Fully Human: Grandparents, Childhood, and the importance of Character

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As a young boy my family made the move from Powell River to Nanaimo, leaving behind my cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.  Because they were still there, there was no better place for me to spend a long weekend while I was growing up than in Powell River. I especially loved sleeping over at my grandparents’ house as it meant:  homemade bread, lots of junk food, and as much King-Cole-brand Orange Pekoe tea as a guy could drink (yes I’ve always been the teatotaler that I am today).

A visit to my grandparents also inevitably involved participating in their Sunday morning routine:  It began with attendance at Westview Baptist’s early church service, followed by a trip to the extended care wing of the hospital to serve the patients their lunch, continued with back-to-back half hour episodes of “Router Workshop” on HGTV back at my grandparents, and finally concluded with a trip to “Mr. Mikes” for lunch.

As a kid I never looked forward to the extended care visits.  Most of the patients were in the last stages of life and had a variety Imageof disabilities:  some were lame, deaf, mute, and lots were all of the above.  Many had advance Alzheimer’s or Dementia and as a result could not communicate in a lucid manner.  I remember trying to not get too close to the patients.  I remember hoping they wouldn’t make eye contact.  I remember sticking close to my grandparents, letting them do the talking and wishing that I would be able to leave without having to say anything.  And this is to be expected.  After all, I was just a kid right?  I had a poor night’s sleep from staying up too late watching TV, I was cranky from getting up too early and eating too much junk food, and I was hungry.  The last place I wanted to be was in that place.

The matter was significantly different for my grandparents, however.  They interacted with the patients with compassion and tenderness. They spoke to them as valuable human beings and in doing so afforded them the full dignity that they were worth.  For my grandparents, these were not patients worthy of pity or fear but human beings who also happened to be old friends or co-workers, or fellow church members.  My grandparents knew their names and knew most of their life stories.  My grandparents actually loved them.

I contrast the type of visitor I was with the type of visitor my grandparents were in order to make a very important point:  ethical living requires more than just doing the right thing, it also involves being the right kind of person.

At a surface level there is no difference between my boyhood self and my grandparents.  We both did the exact same things.  However if you were a patient in the extended care wing, you would certainly be able to feel a drastic difference between the two.  This difference comes down to motivation and character. I after all was there solely out of obligation and my grandparents were there because of sincere care.  In the world of ethics, moral thinking centred on character is called virtue theory.  In virtue theory, the primary question is “what kind of person am I” instead of “what should I do”.  In this way of thinking a person is to embody positive traits of character called virtues and are to avoid negative traits of character called vices.

I believe that this is the type of morality that Jesus is most concerned about.  The gospels record case after case of Jesus’ frustration with people who were so fixated on following the rules and “doing the right thing” but who failed to be good people.  Jesus once famously remarked to a group of religious leaders that their neglect of character and fixation on following the rules made them guilty of straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.  Jesus spells it out for us and my grandparent’s lives bear witness to the wisdom of his teaching.  For their faithfulness in not just doing but also being, I will always be grateful…

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Fully Human: How to Think Part III Why we need all 4 sources

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In the last post we discussed why it is important to think in such a way that gives priority to Scripture.  In this post I outline, in bullet form, 4 reasons why our thinking must still value the other sources of knowledge (Tradition, Reason, Experience.  For a review of those 3 sources, click here)

1)   Because The Scriptures don’t tell us everything we need to know:  The Scriptures are perfect in regards to what they are communicating but we must also recognize that they don’t address every situation we find ourselves in.  The Scriptures may help provide the basic principles for thinking about a modern topic, like say for developing an ethic of social media.  However in order to really hash out an ethic like this we will also need to use our rational faculties and draw on knowledge gained from our experience.

2)   Because The Scriptures cannot be accessed apart from the other resources:  As much as we are to preference Scripture, we must always recognize that we cannot consult Scripture in isolation from the other sources of knowledge.  Our experience, reason, and tradition will inevitably shape how we read Scripture, even as our view of Scripture will shape how we view our experience, tradition, and reason.  They key is to have these four sources in the proper order and in proper conversation with each other.

