THE TRINITY, RECEIVING CARE, AND THE SO-CALLED “DUTY TO DIE”

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[Below is an article I wrote for the St. Benedict’s Anglican Catholic Church newsletter in 2002. It is a theological response to Professor Jonathan Hardwig’s position that terminally ill elderly people may have a duty to die, in some cases even a duty to commit suicide, if they are a burden to their loved ones. (Professor Hardwig is Chairman of the Philosophy Department, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville). I sharply disagree, and below is an argument against Hardwig’s position based on the doctrine of the Trinity.]

It is interesting that the longest season of the church year, the Trinity season, is focused on what seems to be the most esoteric doctrine of the Christian Church.  Not only is the doctrine of God being three persons in one nature a mystery, but it also seems so distant from our everyday lives.  If I am struggling with a moral dilemma, I may consult what scripture and tradition say, may ask myself what the Christ-like thing to do would be, but I normally do not contemplate the Trinity to help me make a decision.

But since God, our Creator and Lord, is God in three persons, surely this has implications for the way we live our lives.  For example, that fact that God is three persons who love and communicate with each other is a model for the love we should have for each other as human beings.  This love within God Himself can give us insights into how we should behave towards others.

There are some situations which test the limits of relationships, of love, and of faith.  One such situation is when one of us or someone we love becomes seriously ill.   Serious illness hits us hard, for we realize our limitations more keenly than in almost any other situation, and we may have to face the possibility of being much more dependent on others than usual.  Illness is particularly hard to bear when we are dependent on those we love the most, and we may feel that we are being a burden to them.  Those who write about medical ethics have had much to say concerning the moral obligations of the health care providers who care for the seriously ill patient.  But more recently, one finds, in the medical ethics literature, a position which should be deeply disturbing to everyone, especially to those who are orthodox Christians.  This position concerns the moral obligations of the seriously ill patient, and asserts that when a person is old and has lived his life, and is ill to the point of becoming a serious burden to his family, he has a “duty to die,” including the duty to commit suicide.  This is actually set forth as the “loving” and “unselfish” thing to do.  Although this is an extreme position, many people say, “I don’t ever want to be a burden to my family.”  While this is understandable—who would want to be a “burden” to anyone—it can too easily lead to the position that “I WILL NOT be a burden on my family, and I will not put my loved ones in a position of having to take care of me.  I will NOT put myself in the position of being dependent on others!”  To be concerned about the burden loved ones would bear taking care of me when I’m sick is consistent with love and with Christian ethics.  To refuse care from loved ones due to such a fear is not, and if followed consistently, leads ultimately to the extreme position that there are situations in which we have a “duty to die.”  There are a number of reasons that the latter position is not Christian—one is simply that the family may not think it is a burden to care for someone they love.  Even if they did find such care a burden, there are more than enough good reasons to show that the attitude of so many Americans (who often seem to value “self-reliance” and “personal autonomy” above everything else) on this issue is fundamentally wrong.

An understanding of the love relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost can help to see what is wrong with a refusal to receive help from loved ones.  As some recent theologians and philosophers (such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Fr. Norris Clarke) have pointed out, the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is one of mutual giving—and receiving.  The Father, the Source, gives Himself, His goodness, love, and being, fully to the Son and Holy Spirit; the Son and Holy Spirit receive this gift gratefully, and freely give their love, sharing their goodness totally with the other members of the Trinity.  It is not that the Son or Holy Spirit lacks anything–they are fully God, and lack nothing; the point is, that in God Himself, there is not only giving between the persons of the Trinity, but gracious receiving.  If the love within God himself, who has no need, includes receiving—how much more should we, who are finite and weak and have so many needs, graciously receive gifts from God—and from other people.  Human beings should both give and receive from each other—both giving and receiving are necessary parts of human love.  The baby’s receiving care from his mother and father is just as much a part of love as their giving in taking care of his needs.  Applied to the issue of illness, the sick person’s gracious receiving of help from loved ones is just as much a part of love as the loved ones being willing to take care of the sick person.  To say “I’m not going to put my loved ones in the position of having to take care of me” is not giving them the opportunity to love, and may speak more of pride and selfishness rather than love.  It fails to give loved ones an opportunity they may want because they love their family member.  It fails to be Christ-like, for Christ’s loving the Father and Holy Spirit includes receiving as well as giving.  Surely we do not want to claim to be better than God!  Let us, then, be willing to help those we love, no matter how inconvenient it might be to our so-often spoiled, rich lifestyle.  But let us also be willing to receive care, to love our families by receiving care, if we, sadly, find ourselves in a situation in which we need it.



