Tuesday, October 29, 2013


In a New York Times editorial Ross Douthat[1] comments on recent pronouncements of Pope Francis, which he interprets as being first steps in moving the Roman Catholic Church from the traditional to a more central position, central not being liberal or modern, but being not as traditional. The situation facing the Church, he says, is similar to that facing Judaism and other religious groups. He notes that the numbers of Jews in New York has risen 10 percent between 2002 and 2011, but that growth is predominately among Orthodox Jews, while Conservative and Reform population continues to decline. Thus, he concludes, this is a model for what is happening to religious groups in the West over the past 40 years, that is, the more liberal or modern a group becomes, the more it loses “membership, money and morale” but, the more traditional a religious group remains, the more resilient it remains.[2]
What about the evangelical movement? Where are we? For about forty years we seemed to live with the existence of what some described as a big tent, a time of true missional focus that resulted in the great missional activity around the world. I believe it is clear that the center has now weakened as evangelicals in droves head for one polarization or the other. For example, on one hand, a resurgent liberalism that in doctrine, language and tone is quite reminiscent of the writings of early liberals in the late 19th century. On the other hand a right wing which has added on layers of teaching that have nothing to do with classic orthodoxy or even classic fundamentalism, and having staked out this new territory defines itself as the truly orthodox.
While what I desire to think of as central evangelicalism still exists, and is still strong, it faces a burning question: how can a position of opposition to late modernity be maintained without collapsing into neo-extremism?
Quite simply, we must do the hard work of exegesis and theology, and stop simply talking to those who already agree with us. I would make the following, tentative suggestions, realizing that more should be added.
We must do the hard work of exegesis, clearly identifying the biblical position on various issues that are before us. Many, or at least some, positions are not biblical; they are instead expressions of modernity. Let me raise the issue of women in ministry as an example. Throughout church history there have been strands of movements that have opposed, to one extent or another, the involvement of women in ministry. However, current opposition, cloaked as biblical fidelity, is an attempt at both organizational and personal control that is modern to the core. This appears in the portrayal of family life as something that should revolve around power and authority and should conform itself to strictures that are laid out in diagrams. No grey areas, no vagueness, every question is answered. It is the emphasis on power that signals the presence of modernity, surprisingly in the midst of the group that claims to be against modernity.
What is lacking in the discussion of women in ministry is on-going exegetical work, and then after exegesis theology. By doing this hard work evangelicals can escape the pre-set conclusions of current thinking by staking out positions that are truly biblical.
For help in what such a project might look like I would turn to the issue of abortion. The Pope has said that the Roman Catholic Church must do more than oppose abortion. This has been taken as a signal that the church may soften or modify its opposition to abortion. This is doubtful, but if the Roman Catholic Church did somehow modify its stance, what might that look like? Perhaps it would look at least something like the traditional Protestant stance, which is, opposition to abortion, but an understanding of the life of the mother as valuable and as having a greater claim in an ethical decision. While this distinction exists, at the same time both Catholic and Evangelical churches have responded to the abortion issue by establishing ministries of support for pregnant women, mothers and children. Perhaps most gratifying is the change in attitude in evangelical churches towards women who are pregnant but single, shifting from what can only be described as a shunning culture to one of care and comfort.
Is this ethical and compassionate stance on abortion a landing in a “center” which Douthat says has failed to hold in every western faith? I think rather that it has indeed strengthened the protestant evangelical church and allowed for evangelism. Can the evangelical church, in very solid ways, move forward on other issues in a manner that is strongly biblical, and which also forsakes the modern requirement of power and authority, turning again to the Savior and seeking to allow him to live his life out through us?  I believe the period of greatest vitality and greatest growth happened in the past forty years when we struggled to do precisely that. And, I believe a revival of such an effort would result in an evangelicalism that would truly be a light to the nations.

[1] Ross Douthat, Promise and Peril of a Pope, The New York Times International Weekly, (Toronto Star Supplement) Sunday October 13, 2013, p. 15.
[2] Of especially note is that Douthat says that if there is a religious middle it is occupied by non-denominational ministries “spiritual but not religious.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is it Christian to Care for the Environment?

