Wednesday 25 March 2009

Christian Perspectives on Life and death

CASE ran a very successful conference on the 21st March that sought to allow participants to be better informed about medical ethics. The conference was well attended with 100 people taking part (our maximum number). It followed a recent issue of Case magazine that focussed on the theme Living and Dying Ethically (here). There were many wonderful sessions (some of which will be posted or published in some form in coming weeks), including:

Dr Andrew Cole – Why Christians should be interested in ethics in medicine?
Dr Megan Best – Ethical issues at the beginning of life
Dr Patrina Caldwell – Medical research involving children
Dr John Dearin – End of life issues - Euthanasia
Dr Mel Cusi – Victorian Legislation on Abortion
Melinda Tankard Reist – The grief of abortion

I was challenged by every session, but the overview presented by Dr Megan Best of key ethical issues concerning the beginning of life was particularly challenging. She made the simple point at the beginning of her talk that technology has given us information about the unborn child not possible just a short time ago. One consequence of this is that we now find it easier to identify disease and abnormalities in the unborn child. This can be good, with new ways to identify problems and abnormalities prior to birth, and ways to intervene medically, increasing the chance of a successful birth and in some cases solving medical issues more easily than if they are left until after birth. Of course it also provides opportunities for parents to know things about their unborn child not previously possible. This presents parents with opportunities to terminate the life of the foetus based on judgements about identified disease and abnormalities. Hence, technology offers us new knowledge that can be used to ensure life or sadly to terminate it.

She made a simple but profound point. Medical ethics is about challenging people to consider not just what we CAN do with technology but what we SHOULD do with it. Every doctor and in fact many parents face new ethical and moral challenges due to technological developments. One of the participants at our conference was living evidence of the outcome of choices that a mid-wife and a doctor made in his life. I sat down to have lunch at the conference with a young man named Darren (not his real name) who had severe cerebral palsy. As we sat eating he suddenly said to me in words that he had to repeat three times before I could grasp what he was saying:

"What would you do if you were a doctor and a baby was born and it didn't breathe for 20 minutes."

I gulped and said:

"Darren, that's a very hard question, even for a doctor, and I have no medical training. Without knowing how long doctors wait before declaring a child brain dead, and without knowing case history concerning revival rates after 20 minutes, I guess, I'd want the doctor to keep trying to resuscitate the child until such times as they knew it would be impossible to revive him."

Darren slapped his hands together and cried out with great enthusiasm:

"That's the right answer. And you know why I know that?"

I replied, "No Darren, why?"

"Because I was that baby."

We live in an age where perfection is what people expect. Physical imperfections are air brushed out in photos, cosmetic surgery is a growth market, the perfect body seems to be worshipped, and men and women sculpt their bodies to conform to current views on the perfect look. Deformed or missing limbs must be replaced, facial features changed. Lawsuits have been brought against doctors when birth defects have gone undetected in the womb eliminating the option of an abortion.

Technology allows us to identify abnormalities and problems and correct them. It also presents parents and doctors with the opportunity to decide to eliminate life in the womb if it doesn't meet our standards of perfection. These are not the only ethical decisions to make. Every day decisions are made to treat or not treat, resuscitate or not resuscitate. Technology doesn't eliminate the need for medical practitioners to make right choices, in fact in many ways it offers far more choices. Sound medical judgements must be made, but also ethical and moral judgements. Medical practitioners face these dilemmas every day. The life or death choices made by medical staff that attended Darren's birth meant that he lived rather than died. They honoured God in the priority that they gave to his life; Darren now honours God in his life.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Humble apologetics?

In the 'The gagging of God: Christianity confronts pluralism' (1996) Don Carson, while pointing out the obvious errors of postmodernism, concedes that there is at least one thing that we can learn from it. He suggests that postmodernism is a counter to arrogant dogmatism for which there is little justification. Dogmatism is the strong expression of an opinion or assertion without evidence. It is not to be confused with expressing our well argued and thought through views with strength, boldness, certainty and conviction. The key is the need for evidence to support our views and to have right motivations.

John Stackhouse takes this idea a step further (with a twist) in his book “Humble Apologetics” (2002):

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.

