Saturday 26 September 2009

Education based on reason alone falls short

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has offered some interesting comments on the limitations of reason in education. The address was presented at Rikkyo Gaukin Anglican University in Tokyo on the 21st September. He was there to receive an honorary doctorate and to speak as part of the institution's 150th anniversary.

In his address, Dr Williams suggested that the record of universities in applying a purely rational approach to intellectual and academic life is problematic:

"Christian doctrine regards human beings as made in the divine image; and that has regularly been interpreted as meaning that human beings share something of the rational nature of God. But to use those words today instantly gives a false impression. We understand 'reason' as a way of arguing and testing propositions – usually so as to become better at manipulating the world round us. Because religious faith is not a matter of argument in this way, it is then easy to conclude that faith and reason are enemies, or at least operating in different territory."

He argues that faith has a place alongside reason in the modern university, whether Christian like Rykkyo Gaukin University or secular like most. He uses the concept of the 'reasonable' or 'rational' human being to discuss what it is that universities do and how faith has an important place on campus. The 'reasonable' person he suggests is one who seeks 'not first and foremost to master and control a passive universe around', but someone who seeks to discover the 'rhythms and patterns of reality' and so understand themselves more fully. He continues:

"Sadly, there are many in our contemporary culture who believe that because religious faith is not rational in their sense – simply a judgement based on evidence and argument – it is bound to be something that breaks relations and nourishes violence. But the sober testimony of the twentieth century is that the rationality of secular thinking is no guarantee of universal understanding and reconciliation. A rationality that has brought us into the age of nuclear weaponry and global economic meltdown invites some sharp questions, to put it mildly; which has something to do with the revulsion in some quarters against the very idea of reason, against science and the notion of universal values and much else besides. As the Pope has argued several times in recent years, the drift towards relativism and pluralism is not the triumph but the defeat of reason; and as he has also insisted, the response of religious faith should not be to glory in the overthrow of rationality but to reclaim the idea and set it on its ancient foundations once more."

He goes on to suggest that a purely functional development of education effectively misses the "true nature of that which is not understood":

"Relating to God requires of us a radical acceptance of the fact that we are dependent beings, that we always stand on the edge of mysteries we cannot fathom, and that the true direction of our lives is not necessarily what our own unexamined and selfish ambition might suggest. Relating to God creates in us the habits of silence and listening, the willingness to be questioned and to question ourselves. Specifically for Christians, relating to God means growing into the role of a child of God, called to maturity, to a life in which dependence and creativity go side by side, inseparably. Called to mature into a life that reflects that of Christ, the Christian believer seeks to live at once in a deep humility that is constantly aware of the possibility of failure and the reality of not-knowing, and in a sense of liberty, dignity and worth, grounded in the trust that God looks at each human person with an endless loving respect and a desire to nourish and fulfil that person. Out of this comes a whole scheme of ethics, a patient respect for one another and for the material world, a realism and a sense of the provisional that never simply gives way to cynicism or despair."

You can read the full text of the talk by following the link below.

Related Links

Full text of the address can be found here

Apologetics and the University (here)

What J.K. Rowling gained from university (my previous post on 'The Benefits of Failure') here

Friday 18 September 2009

Fathers matter!

1. Secular research tells us that fathers matter

I wrote in an article on families in Case 12 (here), that research suggests that families matter, and that within families fathers have a special role. I’ve also written a number of previous posts about families, including how time spent with children matters (here), the negative impact of the reduction of time spent sharing meals (here), and the role of fathers more generally (here). As well, I've written posts on the shared responsibility we have with communities for other people's children (here) and in the church (here). The latter is critical for families where no father is present. Finally, I've written a number of more practical posts about fathers on my other blog 'Literacy, families and learning' (here).

