Why write an intellectual and spiritual autobiography? Quite a few years ago, I read a book entitled Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers, edited by Kelly James Clark (IVP 1993). The title of this book raises the question – is it common or uncommon to find philosophers who are Christian believers? The preface to this book notes that it was not that long ago that most philosophy departments in the Western world were very hostile to the Christian faith (1950s-1960s). I began my philosophical studies in the latter part of that time period, and this no doubt prompted my interest in Clark’s book. Indeed, I found the book to be an encouragement and an inspiration. That is the power of personal narratives, and so I feel compelled to write my own story, hoping that it will encourage and inspire others as well.
I was in the middle of reading another book when I started writing this essay – Religious Upbringing: Personal and Philosophical Essays, edited by Peter Caws and Stefani Jones (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010).[i] This book is an anthology of essays, again written by philosophers, but most of them very critical of their fundamentalist religious upbringing, some describing it in terms of indoctrination, and even brainwashing. They also describe the pain involved in their journey towards “enlightenment” when they eventually chucked the faith within which they had been brought up. As I was reading these stories, I could not help but think that there is a need for another book – written by philosophers who had a religious upbringing but who still adhere to the religion into which they were nurtured. This essay is a modest contribution to this cause. My hope is that sceptics will understand that there is another story that can be told, and that Christians and other religious adherents, especially younger Christian philosophers, will be encouraged and inspired to keep the faith.
I was born on January 18, 1942. My father was a teacher in a one-roomed school in a small village in south-western Saskatchewan. Indeed, my father was my teacher for eight of the first nine years of my schooling. Having one’s father as your teacher is not an ideal educational arrangement, especially if he is a strict disciplinarian. Sometimes other students expressed their resistance to my father’s discipline by taking it out on me. I began my schooling early, due to my mother having to leave home for a period of time to take care of her mother who was ill. I guess I was somewhat precocious because I was able to complete Grade One even though I only started half way through the school year at the age of five. But I was never told that I was bright, what with my father as my teacher, and a mother who only completed six years of schooling. Besides, given the religious background of my home, you didn’t tell children that they were bright lest they become proud.
My parents belonged to a pietistic branch of the Mennonites who had their origins in the radical Anabaptist movement of sixteenth century Europe. The Mennonite Brethren broke off from the larger Mennonite church in Russia in the 1860s, and were more conservative and pietistic in orientation. I think it is fair to describe my religious upbringing as fundamentalist. I was “born-again” at the age of nine, largely due to a fear of not wanting to end up in hell. Bible reading and prayer were a regular part of our family meal-time traditions, and of course I was taught the fundamentals of the faith in Sunday school and church which my family attended without fail.
Did my fundamentalist upbringing hurt my development in terms of becoming an autonomous critical thinker? Not at all! In fact, I believe my rather narrow upbringing was foundational to my becoming an independent and critical thinker. Various writers have argued that growing up in a secure and stable primary culture is a key requirement for healthy development towards autonomy. Indeed, there is empirical evidence to support this claim, contrary to the philosophers writing in Religious Upbringing, cited earlier in this essay. It is these concerns about the relation between a religious upbringing and the development towards rational autonomy that are at the heart of my first “real” book which grew out of my Ph.D. dissertation: Teaching for Commitment (1993).[ii] But I am getting ahead of myself.
My philosophical career began rather early. I can still picture a scene in our three-room house in Rhineland, another village in south-western Saskatchewan, where I began my schooling. Our house was attached to the school, separated only by a door with a peep-hole in it so that the class could be monitored by my father or mother when needed. I can also remember as a child sitting on the steps to the attic, badgering my mother with questions as she was washing the dishes in the kitchen. I suspect all this questioning, including questions about the Christian faith, caused my poor mother to worry about me. Although she was an intelligent woman, her lack of formal schooling would no doubt have made her concerned about my insistence on asking hard questions. It is this questioning which led to my childhood conversion, and which in the end led to my choice of an academic career in philosophy.
Science and the Christian faith:
My early academic interests, however, were not in philosophy but in the sciences. I did well in the sciences in high school. After graduating from the Swift Current Collegiate Institute in 1959, I received a scholarship to attend university, and so proceeded to the University of Saskatchewan to study science. It was a very difficult year, in part because I was grieving my father’s death of the previous summer; in part because of loneliness; in part because I simply wasn’t mature enough for university; and in part because I was scared about what a university education would do to my faith. Indeed, my dear grandfather, a well-known Mennonite Brethren preacher, was opposed to my going directly to university from high school. I survived the year, thanks in a large measure to the support of a Christian community on campus, that of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
It had always been my intent to study theology at some point. Given the many difficulties I faced during my first year at university, I decided to spend a year at a church-related college to get some theological education. I ended up studying at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in Winnipeg for three years, completing a theology degree in 1963. During my first year I took every available course that involved a study of the books of the Bible, and thoroughly enjoyed getting a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Dr. David Ewert’s courses in particular showed me how careful scholarship and a love of Scripture can go hand in hand. It was during these years of study in theology and the history of the church that I developed some competence in the humanities – I nearly failed an introductory English course in my first year of university! After my three years at MBBC, I returned to the University of Saskatchewan to finish my science degree. I did, however, take a course in philosophy during the first year of my return to university, and after that I was hooked. I went on to complete an honours year at the University of Saskatchewen (1965-66), ending up with a double major in physics and philosophy.
Before I focus on the philosophical part of my story, let me reflect a little on my background in science. I loved science. It was precise, measurable, observable, and it produced clear-cut answers. I absorbed the typical twentieth century attitudes towards science, attitudes that were shaped by the Enlightenment. Science is objective – more on that later. Science also gives us certainty and knowledge. I still feel indebted to my science background. I think it has helped me to avoid sloppiness in my philosophical thinking and writing. But my scientific background also shaped my philosophical outlook. It gave me a very healthy respect for empiricism.
Empiricism claims that knowledge must be based on the five senses. I still believe this, at least in part. Although reasoning is important, and no good scientist could deny this, our rationality is ultimately rooted in the data we get via the five senses. All of us are fundamentally reliant on our five senses in acquiring the beliefs we hold. Think of a child – fascinated with seeing, touching, feeling. We as adults are no different. When we demand of someone, “Prove it to me” – we generally mean, “Show me.” That is the best way to clinch an argument.
Of course, empiricism seems to create a significant challenge to the Christian faith. God would seem to be beyond sense experience. Small wonder that the so-called “Enlightenment,” with its devotion to reason and science, led to an increasing scepticism about religious faith. David Hume, eighteenth century British empiricist, argued that any claims that could not be empirically proven should be banished to the flames. German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, proposed that we deny the possibility of knowledge (i.e. scientific knowledge) in the religious sphere, in order to make room for faith. (My M.A. thesis explored Kant’s resulting notion of God.) Verification became one of the most important intellectual issues of the twentieth century.
The issue of verification was at the heart of logical positivist movement that began in the 1920s, and had its greatest influence from the thirties to the mid-fifties. But the influence of logical positivism extended well beyond this period, and I believe it is still very influential, contrary to the many philosophers who say that logical positivism is dead and buried. I wrestled with the challenge of logical positivism to religious faith in my early studies in philosophy. During my fourth year at university, we studied A.J. Ayer’s Language Truth and Logic (1936), and I couldn’t help but be impressed with Ayer’s verification principle: a genuinely factual statement must be empirically verifiable. During my early years in teaching I even used as a text a major 552-page anthology on the topic of verification and religion in a second year course in the philosophy of religion.[iii] And this was only one of four texts for this course! I am still embarrassed about this colossal failure in adjusting the course to the abilities of my students.