This is an interesting point in a book with which I find plenty to disagree. In fact, at times his unpacking of the theme of the book leaves me wondering about his biblical approach. I don't think there is a need for a 'new' mode, just an understanding of what the Bible teaches about sharing our faith. Paul surely demonstrated this mode 2,000 years ago (e.g. his teaching in Athens as described in Acts 17:16-34). Paul was constantly evangelising people who were biblically illiterate and had worldviews inconsistent with Judeo-Christian teaching. Did he do this with humility? I think he did. Although his detractors have claimed that he was arrogant, I don't see it this way. To present alternative views or even truth claims does not equal arrogance. While Paul’s writing and teaching did not hide from the exclusive claims of Jesus, he presented these claims in reasoned ways; he presented evidence. The gospel message was not accommodated to the desire for pluralism and acceptance of many gods and many views. Rather, Paul and the other apostles vigorously presented the claims of the gospel and gave evidence. As Carson puts it,

'[They kept] insisting on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the exclusiveness of the saving power of his gospel. But they did so in such a way that they showed they understood the people they were addressing. We must develop similar firmness, and similar flexibility.

A key apologetic lesson that we can learn from Paul in Acts 17 is that he did not present the gospel to the Athenians through a moral lesson, nor through a deconstruction of their culture. Rather, he laid out a biblical worldview framework then presented the evidence for the gospel of Christ. Paul afforded the Athenians every respect, but he did not accept that their views of the world had the same authority; instead he presented what he saw as the truth because he knew that the truth would set them free (John 8:31-32).

In reality, average postmodernists are not simply seeking universal intellectual humility. Nor are they simply arguing that we are fallible humans capable of error on a constant journey to learn more. Rather, their aim is often to reinforce the relativistic argument that all interpretations of text are equally valid, and in its most extreme form, that all textual forms are equally valid and valuable. This is a direct assault on the Christian’s claim that the Bible as a written text is the source of evidence for our faith and ultimately, God’s truth.

Paul also demonstrated in life what in fact he taught the Ephesians, that we must "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Paul's debate with the Athenians demonstrated what this means, that his desire above all else was to see people won for Christ. Douglas Groothuis reminds us that if we don't speak the truth in love, we are guilty of arrogance. Instead, we should develop our apologetic skills to "sanctify ourselves in the truth, to win souls for Christ, and to glorify God".

If there is such a thing as arrogant apologetics it must surely be to lose sight of why we give a reason for our faith; to rely on self, to engage in intellectual arguments with others to prove a point, to score points, to seek to increase our sense of worth and maturity by our eloquent and reasoned debate. This is the seedbed from within which arrogance grows and humility is choked. Paul reminds the Corinthians:
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

Paul urges the Corinthians to be controlled by the love of Christ, to search their inner motivations, and to be driven by the knowledge that Christ died for them. They are to persuade others to understand this truth. There is no room for arrogant pride here, only a humble knowledge that Christ died for us and calls us to tell others to give a reason for our faith and to seek to persuade others with the truth of the gospel.

Related links

Previous posts on apologetics from CASE (here)

Sunday 1 March 2009

Ignoring God's word at the cost of the church

An unfortunate church conflict

There has been a very public rift between a Brisbane Priest, his congregation and the Archbishop of the local diocese. The conflict demonstrates what happens when social agendas and concerns become the priority within a church, rather than the proclamation of Christ and worship of the living God.

Miranda Divine in the Sydney Morning Herald (26.2.09) offers an interesting perspective on the problems of St Mary's Catholic Church. For overseas readers and those who have missed the media reports in Australia, Father Peter Kennedy has been the priest at the church for 28 years and has a strong local following. Trouble is, Father Kennedy has become a law unto himself and has refused to conform to Catholic teaching. As a result, Archbishop John Bathersby has asked him to leave. Father Kennedy has refused and many parishioners have backed him rather than the archbishop.

The media have had a lovely time portraying the Catholic Church hierarchy as unfair in seeking to remove a man loved by his flock. In turn, it has portrayed the Archbishop as out of touch with contemporary needs. The supporters of Father Kennedy point to their raft of key social agendas, many of which seem to frame what is said in the pulpit. None of this seems to be influenced by Scripture or even the teachings of the Catholic Church. Miranda Divine characterises, perhaps too harshly (I'm not in a position to know firsthand), the battle as one between the Church and the Socialist left. She writes:

"I take my authority from the people," Kennedy told reporters. Not God? No wonder the Socialist Alliance loves him. Socialism regards religion as a "spiritual oppressor".....the 70-year-old Catholic priest.... has turned [the church] into a green-leftist New Age drop-in centre.