Haunted (Creative Nonfiction Essay)

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baby graves

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The essay below won the 2007 Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. It originally appeared in the NC Writers’ Network Newsletter. I own the rights, so I am posting it below. I hope you find it meaningful.

Haunted

I am haunted—not by graveyard ghosts rising as white fog over desolate tombstones or by eerie voices heard at midnight from a bedroom window, but rather by my twin brother Jeffrey, who died the day we were born.

As a child, I knew that Jeffrey had died, yet the story remained a mystery to me. But recently I secured Jeffrey’s death certificate and learned that he had drowned in his own blood.

Department of Public Health, Certificate of Death, State of Tennessee, Division of Vital Statistics. Name: Jeffrey Potts. Date of Birth: December 25, 1961. Date of Death: December 25, 1961. Age: 2 hours. Death was caused by: Immediate cause—pulmonary hemorrhage, bilateral, severe, etiology unknown. Other significant conditions contributing to the death: erythroblastosis fetalis, minimal. Was autopsy performed? Yes.

I have no memory of the first time I heard about Jeffrey. Mama or Daddy may have told me, or I may have asked, having heard them speak his name—but I remember once at five, just before Easter, sitting on the tiled living room floor that had become slick and yellowed with overwaxing. I watch the old black and white TV as “Davy and Goliath,” a claymation series about a boy, Davy, and his dog, Goliath, begins. I find the brass rendition of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” stirring as the episode, called “Happy Easter,” starts with Davy visiting his old but vivacious grandmother who has black hair and wears horn-rimmed glasses. She and Davy are having a wonderful time in the attic, finding and playing with old toys. All seems well, idyllic as my own world, living with my parents and grandparents in the country, every nook of our house holding the promise of new adventure. But the next day, Davy returns home after a neighborhood baseball game and walks into sadness; his mother and sister are crying. Davy asks, “What’s wrong?” and his father answers, “Grandmother died this morning.”

I feel my stomach sink. I’m lying on the cold floor, my face inches from the screen to which I’m glued. Then as Davy’s father explains the concept of the resurrection, all I see is blackness. I run into the kitchen, sit on a chair beneath the bright florescent light and hold my head in my hands, sobbing, “When will I die?” My mother, peeling potatoes over the kitchen sink, doesn’t even look up. “Probably not for a long time,” she says.

Although I don’t often consciously think of Jeffrey, he seems to lurk just behind  my obsession with death. He is the ghost who whispers what might have been, who fills me with unexpected moments of grief and regret.

Fast forward twenty-one years to 1988. I’m in the office of a pastoral counselor with whom I meet for weekly sessions. We talk about my long-time fear/fascination with death, and I tell him about Jeffrey. When he asks if it ever bothered me that I had lost a brother, I say, “No.” Then he asks, “But did you ever wonder about losing a twin brother with whom you would have played, shared, grown up?” and I burst into tears.

Growing up, I didn’t think of my brother often—not once a day, not once a week, not even once a month. Usually, his ghost visited only when Mama mentioned him, though there were some rare instances when I wondered how much Jeffrey would have been like me, whether we would have had the same interests, whether I would have confided in him. Sometimes I imagined him looking down on me when I did wrong, like the time in third grade I lied to the teacher about staying outside past play period to watch two boys fighting. I had climbed near the top of monkey bars to watch them, cupping my hands over my eyes and squinting into the sunlight. The boys’ silhouettes leapt as though they were boxers exchanging blows. The bell rang for class, but I stayed outside before finally returning to class with other tardy students. The teacher asked which students had disobeyed the bell to watch the fight. I didn’t raise my hand. Several classmates yelled at once, “Michael Potts is lying.” I turned red, and for some reason thought about Jeffrey, felt him as a visceral presence.

Even today, when I catch myself lying or doing wrong, I think of him and if he’d be ashamed of me. Or if he’d be proud of my accomplishments: my Ph.D., my academic articles, my published poems. Is it a sense of loss, of  buried grief that rises, insisting to be acknowledged? But what kind of loss can I feel about someone I never knew?

Jeffrey Potts…died Monday at Rutherford Hospital shortly after birth. His twin brother, Michael, survives. Graveside services were held at the family cemetery near Smyrna….