But, where does the principle of verification leave God? Are not most religious claims immune to empirical verification? These questions were raising significant doubts about my Christian faith during my undergraduate studies in philosophy. Indeed, it was during my fourth year at university that I experienced a crisis of faith, and was beginning to wonder whether intellectual integrity demanded a rejection of the Christian faith with which I had grown up.
The local chapter of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship held a Christian mission on the University of Saskatchewan campus that same year (1966), and the main speaker for this mission was John W. Montgomery, an historian, Lutheran theologian, and Christian apologist. He was also invited to lecture in one of my philosophy classes and I was deeply impressed with his clear reasoning. I asked if I could meet with him to discuss my doubts and also a paper I had prepared, “A.J. Ayer and Religious Knowledge,” which I was going to present to the philosophy club. We met and his first comment was, “This is a great paper. You should definitely go on in philosophy or theology.” I certainly needed this kind of encouragement at the time. (Here is an example of a little word of encouragement playing a significant role in someone’s life. I pray that I will have done this for other students in my own academic career.)
Montgomery also addressed my doubts concerning the verifiability of the Christian faith, highlighting the significance of the Word becoming flesh (John 1:1-11). God entered space and time in the person of Jesus Christ. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide empirical proof of God’s existence. I also purchased Montgomery’s book, History & Christianity published by Inter-Varsity Press in 1964, which provides an outline of an historical argument for the existence of God.
Over the years I have come to appreciate the significance of the Incarnation as the foundation of the Christian faith. For many people, especially philosophers, this foundation might seem rather flimsy, based as it is on contingent historical fact. Indeed, this is in part what lies behind Paul’s claim that the preaching of Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1:23). But Paul goes on and dares to suggest that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Cor. 15:14).
It is this historical event that continues to be the bedrock of my Christian faith – God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Of course there are additional issues that need to be addressed. For one, are miracles like the virgin birth or the resurrection possible? I have taught David Hume’s classic “refutation” of the possibility of miracles many times in my introductory philosophy courses, and each time I am amazed, and a little embarrassed, to find a brilliant philosopher like Hume, so obviously arguing in a circle. I often refer to C.S. Lewis’s little book entitled Miracles (1947), for an illuminating and trenchant critique of Hume’s argument. The admission of the possibility of miracles finally hinges on a question of one’s worldview and the presuppositions that underlie one’s worldview. If the empirical world is all that there is to reality, then yes, the miracles of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are impossible. But the claim that reality is confined to the empirical world is itself a presupposition that stands in need of justification. I will come back to presuppositions and their justification later.
There is one further insight in the philosophy of science that I have found most helpful in articulating and defending my Christian faith. Harvard philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, in his analysis of “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” makes an interesting observation about the status of physical objects in science, as well as atomic particles and forces.[iv] He suggests that the epistemological status of these entities in science is the same as that of the gods of religion. I think Quine has got this right. Scientists posit entities such as atoms, electrons, and quarks that are not directly observable in order to explain what we do observe. I believe it is helpful to think of the God of Christianity as a useful posit that helps believers to explain the world that we live in. The sharp distinctions often made between science and religion are unwarranted, as I have argued elsewhere.[v]
Reason, philosophy and the Christian faith:
Why did I switch from science to philosophy? It wasn’t easy to make this change. Some members of my family were strongly opposed to my entering the suspicious field of philosophy. But I was facing an increasing disenchantment with physics. Yes, there was something satisfying about the precise formula on a blackboard, but in what way did these formulae relate to existential questions about life and its meaning? Learning about the laws of science seemed increasingly to be unimportant and superficial. After all, science itself rests on philosophical assumptions, and it was these assumptions that I was finding increasingly intriguing.
My final course in the sciences was Physics 351 – an Introduction to Modern Physics. I had told my professor that I was considering switching from physics to philosophy, and thankfully he sympathized with my divided loyalties. He loved to tease the class by pushing the boundaries of science into discussions of philosophical assumptions underlying nuclear physics. I loved these integrative excursions, and it made my transition to philosophy easier. But Professor Montalbetti was a bit ahead of his time in recognizing that ultimately science is shaped by worldviews, and perhaps even theology!
In part, my enchantment with philosophy was also due the tensions it created with regard to my Christian faith. I wanted to test my faith. I wanted to see if it could withstand the challenges of rigorous thinking, and philosophy seemed to be the area where the challenge might be the hottest. My first philosophy teacher was an ex-Baptist, turned agnostic or atheist. T.Y. Henderson loved to spend the first 15 minutes of many a philosophy class heaping ridicule on the Billy Graham column of the local paper, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, I believe it was. I still remember one of the first philosophy essays that I wrote for him, in which I made a valiant effort to provide a rational defence of my Christian faith. When I got it back, Professor Henderson had written the equivalent of another whole essay of comments in glaring red ink. That was my first feeble attempt to integrate the faith of Athens and the faith of Jerusalem.
Another significant event in my intellectual development was the reading of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian (Allen & Unwin, 1957). I still remember my hesitation in reading this book. It remained on my shelves for quite some time before I mustered the courage to read it. I was rather delighted to discover that the book wasn’t as threatening to my faith as I thought it would be. The margins of my copy of this book are scribbled full of my rebuttals to Russell’s objections to Christianity.
Throughout my philosophical career I have struggled with the relation between faith and reason, and as I have already described in the previous section, my struggle nearly ended with a loss of faith. My engaging in such a struggle rests on an assumption that needs to be brought to the fore, because it isn’t accepted by all thinkers, either Christian or non-christian. My decision to go into philosophy and the resulting struggle with my faith presuppose that religious faith can and should be tested by reason. After years of struggle, I still hold to this. Sharp dichotomies between faith and reason, revelation and reason, or religion and science are problematic. In my opinion Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sharp distinction between faith and reason is fundamentally wrong-headed. Similarly, Karl Barth was wrong in divorcing revelation from reason.
What are my objections to fideism, or religion based on faith alone, as exemplified in Wittgenstein and Barth: (a) It opens the door to irrationalism. Once you open the door to irrationalism, you have nothing to say to someone who believes in Santa Claus, or Marxism, or Satanism. (b) A sharp compartimentalization between faith and reason breaks down – people who hold this position are always inconsistent. They inevitably do use reason at some point in their discussions of religion. (c) I don’t think this position is in keeping with what the Scriptures teach. We are called to give a reason for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). We are called to love God with our minds (Matthew 22:37). Failure to think is a betrayal of our humanity. We are called to supplement faith with knowledge (II Peter 1:5). (d) Religious commitment without reflection leads to dangerous fanaticism. Paul at one point expresses concerns about such fanaticism on the part of some religious believers. “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2).
Here an important theological objection is often raised by Christians themselves. Is not Christian commitment based on faith? Does not the writer to Hebrews suggest that faith is being certain of things we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)? And does not Paul say that “the message of the cross is foolishness,” and that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate” (I Corinthians 1:18-19)? I have wrestled long and hard over these questions, and was especially helped by a book by Paul Gooch, Partial Knowledge:Philosophical Studies in Paul (University of Notre Dame Press, 1987). Gooch argues that Paul was not criticizing scholars and philosophers per se, but he was dealing with the problem of intellectual pride that is a very real temptation for scholars. I have also come to see that the writer to the Hebrews is not in any way rejecting reason in favour of faith. Indeed, he goes on to say that by faith “we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command” (Hebrews 11:3). Faith involves understanding. Further, as I have often told my students, knowledge begins and ends with faith. We always start with presuppositions that are in one sense accepted by faith. Or as Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century stated, it is always “faith seeking understanding.” And the conclusions we reach after careful empirical and rational investigation are never absolutely certain, and so we make a leap of faith even after we have reached tentative conclusions, just so we can get on with life.