To recap some of my previous arguments; research on families and demographic trends have demonstrated a number of significant changes in families and parental practices in recent decades. I summarised the trends last time under four headings:
  • Family structures are changing – e.g. there are less children in families, women are having children later in life, there are more sole parent households, there are more blended families, children stay at home longer (and many more return as adults) etc.
  • Employment structures are changing - and they have an impact on families, with more parents working in multiple jobs, more women back in the workforce, many workers working longer hours, more people working from home etc.
  • Fathers and mothers have changed roles and levels of engagement as parents - and while there is a trend towards some fathers spending more time caring for children, for others longer working hours have affected family life. As well, the increase in women doing paid work outside the home has led to more children in the critical first five years of life being placed in childcare with mixed impacts.
  • Research has highlighted the critical role that fathers have - for example, fathers have a significant impact on their children’s learning and behaviour. The influence on children’s education alone (the quality of which is also correlated with many other behavioural factors) is significant, as a UK centre on fatherhood has outlined.
Other research has suggested that the influence of fathers and family structures flows well beyond children’s learning (see for example Qu and Soriano, 2004). I concluded in my Case article that:
Research suggests, that fathers who show affection, give support and yet offer an authoritative parenting style, have a more significant impact on their children, when compared with fathers who adopt a more authoritarian and detached style. Other evidence indicates that who the father is, and what he does in life makes a difference.
In summary, what many research studies show is that fathers have a significant influence on child health and wellbeing, cognitive and emotional development and life outcomes.

2. The Bible tells us that fathers matters too

The importance of families is seen throughout the Bible. The concept of family is central to God’s plan for his creation and its restoration. The Bible teaches that relationships, like creation itself, were affected, disrupted and dislocated by sin in the Garden (the book of Genesis describes what happened). But God sustained his people in families and sought to restore them to their rightful place and adopt them into his own family (see for example Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 1:4-5). God continues to use families in spite of the curse that has been placed on family relationships as a result of sin, and the struggle that ensues between men and women (Gen 3). God’s plan to rescue his people ultimately involves family – his family!

As well, the critical role of fathers is clear within Scripture. The nation of Israel was one family, descended from Abraham. Within the nation that would rise up as a result of God’s promise to Abraham, there would be tribes defined on family lines and ultimately families within the family, all linked through fathers. Fathers are central to families in the Bible. Marriage in turn is seen as necessary to create a nuclear family – a man and woman, committed to each other in a covenant relationship - which seeks to have and raise godly children (Mal 2:14-15).

How the father fulfils his role as a father in families, is less clear and more open to varied styles of parenting. This of course is within the boundaries of God's expectations of godliness and faithfulness to him and the primary responsibility to make the gospel of Christ the centre of our parenting (see my post on 'Shepherding a Child's Heart' here). But there is no doubt that the godly father who exercises authority over his family is a central part of God's work of redemption within families. I've always found that one of the most practical places to look for guidance on how fathers lead their families is the advice God gave to Moses to pass on to the Israelites in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. Having exhorted them to fear God and obey his commandments, and to take care of how they lived (Deut 6:1-3), God gives instructions on how this is to be done within their families.

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates.” (Deut 6:4-9)

God expected the men of Israel to obey his commandments and to love him with all of their being – heart, soul and strength. He also expected them to teach God’s commands and expectations to their children in the ‘everydayness’ of life. To talk about God when they sat together at home, when they walked from place to place, when they were preparing for bed and rest, and when they rose in the morning. They were to speak of God’s ways, to wear the words of God’s law on their foreheads (no I’m not about to suggest we introduce this practice that is still followed by some Orthodox Jews), and write them on the doorposts and entrances to their houses, so that they would not forget them and so that they could teach them even more effectively to their children.
Here is a picture of a father with a right view of God, who trusts, obeys and serves his God and who seeks to teach his children to understand the wisdom of God and to follow him. This is also a picture of an involved father. If we were to translate this biblical picture into contemporary terms, we would see a father who seeks to obey and honour God, who sets a good example for his family, who models what it is to be a child of God. Such a father spends time with his children (indeed will 'waste' time with them), listens to them and shares godly wisdom at meal times, while resting, while together at home, while travelling. This is an engaged father, one who makes time for his family!
3. Practical implications

As Christian fathers there are some fairly obvious implications for us. As a framework for self-assessment, fathers might consider the following:

Godly Leadership
- Is my life demonstrating to my wife and my children that it is centred on Christ?
Engagement – Does my life give priority to interactions with my children and do we share joint activities? Is biblical teaching a part of this?
Accessibility – Am I available to talk with, listen to and simply be seen by my children?
Responsibility – Do I share family responsibility for childcare? [I'm not suggesting a specific model for shared parenting here but the evidence suggests that being involved with kids means time spent with them, and some of the above flows from this].