Jeffrey’s remains were moved—twice. Once from the family cemetery, near the Stones River in Smyrna, Tennessee due to the construction of Percy Priest Dam to Mt. Juliet, thirty miles from home. Then family visits were rare, though I remember riding with my family one Sunday (I must have been seven or eight), the drive punctuated by the rolling hills of middle Tennessee which seemed to run forever by my car window. The motion was disorientating, making me sick to my stomach, and I was glad when we finally stopped. I don’t remember the grave itself, a small patch of grass and a curved headstone. But many years later, as an adult, I drove to the graveyard alone, looked for almost an hour before finding the tiny headstone. I wept openly. No one else was around—no person, no squirrel scurrying up and down trees—just a breeze which briefly interrupted the stifling July heat.

Mama wanted the grave closer to home, and the family all agreed. And even though I had moved out of state for graduate school, I still wanted to be able to visit when I returned to my parents’ home. They purchased a new gravestone, casket, paid the fee to move the remains. I wanted to be there for the reburial, but Mama and Daddy didn’t tell me, so I missed  it. Later that week when I phoned for details, Mama described the scene: how the old black casket was carried out of the grave and placed on the grass. Decayed, the lid had collapsed. A cemetery worker needed to scrape out tiny bits of bone amid the earth; what was poured into the new casket was mainly dirt. I remember thinking of God telling Adam, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

Jeffrey’s remains now lie in the “Babytown” section of our hometown cemetery. A small but attractive stone marks the grave. Whenever I visit, I clean off the excess dirt, pull grass where it has overgrown, say a short prayer, cross myself before I leave. Then I walk over to Granddaddy’s and Granny’s graves as well as to my Uncle Lytle’s and do the same. Looking across the Tennessee countryside—filled with Eastern Red Cedars, sugar maples, farmer’s fields full of alfalfa and fescue, good food for cows—I imagine such beauty lasting forever. But then the ghost of death, like a cold, unwelcome wind comes, and I must leave.

Jeffrey’s death, or rather the idea of Jeffrey—the sense of the other self, the doppelganger, the secret sharer, the person he might have become and how he could have influenced what I might have become—still haunts me, especially on Christmas Day, our birthday, or when I visit my parents. I take the short drive to the cemetery, stand on the cold ground, look down at his marker, say “Happy birthday.” I close my eyes, sense the missing space in myself where Jeffrey would have been, try to imagine it filled. But my mind remains blank, and I open my eyes to find nothing staring back but brown grass and cracked earth.

Sometimes, I’m troubled by a recurring dream—I’m walking behind the wooden garage that Daddy and my Great Uncle Bill built when I was ten. I squeeze my way between the black wall and the vine-covered fence until in darkness, I bend and touch something soft and squirming. Then I shoot awake, often in a sweat.

And recently, not long after receiving Jeffrey’s death certificate, I remembered rabbit hunting for the first time with my father; I must have been nine. We walk steadily out in a sun-blanketed field, shotguns slung over our shoulders. Suddenly, Daddy spies a single gray rabbit, nibbling at something in the distance. He stops, takes his shotgun, aims, and shoots. The large rabbit pops back and falls. When Daddy quickly, deftly skins it, I ask for the heart, carrying it off to study alone near the edge of the woods—its tight red muscle glistening as I squeeze and squeeze, trying to get it to pump again.

The World Turned Upside Down

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World upside down

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Imagine that aliens invade the United States (space aliens, not illegal aliens). Suppose that instead of attacking the American people with weapons, they plant ideas into the minds of the people. Enough ideas take root that the old order of society is uprooted, and the individuals who resisted the alien attack feel as if the world has been turned upside down. Unfortunately, the aliens go through to most educators, journalists, and other cultural elites. Ordinary people who lived prior to the invasion feel ostracized and out-of-place. The fear that the old order on which they have based their lives has been completely destroyed.

Today many Americans find themselves in a world turned upside down. A comparison of the American of 1963 compared with the America of today reveals seismic shifts have occurred which have altered the very fabric that holds society together. Some would say they have ripped the fabric into shreds, and any hope for patching has long passed.