But lest you think she is only being critical of Father Kennedy, Miranda Divine suggests that perhaps the Archbishop of Brisbane has himself to blame:

While you can feel pity for Bathersby, the mess is his own making. Having tolerated Kennedy's antics for years, and having presided over the transformation of Brisbane into the most progressive and least disciplined archdiocese in the country, he can hardly be surprised by the result.

The purpose of church

It seems to me that the basis of the dispute between Father Kennedy and Archbishop Bathersby is at its very foundation a discussion about the purpose of the local church. It has arisen at St Mary's because of a neglect of the Bible's clear teaching on what church is for and a failure to grasp the centrality of the cross to Christian faith as more than simply an iconic image. In October last year I wrote a post (click here) that discussed the purpose of church. In the post I presented a summary of a useful paper developed by the Doctrine Commission of the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church that is relevant for the debate that St Mary's Church is having about its priest.

Father Kennedy seems to see the local church as a forum for inspiring and marshalling others for social action. While the Bible speaks of the need to redress injustice, to feed the poor, to care for widows and so on, such action is always subordinate to the glorification of God and the need to accept God's gift of grace through faith in, and obedience to, Christ. The Christian assembly is unique amongst human gatherings and is essentially those who have been called together by the gospel of Christ, who share in the Holy Spirit and who fellowship together. What unifies is a common faith, not a common cause. Our corporate meetings (in whatever form) have a vertical dimension (Godward), and a horizontal dimension (towards one another). Some call the corporate coming together 'worship', but this of course limits our understanding that all of life is in fact worship; and all in life is to be done to the glory of God. We meet for fellowship with one another and with God. While we know that Scriptures teach that we are always in fellowship or sharing with each other and God through the Spirit (Eph 2:18), the New Testament also speaks of a particular sharing or fellowship together in Christ in the assembly here on earth (John 17:20-23; 1 John 1:2-3).

People come together at church to grow in maturity and in knowledge of Christ. The assembly must always be moving forward and be in the process of being built (edified). This involves not just numerical growth, but growing in maturity and depth of faith in Christ (Eph 4:16; Col 2:19; 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Peter 2:5). The growth of the assembly involves the growth of individuals as well as their mutual relationships; we are "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted abd built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving" (Col 2:6-7).

The Christian assembly while giving testimony to God and welcoming non-believers, in the New Testament, is characteristically the fruit of evangelism, not its agent, nor its vehicle for social action. The gospel is proclaimed everywhere, not just in the assembly (1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Col 4:2-4; 1 Peter 3:15). The Christian assembly furthers the work of the gospel by building outward-looking mission-minded Christians who will do whatever they can to win others to Christ and will take the gospel to the world (1 Thess 1:8).

None of the above should be taken to mean that I am arguing against social action; readers of this blog and followers of CASE know how we urge people to engage with their world, to make a difference to our communities, and to reach out to and care for our 'neighbours'. However, St Mary's Church demonstrates what happens when the place of social action, and a desire to celebrate pluralism, supplants the cross of Christ as the centre-point of church teaching. There will always be diversity in the way we assemble together. Even in the case of St Mary's, I doubt that the unusual way that Father Brennan has chosen to run his services and deal with the sacraments, is the key bone of contention. The Christian assembly must always be ordered around hearing Christ's word and responding to it in faith, obedience and loving fellowship with God and each other.

The most important consideration week by week in the local church is to consider what God has done, what is he doing, and what he will continue to do through Christ. It should not be about what we can do for God, let along the community. Our gatherings should do three main things. First, they must always bear testimony to Christ and the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3:10), which is especially displayed as followers of Christ love one another with Christ-like sacrificial love (John 13:34; Eph 4:1-3; 5:1-20). This is a love born of the Spirit (Rom 15:30; Gal 5:22) and is the proof that we know God, have been given new birth and are obedient to the truth (1 John 4:7; 1 Peter 1:22). Second, they should offer an opportunity for rich fellowship demonstrated in confession, prayer, response to the Word, giving to others and the sacraments. Third, we should meet to be building maturity in Christ. The assembly is called into being through the word of God, and the same word dwells in and builds the assembly (Acts 20:32; Eph 4:15-16; Col 3:16). Hence, if the assembly is to grow and be built up, hearing the word of God is central. The world is littered with churches, and in fact whole denominations, that have withered and died as their focus has shifted away from Christ to themselves and the needs of others. This should not be a debate about social action or no social action; plurality or non-plurality; but rather, a right concern to honour the name of the God of the universe as we gather together.

Related links

Previous post on the purpose of Christian Assembly (click here)

You can read Miranda Divine's article here