “cannot be thwarted” (Job 42:2), “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36) and “he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.. ...and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:2-3).

2. Second, gambling fosters covetousness and greed “which is idolatry” according to the Apostle Paul (Colossians 3:5). Gambling clearly contradicts the 1st, 2nd and 10th Commandments, instead enthroning personal desires in place of God. Jesus warned: “You cannot serve God and Money” Jesus teaches (Matthew 6:24).

3. Third, gambling is contrary to the biblical commendation to work. The bible indicates three legitimate ways in which wealth may change hands – as we give, by working for it, or by sharing or exchange it with others. Gambling offers the lure of an easy reward. Instead, Paul taught “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). By way of contrast, gambling promises something for little effort.

4. Fourth, related closely to the above, gambling is a foolish use of the resources that God has given to us. We are to be good stewards of what God has given us.

5. Fifth, statistics on gambling indicate the devastating impact that it has on families and leads to neglect of wives, husbands and children. Gambling leads commonly to the neglect of families. Paul had some strong words to share with Timothy about the evil that family neglect represents.

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8); parents are to support their children (2 Cor. 12:14).

6. Sixth, gambling depends on someone else losing so that we might gain. This is counter to the biblical principle “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mathew 7:12). We are to do good to others, not receive gain at their expense. We are to “do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10).

7. Seventh, gambling is reflective of a lack of contentment with what God has given us. Gambling is the very opposite of contentment. The Bible teaches that God will supply all our needs (Philippians 4:19). We are not to be anxious about our lives, just as God clothes the lilies of the field, so we are to seek him first and he will take care of us.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

But what does this mean for the way we teach out children?

How does the lucky dip machine relate to all that I’ve said above? I’d like to suggest that it relates closely to it. We live in a society where luck and chance are an integral part of the way people think about the world and their place in it. God is dethroned and instead people seek to run their own lives, to “create their own luck”, to “take their chances”, to "test fate" and so on. In so many subtle ways we undermine biblical teaching about the nature of God, our relationship to God, our relationship to others and God’s purposes for our lives. I want to suggest that we can give unbiblical direction to our children regularly without knowing or thinking about it. We do this in two main ways:

In the language we use (and don't use) – language that speaks of luck, chance and gain at the expense of others. “That was a lucky break”, “Let’s make a wish”, “I’ve had a lucky break”, “Let’s toss for it” and so on. Language that speaks of a world driven by chance, not one ruled by God. This is in contrast to language that can speak of God's sovereignty, his providence, his concern for us, our trust in him and his ability to supply all our needs.

In the activities we permit – the lucky dip at the supermarket seems harmless, but it stimulates covetousness and greed. So too, the ‘innocent’ selling of school raffle tickets introduces the concept of gain from chance. Any game of chance that ends in a prize also inadvertently signals that seeking gain in this way is good. Don’t buy children games that might encourage gain at the expense of others (e.g. a toy roulette wheel).

Am I saying that every board game, guessing competition or game of chance is evil and not to be touched. No, not really. In fact I've written elsewhere about the value of games for learning (click here). The game of pass the parcel at the birthday party that ends in all getting a small gift, the game of snakes and ladders, the running race in the playground are not wrong. But many simple games or activities could through very simple and subtle means be re-shaped to promote gain on the basis of chance, with risk to the players and gain at the expense of others.

But while common children's games are generally harmless, the activities that are harder to deal with are those that do have a deliberate element of chance and gambling in them but may be for a good cause or purpose. The school raffle, buying tickets from the local fire brigade, guessing games for charity, the local Bingo charity game, the football club meat raffle and so on. Does gambling become good because it is for a good cause? No. John Piper wrote a nice short piece recently about the pastor who accepted a tithe of a parishioners lottery win and explains why he wouldn’t accept the $17 million on offer even if he was going to use it for good (here).

What is the alternative?

I think in general terms it is to build strong foundations for life based on what the Bible teaches us. But in general terms:

We need to ensure that our children don’t engage in activities that appeal to gain by chance at the expense of others.
We should encourage our children to understand that work is good and is the means by which we gain resources to cater for our daily needs and to be generous towards others.
We should model good stewardship of our resources and teach our children to do the same.
We need to think carefully about little decisions we make each day such as whether to allow our five-year-olds to use the luck dip machine. What might such an activity be teaching our children?
We need to avoid giving our children the idea that life has an element of luck and chance to it and that we can gain by appealing to good fortune.
We need to ensure that our language does not deny the sovereignty of God. Instead, we need to teach our children with our words and actions that our lives are in God’s hands, that he will supply all our needs and that we are to look to him in all things.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Thursday 1 January 2009

A new year and a new website for CASE

The Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education (CASE) was commenced in 2003 at New College at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). Since then we have been developing our web resources to complement our other activities, including our quarterly publication Case magazine (see here), seminars, conferences and events. We have also built up a large number of videos and pod casts of major lectures and talks. These have been available on our website but we wanted to make them even more accessible to web browsers as well as our Associates who not only receive Case magazine but have access to other web resources not available free on the site (you can subscribe online here).

We have just released version three of the CASE website which is simpler and more accessible than previous versions. The site is also more interactive with constantly changing content and the use of forums for the exchange of ideas (to be launched in 2009). If you explore this site you'll note that:

  • The site has more content than ever
  • The content is now in more varied forms (pdf, html, video, pod casts, blog posts)
  • The categories for all content are a little clearer
  • CASE events are now promoted more obviously on the site

Some sample content on the site

We haven't finished loading every file to the site as yet but most are there and the rest should be up in late January. Here is a sample of the written material available FREE on the site.

Tim Keller writes on 'Deconstructing defeater beliefs' (here)
Kirsten Birkett writes on 'Cells and souls' (here)
N.T. (Tom) Wright speaks on 'Resurrection and Beyond' (MP3 here)
Rob Smith writes on 'Christian wisdom in the world of music' (here)
Oliver O'Donovan writes on 'Moral Reasoning - Waking' (here)
Dani Scarratt writes on 'Presuppositionalism' (here)
Paul Barnett writes on the 'Historical evidence for Jesus' (here)
Tom Frame writes on 'Where are all the conscientious objectors?' (here)
John Dickson writes on 'A spectators guide to the gospel of Judas' (here)
Megan Best writes on the 'Rights of the terminally ill' (here)
Greg Clarke speaks on 'Where Dawkins is not a scientist' (MP3 here)
Michael Jensen writes on '16 verbs for apologetics' (here)
Trevor Cairney writes on what research and the Bible say about 'The role of Fathers' (here)
Trevor Hart writes on 'Creation, incarnation and redemption in the Arts' (here)
Andrew Cameron & Lisa Watts write on 'Climate Change' (here)
Edwin Judge writes on 'The biblical shape of modern culture' (here)

As I've said, the above are just a sample of the 150+ key articles and talks available and we're still loading many pod casts. There is also more available if you're an associate (find out how to sign up here), including talks by Oliver O'Donovan, Trevor Hart and many others.

If you visit the site you will also find that there is a new improved search function and that you can access content in varied ways including by theme, author and format (pdf, podcast, video etc). Please check out the site and give us any feedback that you feel is necessary. I've spotted some glitches that we will fix in January but let us know if you can see any areas for improvement.

On this New Year’s Day I want to wish readers of this blog and supporters of CASE God’s richest blessings. I pray that he will use each of your lives for his purposes, bringing honour and glory to his name in 2009 and strengthening you in your faith. I also pray that the resources of CASE might be of some use to you in enriching your understanding of Christ and equipping you to share the gospel with others.