There are many causes for the cultural shift, which had already taken place in Europe by the end of the 1930s and which was accelerated by the end of the Second World War. Supreme Court rulings in 1948 and 1962 limited religion’s public expression and banned required organized prayer in public schools. The Supreme Court claimed to have discovered a “right to privacy” in 1965, a “right” that the Court used to justify legalization of abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The last year of the great post-World War II religious revival was 1965; after that year, weekly church attendance began a decline which continues today. The development of effective, cheap contraception with the birth control pill helped to revolutionize sexual mores to the point that only very conservative religious people believe that sexual intercourse should wait until marriage. The problem of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s grew from problems with street thugs and motorcycle ganges to problems with the use and sale of hard drugs and cold-blooded murder. The traditional family structure of a man and woman married with children has been replaced in many circles with the notion of the “family” as a fluid structure that can be modified to suit individual needs. Many young people today reject initiative, thrift, and hard work. College and university professors complain about the poor quality of their students, but supervisors also complain about workers failing to report for work and multiple firings. To their surprise, many workers don’t care if they’re fired–yet they have a sense of entitlement to material things even if they are too lazy to work for the money to buy these things. People have more to do than ever, but are lonlier than ever. The government plays a greater and greater role in individuals’ lives, and mediating institutions between the state and the individual, such as family and church, move more and more to cultural irrelevancy.

I believe this seismic shift to be a disaster that threatens the very structure of American society. When individuals decided to find meaning in their own subjective desires, mainly involving pleasure, and were unrestrained by permissive parents, they became contemporary barbarians–or even worse–at least the barbarians hunted and farmed for their food. With the search for transcendent meaning finding effortless New Age “spirituality” or a vapid Evangelical Christianity that caters to the lowest elements of popular culture, especially in music, it is no surprise that American society has been turned upside down. It is not just the trendy leftist followers of Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s who have fomented a disasterous cultural revolution; it has also been many Americans. When a society aborts its most vulnerable citizens, allows others (in two states) to off themselves legally, is promiscuous in both sex and in mind-altering substances, and which puts vapid “self-help” above all, that society is dying. Those Americans who hold traditional values stemming from orthodox Christianity feel out of place, for the university and the media ridicule their theological and moral positions. A sense of anomie pervades what is left of traditional Americana.

What should traditional Americans do? Some have emigrated to more traditional countries such as Poland. A more realistic option is to begin to develop  an island of normalcy and civilization in one’s own home. Parents in such an environment would try to guide their children toward tradtional cultural and moral values; they will not practice permissive parenting. At the very least, if parents can instill in their children a sense of reponsiblity and a sense of avoiding the urge for entitlement, this will do a great deal toward righting the world. The toughest task, which seems almost impossible, is to change people’s hearts. But despair is the unpardonable sin–those of us who are traditionalists should not despair but fight the good fight and finish the course as people of virtue and honor.

“Progress” and its Problems

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Rutherford County Courthouse in Murfreesboro

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I am originally from Smyrna, Tennessee, although I live in North Carolina now due to my university teaching job. Until I graduated from Smyrna High School in 1980, the town’s population was slightly over 5000. Murfreesboro, the county seat, had a population of around 30,000. Rutherford County’s population was small enough that anyone who drove to one of the grocery stores in Murfreesboro would find someone he knew. As a child, Granddaddy and I went to the courthouse in the center of the public square. Several old men would be sitting in the shade on benches, whittling cedar blocks. The odor of the shavings wafted through the air. The sense of order, of a continuity through change, was palpably present, even for a child. School also reflected that order; I had several of the graduates of Smyrna High in my classes through all twelve years of school.

Today the square remains, along with some of the shops that were there thirty years ago. The same barber I had gone to since fourth grade is still there–when I visit my parents once or twice a year, I make sure to stop by and get a haircut there. Thankfully the city leaders decided to keep the square occupied and in good condition. But the whittlers are gone. Years ago, someone had the bright idea to move the benches out of the shade. Perhaps the old men had died. Perhaps some “progressives” thought Murfreesboro was “too good” for the whittlers. But the worst changes are in the countryside. Scores of housing developments fill the county with “McMansions.” Historic homes, some dating back to the War Between the States, have been sold and torn down in the name of “progress.” When the Nissan plant moved into Smyrna shortly after I graduated from high school, it brought jobs, but it also brought a flood of job seekers who had not grown up in the community with its rich history and tradition. Smyrna has over 30,000 people; Murfreesboro over 80,000. It is more rare to see someone recognizable in stores. Traffic is worse than ever, and there are miles of land where only shopping centers exist. “Progress” had remade Rutherford County. I congratulate it on such success. And the sarcasm drips like acid.