Other resources and links

Apologetics in Family Life (here)
Fatherhood Institute
Family Action Centre (Newcastle University)
'Literacy, families and learning' (here)

Friday 11 September 2009

Bioethics and Future Hope: An Eschatological View of the Future

A recap of Talks 1 & 2

Last night Professor John Wyatt presented his final talk in the 2009 New College Lectures - ‘Bioethics and Future Hope’. In his first talk (here) he described two alternative worldviews, one he termed materialistic which he suggested sees life as the result of random events with no underlying purpose; matter is all there is. He contrasted this with a Christian worldview that sees the cosmos as founded in the intentions of a Creator. Humans he argued are the creative work of God and are made in his image. Each worldview he argued leads to different views of personhood that shape our choices about life and death.

In his second lecture (here) he took this further and challenged the materialist’s view of life, that it is little more than well-evolved matter. He stressed that a worldview based on biblical understanding views humans as both physical and immaterial beings. He critiqued the language of ‘potentiality’ and the philosopher’s notion of a ‘not quite yet a person’ when applied to the embryo, or the ‘no longer a person’ judgement made of the terminally ill, demented or brain injured person in the final stages of life.

He also talked of the different views of pain and suffering, life and death that flow from these different worldviews. He pointed to the great fear of our time - loss of independence and autonomy - and the renewed acceptance of an old folly, seeing suicide and euthanasia as noble ways to die when faced with what is judged to be a less than human existence. Such a judgement he reminded us overlooks the fact that sometimes the image of God is seen most clearly in brokenness and the imperfect.

A Christian understanding of future hope

In his final talk he closed the circle by not only considering the end of life but our future eternal hope. The physical universe and our place within it have a clear purpose, hope and future. He argued that our future would not be a human construct, an artefact of our ingenuity and the ability to control our destinies. Instead, he suggested that the future is a reflection of the loving purposes of God. In Jesus we not only see God but the perfect human being, the one in whose likeness a new creation will spring.

Paul in writing to the church in Rome expressed our future hope this way:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)

The need for a biblical (NOT secular) eschatology

As he concluded the series Professor Wyatt challenged the audience to consider a biblical eschatology that speaks of the coming kingdom of God founded in and through Christ. This was our only hope, not a secular eschatology that places our hope in humanity's ability to reconstruct the future.

In pointing to the Bible’s eschatological view of the future (as both a Christian and a medical practitioner) he reminded us that in Christian thought, love is joined with the other virtues of faith and hope:

'And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love’ (1 Cor 13:13)

“They are virtues which all point to the future. To use theological jargon, they are eschatological virtues, pointing towards the end times. When we love someone in the present, showing practical, empathic, respectful, sacrificial caring, we are also pointing them to the future, to the hope of the resurrection. We are treating someone now in the light of what they are going to be. This is why we can still respect and treat with dignity even the most tragically damaged of human beings. The malformed baby, the person in the persistent vegetative state, the profoundly demented individual are those who can, in God's grace, be transformed to become a new creation. So practical Christian caring for those with a degenerative condition like dementia is not a sentimental nostalgic reaction, treating someone with respect just because of what they once were. We treat them with respect because of the God-like image that, in his grace, they will display in the future. In fact, Christian love can only be intelligible in the light of the Christian hope.”

You can download all three talks as MP3 files from the New College Website (here).