3)   Because Reason, Experience, and Tradition can teach us some good things:  There are many insights that the other 3 resources can teach us:  for instance our tradition may tell us that being faithful in a marriage is important, our reason may tell us that things like stealing and lying are wrong, and our experience may tell us, particularly while we are growing up, that things are much more likely to go well for us if we honour our parents.

You may have noticed that the examples mentioned all refer to a few of the 10 Commandments.  I chose these examples intentionally to show that some of the morality of Scripture can also be gained through the use of our other faculties.  My conviction is that the types of morality that we can gain from our other faculties are those things that can be found in the moral “lists” or “laws” (for more on laws see my post here).  This type of morality may be referred to as the “common morality” or “basic morality”.  It refers to the things that people can agree on regardless of their religious conviction.  From a Christian point of view, the “common morality” is good but is not the greatest good.  To discover what is at the heart of morality in Christianity, you need Scripture.

Part of the reason why I share this insight is because as Christians we find ourselves living in a nation that does not give primary importance to Scripture; in fact as a society Scripture does not even exist as a unique category.  This means that as believers we must temper our expectations in regards to what type of morality we will find in our society.  It’s unrealistic and in fact unfair to expect our society to be organized around the morality of Scripture.  We must instead be willing to accept from our society a lowest common denominator of morality, something that is OK but not perfect.

4)   Because If Christians want to impact society we must be knowledgeable enough to converse using the language of reason, tradition, and experience:  It’s perfectly fair to be motivated by Scripture but it does no good to quote something as authoritative to people who do not see it that way.  The way broader society hears our Scripture quotations is similar to the way we hear quotations from the Koran or other religion’s scriptures.  They may be interesting, they may in fact communicate something that makes good sense; however their claims will not be held as valuable because they belong to the category of Scripture but will rather only be held as valuable if they make sense according to our reason, experience, or tradition.  For that reason, if we want to make an impact and change on our society we must speak the language of our time and place.

Fully Human: How to Think Part II

In the second part of the “how to think” section I explore the unique status ithat Christians grant to a 4th source of human knowledge:  the Scriptures.

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            The purpose of this course is to look at the difference that the fourth source of knowledge, i.e. the Scripture, has on our ethics.  We will look in detail at this source in future weeks but for now we will speak generally about the Scriptures as a concept. Christians place the Scriptures in a special category because they believe it to be the word of God.  It is understood to be an inspired and authoritative revelation to human beings of God’s character.  Now to be fair we may argue that God’s character can be known through the other 3 sources of experience, tradition, and reason just as well as it can be known through Scripture.  And indeed, I believe that people can obtain at least some knowledge of God through these other sources; however we must understand the knowledge from these sources in the right way.  Insights about God that comes from experience, reason, or tradition must be examined in light of what we know about God through in the Scriptures.  If the insights are congruent with Scripture they may be understood to have a degree of validity if they are incongruent or contradictory in comparison with the picture of God in the Scriptures than believers must defer to the Bible and reexamine/rethink their insights.

            Part of the reason why Christians defer to Scripture can be observed through lessons learned from our history.  For example I belong to a denomination that traces its origins back to Menno Simons.  Menno Simons was a part of a larger movement called Anabaptism and in his day there was an extremist minority within Anabaptism that justified all kinds of heinous behaviour and doctrine (including polygamy, a complete disregard of personal property, and the belief that they were God’s soldiers sent to purify the world of evil through violence) because they believed they had experienced God telling them that this was the case.  Menno Simons’ main contribution to the Anabaptist movement was to say that the reason why these extremist Anabaptists ran amok in their belief and behaviour was because they did not properly understand how to interpret their experience.  He said that our experiences of God come from the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures and it is therefore impossible for that Spirit to communicate something that directly contradicts the Scripture.  For that reason Menno said that the inner word (i.e. experience) must be interpreted under the authority of the outer word (i.e. Scripture).  I think that Menno is right on the money here.  In my observation, understandings of God that privilege experience, reason, or tradition above the Scriptures tend to fall short.  They look far more like products of the human imagination rather than the dynamic, surprising, and loving God of Scripture who always does the unexpected and departs so significantly from anything that human beings could dream up.  