Communities are organic structures that must have continuity within change to survive. The rapid growth that pleases the Orcs (excuse me, the developers) destroys the continuity of a community. Today I go to work in a military city, Fayetteville, North Carolina, near the mega-base, Fort Bragg. There is very little continuity here, and outside of a few neighborhoods people rarely know their neighbors. But the military is not the only force that harms local community; a rapid business expansion does, too. Murfreesboro lacks the home town feeling it used to have. And I would prefer Smyrna the way it used to be; it had its faults, but at least people knew each other. The social in-crowd may have turned their noses at country families like mine, but at least they’d speak to you if they saw you in town. Most of Smyrna is the same artificially created “community” that began with the suburban explosion after World War II. I almost cry when I consider the old trees pulled down, old graveyards moved–or perhaps worse–I hope not. Saruman and his orcs have overrun the town. A few natives (and expatriates like me) mourn the loss. The barbaric majority rejoices. Time only moves one direction–unfortunately.

Mediums and Christianity

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Hypnotic seance

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How should a traditional Christian regard mediumship, the intentional contact with the dead? Probably most traditional Christians oppose mediumship, referring to its clear condemnation in the Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t help matters that some mediums make no secret of their hostility to Christianity (although others would consider themselves to be in the Christian tradition). I believe that genuine mediumship (as opposed to fake mediums who prey on the gullible by “cold reading” the speech and body language of sitters) can be reconciled with traditional Christianity if such a gift is used with care. The Hebrew Bible condemns mediumship because of its association with pagan religious practices in the ancient world, so those passages condemning it do not necessarily apply to Christian mediums. I am assuming throughout this post that some gifted mediums receive genuine messages from the dead rather than messages from the living through enhanced psi abilities (the so-called “super-psi hypothesis”). The case of the famous medium Mrs. Leonora Piper (1857-1950) convinced me beyond a reasonable doubt that a talented medium could communicate with the surviving personalities of persons who have died.

Everyone probably has some psi ability, whether that ability be telepathy (mind to mind communication apart from normal means), clairvoyance (receiving information from the non-human environment), or psychokinesis (PK, the ability to move objects using the mind alone). But some individuals are especially gifted in one or more of these skills. After all, not all of us have the same athletic skills, mechanical skills, or intellectual abilities–why should the situation be any different with psi? And since a medium would be communicating with the dead through psi, a good medium would have at least good telepathic abilities.

All talents, from a Christian point of view, are gifts from God over which we exercise a stewardship. We have a moral obligation to use whatever talents we have been given in a responsible way. For example, someone with the gift of persuasion might be able to sell snake oil and make a great deal of money, but this behavior would be a misuse of the talent God gave the person. A genuine medium may care only about money and overcharge clients, or may be seeking power from the dead. These are both bad motives for mediumship. Seeking power from the dead is more dangerous than money lust, since all power is of God and is given on loan from God–it should be used for His glory and not ultimately for our self-gratification or use to manipulate and dominate others.

The proper motive for using the talent of mediumship is to help people deal with their grief, and perhaps to remove barriers to their faith in an afterlife. Mediumship can only provide, at best, a kind of “natural knowledge” of the afterlife which should be completed by Scripture and the teachings of the Church. However, if knowing that a loved one is okay gives comfort to a grieving person, I see no problem for a Christian medium to contact the dead loved one for that reason. Or if someone who is agonizing over doubts about faith comes to a medium, the communication with the dead can at least remove one major barrier to accepting the fullness of Christian faith.

Such a gift should be used very carefully, with much prayer and with discernment. If the medium senses that the communicator may not be the person he claims to be, the medium should immediately break the link. Traditional Christianity accepts the existence of Satan and other fallen angels, who could try to twist what is a good gift into something that damages a vulnerable person. So mediums should tread with caution. But if they take proper precautions, pray, and practice their talent for the right motive, I do not see any reason why someone could not practice as a Christian medium.

“Creating” Reality vs. Respecting Reality

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Hill of Slane ruins

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Women go against the natural impulse to care for their offspring and kill their children via abortion. Academics and the media deny that marriage and the family are natural institutions and believe that marriage and the family are whatever we make them. The tradition, dating back thousands of years, of marriage being between male and female is denied by academics and judges. Children no longer have a mother at home and are reared in day care centers, and academics and the majority of the media rejoice. Pundits talk about “designer babies” created through genetic engineering. Weapons of mass destruction are created out of thin air, and a Bush administration official says that “Reality is what we decide it to be.”