Related Links

Post on Talk 1 - 'Bioethics and Creation' (here)

Post on Talk 2 - 'Bioethics and Redemption' (here)

Full details on the lectures (here)

All CASE posts on medical ethics (here)

Information on John Wyatt's book 'Matters of Life and Death' (here)

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Bioethics and Redemption: Understanding pain, suffering and death

Prof John Wyatt presented the second of three public lectures in the annual New College Lectures last night. His second talk was titled "Bioethics and Redemption". Like his first talk (here) he spoke with humility and grace; treating a complex topic and difficult issues with great sensitivity and respect.

1. Christian thinking about the human embryo

He began once again with fundamentals – human development before birth – the “human embryo”, a unique type of being. Not a baby 'not quite born', nor a collection of genetic material. It is something unique, different in kind. He then went on to consider what it is to be human – a foundational ethical issue. In considering this, he spoke helpfully of two tensions. First, between the 'physical and the immaterial' - two aspects of 'being' locked together in humanity. Humans are fully physical and fully ‘immaterial’. He reminded us that 'materialists' (e.g. Peter Singer) would want to see humans as machines that have achieved a level of self-consciousness. The 'philosophical idealist' he suggested would see us as spiritual beings attached to bodies for a time. Alternatively he argued that the 'biblical anthropologist' denies both these positions and suggests that we are at one and the same time physical and spiritual beings. This tension he reminded us is seen in the incarnation (Jesus – fully human and fully God), the Bible (human writers divinely inspired), divine providence (God at work through the evil acts of men who crucify God’s Son).

The second tension he mentioned was between the ‘already’ and the ‘not-yet’. The Bible would suggest that we are already human beings but in Christ becoming something else. We are already made in God’s image, but we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). He then critiqued the language of 'potentiality' and the philosopher's notion of 'not quite yet' a person when applied to the embryo. He suggested that we should stop talking of Human Embryos and begin talking of ‘Embryonic Humans’ that could sit alongside the use of terms like foetal humans, adult humans, geriatric humans and resurrected humans.

2. Conflicting views on evil, suffering and death

He suggested that to the 'materialist', all evil is a consequence of "meaningless molecular interactions". Hence the minimisation of suffering becomes the supreme moral good and suicide a noble death.

He offered new insights into the potential of stem cell research for good, but questioned the use of human stem cell research and the harvesting and creation of embryos for varied purposes. He pointed out that there are ethically acceptable alternative sources of stem cells, including adult bone marrow, skin cells and umbilical cord blood and tissue.

We then considered what I would call the major public ethical dilemma of the last few weeks in this Australia. We have felt the pain of Christian Rossiter, who wants to die and escape what he sees as “being a prisoner in his own body” (see reference to this story here). How are we to respond to these types of real life situations? There are challenges for all in the face of suffering, but this is more acute for a humanity that sees suffering, death and pain as things that are meaningless and that have no place in their worldview. He put his finger on one of the great fears of our time – loss of independence and autonomy. Suicide and euthanasia are increasingly seen as noble ways to die, when faced with what is seen as meaningless suffering and what is judged to be a less than human existence.

3. Christian perspectives on death and suffering

We then considered a Christian perspective on death and suffering as Prof Wyatt brought us back to the Bible. He argued that death is not natural and was not part of God's plan (some will want to challenge this view), and that for many, it can only be seen as the ultimate terror. But the Bible teaches that the Christian's attitude to death and suffering is to be different – it is not meaningless, for it comes from the hand of God and it produces endurance, character and hope (Rom 5:1-11). He then argued that in Christ (his incarnation, death and resurrection) we find the lens through which we must view our painful contemporary dilemmas. It is in the hope of Christ that we find peace, complete redemption, eternal joy and fulfilment in worship and praise of our God.

Professor Wyatt illustrated how the Christian hope can change the way we view suffering and death with stories of people from his own clinical and personal experience, who have gone where few of us have been, and where none of us would choose to go. And yet, in each case he pointed out, that the people who had suffered from degenerative disease, the birth of a child with a degenerative illness or disability, the evil of rape and a resulting pregnancy, had all seen God glorified and their lives enriched in the midst of pain and suffering. The ultimate paradox it would seem is that sometimes the image of God is seen most clearly in brokenness and the imperfect, with of course the cross being the ultimate example. Pain and suffering can be transformed by the grace of God and used for his purposes.