Fully Human: How to Think Part I

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 In this we move on from thinking about why it is important to think to examining how we think.  In this part I define and describe three of the sources of knowledge that human beings draw from:  Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

1. Tradition:

Tradition refers to those things—wisdom, knowledge, etc—that were prized by the people that came before us and were deliberately handed down to us.  Tradition may occur on a small scale, such as within families; my wife’s family for example has the “3 day rule” meaning that if they are staying at someone’s house they will never stay more than 3 days.  This is a piece of wisdom that was prized by Whitney’s grandfather and has been passed down to each generation.

Tradition may also exist on the broad societal scale.  As a nation, for instance, Canada prizes the value of being polite as its chief virtue and this trait is passed faithfully from generation to generation.  This tradition differs from say Australia, a nation that prizes truth telling as her highest virtue.  This is why Canadians believe Australians to be rude and belligerent and why, as my Australian professor Rikk Watts used to remind us, Australians think Canadians are a bunch of liars!

2. Reason:

Reason is another source of knowledge that refers to the knowledge that we gain through analysis and logic.  This includes the information that we as individuals or a society possess from the realms of science or the arts like history and linguistics.  When it comes to making ethical choices, we are using our reason when we attempt to take into account all of the information available to us and make the best choice.  For example a current hot topic is the matter of the oil sands in Alberta.  In order to make wise moral choices as a society we ought to decide what is reasonable based on all the data available to us:  environmental impact studies, economic impact studies, and of course that great wealth of hard data—the 1970s rock and roll star Neil Young…or not.

3.  Experience:

The third source of knowledge is our experience.  What we have gone through in life will inevitably shape how we process information and how we look at the world.  One example that comes to my mind is gardening.  Whitney and I love the idea of having our own vegetable garden.  Each year we plant a few things and each year we inevitably have far more failures than successes.  Now some use of reason can cut down on the failures: for instance good research can tell you the types of plants that grow best in your soil, knowledge of how much sun or shade a particular vegetable likes can also help, etc but as any good gardener can tell you, much of the learning only comes through experience, through that old standby method of trial and error…

Fully Human: Why Think Part III Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Moral Complexity

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous pastors of the 20th century.  He was deeply committed to living a life that was pleasing to God as can be seen in one of his most famous quotes:  “only the believers obey and only the obedient believe”.  For him it was impossible to pull apart right living from faith; yet Bonhoeffer faced significant challenges that made living out his ideal extremely difficult.  He was born in Germany in 1906 and was just shy of his 27th birthday when Hitler came to power.  Bonhoeffer and like-minded believers quickly found themselves in the minority in their country when it came to how they responded to the rise of the Nazi party.  Most either welcomed or condoned the new regime; Bonhoeffer and others, however, quickly became known as the “believer’s church” a group which outwardly opposed Hitler.Image

As Bonheoffer’s life unfolded his radical commitment to Christ forced him to make many difficult ethical choices.  Here are a few of the more prominent ones:  he had to decide whether to remain in the United States in 1939 or to return back to Germany—the question came down to whether he valued his life more or the health of the German church.  He had to decide whether or not to participate in the customary Nazi salute.  Perhaps most famously, Bonhoeffer, a man who believed that following Christ meant living a life of non-violence, had to wrestle with whether or not he should become involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Throughout all of these incredibly difficult circumstances, Bonhoeffer remained convinced of the need to discover the will of God and to act within that will.  Although our situation may never be as extraordinary as Bonhoeffer’s we can be sure that we will find ourselves faced with “moral dilemmas”.  We will face complexity.  We will face tension.  We will face times in which careful discernment will be required, when the answer to our problem is not as simple as “looking up the answer”.  For this reason we require a model for approaching ethical thinking that is, what my former professor John Stackhouse, would call “appropriately complex”.  This is a big part of the reason why it’s important to be careful thinkers.