Most ancient and medieval philosophers believed in a natural order that human beings were required to respect. A violation of the set order of nature would lead either to societal chaos and the destruction of the proper natural order. That began to change in the modern era, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) moving the direction of philosophy away from nature to the self. The idea that things had real natures was cast off by William of Occam’s nominalism in the fourteenth century, so it was easy to move from the emphasis on self to the notion that categories in the mind account for the general structure of the world we experience. This was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) position. But Kant believed these categories were the same for all rational beings, so we all experience the same world. Once this assumption was abandoned, then reality was thought to be what man willed it to be. In this view, there is no natural order that exist prior to man; it is man who makes reality what he wants it to be.

I offer a long-term empirical test of the idea that we can manipulate reality to be what we wish it to be. America and Western Europe are trying to mold reality in a way that supports an overly-individualist, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle. If a pregnancy gets in the way, kill the fetus–after all, life begins when we say it begins. If old people get in the way, kill them–after all, life is meaningful when we say it is meaningful. If politicians want to profit from war, they should go ahead–they will invent reality to justify starting a war. If the family gets in the way of our desires, there is divorce, and for those who prefer lovers of the same gender, they can adopt, too. Reality is what me make it.

My proposal for an experiment is this: Let society go the direction of trying to create reality in the image of its desires. If my belief that the actions resulting from that view violate the natural order is correct, society will inevitably descend to chaos and ruin. Either social order will disappear into crime and chaos, or a strongman will take power to restore order through dictatorial force. If I turn out to be wrong, I am willing to stand corrected. Deal?

Christian Nonbelievers

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ArtifactSide1

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When I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I believed that I would fit in well. At Harding University Graduate School of Religion, an excellent Churches of Christ seminary in Memphis, I had shed my Fundamentalist belief in Biblical inerrancy and had accepted a historical-critical approach to studying the Bible. I had come close to losing my faith–although I claimed to be agnostic, I was more of a doubting believer.

I quickly discovered that I did not fit in at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Many professors (though all all) denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, something I have always believed essential to Christian faith. In fact, to insist on the reality of the bodily resurrection would not have been good for my future there. And forget about the Virgin Birth–to most professors, that was not even an option to be considered (again, I’m sure there were exceptions). The school promoted a radical political agenda–to even question it was to invite censure. VDS was where I discovered that liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics could be every bit as dogmatic and bigoted as Christian Fundamentalists.

I asked Professor Clement Dore, who taught in the philosophy department, what he thought about the Divinity School and its professors. He said I could quote him, and so I will–“Most of them are atheists, but they read the Sermon on the Mount and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if society would be this way’. So they try to change society.” Thankfully, I took most of my courses in the philosophy department which was more open to genuine discussion of ideas. There, an atheist was an atheist, a theist a theist, and I could tell the difference between the two.

Why are seminaries which are devoted to training Christian ministers filled with teachers who do not believe even one of the doctrines of traditional Christianity? Ultimately, this situation is the effect of the eighteenth century Enlightenment combined with the rise of modern science. Although Newton was a theist (though not an orthodox Christian–he tended toward Unitarianism), the world view of his science seemed more consistent with naturalism. According to naturalism, the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect with no room for supernatural intervention–all that exists is matter and energy. Even if there were a God, He would not interfere in the causal chain.

It is this view that led the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann to propose “demythologizing” the Bible so that the really important message is one of gaining authentic existence. His project was a continuation of the project of liberal Protestantism to find subjective value in Christianity since the objective truth value of its traditional claims was considered to be “false.” So Friedrich Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century said that religion is a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Contemporary liberal Protestants have moved to a more political agenda with such movements as liberation theology, which interprets Christianity according to a Marxist framework.

I have no problem with denying inerrancy or with a historical-critical approach to the Bible. But alleged Christians who deny the existence of a transcendent-immanent God, who deny the Incarnation of Christ, who deny His bodily resurrection, are hypocrites in calling themselves “Christians.” I have infinitely more respect for a crusading atheist like Kai Nielsen than I do for a liberal Protestant who does not believe in God, even though he may hide his lack of faith in the complex language of Continental philosophy.

The good news for traditional Christians is that many younger theologians are more theologically conservative than their older counterparts. Hopefully this trend will continue. As Christianity begins a slow decline in the United States that parallels the radical secularism in Europe, hopefully those Christians who remain, including Christian scholars, will support the fullness of the faith and not some shallow, shadowy substitute.

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