Yes, it would seem that Paul is making a virtue out of the foolishness of the Christian faith. However, Paul is in no way condemning wisdom or rationality generally since he goes on to suggest that Christians do indeed “speak a message of wisdom among the mature” (I Corinthians 2:6). Instead, Paul is condemning intellectual conceit, wisdom which fails to acknowledge its dependence on God and His revelation of truth. Paul himself was a master at debate and was constantly trying to provide a rational defence of his faith, even in the presence of philosophers (Acts 17:2, 17; 17: 16-34; 18:4; 19:8). When Paul makes his defence before Festus, the Roman governor, his language is striking: “What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25).
The Scriptures generally have a very high regard for the mind, culminating in the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Wisdom and knowledge are repeatedly praised and spoken of as treasures (Proverbs 1 & 2; II Peter 1:5-7; Philippians 1:9-10). Myths and “cleverly invented stories” are repeatedly condemned (II Peter 1:16). It is evidence such as this that led John R.W. Stott to remind Christians that Your Mind Matters (1972), a classic short defence of the importance of rationality within Christianity, and a little book that I still have on my shelves. This does not mean that rationality is everything – there are limits to reason, as I have already suggested.
Philosophy, Practical Discipleship, and Piety:
I love philosophy and the exchange of arguments with fellow philosophers. I love ideas and interacting with others about ideas. I love teaching and seeing students respond to new ideas. I love research and writing. But I have also come to see the dangers of a preoccupation with intellectual life and philosophy. An admonition of nineteenth century Danish Christian existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard has challenged me: “Christ did not appoint professors, but followers.” So has Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, who made this observation: “Pious scholars are rare.” We are called to love God with our whole being – with heart, soul, strength and mind. Then there is the call to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). I have struggled with these calls to love and discipleship, and I don’t think I am alone. I believe academics are generally not very good lovers – lovers of God, or lovers of our neighbours. Somehow, the education we have received, and the entire educational enterprise seems to militate against love and old-fashioned piety.
We have received an education shaped by enlightenment ideals which have made us value being objective, instead of committed; detached, instead of loving; rational, instead of passionate. We have come to enjoy questions, instead of answers. Answers would spoil everything. They might just carry with them a call to be committed. Or, to use Max Weber’s prophetic description of the modern era, we have become specialists without spirit. We as academics seem to have difficulty blending academic excellence with piety, practical discipleship, commitment, and love.
This is not to say that the academic life and being a philosopher is entirely unrelated to being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. I feel called by God to be a philosopher. Wrestling with ideas is an expression of my being a follower of Jesus Christ. But there is more to the Christian life than this. We are also called to love God with heart, soul and strength. We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. We are called to become more like Christ, to display the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22). I have had to work at finding this balance in Christian discipleship – loving God with my mind and loving God with my heart, soul and strength.
There is one particular dimension of this balance that deserves more comment. As already mentioned, I grew up in a rather pietistic Christian environment. As I read my early diaries I discover a strong pietistic strain in the expression of my early faith. Strangely, this was combined in my life with a strong bent towards asking questions and arguing. There is a tension here that I have had to work at resolving in my life. Again, I found my study of Kierkegaard in graduate school helpful. Kierkegaard wrestled profoundly with the interrelation between objective and subjective ways of knowing the truth of Christianity. Here is his definition of truth: “the objective uncertainty, held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth available for an existing person” (Concluding Unscientific Postcript, 1844). There is something right about this! There is a deeper level of knowing, a knowing of the heart, as Pascal famously said.
I recall my time at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, when for the first time I was reading the bible as part of my academic studies. And again, I loved it. I was hungry for a better understanding of the books of the Bible, and I took every Bible course that I could. But I also remember struggling with the relation of my studies to my times of quiet meditation, devotional reading of the Bible, and prayer. In fact, were the latter even necessary, now that I was studying the Bible as part of my academic program? I’m not sure I resolved this question entirely while I was at MBBC. Once I was back at a secular university studying science and philosophy, the importance of a devotional life was again more obvious.
As I continued in my academic pursuits, I think I have come to a better integration of heart and mind. Most days I spend some time in the reading of Scripture, meditation and prayer. While teaching, I liked to begin my day with 10-15 minutes of devotional reading and prayer in my office – I felt it was important to “sanctify” the workplace. I have found it useful to combine the reading of a portion of Scripture with a good commentary on the passage of Scripture I am reading. As my mind is able to better comprehend the meaning of Scripture, I am led to worship, commitment and prayer. So for me piety is very intimately bound up with the exercise of my intellect, and I have become more comfortable with what I suspect is a rather unique kind of a blending of heart and mind. As an academic it is all too easy to take a stance of sitting in judgment over the Word of God, critically analysing what is written. At some point it is necessary to let the Word of God judge me.
One other experience deserves mention. I have already alluded to the intense struggle with my faith that I experienced during my fourth year at the university. Indeed, in my diary, I described November of 1965 as “the darkest month in my life.” I was discouraged. I lacked motivation. I was ready to quit university. I even failed a Physics exam! In the midst of my despair I cried to God. It was during this time that I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience. Indeed, I may even have spoken in tongues. I was in the home of an IVCF staff member, and must have been sharing the emotional turmoil I was going through. We all knelt down to pray, and I kept on praying. I was so absorbed in prayer that eventually my hosts had to gently intervene, because they had to go to another appointment. I recall repeating the name of “Jesus” over and over again. While in this trance-like state, I experienced an overwhelming sense of peace. God, I am sure, was meeting some deeply felt needs of mine at the time. Perhaps man is more than a rational animal. Over the years, this experience has also served to temper my criticisms of the charismatic movement in Christianity.
Reformed epistemology and a Christian worldview:
My philosophical outlook has been shaped to a significant degree by what has come to be known as “Reformed epistemology.”[vi] Indeed, I often say that I owe my philosophical salvation to the Reformed philosophers who have built on the writings of John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper. I was first introduced to this philosophical tradition by the writings of Francis Schaeffer in the late 1960s (see his The God Who is There, IVP, 1968). I found Schaeffer’s overview of the history of ideas most instructive. He introduced me to the notion of presuppositions, underscoring the importance of penetrating to the underlying assumptions of a belief system in order to really understand it. My wife and I even paid a visit to Schaeffer’s L’Abri retreat centre in Switzerland in 1968, during our one-year stay in Europe after our wedding.
Reformed epistemology challenges the notion of the autonomy of human reason. Ultimately a person’s reason is shaped by a pre-theoretical faith commitment. It is the heart that determines the direction of human reason. Our thinking is further very much influenced by our history, our environment and even our psychology, and so we need to give up the Enlightenment idea that rationality is all of one piece, that we all reason in the same way, and that all rational people will come to the same conclusion. Hence the appropriateness of the title of Alistair MacIntyre’s book: Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). Indeed, these insights of Reformed epistemology have been reinforced by any number of post-modern critiques of the Enlightenment.
This emphasis on presuppositions and the subjectivity of reason seems to lead to epistemological relativism and ultimately social constructivism. It is these problems that I have been wrestling with in the last few decades and have gradually come to adopt a position of critical realism. While we can never access reality as it really is, there is still an objectively “given” reality that we are trying to comprehend, however incompletely, and against which our interpretations rub. We must therefore always be open to critically examining our present understanding of reality, in hopes of moving towards a better and more complete understanding. While our thinking is shaped by our pre-theoretical faith commitments, we still live in a common world and there is still a baseline of commonness in the reasoning of ordinary people in ordinary life. I have found John Rawls notion of overlapping circles helpful in trying to do justice to both the uniqueness and the commonness of human rationality.[vii]
Regarding relativism and truth claims, I have found that confusion abounds when we fail to differentiate between the search for truth and Truth itself. The human search for truth is relative – we are often forced to admit that we have got it wrong. But Truth is absolute – eternal and unchanging. To pretend that we can arrive at absolute Truth is to be conceited. But without absolute Truth as a goal, our search for truth becomes empty. The Scriptures are, I believe, very clear on this. Paul in his famous chapter on love stresses that we know only in part, that we only see the truth dimly. It is only when we escape the limitations of human rationality here on earth, that we will know fully and that perfect truth will be known (I Corinthians 13: 10, 12).