Some time ago the Globe and Mail apologized for printing a piece that claimed that the C&MA denied global warming, pointing out that leadership, i.e., yours truly, had indeed published articles calling for concern about this issue. In response something like the following appeared on certain other sites:
“Global warming??? Really??? Is this where we are going??? Global warming??? Oh I'm sorry... I thought this was the Christian & Missionary Alliance... I guess I got the United Church of Canada by mistake.”
Sadly this comment reflects a commonly held belief that there is a disjunction between the story of origins, that is Genesis 1 & 2 plus various Psalms, and the story of redemption, that is, Genesis 3 forward, plus various Psalms. To create this disjunction the Bible is seen as presenting information in a hierarchy of importance and this hierarchy dictates a hierarchy of action, that is, world care is way below salvation.
But perhaps there is a confusion here, for the Bible does not present a hierarchy of action, but rather calls us to Kingdom living, which is, living out the fullness of redemption. The confusion is to forget that there is in the Bible a wonderful depiction of redemption, and that the story of redemption requires many pieces of information so that it will, in the end, be understood for what it is: a robust, complete and true story, illuminating the way of salvation and a sure road map for life. What a wonderful book, full of stores, history, proverbs, songs, letters and visions, is the Bible. All through it, redemption, not just “you are saved from hell,” as huge a theme as that is, but also, a presentation, and a call, to full redemption which is a fullness of righteousness through the presence of the indwelling Christ, a righteousness that moves from the private sphere into community, and from community into the physical world; for the whole story includes the creation and its groaning as it waits for the completion of redemption (Romans 8).
Thus we need to ask this simple question. Who should be more concerned about the environment than Christians? The answer in truth is this. Christians are concerned, and rightly so, but there is a huge struggle to figure out a moral/philosophical basis for that concern. Christians, lacking a theological foundation, seem to have accepted one or more of the following reasons for environmental concern.
Pragmatic motivation: We live on this planet and when we behave ourselves in regards to the environment, our life is pretty good. So, let’s behave ourselves. Bio-diversity holds promise of new knowledge that may lead to life saving drugs. So, protect bio-diversity. Not corrupting the oceans and streams is one way to protect our food source. So, let’s work to keep them clean. Polluted air has well documented adverse effect on health, so clean up the air. And, the dire consequences of global warming are so severe and have such disastrous economic repercussions that we need to slow down or even stop the warming trend.
The problem with the pragmatic approach is that if a more immediate, pragmatic concern is present, it will, by the logic of pragmatism, be chosen. In other words, everything is subject to a cost-benefits analysis over a short timeline and the most efficient solution is chosen, most efficient usually meaning most economically beneficial, at least in the short run. For this reason a serious response to global warming remains for pragmatists in the “hoped for” category.
Aesthetic motivation: We live in a beautiful world, a world filled with lovely animals and plants, and we need to preserve this beauty. This is without question true, but it meets resistance again from pragmatic realities. Elephants are beautiful, but some covet their ivory, so, money trumps beauty. To counter this triumph of money over beauty the sustainable national park movement has been launched in a number of countries with the idea that tourist dollars (people like to see beautiful animals) will create a long-term economic benefit that outweighs the short-term gain from destroying the local eco-system. However, as an overall response the fragility of these parks underscores the fragility of “aesthetics” as a reason for environmental concern.
Earth goddess: Made popular in the movie Avatar is the revival of belief that the physical planet and the eco-system are manifestations of a divine presence, perhaps a divine intelligence, which belief may have polytheistic or pantheistic formats. However, this belief, in the end, fails to inform us why humans should be concerned about the environment, for if “the divine” is equally spread through all things, then the actions of humans against the environment is as much an action of “the divine” as are actions to preserve the environment. 
Facing all of this, evangelicals have tended to react with confusion. The beauty of the world is part of our apologetic for the existence of God and it is affirmed in Scripture; so sure, let’s go to South Africa’s parks or at least to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom and look at the lions and tigers. But the market place calls, and pragmatism rears its head. And evangelicals are, if they are anything, pragmatic. And then, look at how conveniently the “earth goddess” movement arrives, with its attendant new-age talk. Just in time to provide a reason for evangelicals not to be involved in environmental issues as one would not wish to support paganism in any manner.
Let’s go back to the Bible, for the Bible alone provides a rationale for environmental concern that can rise above pragmatism, be stronger than aesthetics and properly understand God’s will for the earth. Put simply, the story of redemption begins with creation, and the relevant point is that people were given the earth as a trust. The world was wild, but a garden was made and set aside and in it humanity began with a mandate. That mandate was to spread this garden through the whole planet, to fill the world and subdue it.
Sin resulted in banishment from the perfect garden into the surrounding wild, untamed world. Add the curse, which barred the natural synergy which our parents had with creation, and the result was a world where nature and humans barely co-existed. And while the mandate, to fill the earth and subdue it, was still in force, a chasm had opened between humans and nature, a chasm marked by greed and corruption.
But the Savior has now come, and with his resurrection and ascension we live in the age in-between, the age of “already but not yet.” In this age we wait, but not in a quietist manner, no, we wait actively, working to bring in the fullness of the approaching Kingdom. This must be a wholistic work, the whole gospel for the whole person for the whole world. The whole gospel includes healing for the body and righteous acts such as the protection of vulnerable people and the protection of our vulnerable planet. Thus, environmental work is eschatological, for in so working we can possibly bring changes which will allow the benefits of Christ’s kingdom to be visible and active now, in the planet, even though limited in extent. Thus, to work for the good of the environment is to do a Kingdom work, a work which we were told to do at the beginning and which, in doing, displays in microcosm the glory of the coming Kingdom macrocosm.