Finally, he challenged us to avoid judgement and stand instead with people who go where we would never want to go. We are to love and serve them as God works out his redemptive plan for their lives and in fact all of his creation. Whether it is through better palliative care, pregnancy support centres or support of families in crisis, we must offer alternatives that help people to deal with pain and suffering and point them to the hope of Christ. His 3rd talk tonight is titled 'Bioethics and Future Hope'.

You can download all three talks from the New College Website as MP3 files (here).

Related posts

Full details on the lectures (here)

Post on talk 1 in the series on 'Bioethics and Future Hope' (here)

Other CASE posts on medical ethics (here)

John Wyatt's book 'Matters of Life and Death' (here)

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Two worldviews: Two views of life and death

Prof John Wyatt presented the first of three public lectures in the annual New College Lectures tonight. His first talk was titled "Bioethics and Creation".

He spoke with humility and compassion about the struggles that medical practitioners face every day due to advances in technology and science that open up choices not previously available. He also spoke graciously of the decisions ordinary people make in their daily lives as they deal with infertility, disability, degenerative illness, the risks of unplanned pregnancy, and foetal abnormalities and disease.

He structured the talk around explanation of two worldviews of the origin and nature of reality. The first, which he termed "Materialism" – one that sees reality as nothing but matter and energy and scientific laws governing how they interact (The Dawkins view of reality). Creation for the person holding this worldview only has a physical reality with no underlying purpose; human beings are seen as the result of a series of improbable and random events. A view he referred to as “the faith of the enlightenment” with its followers people who are on a quest for freedom from the restraints of nature.

The second worldview, a Christian understanding of reality, sees the cosmos as founded in the intentions of a Creator. Creation is no accident; there is a plan. All that we see unfolding before us is oriented towards the future plans of God. God has created the physical stuff that is easy to observe and the hidden moral order that is part of it. Humans are no accident; they are the creative work (no matter by what method) of God, made in his likeness and for his purposes. We are not self-explanatory; we derive our meaning from outside of ourselves – from God!

The second view of reality is based on the teachings of the Bible, and leads to a different view of personhood that should constrain our choices in accordance with God's loving purposes for us. Prof Wyatt argued that even when sin distorts the image of the creator in all of us, God works through our pain, our imperfections and the taking up of each other's burdens.
"As we face the challenges of advances in biology and biotechnology, it is vital for Christians to rediscover an authentically biblical view of what it means to be a human being – a biblical anthropology. In fact biblical ethics (the way we should behave) is derived from biblical anthropology (the way we are made)."
A different view of what it is to be human in turn leads to different hopes, aspirations and expectations for life and death.

For those in Sydney Prof Wyatt will present his second lecture at New College tomorrow evening at 7.30pm. The topic is “Bioethics and Redemption". Full details are on our website.

You can download all three talks in the series here

Professor John Wyatt

Professor Wyatt’s current position is as a clinical academic at the Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at University College London Hospitals - an internationally recognised tertiary centre for the care of the newborn. He has supervised a range of research projects including the use of new methods of optical brain scanning in babies and research on pre-term and brain-injured infants. He also has a long-standing interest in philosophical, ethical and religious issues raised by advances in medical technology. His is author of the widely acclaimed book 'Matters of Life and Death'

Saturday 5 September 2009

Apologetics is more than just winning arguments

Most definitions of apologetics start with Peter’s call in his first letter (1 Peter 3:15) to always be “…prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”. Typical of these definitions is Steven Cowan’s - “..the defence of the Christian faith against charges of falsehood, inconsistency or credulity” in ‘Five Views on Apologetics’. A definition like Cowan’s pushes us towards methods based on reason and argument. Paul’s defence before Roman officials (Acts 24-25) is one example of how this is done.