The limitations that surround our search for truth highlight the need to be open-minded, another theme that has been the focus of my attention in the last few decades.[viii] Indeed, I believe open-mindedness is a key intellectual virtue. But like all good things, this intellectual virtue can be distorted. We can be so open-minded that we forget about the goal of coming closer to the truth. We can be so preoccupied with the search that we forget the desperate human need of arriving at some settled convictions. This danger is well illustrated in G. K. Chesterton’s description of H.G. Wells as a man who “reacted too swiftly to everything,” was indeed “a permanent reactionary” and never seemed able to reach firm or settled conclusions of his own. Chesterton goes on: “I think he thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”[ix] Somehow we need to find a healthy balance between commitment and open-mindedness.
Over the years, I have also become increasingly concerned about an overemphasis on questioning and critical thinking that is so prevalent today in education, philosophy, and theology (e.g. the hermeneutics of suspicion). French philosopher, René Descartes, is generally seen as the father of modern philosophy. Descartes should also be seen as the father of our current preoccupation with questioning and critical thinking. Descartes begins his famous Meditations (1641), by acknowledging that from his earliest years, he has accepted many false opinions as true. This prompts him to systematically subject all of his former opinions to doubt in hopes of finding at least one belief that is absolutely certain. Unfortunately for Descartes, his one certain truth, “I think, therefore I am,” is not quite as certain as he thought it was. Indeed, there are problems with the very goal of absolute certainty that drove Descartes’ methodological doubt. It is also impossible to question or doubt everything. You simply can’t start from scratch. There are a number of assumptions Descartes makes that remain unquestioned. The individualism that pervades Descartes’ approach can also be called into question.
What is the alternative? We need to recognize the importance of the community in coming to know, including the community of past generations. We need to acknowledge that we can only question if we have first been given something to question. As Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us, “The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief.” Questioning and critical thinking is dependent on our first being initiated into a particular tradition of thought. A conservative posture is therefore the appropriate response to tradition. We should cherish the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations. This does not preclude critical thinking and questioning. (After all, this is what attracted me to philosophy in the first place.) As fallible and sinful creatures, we always need to be open to reevaluating what we believe. But this should be done carefully, assessing beliefs and assumptions one by one, not by a wholesale rejection of everything we believe. Our epistemological stance should again be one of committed openness. We should be honest and admit the “answers” that we tentatively hold at the present time. At the same time, we should be open to critically evaluating these answers, always with a view to discovering more complete answers and coming closer to the truth. We also need to be patient, realizing that we will only know fully and completely in the eschaton, when we will see Jesus face to face.
In the last few decades I have also explored the notion of “worldview,” and more specifically a Christian worldview, and have been teaching courses on this subject since my retirement.[x] I have already dealt with the notion of presuppositions which Reformed writers like to describe as pre-theoretical faith commitments at the heart of one’s belief system. One of the difficulties I have been trying to sort out is to describe precisely how these pre-theoretical commitments relate to theoretical belief systems. In any case, these presuppositions shape our worldview, which in turn shapes our thinking in all areas. A Christian worldview maintains that God is sovereign over all aspects of reality, life, thought and culture. I have been inspired by a statement made by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch journalist, politician, educator and theologian, who in the climax of his inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University of Amsterdam in 1880 stated, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[xi]
This summarizes a long-held passion of mine for developing a uniquely Christian mind in all areas of human thought and endeavour. Here I am indebted to a book I read while I was still an undergraduate student, The Christian Mind, by Harry Blamires (1963). Another essay I discovered later in my career and which I found deeply inspiring was written by Alvin Plantinga, entitled “Advice to Christian Philosophers” (1984).[xii] I have also found the notions of presuppositions and worldviews immensely useful in teaching, and in explaining why and how individuals come to disagree so profoundly about many things. Sadly, the idea of a Christian worldview has been running out of favour among Christian scholars, and so I have published a number of articles defending this notion.[xiii] Even more sadly, there are many Christian scholars who deny outright the very idea of a uniquely Christian perspective on their disciplines. Hence my continued urging of Christian scholars to be faithful in following Jesus Christ in their academic careers.[xiv]
Family and church life:
I first met Maggie Friesen in 1963 while we were both attending the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. Her family, like mine, was of Mennonite background. She was born in Alberta, but the family moved to Ontario when she was 12 years old. Church-related colleges are a good place to meet! We connected again a few years later when I was working at the Dominion Observatories in Ottawa during the summers, helping with seismic research. This was still in my physics days. After the completion of my B.A. at the University of Saskatchewan, I chose to go to McMaster University in Ontario to begin my graduate studies. My very “rational” choice to go there was dictated in a large part by the fact that Maggie would be attending McMaster that year to complete her B.A. in English literature. We were married after our year at McMaster (1967), and soon after the wedding went to Germany where I had received a one-year exchange scholarship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst.
I’m sure it has not been easy for my wife to put up with an academically inclined husband who was a bit of a workaholic, and who was all too often absorbed in thought, especially while writing books. My wife had to bear a good deal of the burden of rearing our three children. Although I was very much absorbed in my work, I loved (and love) our children, and did spend time caring for them, playing with them, and especially during the summers, enjoying camping holidays with them. I am deeply indebted to my wife for her loyalty and support over all these years, and for creating a warm and stable home-environment for her children and husband. Ours was a rather traditional household, with the husband being the breadwinner and the wife being the homemaker. (My wife gave up teaching as a career when the first child arrived.) This arrangement worked well for both of us, and we find no need to make apologies for being so traditional when it comes to gender roles. Rearing children is surely one of the most important things that parents do, and we felt this required at least one of us to be at home. My children too have taught me much – not all learning is academic!
I grew up within a Mennonite Brethren church context and am deeply indebted to this church tradition for nurturing me in the Christian faith. During graduate studies and early in my career various churches provided opportunities for me to exercise my gifts in teaching and preaching. For most of my academic career I was actively involved in the Crestwood Mennonite Brethren Church in Medicine Hat where I often served as Sunday School teacher and preacher, and held a variety of leadership positions, including that of moderator and lay-minister. This is the church in which each of our three children was raised and baptized. We have many good memories of this church. Over the years my service in the denomination expanded to include writing for the Mennonite Brethren Herald and being on conference committees and boards. I love preaching and have also spoken in various churches across Canada. A highlight for me was a year of pulpit supply (2001-2) in the Seven Persons Community Church near Medicine Hat while this church was without a pastor.
Belonging to a specific church is not always easy. Churches are not perfect because they consist of imperfect individuals whose basic credential for belonging to a church is the unmerited grace they can claim in Jesus Christ. Most often I was the only philosopher in the church, and there were always some in the church who were suspicious of academics, and more specifically philosophers. Anti-intellectualism has of course been very pervasive among North American evangelicals in past decades, as has been documented by Mark Noll,[xv] and this includes the Mennonite Brethren church. Indeed, I have had to listen to sermons where Paul’s seeming attack against scholars and philosophers in I Cor. 1-3 was used to criticize philosophy and philosophers, and I couldn’t help but feel that these sermons were very pointed, because I was the only philosopher in the church. So I have had to work at continuing to relate to those who were not academically inclined, and to love those who looked at me with suspicion. I have also felt called to counter the narrowness and dogmatism that is all-too-often present in evangelical churches, and to offer critique where I have felt this was necessary.