Fully Human: Why Think Part II: A Lesson From the Great One

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When I was growing up my hero was Wayne Gretzky:  admittedly this isn’t a very original choice for a Canadian kid born in the 80s but no one can hold it against me for being mainstream on this one.  Wayne after all is the “Great One”.  The best player to ever lace up a pair of skates.  I used to watch his games, pretend I was number 99 during road hockey games, and put every hockey card of his that I had in a special plastic case.  However what was peculiar, even for the most die-hard, young Gretzky fan, was that I decided I was going to read his 250+ page autobiography—you know to really get to know who Wayne was—and that’s exactly what I did as a 6 year old.  While my classmates were soaking up the plot twists of the Bearnstein bears, I was learning about the role that characters like Nelson Skalbania and Bruce McNall played in the career and life of Gretzky.

One of the things that I loved about Wayne then and still admire about him now whenever I watch old highlight clips of his on YouTube, is how easy he made the game seem.  His ability to make split second decisions that were 9 times out of 10 the right ones is astounding.  Watching him play was to watch someone who didn’t think on the ice but rather reacted.  It’s this ability to intuitively know what to do that makes professional athletes so incredible.  In a fast-paced game they need to be able to trust their guts.Image

A similar need is found in the world of ethics.  Most of the time the moral decisions we make do not have a sense of urgency attached to them.  We are often able to defer a decision, reflect on it, pray about it, and consult with others.  There are however times in life where a moral decision must be made in a split second such as: when you observe an act of physical violence while you are going for your morning walk, when one of your co-workers slanders another fellow employee, or when you have to decide whether or not to lie to the people working customs about how much merchandise you purchased on your vacation.  We need our guts and instincts in these moments; however we cannot reasonably expect to end up with a good result from these instincts if we have done nothing to develop positive ones.  To do this we need to be like the elite athlete.  The great athletes have all been blessed with tremendous natural ability; however the reason why they are able to react at the speeds they do is through years and years of practice and through being students of the game.  To be able to trust our gut in the heat of the moment we need to similarly practice, practice, practice and to be students of good moral thinking.  Doing this involves thinking carefully about who Jesus was, what he taught, and why he taught it.

Fully Human: Why Think Part I: The Rich Ruler and Jesus

The blogs which I will be posting under the heading “Fully Human:  Living the Story of Shalom” were written as lectures for a study I have designed at the Neighbourhood Church.  The course is designed to help people figure out how to be good ethical thinkers in light of their commitment to follow Jesus.  I have made several edits from the spoken version in order to make for better reading.  Today’s post is a part of the first session and it uses the story of the rich young ruler to illustrate why it is important for followers of Jesus to be careful thinkers.  The next 2 posts will contain two more stories that further illustrate this point.

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Three of the four gospels record a story about a rich man, full of zeal, who races up to Jesus in order to ask him:  “good teacher what is it that I must do to inherit eternal life”.  New Testament scholar Tom Wright points out that for the rich man this question would have been about more than just wondering what the minimum requirement would be to “get in” to heaven but rather meant:  how must I live in order to please God?[1]Image

Jesus’ answer, unsurprisingly starts with the commandments:  do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give a false testimony, honour your father and mother…The rich man responds, I have done all of this since I was a boy.  Tom Wright notes that in making his statement of faithfulness the rich man is revealing his deep-seated yearning to please God and he is also showing an intuitive sense that there must be more to pleasing God than simply following the rules.

Jesus’ answer shows that the man’s intuition was right.  Full of compassion, Jesus gives the rich man his answer.  Yes there is more to living a life that pleases God:  he says “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come follow me.” (Mk 10:21b).  The man being wealthy, walks away dejected.  Departing with his wealth was the one thing he could not do.

What this story illustrates for us is that Christian living is more sophisticated than simply carrying out the commands of God as if right living could be reduced to a checklist: yep I’ve avoided adultery, yep I’ve been kind to my parents, yep I haven’t stolen—I’m good to go!  In our story the rich man did many things right but was deficient in the area that matters most to God—his character.  He was unwilling to let go of that deepest part of who he was.  He wanted to please God but not if that involved changing who he was.

Yet Jesus’ answer about the life that pleases God does involve us changing who we are.  It means being willing to let go of everything that we hold to so strongly, it means being willing to be transformed, and it means picking up and following Jesus.  Yet following Jesus is not nearly as simple as ticking things off a checklist.  It requires careful thinking, it means paying close attention to who Jesus is, what he teaches, and why he taught it.


[1] NT Wright After You Believe, 13.