But most contemporary apologists suggest that apologetics must not just be defensive, it should also be ‘offensive’. While defensive apologetics involves refuting arguments, ‘offensive’ apologetics offers positive reasons for the Christian faith. Is this simply argument by another name? Perhaps, but this type of dialogue has a different origin and can be conducted on different terms.

CASE publishes a quarterly apologetics magazine (Case - our last issue was on the theme 'The God of Science') that I edit which is concentrating on the nature of apologetics in its next issue (due out in 3 weeks). We’ve done this because we believe that apologetics is commonly misunderstood and neglected by many Christians. Our writers show how relational and rational apologetics can co-exist. While not denying the importance of knowledge, they collectively underline that apologetics takes place between people sharing relationships.

I am always challenged by the varied contributions in each issue, and this one is no exception. In my introduction to the magazine I identify a number of foundational principles that I think help us to rethink attitudes and approaches to apologetics; here are four of them.

Apologetics is more than winning arguments

In offering a defence or reason for the hope that we have in Christ, we must do more than simply seek to win arguments; our lives must also commend Christ. David Hohne contributes an excellent essay in which he uses Peter’s challenge in his first letter (1 Peter 2:12) to have lives that commend God to others.

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

David Hohne argues that our defence should not be simply rational argument; we must use our ‘head, heart and hands’ and live as apologetic people in apologetic communities - “…our whole lives as both a defence and commendation of the grace of God in Christ.” The church is not separate from culture, and yet it should stand out against it.

Michael Jensen who also contributes to the issue makes the related point that the church needs to build “communities of grace” and demonstrate authentic Christian lives. Christ-centred communities draw attention to the one in whom its members place their hope.

We must look for new ways to engage in apologetics

In another excellent contribution to the magazine Andrew Bain points out that a common error with apologetics is to see it as just skills and tasks to be learned. He suggests that we must become better at connecting key elements of the Christian faith and the related themes of the culturally rich world in which we dwell. We need to articulate, for the benefit of others, those points of “conflict and connection” between Christian doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, revelation, Scripture, and Christology) and the key themes of the cultural and intellectual world in which we live.

Beware of apologetic transposition

Richard Gibson and Mike Thompson in an article titled “What happened to God’s emotions? (A warning to the apologist from history)” warn us to be true to the gospel we proclaim. They argue that we must be careful not to strip God of elements of his character as we present him to the world. Their focus in this paper (by way of example) is a consideration of three 2nd century apologists (Justin Martyr, Athenagoras and Clement of Alexandria) who they suggest used impassibility in a sense designed to rule out emotion as part of the character of God. They warn that in making the gospel intelligible we must avoid ending up presenting a God and a gospel inconsistent with what the Bible teaches.

Exercise humility as we present Christ

A common theme (and one I’ve written about on this blog before HERE) is the need for a more ‘humble apologetic’. Michael Jensen writes that we must prayerfully approach our dialogue with others with the knowledge that God is sovereign in our apologetics. As well, he commends the apologist to listen attentively and intelligently, and be prepared to say ‘I don’t know’. Similarly, William Lane Craig commends us to be “relational, humble and invitational”. We must present the reasons for our hope “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Case 20 details

The themed contents of Case 20 include the following contributions:

David Hohne, ‘Becoming an Apologetic Person’

Andrew Bain, ‘Theological Apologetics: A Program for Action’

Richard J. Gibson & Michael Thompson, ‘What happened to God’s emotions? (A warning to the apologist from history)’

Michael Jensen, ‘16 Verbs for a 21st Century Apologetics’

William Lane Craig, ‘Christian Apologetics – Who Needs It?

There are also two reviews:

Jonathan Marquet, ‘The Household: Informal Order Around the Hearth’

Kamal Weerakoon, ‘Kant and the Early Moderns’

Associates of CASE will receive their copies in three weeks. If you’d like to become an Associate check our website HERE.

Related Previous Posts

'Humble Apologetics' (here)
'Apologetics in Family Life' (here)
'Apologetics of the Heart' (here)