Sadly, the story of my church involvement in Medicine Hat had a rather difficult ending. After some 25 years of active leadership in the church, I wrestled with what to do about an increasing resistance to my leadership. I was seen as a traditionalist, holding the church back from progress and being relevant to our contemporary world. I didn’t want to engage in a power struggle and felt Christ calling me to step down from leadership. After a few years of decline in the church, I was asked to return to leadership, but discovered too late that I could do little to help the church. Thankfully, God led us to move away from Medicine Hat. Over time, God has given me the assurance that I was acting in good faith and trying my best to solve a no-win situation. God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful. I am learning to be satisfied with that.
What are some other lessons I learned from this painful experience? The church is imperfect. I am imperfect. God still loves the church and wants us to continue to love the church. Our trust is finally not in the church, but in God who is fully trustworthy. Jesus is the head of the church, even of an imperfect church. One needs to be patient in bringing about change in the church. It is very difficult to sort things out when one is in the midst of a church crisis. I also learned that academics don’t necessarily make the best church leaders. I have a tendency to think that problems can be solved by putting things on paper, or writing up a policy, and this just isn’t enough!
This event was one of several other factors that contributed to a psychological crisis in my life. I was also facing difficulties processing my loss of identity in retirement. Turning 65 was not easy for me. In the winter of 2006 we spent a semester at Lithuania Christian College (LCC), and this was a very stressful experience – in fact, I had one of the worst classes of my entire teaching career. I had also thought of continuing to teach at LCC during the first few years of retirement, but after a semester there, we realized that this was not the right fit for me. So, I was also facing a future with no concrete plans. Then there was the uncertainty with regard to where we should live during our retirement years – we were thinking of a move to a bigger city. All these factors contributed to high levels of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. So, I had to learn the lesson of human vulnerability in a new way. I spent many hours reading and meditating on the Psalms and other comforting passages of Scripture. I also had a good physician, who gently persuaded me to accept the fact that I needed some anti-depressants. I am thankful to a former student of mine, now a dear friend, who provided external counsel, and of course, I am also exceedingly thankful for the faithful support of a loving wife. I got through this period somehow, and after a few years recovered full mental health. God is good.
One final observation regarding my relation to the church. After moving to Waterloo, Ontario in 2007, we spent a full semester visiting various Mennonite churches in Kitchener/Waterloo. In the end we decided that there simply was no Mennonite Brethren church in the area where we felt comfortable. So we joined the Waterloo North Mennonite Church (WNMC). In part this choice was dictated by our desire to find a church that was close to where we had bought a house. We quickly felt very much at home at WNMC whose membership includes many academics and professionals. The church also has a vibrant seniors group, and my wife and I provided two years of leadership to this group. There is considerable diversity of theological opinion in the church with some tendencies towards liberal theology, and learning to navigate these has again been an interesting learning experience. While in Medicine Hat I was considered too liberal, at WNMC I am viewed as ultra-conservative. Perhaps that is exactly where I want to be theologically – somewhere in the middle! But this stance has led to my feeling somewhat isolated in the church. Then again, perhaps this is what we as Christians should expect given that we are always longing for a better home (Heb. 11:13-16).
Graduate studies and the call to teach:
I have already written about my “rational” choice of McMaster University as the place where I began my graduate studies. The year at McMaster was a challenge because my background in philosophy was not that strong given my double major in physics and philosophy in my undergraduate studies. Often during our seminars, I found myself struggling just to keep up with the discussion, and I very seldom participated in class discussions. Indeed, I was seriously questioning my going on in philosophy.
I remember one incident that helped to change my skepticism about my philosophical abilities. I had presented a seminar on Wittgenstein’s mysticism and later talked to my professor who asked me what I would be doing after completing my M.A. I told Dr. Shaloam that I was thinking of quitting philosophy. He was surprised and interrogated me further on this, and so I shared with him my ongoing doubts about my ability to do graduate work in philosophy. He encouraged me to go on, because he felt that I was doing well. I had presented two good papers in his class. I needn’t worry about not contributing to class discussions because this wasn’t that important, and besides, the students who were actively involved in these discussions were probably talking about stuff they didn’t really understand. Dr. Shaloam felt that I was a clear thinker. He confessed to being a slow thinker himself. He reminded me that lack of confidence was common among philosophers. Wittgenstein is said to have asked Bertrand Russell whether he should go on in philosophy or whether he was simply a dunce. It was this short conversation with my professor that played a significant role in encouraging me to continue in graduate studies in philosophy.
As already mentioned, after this year at McMaster we were married, and soon after the wedding went to Germany. It was a wonderful one-year honeymoon, and during this year I completed my M.A. thesis on the concept of God in Immanuel Kant. My wife was so kind as to type my entire thesis – 6 copies using carbon paper to make the duplicates. During this year I was applying for jobs as I wanted a break from studies. Surprisingly, despite an incomplete M.A., I got a sessional appointment at what was then Waterloo Lutheran University, thanks to the intervention of the Vice-President and Dean of Arts and Science, Dr. Frank C. Peters, a former instructor of mine at MBBC. I still have painful memories of the many hours of preparation of lectures during my first years of teaching. Sometimes I even ended a lecture before the hour was up because I had come to the end of my notes. Despite the challenges of teaching, I found teaching invigorating and sensed a calling to teach philosophy, and so after two years I began my Ph.D. studies at the University of Waterloo.
In the meantime, we had our first child – studying philosophy with a baby cradled on one’s knees is not easy! But family responsibilities had a way of keeping my life balanced. I started applying for jobs, in part because I was very conscious of my responsibility in supporting a growing family, but also because philosophy positions in Canada were scarce at the time. Thus I did not hesitate to accept an offer from Medicine Hat College when it came, even though I had only completed one year of Ph.D. studies. As a result, completing my Ph.D. was stretched out over the next ten years. Initially I thought of the position at Medicine Hat College as transitional, hoping that I would eventually end up at a university. However, jobs in philosophy were very scarce at the time, and given my late Ph.D., coupled with my years of teaching experience, I was not an attractive candidate for new positions in philosophy. So I ended up staying at Medicine Hat College for 36 years. God has a sense of humour!
At one point I was invited to teach at a Christian college, but in the end I decided against this. I felt called to teach philosophy at secular colleges and universities. Indeed, I interpreted this call to teach in a setting where most of the students are non-christians, as a call to be a missionary. Over time I became increasingly comfortable about being open about my own Christian commitment in the classroom. I experimented with different ways to declare my commitment. Sometimes I told my students that I was a Christian in the very first lecture of a new course. One problem with this approach was that it put some students who were very hostile to religion on guard and it took some time to win their trust. At other times I waited until well into the course to become more open about my Christian commitment. Whatever approach I used, sooner or later I made it a point to openly declare my Christian commitment, and to warn my students (with a smile) that they were stuck with a Christian philosopher and that my commitment would color everything that I said in the classroom.
I don’t think it is possible to be neutral within the classroom. Nor is it desirable. Having a professor who teaches from and for commitment is much more interesting for students. Indeed, I believe integrity demands openness about our ideological commitments, especially in a subject area like philosophy. Teachers committed to atheism or Marxism will of necessity influence their students in the direction of atheism or Marxism, no matter how hard they try to be neutral and objective. I have therefore been puzzled when, very occasionally, a colleague of mine expressed concerns about my approach to teaching from and for commitment in the classroom. These same critics had no problem being very open about their atheist or Marxist leanings in the classroom. Surely it is inconsistent then to object to a Christian being open about his faith in the classroom. Of course, my atheist and Marxist colleagues might not see this as an inconsistency because they view their positions as academically respectable, while my Christian commitment is seen as merely a personal belief. I would argue, however, that the notion of what is academically respectable is itself subjective, and that a case can be made for giving a Christian worldview the same epistemological status as a Marxist or atheistic worldview.
Obviously there are some professional and ethical constraints to being open about one’s faith in the context of philosophy lectures in a secular classroom. Within this pluralistic context, the Christian faith has to be presented as one option among others. I have also always tried to create an atmosphere in the classroom where differing points of view can be openly discussed and criticized. And I have tried to be fair in presenting the differing points of view on any topic. I have also tried to be very sensitive to the power-imbalance inherent in a professor-student relationship. There is always the danger of abusing one’s authority in the classroom. I therefore kept telling my students that they could disagree with me and get an “A” grade. Towards the end of my career I even encouraged students to call me by my first name. After all, I was still a learner like them, so why not level the playing field?
Teaching from and for commitment is, I believe, quite in keeping with the goals of a liberal education. The sharing of a teacher’s religious convictions, if done in the right way, can lead to further learning on the part of students. It can help students to become rational and critical thinkers as they examine their own convictions about religion. It can also help students understand the nature of healthy commitment, especially with regard to beliefs that are controversial. With proper modeling, students also learn how to influence others in an ethical manner concerning the beliefs they hold dear.
Teaching at Medicine Hat College:
Medicine Hat College (MHC) had just moved to a brand new campus when I arrived in 1971. MHC is a two-year college, offering two years of university-transfer courses and a variety of technical/vocational programs. I was located in the department of humanities and social sciences, and since I was the only philosopher at the college, I had to become a generalist. I taught a wide variety of introductory and second year courses in philosophy, and also had to teach a number of courses for the different vocational programs at the college. This combination of teaching challenges forced me to clarify and simplify ideas so students with no previous background in philosophy could understand the sometimes abstract and complex ideas in philosophy. I am still grateful for the philosophical and pedagogical discipline provided by this experience.
I love teaching, and consider myself to be a good teacher. In course evaluations, students would often comment about my enthusiasm for the course material, my encouragement of their participation in discussion, and my willingness to help them. I always had an open-door policy with regard to office-hours, and was pleased when students took advantage of this. Often the conversations extended well beyond course-related matters, as students shared personal struggles or asked about the bigger questions they were facing about life and its meaning. Teaching for me wasn’t just about philosophy – it involved mentoring and caring for the whole student. Invariably, there were a few students who would often engage with me after class, or whose visits to my office were more frequent, and I cherished these deeper relationships with what I called “my disciples.” I was also able to counsel many students who were Christians and who after discovering that I was a Christian professor would share their struggles with the Christian faith. During my 36 years of teaching at MHC, I taught over 4,000 students and had about 100 “disciples”.
An introductory ethics course always was my favorite. In this course I challenged the rampant relativism in student attitudes towards ethics, and explored various foundations for objective universal ethical norms. I always included an exploration of a Christian foundation for ethics in the course, and pointed to some of the unique aspects and advantages of such a foundation. Of course, in good philosophical tradition, and in keeping with the pluralistic nature of a secular college, I also subjected this approach to critique. In the concluding lecture of this course, I issued a very personal challenge to students to live the moral life. I also explored the difficulties inherent in accepting this challenge, including the problem of moral failure. And then, very briefly, I mentioned the need for forgiveness when we experience guilt as a result of moral failure. I concluded by suggesting two options, either self-forgiveness or a super-cosmic Forgiver. You could usually hear a pin drop during this final lecture of my ethics courses.
On the final exam of my ethics courses I often added a Postscript: “It is one thing to know what is right and wrong. It is quite another thing to do the right and avoid the wrong. Thus it might be better to see the final examination of what you have learned in Philosophy 249 as taking place throughout the rest of your life. Unfortunately (or fortunately), our testing procedures are not able to evaluate this aspect of what you may have learned in Philosophy 249. The instructor suggests an annual self-examination!” One student, a Muslim girl, told me after the exam that she appreciated the added note. Another student, in an evaluation of one of my ethics courses wrote, “This was a great class, Dr. Thiessen. Unfortunately you opened my conscience up; is there another class I could take so I can shut it off!” Unfortunately, I didn’t offer such a course, because I believe in teaching for commitment.
I took early retirement – four years before the mandatory retirement age of 65. Why? I was increasingly feeling trapped at Medicine Hat College. I also was not enjoying teaching as much as I used to. For one who had always taken pride in teaching and doing it well, it was difficult to admit that the long-standing thrill of teaching was no longer there. There were a number of factors behind this gradual erosion of my interest and excitement in teaching. Medicine Hat College was undergoing a major shift in identity in the 1990s, becoming more and more of a technical/vocational school, with our department increasingly becoming a service department, providing courses for various programs. For example, in my final year, I taught informal logic to a class of police and security students, an ethics course for massage therapists, and a biomedical ethics course for nursing students. And these students were often very resistant to humanities courses, seeing them as peripheral to their programs. In addition, many of these students were weak academically – the entrance requirements for some of these programs was lower than for the university transfer program, and besides, the college had an open door policy with regard to admissions.
It also seemed to me that students were increasingly less serious about their studies. Most of them had jobs and so studying was something they did only if they had some extra time. In my final semester, out of 112 students total, I had 12 students who missed more than 10 classes, and another 29 students who missed between 5-9 classes over the semester, and this despite the fact that attendance counted for 10% of their overall grade in my classes. More broadly, I came to realize that I was no longer proud of the place where I worked. Another reason for my early retirement was burnout. The teaching load at colleges is much higher than that at universities. In a typical semester, I was teaching five courses, which involved four different course preparations. Given my commitment to having students do a lot of writing in my classes, I was repeatedly marking over 100 papers and other assignments throughout the semester. And I believe in giving detailed comments on assignments so students can learn from their mistakes. I was working 10-12 hours per day, and was feeling more and more like a teaching machine. I had very little or no time for research and writing, which I needed to do for my own sanity. I was also hoping to do some overseas teaching at the end of my career, and so I needed to make room for these dreams. I have already dealt with a final non-academic reason for retiring – the difficulties we were facing in our church. So after 32 years at Medicine Hat College, I took early retirement, though I continued to do some contract teaching for the college in the next few years, in between my overseas teaching stints.
How did teaching philosophy at a secular college fit into the ideal of being a disciple of Jesus Christ? I had to wrestle with this question throughout my career. Given my evangelical Christian background, I was inclined to justify my teaching career in terms of providing opportunities to give witness to Jesus Christ. Teaching philosophy within a secular college or university provides a unique opportunity to do so, by breaking down barriers students have to considering the Christian faith, and sometimes outright advocacy, though there are obviously limits to what can be done in the classroom.[xvi] Occasionally, students would come to my office where I could be more explicit about sharing my faith.
But is one’s work merely a context in which one can fulfill one’s true calling as a Christian to spread the Good News? This is the position held by many evangelical Christians and advocated in an article I still have in my files, written by a prominent leader of my denomination, “Your Work is Not Your Calling” (Mennonite Brethren Herald, 1971). I have come to disagree with this understanding of work and one’s career. It rests on a bifurcation of life into the sacred and secular, and leads to a trivialization of the endless hours one spends at work and in one’s career. It violates Paul’s clear teaching that whatever we do should be done to the glory of God (Col. 3:16). Thankfully evangelicals have come to a healthier understanding of work in the last decade or so, with many books being written underscoring the importance of work as a form of worship.[xvii] My thinking on this topic has been expressed in several sermons I have preached, some of them making reference to Ephesians 6:5-9, where I believe we get a good foundation for a theology of work in Paul’s instructions to slaves: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord.” Work well done for the Lord has value in and of itself.
Research and writing:
While at the beginning of my career I had vowed to focus on teaching, I was surprised to discover that I also loved to write, and that my stuff did indeed get published. So another area of Christian service for me has been in the area of writing. I have written a good number of articles and book reviews for the Mennonite Brethren Herald, and for two years served as a regular columnist for my denominational paper (1980-82).[xviii] Despite the very heavy teaching load at Medicine Hat College, I managed to find time also to do some academic research and writing
The first major writing project was the completion of my Ph.D. dissertation, “Indoctrination, Education and Religion: A Philosophical Analysis,” completed in 1980. I can still remember my elation about distilling a paper from my dissertation and getting it published in the Journal of Philosophy Education in 1982.[xix] My second full-year sabbatical was spent at Oxford University, as a sabbatical visitor at Mansfield College (1985-6). I spent this year beginning work on converting my dissertation into a book which was eventually published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1993.[xx] The central thesis of the book entitled, Teaching for Commitment, is that the charge of indoctrination often leveled at religious parents and schools is unwarranted. Indeed, children need to be brought up within a narrow primary culture in order to grow towards autonomy. So Christian nurture is quite compatible with goals of liberal education, though even those goals need to be qualified somewhat in order to be philosophically defensible. For example, the ideal of autonomy typically appealed to by liberal educators is quite unrealistic, assuming perfect rationality and complete independence. But as I have already pointed out, our rationality is limited, and we are by nature interdependent creatures. Hence my introduction of the notion of “normal autonomy.”
My next sabbatical was spent in two locations. In the fall of 1993, I taught at Lithuania Christian College, a newly established liberal arts college in a country which had just gained its independence from the Soviet Union. I consider this a highlight of my teaching career – helping students experience genuine freedom of thought after years of communist indoctrination. The winter semester of this sabbatical was spent doing research at the Stapleford House Education Centre, Nottingham, England. Here I worked on my second book that expands the defense of religious education to include a response to a variety of objections to religious schools and colleges. In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges was published in 2001, again by McGill-Queen’s University Press. One aim in my academic writing has been to bridge the divide that all too often separates the Christian from the secular mind. I am thankful to McGill-Queen’s University Press for publishing my first two books, despite the fact that the thesis of these books was quite anti-establishment in the educational world. I was also pleased when a Christian educationalist, in a review of my first book for Christian Week, suggested that my work “set a new standard for Christian apologetics for Canadian authors” (April 12,1994).
My third book dealing with the ethics of evangelism, was begun during my fourth and final sabbatical which again was spent in two locations, the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto, and the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, at the University of Victoria.[xxi] I again contacted McGill-Queen’s University Press, and Roger Martin, one of the editors, was very supportive of the project. Unfortunately, our attempt to get a subvention to cover some of the publication costs from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program was unsuccessful, and without this, MQUP did not feel it could publish my book. So, after 2 ½ years of consideration by MQUP, I had to start from scratch in looking for a publisher.
In my continued search for an academic publisher, I sent a letter of inquiry to Columbia University Press. The editor expressed interest in the manuscript, although she did have a query about my approach. “Our program takes a specifically religious-studies point of view; if you are taking a strong advocacy position, the book might be more appropriately published by a press with a theology list or a religious press with an academic division such as Eerdmans or Baker.” The editor seemed satisfied with my response to her query, and invited me to send her the manuscript. After forwarding the manuscript to two of her advisers in religion at Columbia, she wrote back a month later and said the book was not appropriate for their press. “This is not a reflection on its scholarship but rather, as I suspected on its advocacy (despite the philosophical arguments).” I suspect that what she really was saying was that I was not advocating the right position. It also confirmed my growing suspicion that the real problem in finding an academic publisher for my book was that it was being vetted by scholars in religious studies who tend to advocate inter-religious dialogue as a substitute for proselytizing. Again, I found myself going against the stream of established opinion in academia, and hence my problems.
A colleague at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit in Belgium where I was teaching in the winter of 2009 encouraged me to submit the manuscript to Paternoster Press in the United Kingdom. I did so and very quickly received an expression of interest from Robin Parry, the editor. However, he asked me to cut the manuscript by 40% and make a few other changes. Reducing the manuscript by 40% seemed like a formidable challenge, but in the end I appreciated the demand. Indeed, I believe my previous two books would have been considerably improved if my editors had been brave enough to demand cuts. In the end I only achieved a 25% cut, but Robin Parry was satisfied with my revisions and accepted the manuscript for publication. Robin was also successful in finding a co-publisher for the book – InterVarsity Press. So finally, after five major revisions of the manuscript, this book got to see the light of day, and with two publishers.
The Ethics of Evangelism can be seen as an extension of my previous two books. All of my books deal with the problem of religious influence and persuasion. My earlier books focused specifically on influence and persuasion in the educational context. The problem of indoctrination is typically raised with regard to the young in the home and in the school classroom. The problem of proselytizing or evangelism is at the same time a broader and a narrower topic. In my latest book I am looking at religious persuasion of individuals and groups of any age, but the persuasion I have in mind has the specific objective of leading someone to a religious conversion. I had three basic objectives in mind when I wrote the book: to defend evangelism against a variety of objections, to defend evangelism more generally, and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. This book was again written with two readerships in mind: skeptics who are opposed to religion and religious persuasion, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism.
The above story about the difficulties of getting my last book published leads to a final consideration of my intellectual and spiritual autobiography. Perhaps the most difficult part of my career as a Christian academic has had to do with the call to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ. For me this has come to the fore especially in an important part of academic life – applying for various kinds of research grants and fellowships. An essential part of this process is to have one’s proposals for such awards vetted by referees. It is a good process, and generally it leads to helpful comments on one’s work. But at times biases come to the fore as I have experienced on a number of occasions.
In one case a referee chose to speak on behalf of other Canadian academics in my field, informing me that “some scholars, both in philosophy and in religious studies, regard [Thiessen] as dogmatic, inflexible, and narrow in training and perspective.” He went on: “It is true that in certain ways Thiessen marches to the beat of a different drummer than most of his colleagues in Canadian philosophy of religion and religious studies.” This same referee went on to encourage me “to adhere to a philosophical approach to [my] subject, and to avoid casual excursions into theology and other disciplines.” Another referee expressed concern about my “consuming research interests and studies,” which all seemed to focus on the defence of religion. And then this: “Could he overcome his own personal religious convictions and concentrate on developing philosophical arguments that could compel and stand against any critical inquiry simply because they represent philosophical thinking at its best.” This very same comment appeared again in a later evaluation of an application for a SSHRC grant. I suspect it was the same person.
Well, I didn’t get that grant, nor the earlier fellowship. While I would be the first to admit that there may be some very good academic reasons as to why I didn’t get them, and while I am also prepared to admit that some of the criticisms made in these reports may have some justification, I do have a problem with their cutting edge. There are anti-Christian biases out there, and they hurt. After reading these reports, I had to swallow hard a few times, pray a little, do some introspection, and ask myself the hard question as to whether there was some legitimacy to some of the criticisms. But, in the end I needed to move on, still marching to the beat of a different drummer, and still writing on topics that I felt called to write about. I also had to remind myself that insofar as these comments represented an anti-Christian bias, I needed to accept them as inevitable consequences of my Christian commitment. After all, Christ has called us to share in His sufferings, and that includes philosophers who are followers of Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:11; I Peter 2:21).
My journey with Christ as a philosopher has been challenging, but deeply satisfying, both intellectually and spiritually. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything. My journey isn’t over yet. With Paul, I continue to press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me (Phil. 3:12). I recommend a journey with Christ to whoever might read this story.
[i] My review of this book is found in Studies in Religion, June, 2013, Vol. 42, pp. 262-4.
[ii] See endnote #20 for publishing details.
[iii] Malcom L. Diamond and Thomas V. Litzenburg, (eds.). 1975. The Logic of God: Theology and Verification. Bobbs-Merrill Press.
[iv] Willard Van Quine “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” found in his book, From a Logical Point of View, 1953.
[v] See my Teaching for Commitment, 1993, ch. 4. (see endnote #20 for details)
[vi] This is a view of knowledge first enunciated by Calvin and further developed by Dutch philosopher and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, and Dutch philosopher, Hermann Dooyeweerd. I am probably the only Mennonite scholar in North America who owns all four volumes of Dooyeweerd’s dense A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, first published in Dutch in 1935-6, and translated into English in 1969. This does not mean that I have read all four volumes, though I have appreciated a summary of Dooyeweerd’s thought as found in L. Kalsbeek, Contours of Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought (Wedge, 1975). Today’s foremost representative of Reformed epistemology is Alvin Plantinga, whom I have encountered at several conferences. Other writings within this tradition that have influenced me include George Mavrodes, Belief in God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion (Random House, 1970), Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1976), and William P. Alston’s essay “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” (1982), later expanded into a book, Perceiving God (Cornell University Press, 1991).
[vii] John Rawls. 1987. “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus”. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 7(1):1-25.
[viii] “Religious Education and Committed Openness,” in Inspiring Faith: Studies in Religious Education, ed. by Marius Felderhof, Penny Thompson, and David Torevell. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing. 2007. pp. 35-46. “Teaching for Committed Openness,” in Cultivating Inquiry Across the Curriculum, ed. by Kim A. Winsor. Lexington, MA: Lexington Christian Academy. 2008. pp. 159-185. An abbreviated version of this essay appeared in Christian Educator’s Journal, Vol. 51, No.1, 2011, pp. 23-6.
[ix] Quoted in my Teaching for Commitment, p. 152. (see endnote #20 for details)
[x] Here I am indebted to David Naugle’s book, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans, 2002), and two books which I like to use as texts in my courses: The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview, by Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton (IVP 1984/2009) and Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters (Eerdmans, 1984/2005). I have also used James W. Sire’s Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept as a text (InterVarsity Press, 2004). More recently Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholemew have published Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Baker Academic, 2008).
[xi] Quoted in Richard J. Mouw’s, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011, p. 4).
[xii] Alvin Plantinga. 1984. “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1(3):253-71.
[xiii] For some of my articles defending a Christian worldview see: “In Defence of Developing a Theoretical Christian Mind: A Response to Oliver R. Barclay,” The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible and Theology, Vol. 64, #1, January, 1992, pp. 37-54; “Refining the Conversation: Some Concerns about Contemporary Trends in Thinking about Worldviews, Christian Scholarship and Higher Education,” The Evangelical Quarterly: An International Review of Bible And Theology. Vol. 79, #2, 2007, pp. 133-152; “Educating our Desires for God’s Kingdom,” Review article on Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, by James K.A. Smith. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), in Journal of Education and Christian Belief. Vol. 14, #1, 2010, pp. 47-53.
[xiv] See the articles referred to in the previous endnote as well as my chapter entitled, “Curriculum After Babel,” in Agenda for Educational Change, edited by John Shortt & Trevor Cooling. Leicester:Apollos, 1997, pp. 165-80. See also my article, “Temptations Facing the Christian Academic,” inDirection: A Mennonite Brethren Forum, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 2008, pp. 60-70.
[xv] See for example, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark A. Noll (Eerdmans, 1994).
[xvi] For a treatment of this problem see my essay entitled, “Evangelism in the Classroom,” in the Journal of Education and Christian Belief (Fall, 2013, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 221-41).
[xvii] I was helped especially by Os Guinness’s book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Nelson, 2003).
[xviii] I also served as a member of the Community Editorial Board of The Waterloo Region Record for two years after my retirement (2008-10).
[xix] “Indoctrination and Doctrines,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 16, #1, 1982, pp. 3‑17. Reprinted in Critical Perspectives on Christian Education, edited by Jeff Astley and Leslie J. Francis. Leominster: Gracewing, 1994, pp. 376-96.
[xx]Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press; and Gracewing, Leominster, U.K., 1993.
[xxi]The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Proselytizing Persuasion. Crownhill, Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press; and Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.
[xxii] My thanks to Dallas Miller, a former student, and Gary Colwell, a former colleague, both friends of mine, who read a draft of this autobiography and made many helpful suggestions.
Tags: Christian mind, Christian philosophers, Christian suffering, Christian worldview, Christianity and rationality, Christianity and science, Christians in education, faith and reason, indoctrination, Mennonite philosophers, philosophers who believe, philosophy and Christianity, Reformed epistemology, Reformed philosophers, science and religion, teaching
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Have you ever written a spiritual autobiography? You know, a story about your own faith journey. It’s a fascinating exercise because it reaches a number of surprising conclusions.
Regular autobiographies tend to focus on career, accomplishments, degrees, and awards. In many respects they become journals of our ego trips. Spiritual autobiographies, on the other hand, really aren’t about us at all. They’re about how God has worked in our lives by using dozens and perhaps hundreds of men and women, young and old, who have walked with us on our spiritual journey.
For those who grew up in a Christian home, it seems as though that journey began at birth. Faith happened more by osmosis than choice. Parents took you to Sunday school, then to worship, then to various church school classes. And family devotions formed a normal part of growing up.
For those who came to faith much later, that spiritual autobiography often has a definite beginning. You might point to a camp counselor or to a significant youth event or to a friend who first mentioned God and peace and joy all in the same sentence.
When I wrote my spiritual autobiography about a year ago, I began by jotting down the names of people who have influenced my life over the years. The length of the list astounded me. Our spiritual journey never happens in isolation, I realized. It invariably happens in community. Each of us gets mentored—usually informally—by a host of saints whom God places in our path.
We call that discipleship, or faith nurture. As a denomination and as local churches, we do well at formal discipleship—through church school classes or small group ministry. But the strength of our spiritual journey depends on the relationships we have established—at church, at school or the workplace, on the golf course, in our social activities.
Whether we’re seminary professors, landscape architects, or assembly line workers, we’ll find another surprising similarity in our spiritual autobiographies. Not only does God fill our lives with an impressive cast of saints, but each of us invariably puts our faith into action. We can’t help but reflect our faith in all that we do. Faith without works is indeed dead. Our spiritual autobiographies are filled with action, a lot of action.
Our faith compels us to use our God-given talents in our careers or volunteer service and by seeking to meet the needs of people around us. When we respond to a major disaster, for example, that response stems from our faith.
There is something else. Our spiritual autobiographies are never finished. At least not until the day we enter eternity. God isn’t finished with us yet. We need ongoing, daily nurturing and discipleship. We need God to continue to send people our way who can change our lives. We need the church to continue to produce and provide ongoing discipleship materials so we can continue discovering new ways to experience God and new ways to share our faith with others. We also need to discover new people whose lives we may be privileged to influence. Mentoring is usually a two-way street; each learns from the other person.
Once you’ve chronicled your spiritual journey—amazed at the incredible number of people God has used to make a difference in your life—something else needs to happen. It would seem pointless to leave that spiritual autobiography in a bedside drawer or on your hard drive. It needs to be shared, especially with children or friends. It becomes your ongoing testimony of faith. Acknowledge when you send it out that this spiritual autobiography is a work in progress. After all, so are you.